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Sojourners In A Land Not Their Own



I am in a strange and foreign land.  Yet as I look around me I am reminded of the quote by Robert Louis Stevenson: “There is no foreign land; it is the traveller only who is foreign.”  Everything is strange and foreign to me, I realize in a sudden moment of clarity.  Everything fits in perfectly and meshes and gels the way any locality naturally does.  I am the thing out of place, the transplant from another universe, and the strangeness of everything, it’s strangeness to me, quietly exhilarates me deep down in the tingling of my belly.  It is an addicting feeling, an extraordinary feeling that makes traveling the many far flung corners of this still large Earth so alluring.I am in a Bedouin village in the Sinai desert, the Red Sea’s waters just a few steps away and its salt in the windy air.  Saudi Arabia is across the water, its hills and mountains hazy in the distant heat. The water is rough, churned by a gusty, cooling breeze that blows the sand about lightly, almost invisibly, so that

anything left outside will have a thin, gauzy film about it by the end of the day.

We, my girlfriend Jess and I, arrived last night, in the dark, and didn’t get a good look around.  We just saw the robed and head wrapped Bedouins, the carpeted beach, the straw roofed lounge. This morning I am walking on the beach after waking early for an emergency bathroom call, kind of not making it all the way (welcome to the Third World!), followed by an emergency jump in the ocean to clean myself up.  But now that that’s done, I walk on the beach and it is still 

cool and early and Jess is still asleep in our straw hut underneath the light mesh mosquito canopy.  

As I walk along, meandering through the generously spaced huts and simple lounge areas, Eed sees me and beckons me over.  He is sitting in a “cafe.” Really it is just a cement square that serves as a kitchen, with a large straw roof built onto palm tree trunks and extending over thick woven carpets and plump pillows on the sand, palm trees lain sideways as back rests.  He is brewing tea in a burnt and blackened metal pitcher next to a small open fire.  A ’90’s era radio is side down on the carpet, playing an Arab music station with what I think is a short news blurb after every song or two.

He invites me to sit down with him, which I do with a small, self conscious smile.  Perhaps I’m confusing old tales of Arab hospitality and ceremony for reality, but I feel a gravity emanating from him, from his stillness.  And not just from him, but from the pillows and carpets and quietly smoldering embers, from all the men who move unhurriedly and assuredly beneath their long, clean tunics.  They seem to demand a sort of respect without demanding anything. The culture and law of the land floats silently in the early morning air.

I sit cross legged with him and accept the cup of tea with a small nod of the head and a quiet thanks.  It is black tea, the tea leaves loose and ground and floating slowly to the bottom of the cup. There may be a little sage in it.  I can’t tell for sure. And it is sweet. Eed likes his tea sweet. He scoops spoon after spoon of white sugar into the pitcher as he brews it.  We sit quietly and not at all awkwardly and I am grateful that he asked me to sit and that he feels no great need for talking.

After a few moments Muhhamed comes, ambling in the slow, round stepped way of the Bedouin.  He speaks some Hebrew. The main language of communication at the camp between the travelers and the Bedouins is Hebrew, as almost all the travelers are Israeli.   Muhhamed laughs at my American accent. It is a kind laugh, and I join him, and we speak a little about New York City. He has never been.

Eed speaks English fairly well. We bought hash from him last night, and he rolled us a J from hash that we didn’t buy and he gave it to Jess to light, as is their custom.  At least he said it was. He could have just been playing upon our obvious wonder at the place, and as he makes most of his income from tourism (arranging Europeans to come to the camp, etc., but all very small scale and informal), he may have picked up a few tricks that work to increase the visitors sense of enchantment.  Regardless, it seemed very kind and polite and I was excited at seeing a different weed culture. It might be one of the souvenirs I bring back with me. He smoked half the J with us in our hut. And recognizing me this morning he called me over for some tea. I sit comfortably on a pillow and hold the small warm glass in my still chilly salty hands.  

Muhhamed, dressed in a long tunic-robe and head scarf, trimmed mustache like all the bedouins, leans on an elbow and wraps himself in a pink Powder Puff Girls blanket.  To him it is just a blanket, some cheap American junk probably made in China that has trickled into the Sinai desert. But it is a warm blanket and what are these Powder Puff Girls anyways?  Probably the thought never crossed his mind, the blanket is just a warm blanket, bright and colorful like the rest of the pillows and carpets. But I know what the Powder Puff Girls are, and I find it very amusing, and I smile quietly to myself.  

Then I start looking around and my smile grows louder.  Muhhamed smiles back at me, perhaps used to seeing peoples first reaction to his home, and taps a cigarette out of a box.   Past the opening through the brightly colored tapestry wall the sand waves march imperceptibly forward, moving slow as time and extending just as far.  A lone palm tree’s fronds bounce in the breeze, the feather like leaves tickling the milky blue sky. A hammock tosses about, and a low stone wall runs sideways across the desert, blocking my view but only superficially.  I know the sea of sand stretches just as endlessly on the other side, until they run into the reddish-brown mountains standing tall and proud and still and with the imposing stature of forever.

Though I have only been here a very short time, less than 24 hours, I feel a timelessness, a patience that seeps into you like sand into everything.  Already my concept of time measurement has been eroded. Gone are the bus schedules, the business appointments, the hours of the restaurants and cafes and shops.   Concepts like 12:25 pm do not exist here. There is day and night, which quickly simplifies even more to awake and asleep as my body naturally adjusts to the cycles around it.  There is hunger, which marks the time of eating. There is an urge to go for a walk, which marks the time of walking. There is a pleasant shady spot I stumble upon and do some yoga, which marks the time of doing yoga.  They are not predetermined breaks from busy-ness. The endless crashing of the waves, the waterborne billowing breeze, the lilting guttural fragments of conversation that float on its back, this is all there is, these are Time’s Minute Men.




An older woman and her children sit cross legged on the carpets, their handmade braids and beaded strands spilling out of their sacks like a cut open belly.  Carved and polished wooden camels stand frozen in the sand. The woman constantly picks up one thing or another to give as a matana - gift - with some other purchase.  They are pushy, chutzpanit, and utterly without shame.  I can’t tell if it’s really begging or not, if where I come from it is but here it is just a different form of an income.  Some children do just flat out beg, asking for Bamba or chocolate or gum and when we say no to each item in succession they just hold out their hand for a moment and look at you with penetrating, pity seeking eyes and when you are forced to look away they begin all over again.  “Yaffe, Yaffe,” they chirp automatically. “Yes, everything is beautiful,” we respond wearily, “but I already have six bead strands, four braids and three camels. Yes, they are beautiful, but no, I don’t want.” “Give me Bamba…” they begin again, and we are forced to pretend to read or continue on our conversation as if they aren’t there, until they aren’t there.  

I can’t tell if it is sad or not, these kids sort of groveling at our feet.  It doesn’t seem desperate. Often times the kids seem to be competing with each other, as if it were a game.  It seems more like a small side gig that developed around the mild tourism industry; a few weeds and some flowers popping up next to a thin stream.  The kids seem well fed and cared for, and educated, and while they are certainly not wealthy, the society seems to do alright. At least it seems there is food on the table for everyone.  

One little girl is very pushy.  It’s the first time we’ve seen the kids, and curious we walk heavy footed through the sand and kneel next to them as they show us their wares.  “How much is this?” Jess asks, pointing to a light blue cotton shirt. The gears inside the young girls head visibly turn as her lips purse and “200 Lira” flies out.  Her older sister gasps involuntarily at the high price. She lowers it to 150 pretty quickly and Jess and I laugh. She’s learning the trade, and is as brazen as she is young.  It is sad, maybe, and the girls are sweet and charming and pushy and dark and beautiful, and the whole charade seems almost like a performance, a unique exhibition of the locale.  But for us, it mostly just is. We will see them many times over the next few days. They are as much a part of the environment as the smell of grilled fish and the haze of sand in the bright air.  



Eed is sitting with Opher, Itai and two other Israelis on the other side of the “restaurant.”  Little Bedouin children chase after each other or have impromptu rock juggling competitions. Eed is cross legged, legs perfectly flat under his beige tunic and white pants.  His white head scarf billows around his head and behind his neck like two wings. As he gestures in the slow, excited way of the desert, a large, cone shaped J bounces firmly between his mustached lips.  Suddenly I can’t help but laugh delightedly (and decide to roll another J for ourselves). What a place I’m in! I’ve read about it in old books of the Desert Queen and Lawrence of Arabia, the stranger welcomed warmly into the comfortable, low tents with a steaming cup of sweet tea as an invitation.  But never did I consider myself actually being here. And now that I find myself in this paradise I can hardly believe it. And this is paradise for me (for who wouldn’t it be?). How long have I just wanted to be, in a hut on the beach. It seems like always, deep down. Deep down always. The realization of a dream does not make it less of a dream.  


The sun has finally gone behind the mountains.  Even its long shadows are gone now. The sea is a constantly changing, shifting, ceaseless, aqua-blue-green kaleidoscope.  Rhythmic breathing is the ocean, the lungs of the soul of the earth.

Fly’s swarm about me, but I sink myself into the calm of the place and the many legs crawling over me are just sand between my toes.  No more annoying and no less pleasant. They feel warm and tingly and right on my sun burned skin. It seems to me that they are good for skin in this environment.  I watch them closely as they explore me. Even their frantic squirrel-like dashing creates a droning buzz that is lazy and peaceful. As they inch along my skin (inch is too large a word - millimeter along is more appropriate) they lift their two front extremities up, rub them together greedily and plant a long sucking mouth down on my dermus.  And they don’t bite. It just seems that they remove something from my skin and I can’t help but feel that they are helping me, as I help them.

Jess kneels in the sand in front of the hut taking a picture.  Just as the light’s reflection imprints itself in the camera reel, so has this place imprinted itself on us.  They will last a lifetime, these impressions, and indeed today felt like a lifetime. I cannot believe how slow and still it was, how long the sun was floating in the sky.

We are just clay, and the more we see and the more we do the more shaped we are, carved and chiseled and sculpted.  Age is a more detailed statue, a grand sum of experiences kneading through our hands, for we are the sculptors, and we are the sculpted.  My life shall be a testament to art, and I the masterpiece. Recognizing Beauty in something is to have it first radiate from you, then back to you and so you have augmented Beauty in the world and in yourself.  As your Beauty radiates back to you it shapes you, just as you formed it. Life is not a zero sum game. Our every action has the potential for infinite growth, for never ending repercussions. We are each of us a small pebble dropped in a large lake, the rings radiating out and out and out until they touch upon some distant, unseen shore, and who knows what they do there.  But they do something.




We are sitting outside of our hut this morning, on the carpeted sand and in a cloud of pillows.  Jess is reading Alice in Wonderland out loud and I am slowly smoking a spliff and drinking warm tea.  Our hut is not more than 25 feet from the ocean, the waves crashing gently at our feet, almost.  

Suddenly a head bobs into view from the left, and striding in front of us follows the rest of the camels body.  Atop the carpeted humps sits a teenage boy, head wrapped in a long light cloth. He puts his hand up in Salaam. We respond likewise, speechless.  

After they have slowly, gently yet jerkily ambled past, and the choppy blue-green ocean and distant hazy mountains settle back into focus, “What the heck!” bursts from Jess’s open mouth (I realize my mouth is also hanging open) and we start laughing deep from within our bodies until we are out of breath.  What fairytale are we in? we wonder aloud. And what is a fairytale after all? Is it some distant, exotic place that only exists in the imagination? Well what happens when that distant place becomes not so distant and you realize that the exotic place is even more unbelievable then you had imagined? What place are we in?  Where are we? We keep on wondering aloud, and we sit back and realize the true meaning of the word ‘wonderful.’


Sometime in the morning I find a pair of goggles on the beach.  I spend much of the day swimming in the ocean, free diving on the reefs that dot the shoreline.  It has been over two years since I was last in the ocean with the ability to see. The first plunge under the waves and into the strangely illuminated, swaying world is always a terrific surprise.  Scary even. It is a world that I am not a part of, nor am I meant to be.

As I hold my breath the scene is breathtaking.  Schools of small, flashing, silvery fish; colorful, alienesque plant life; bright brain like coral, all of it piled on top of itself and looking like a small underwater metropolis.   As I plunge again and again in this mysterious world I am forced to realize that fact is more incredible than fiction. This nearly extra-terrestrial habitat, which is almost off limits to me, is mere feet from where I sleep and eat and breathe comfortably.  What a fairytale this reality is! If only we allow ourselves to see it.

The air is warm and breezy and the water is slightly warmer than the air, so after the initial shock that always comes when jumping into a large body of water I acclimate and float as in some warm coddling embryo nestled in the earth.  Once I tire of free diving I lay back and simply rise and fall. Slowly slowly, rise and fall, as the sun makes its patient way across the sky on its invisible axis and eventually leaves to rest behind the mountains, until tomorrow.




The sun, bronze gold and rich, seeps through the straw walls of our hut.  Dreamily I float back to awakeness. The crashing of the waves becomes obvious to my ears again, and I realize I must have been hearing them in my sleep, my rhythmic, monotonous, ocean side sleep.  The waves lull me to sleep at night, coo and hush me through the darkest, star spotted hours, then wish me a good, enchanted morning. Welcome. Back. To. Paradise. They say to me, slowly, with the gentleness of one who has all the time in the world.  

I leave the bed, crawling out of the mosquito net which makes our hut look like the bedroom of some fairy tale princess, and sit outside, facing the ocean.  It is gilded this morning, the fresh sun directly in front of me and igniting the sea. The sometimes breeze blows away the heat of the sun, but only for a billowy moment.  My skin is dry and sun kissed dark and salty and the soles of my now perpetually bare feet grow calloused and strong as the earth they dance with, step for step, the great orchestra that is the ocean setting the rhythm, the slow march of the sun keeping time, Desert Time, where 5 minutes means anything from 5 minutes to tomorrow.  

There are three large fishing poles leaning on the hut nearest to mine.  I wonder if that means there is fresh fish today. When I am hungry and feel sufficiently like moving I’ll meander up to the main hut and find out.  And our conversation will begin with greetings and salutations and well wishes, even if we had only just spoken 5 minutes before. Or perhaps that was yesterday we last spoke.  It makes not a difference at all, there are as many wishes of health and contentment as grains of sand on this stretching, curving beach, and plenty of time to sandwich each conversation between thick slices of “How do you do, my friend?”  The days are long, and long and long and long, and when the light becomes thick and the shadows stretch tall on the still warm beach you feel as if a lifetime has just been lived, an eternally slow lifetime that suddenly meets an end, and the night arrives to incubate tomorrow.  

Tomorrow, that steady promise that I suppose will always be kept until one day it just isn’t, and you just aren’t.  Tomorrow, tomorrow, 5 minutes my friend, just 5 minutes, that magical time in space which isn’t here and isn’t now and means just be.  5 minutes my friend, we find the snorkels in 5 minutes, and I sit back in the soft cushions and look towards the sea, mountainous and wild over that way.  Maybe in a few hours I’ll gently remind them of the snorkels and they’ll have been sitting underneath the desk for who knows how long, and no time will have been lost.  




I have the feeling of waking after a grand and surreal party.  Empty, as if all excitement was used up and now I am just very still and little bit tired and not very connected to anything.  It is a feeling of walking up a hill exploding with wild flowers and mountain streams and picture book animals, responding with appropriate exuberance, and then after a few days you are near the crest and you feel sluggish and finally you reach the top and the other side is a long low barren grassland, monotone in texture and color and life.  

It feels kind of nice though, to be sitting in this very still place.  Not even the wind blows. To be sure I’ve smoked too much hash and tobacco and had way too much caffeine.  My stomach doesn’t feel great and I feel pretty dried out, from the salt, the sun, and the smoke. The food is fine and there’s not much variety and it’s probably nutritious enough.  A salad and rice with veggies and bread with tehina are most meals. Sometimes beans. And strong black tea.

Yesterday seemed to me the Grand Finale.  The Bedouin camel race in the morning, tea with Eed’s mom, neices, brother-in-law, simple minded cripple who wasn’t mentioned by anybody, myself included, and goats and baby goats.  Walking along the beach toward Jacala, drinking Jager and smoking a spliff with Bedouins in their empty beach camp, in the open air palace-on-the-beach that was kind of tacky but mostly regal, passing all the empty beaches, the huts standing lonely and aware of their vacancy.  Pretending to be Israeli to the owner of the last beach before the army base because it just seems simpler here to not be American, apparently my accent is shit and I was too stoned to think of an Israeli name so I said Brian in a strange contorted way and he thought I said brilliant.  He kept asking if my English is good, do I understand? Because I can’t understand you…to which I responded in basically an American accent, I think I understand, and his business proposition of me bringing friends and I stay for free, which isn’t such a bad one but I could do much better and I wouldn’t stay at his beach anyways, he was odd and his English wife I’m a little afraid of.  At any rate she seems the type of bizarre I want to avoid but perhaps that’s not so fair of me but I intend on never finding out. Her short mid thigh pink velour dress and thick flip flops and cigarette shriveled face and my confusion over her white skin and English accented English in the harsh barren desert and her shifty dark husband and the dilapidated beach wasn’t charming. So we left after a ten minute too long conversation with the husband (English sat in a plastic chair on the other side of the rusty fence) with shoddy business discussed just for shits, I think we were both messing with each other because there’s not much else to do, and we left with vague plans for a coffee (he seemed to have refused us tea) but thankfully on our return walk our Jager sharing friend (but he hadn’t drunken any, Bedouins don’t seem to drink) drove by and offered us a ride, to where? we asked.   Wherever. Matana.  So we got in and he drove us past our beach then back to it, all with one hand on the wheel and maybe an eye on the road.  


The wind is gone today.  Yesterday too. Awful for the mosquitos at night.  Their buzzing is so constant at times I feel I’m getting used to it, then I’ll snap for a second and feel I’m near the point of delirious rage.   Then I come back and they come back.

The world was pink last evening.  I went underneath the canopy of the restaurant to politely shuffle my feet as someone slowly came out to take my order, and when I turned around to leave the world was pink.  The light gauzy clouds that were still on account of the still air were the pinkest I’ve ever seen a natural thing, and the sea underneath was still as a mirror and absorbed and bounced the pinkness all around.  The mountains ringing the sea were purple in their perpetual haze, so the world was pink with a ring of purple running through it. And I came out of the tent and into the pink world and my mouth hung open and I thought nothing at all, perhaps just that I’ve never been in a pink world before.

I walked down to the edge of the water so that the world may be pinker and I shed one tear, a second had massed in my other eye but it failed to gain the momentum to mobilize.  I stood at the edge of the water, the water gently kiss-licking the sand and looked at the pink sea, at the gauzy sky slowly turning orange, at the ever hazy purple mountains always in the distance, and my eyes drank everything in very deeply.  Then a thought came into my head, then another, and the moment was gone.

And now this morning the air is still and the waves are still and I feel still and we are still here.  Only the fifth day but it feels like so much more. It’s remarkable how heavy and large nothing can be sometimes.  But I don’t really feel nothing right now, I just tip my hat to it’s existence.


I am ready to leave.  I think we’ll leave tomorrow.  This place is lovely and I want to come back but right now I want to leave, to leave while some part of me still wants to remain so the memories might be pleasanter by the tinge of longing that will be attached to them.  It’s no good to overstay a place, to wring it for all it’s worth and you end up getting less than if you had left a little to be desired, because if you overstay you leave on a sour note that hangs around all your memories and then you haven’t even got those anymore.  Just a buggy beach with a strange culture and not much to do, and a lot of cheap hash. But nothing to drink. I want a good strong refined European drink and I may buy a bottle back in Israel, drink too much at night, smoke because of the hangover in the morning, and the next day after I’ve felt thoroughly disgusted I’ll start to feel a little bit better and start over fresh.  

But of course I’m being pessimistic.  This place is just a reflection of me.  The kaleidoscopic blue green water sparkles and there is a French-Israeli family with two cherubs for children who will never tire of clumsily chasing after the cats (Manoush! Manooooush!).  I didn’t sleep well last night because of the mosquitos but it’s alright, I think I can find some time during the day to nap.  It is hot in the sun but the breeze is cool and dry in the shade and it flaps lethargically through the pages of my book resting on the low table in the sand.  Tomorrow we will leave. Tomorrow, tomorrow. But today, today we are still here.

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