January 04, 2005
From Cairo to Mount Sinai, Part Seven: He Himself a Bloodless Sacrifice
In the monastery garden I worked alongside a twenty-one-year-old Bedu boy called Suleyman. We were assigned to gather olive branches for burning, and from the first day I could tell he was very special. He had worked with tourists as a camel guide for a few years and so could speak English well. I would come down to the garden each morning at nine o’clock, when we would first have tea together, which Suleyman or one of the Copts who also worked there would brew over a modest fire.Continue reading "From Cairo to Mount Sinai, Part Seven: He Himself a Bloodless Sacrifice"
December 29, 2004
From Cairo to Mount Sinai, Part Six: The Power of the Prophet's Word
The Bedu are much harder to crack. Their entire world has changed so completely over the past thirty years, and yet so much about it remains a mystery, cut off from the casual observer and inexplicable to Westerners. In only three decades they have gone from nomadic tent-dwellers and peasants to townsmen, from relying on trade in specialist goods to relying on income from tourism, from being cut off from the rest of the world almost totally to playing host to visitors from every corner of the globe. The disruption to their traditional way of life has been complete, yet most of them would raise little objection. The modern amenities that can ameliorate the harsh conditions of desert life have understandably been met with enthusiasm by the Bedu.
December 24, 2004
From Cairo to Mount Sinai, Part Five: A Question of Degree, not of Kind
If I thought that by going to St Catherine’s I’d be escaping the tension I felt in Cairo between tradition and the realities of modern life, then I was in for a surprise. Never was that tension more evident than on Sinai. When I emerged from church with the monks after three hours of matins each morning, many of us would mount the steps to the parapet overlooking the monastery gate. From there it is possible to look down the valley at the vast desert plain it opens on to – so barren, only an almond tree here, a lone acacia there, to break the still monotone of golden rocks and sand. The Bedu with their camels, the stone huts of the Coptic workers, the monastery gardens, everything was peaceful and unspoilt, apposite to the serenity I felt inside myself from the morning service.
December 21, 2004
From Cairo to Mount Sinai, Part Four: The Desert Stark and Virginal
As the bus jostled up the coast of the Gulf of Suez, I awoke now and then to see the high barren mountains of Sinai smouldering in the setting sun. The entire eastern horizon was one jagged summit cast in chiaroscuro as shadow poured down its deep, craggy gullies. They looked as though they had been carved, like giant bits of masonry. In fact, the intricate geometric patterns of those massive fissures reminded me of the stalactite moldings of Islamic architecture used to decorate squinches and pendentives underneath domes, as well as half-domed niches such as mihrabs and monumental Mamluk doorways. I had often looked up at them in admiration, and also wonder. Where had Muslim architects dreamed up such an unusual decorative style? The far-off mountains seemed to provide an answer, and with it an insight into what is perhaps the essence of the Muslim genius, and indeed the Islamic miracle.
December 18, 2004
From Cairo to Mount Sinai, Part Three: Oriental Street Urchin and Gangsta Rapper in One
As I walked around the neighborhood near the Al-Azhar Mosque in the Old City one day, searching for a recently restored Ottoman mansion, I encountered a young man who looked about fifteen years old. He handed me a business card advertising his father’s carpet shop, and then offered to help me find my way. He talked and talked. His English and German were good enough to get by as a tourist tout, and he told me he was on break from university in Germany, adding with a smirk that his big blonde girlfriend was waiting for him there. He had on grubby sneakers and baggy jeans, and walked with an affected limp like a rap star. All in all, he exuded consciousness of cool. He showed me the blue cross tattooed on the section of his hand between the thumb and first finger, marking him out as a Copt. ‘Are you a Christian?’ he inevitably asked before loudly affirming his faith in Christ. ‘But I don’t hate Muslims!’ he made clear. ‘Oh no, I loves everybody.’
December 16, 2004
From Cairo to Mount Sinai, Part Two: Are You a Muslim?
The aspects of Cairo that most visitors find most offensive are the ones I found most charming. The medieval quarter, which apart from a jewelry or carpet shop is hardly visited at all by most tourists, provides hours of enchanted exploration to the traveler looking to be personally and culturally challenged. The dirt, the crowds, the squalor, and the livestock mingling amongst the vendor stalls, and even the incessant sales pitches from an endless stream of shady touts: all were part of its exotic charm and otherworldliness, together with the easy smiles of the Cairene children and men (never adult women, of course), whose lips were always ready with a sincere hello.
December 15, 2004
From Cairo to Mount Sinai, Part One: Lovely in a Malnourished Toothless Kind of Way
After ten days in Cairo my bowels were acting up, so my memories of the bus journey to the Monastery of St Catherine at Mount Sinai are enveloped in a haze of achy drowsiness. My plan was to spend the whole of Lent at St Catherine's, the oldest continually inhabited Christian monastery in the world. I had been in and out of monasteries for years, but this would be my first experience of monasticism outside the West and my first time in an Arabic-speaking country. Though a Christian, I have always been fascinated by Islam, which for me has been like one of its women, as I've written somewhere before; it is veiled and mysterious, with shining eyes and a beauty vaguely discernible beneath layers of obscurity. I hoped seven weeks with Greek monks and Bedu tribesmen at the foot of Gabal Musa, the mountain of Moses, so close to the Muslim heartland and a crossroads of many faiths and civilizations, would shed some light on the Islamic question, with which I am inexplicably and inexorably fascinated.Continue reading "From Cairo to Mount Sinai, Part One: Lovely in a Malnourished Toothless Kind of Way"
November 04, 2004
The United States is the only country which evolved from barbarity to decadence without ever attaining civilisation.
-- Oscar Wilde
October 14, 2004
A Conversation with Japanese Tea, Part Four: Artful Yet Innocent in East Jerusalem
'It was very nice to meet you. If you were going to Suez, I could have given you a lift,' the Indian imam said warmly.
My reverie was broken and I was back at the bus station in Taba at the Egyptian-Israeli border. Herlad and Chai were tucking into the standard Bedouin fare of rice and goatchop, and, I now noticed, so was I. Flies were buzzing mercilessly and an Arab man was peeing against a wall nearby, but it was still a relief to be out of Israel.Continue reading "A Conversation with Japanese Tea, Part Four: Artful Yet Innocent in East Jerusalem"
October 11, 2004
A Conversation with Japanese Tea, Part Three: Containing an Interlude
Chai breezed into Jerusalem by bus, fresh from Turkey where he'd suffered even more bisexual assaults, and still reeling from Big Problem Baghdad. What a journey he'd been having! Imagine him, eighteen years old, tall and slight, impressionable and always quick to laugh; in possession of a straightforward comic delivery that caught us off guard in its (conscious?) exploitation of Japanese stereotypes, leaving us at each moment to wonder, 'Is this guy putting us on?'; and remarkably at ease in the company of strangers, eager to answer questions and forthcoming with the little naughty details. From Baghdad he'd traveled up the Mesopotamian valley to nebulous, state-less Kurdistan and thence into southeastern Turkey, where martial law reigns and a campaign to Turkify the Kurds there is in full swing. Having skirted the western flank of Ararat in ancient Armenia, where Noah landed his ark, he'd gone northwards through Erzurum to Trabzon, and then taken the arduous twenty-six hour busride to Istanbul, site of countless hammams and their inevitable shenanigans. Another train journey found him in Ankara, the Los Angeles of the Anatolian wasteland, where he caught a bus to Damascus, back to Arab country. He didn't have far to go to reach his final destination, Jerusalem, the Holy City of conflict and bloodshed.
More EntriesFrom Cairo to Mount Sinai, Part Seven: He Himself a Bloodless Sacrifice - January 04, 2005
From Cairo to Mount Sinai, Part Six: The Power of the Prophet's Word - December 29, 2004
From Cairo to Mount Sinai, Part Five: A Question of Degree, not of Kind - December 24, 2004
From Cairo to Mount Sinai, Part Four: The Desert Stark and Virginal - December 21, 2004
From Cairo to Mount Sinai, Part Three: Oriental Street Urchin and Gangsta Rapper in One - December 18, 2004
From Cairo to Mount Sinai, Part Two: Are You a Muslim? - December 16, 2004
From Cairo to Mount Sinai, Part One: Lovely in a Malnourished Toothless Kind of Way - December 15, 2004
- November 04, 2004
A Conversation with Japanese Tea, Part Four: Artful Yet Innocent in East Jerusalem - October 14, 2004
A Conversation with Japanese Tea, Part Three: Containing an Interlude - October 11, 2004
Summer with its changes - June 23, 2004
Reading Friedman at the Ramses Hilton Centre - April 29, 2004
A Conversation with Japanese Tea, Part Two: No Problem Baghdad, Big Problem Baghdad - April 28, 2004
Her Lad and the Muezzin's Orgasmic Cry - April 26, 2004
A Conversation with Japanese Tea, Part One: Musings on an Opening Question - April 24, 2004
Hitler's Birthday Eve - April 19, 2004
Troubled Songs of Zion - April 17, 2004
Tea for a Turk - October 19, 2003
Kabul Letter Number Five - October 18, 2003
To Kristen with Gratitude - October 17, 2003
Kabul Letter Number Four - October 17, 2003
Kabul Letter Number Three - October 16, 2003
Kabul Letter Number Two - October 15, 2003
Kabul Letter Number One - October 14, 2003
A Homeric wine-red sea - October 10, 2003
Careening through Kabul, dreaming of Chalkida - October 09, 2003
The noise from Kolonaki Square - October 09, 2003