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.

The coach taking me there was typical of the well-traveled fleet of the East Delta Bus Company. Its original German owners had retired it long ago and the Egyptians, whose expectations of comfort during travel are not the same, no doubt bought it from them for a bargain. Old and banged up from the innumerable hot, dusty journeys it had made on the poorly paved (if paved at all) high desert roads of the Sinai Peninsula, the inside was tattered and everywhere marked with mysterious stains. In the aisle near the rear exit a dented aluminum container rocked and rolled about, and from it could be heard the loud sloshing of tepid tea, which sometimes even dribbled out of its lid, further dirtying an already sticky floor. A pushy hostess, probably in her thirties but maybe younger (Egyptians age faster than most), wearing an unlikely uniform of pink hot-pants and even pinker blouse and lovely in a malnourished toothless kind of way, hawked her meager wares: chips mainly, but also dates and chocolate bars, and of course the tea. She never took my polite refusals as the definitive answers I intended them to be; I assume her wages are somehow linked to the number of snacks she sells. Between my knees and the seat-back in front of me was negative space, and the overhead compartment was too small for hand luggage, so my lap had to bear the burden instead (or else my head the pain of falling baggage, which in my case would have been a typewriter). All this pressure on the legs cut off circulation from the lower half of my body, and whenever I emerged from a fitful nap I had to stamp out an awkward needle-pricked dance with my cramped feet, stifling an urge to cry out in frustration.

Egypt was wonderful and Cairo had been grand, but it was all beginning to wear on me. The congestion and density of the city, and its unparalleled levels of pollution, were at times unbearable, yet such irritants only scratch the surface of Cairo's real oppressions, which are far subtler. After all, one must be resigned to dirt and discomfort to endure the city at all.

Many were the tourists I encountered there who were not able to muster the required resignation. For travelers like them, the world beyond the predictability and orderliness of their everyday lives is an exotic spectacle to be enjoyed from a safe distance, a kind of giant movie set-piece providing an oriental ambience to what in the end will simply be another collection of family photos and anecdotes. It is very rare (and infinitely moving) to find a package tourist who allows the power of an ancient foreign civilization to touch him at the core of his being. Yet it happens: once, someone told me of one such woman who, standing before a Byzantine ruin, exclaimed in a reverent whisper like an awe-struck child, 'This is even better than Disneyland.'

But Cairo isn't really part of their itinerary anyway. People not predisposed to the true Orient only go there to visit the Pyramids, and in fact might spend three whole weeks in Egypt without having even one genuine encounter with the country's living heritage. To them Egypt is ancient Egypt, and evokes pharaohs, ankhs, and mummies; they care about temples half-buried in the sand, cheap reproductions of hieroglyph-covered papyri, and of course those Pyramids, astounding structures certainly, but also pickled, not really alive. Were that proverbial tourist clad in Hawaiian shorts and baseball cap and with a newly bought digital camera slung around his neck, able to take thousands of pictures were he to turn his back on the Pyramids and gaze instead on the city stretched out before him, a city of 20 million, a city of Muslims and alien Christians, a difficult city surely, but filled with inestimable hidden cultural and spiritual treasures; were he to do so and try his best take it in, then he would realize that Egypt did not end with an asp at Cleopatra's breast.

Part Two: Are You a Muslim?

Posted by djsmall at December 15, 2004 03:01 PM