Matthew Riter - mat(the)writer

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Jerusalem - The Lion of this Kingdom

In May of 2009, my mother & I traversed France over 10 days. On our final day, at a Paris hotel, I perused cheap flights on the Internet, chancing upon a low-cost Belgian airline, Jetairfly, with one-way flights from Liege, Belgium, to Tel Aviv, for 99 euros. In Jerusalem, my nephew, Guy, and his mother, Miri, agreed to shelter me from the incoming cultural storm. My nerves tingled as I considered the implications: Judea, Israel, Jerusalem, the Temple Mount, and Mount of Olives; wading in the Jordan River, floating in the Dead Sea; entering a sanctified land, an ancient realm; the backbone, heart, and soul of Western civilization; the impetus, departure point, and destination of innumerable spiritual pilgrimages; the land of Jewish temples, Christian crusades, and Arab conquest. These are the sage-covered, olive-filled, Judean Mountains that a multitude of faiths cling to with bandaged hands. The allure of the people, their shared history and culture, and the landscape of the Levant, would surely foster mindfulness.

After escorting mother to the airport, I caught a Thalys high-speed train to Liege, a university town in the rolling, wooded hills of eastern Belgium, with the Meuse River meandering through.  Boarding the plane the next day, I encountered men, women, and children, leaning over seats, standing in aisles, talking, laughing, eating, and drinking.  The atmosphere persisted, except for takeoff and landing, when the crowd went wild (I later learned Israeli’s do that on every touchdown through the air).  I found myself between a 24-year-old Russian Jew from Tel Aviv, and a middle-aged, Jewish homemaker from the coast of Belgium.  The Russian had spent the previous three years in peripatetic travels, a common rite of passage for young Israelis fresh out of the army.  For the homemaker, frequent flights to Israel provide an opportunity to visit family and friends.  The two freely offered advice and piqued my curiosity with anecdotes of the approaching Holy Land.

Shortly past midnight, we touched down at Ben-Gurion Airport.  Outside, the air felt hot and heavy, even at this hour.  Shalom, and welcome to Israel.  I hopped on board a 15-passenger shared taxi, known as a sherut, energized as a 5 year-old on Christmas Eve, bound for Jerusalem.  We crossed plains lined with orange groves, skirting the Latrun Monastery, where monks have taken a vow of silence, but nonetheless sell wine produced with grapes grown in their vineyards.  The last 10 miles, we meandered through Judean foothills, surrounded by soaring cypress, olive groves, and dry desert shrubbery.  Arab and Jewish villages overlook the freeway and rusted-out military vehicles, remnants from the 1948 Arab-Israeli War, seek repose along sections of the road.  As we entered Jerusalem, the lights revealed a city built of stone, cleverly carved into the surrounding hillsides.

Since the early 20th century, municipal laws have required all buildings to be faced with Jerusalem stone, ensuring an enduring aesthetic appeal to the city.  Today, modern stone towers dot the skyline.  Yet, unlike towers of glass and steel, they do not detract from the city’s historicity or authenticity.  Jerusalem stone gives the city a candid charisma and a golden hue, with the scorching Mediterranean sun reflecting off sturdy stone structures.

Like the serpentine road snaking its way from the beaches of Tel Aviv into the Judean Mountains, Jerusalem is mystical, mythical, medieval even, considering all the stone structures that abound.  Jerusalem, from the Hebrew, Yerushalayim, etymologically, “City of Peace.”  It has been continuously inhabited since at least 4000 BC.  The city appears in Egyptian records in the 18th and 19th centuries BC, known variously as Rušalimum or Urušalimum.  Its footprint and inhabitants have shifted over the centuries.  Jews settled the City of David, the oldest district in the present city, in the 4th century BC.

Today, the metropolis includes West Jerusalem, East Jerusalem, and the Old City.  West Jerusalem sprung up during the late 19th and early 20th centuries as waves of Jewish immigrants arrived.  East Jerusalem, predominately Arab, is home to over 200,000 Palestinians, and developed alongside, but not necessarily with, West Jerusalem.  The Old City, including Armenian, Muslim, Christian, and Jewish Quarters, has wearily held its ground since the Ottoman Sultan, Suleiman the Magnificent, built the present walls around it in the 16th century.  Israel destroyed a fifth neighborhood, the Moroccan Quarter, in 1967. Over 800,000 people now call Jerusalem home, forming the largest city in Israel.

I drifted into the city on a dry, warm Monday morning in mid-May.  After a short night's rest, I wandered toward the Ben Yehuda District, the heart of West Jerusalem.  Now, the sun bounced off nearby limestone buildings, threatening to steal my sight.  I found an outdoor café, and sat, sipping coffee, shading my eyes, and watching passersby.  Afterward, I honed in on Guy and Miri’s apartment, on the fabled Ethiopia Street, a few short blocks uphill from the Ben Yehuda District.

Ethiopia Street comprises a twisting block-long alley, with cars parked on the west, a limestone wall on the east, and pedestrians dodging light, but tight traffic traveling at variable speeds.  Horse hitches line the limestone blocks, remnants from the 19th century.  Eliezer Ben Yehuda, namesake of the district I’d just had coffee in, and who fortified Modern Hebrew, lived on the lane in the late 19th century, perhaps daily negotiating the same route I’d just taken.  In the 1880’s, Ethiopian Emperor Menelik II constructed the Tewahedo Orthodox Church (pictured below).

Early in my stay, Miri introduced me to the Mahane Yehuda Market, the bustling shouk of West Jerusalem, where local police and Israeli army stand guard at each entrance. On several outings, we dined at the diminutive cafés (seating anywhere from 6 to 12 people) serving up hot Israeli dishes (influences from France, Eastern Europe, the Mediterranean, and Middle East).  At one café, I dined on stuffed grape leaves, filled with rice, ground lamb, and Indian spices.  At another, I sampled Hungarian goulash; a stewed beef dish in a thickened tomato sauce, seasoned with copious amounts of paprika and turmeric.  Fresh pitas, hummus, and pickled vegetables served as appetizers.

Throughout the city, the extraordinary energy of the people and each individual nuance leaves a lasting impression.  The music from Arab shops swells, a hollow Middle Eastern melancholy.  Jewish street musicians deftly entertain passersby with drums, keyboards, stringed instruments, or spirited singing.  Chanting and bells reverberate from churches.  Minarets call Muslims to prayer.  Rabbis chatter to themselves.  The people, forever pacing, talking on cell phones, or to each other, in Hebrew, Arabic, Yiddish, English, Spanish, French, Russian, Ge’ez.  These are the residents and tourists of Jerusalem, engaging life from the center stage.  Dressed in the garb of their ancestors, treading enigmatic environs, emanating a blinding light.  This is Jerusalem, a city infused with enduring myth and living legend.  And it's Israel, bounded by Mediterranean, Dead, and Red Seas; its neighbors a mix of reticent friendliness and marked hostility: Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, and Egypt.  Israel’s 20th century birthing pains included wars with each country.  Jerusalem now aches with old age, wooden floorboards creaking like the brittle bones of an octogenarian.  Stone structures abound, the city seems sculpted from solid rock, a perpetual project over thousands of years.

No facet of Jerusalem caught my eyes, ears, and nose as much as the labyrinth, the maze that is the Old City.  In every direction, stand a myriad of merchants, selling clothes, religious paraphernalia, sweets, meats, fish, fruit, vegetables, olives, nuts, or spices.  Others run machine shops, jewelry shops, Internet cafés, or antique stores.  Roman ruins abound.  A cacophony of sights, sounds, and smells tempt, tease, and torture the senses.  The shops measure a maximum of 30 feet deep and 10 feet wide, miniscule to my Western eyes.  Sandwiched in between, fighting for space, are churches, mosques, and synagogues.  The children and their laughter carom through the streets, yet some, even at 10 or 12, are working, pushing unbalanced, dilapidated carts of halva, dried fruit, or Challah bread through narrow alleys, wheels on carts bouncing up and down stone steps.

Inspired by intricacies, I purposefully lose my bearings, as if wandering the Old City offers the singular method to experience it.  I meander along pathways leading through quaint neighborhoods, yet seeming to lead nowhere in particular, having been supplemented as centuries passed.  Dead ends are common.  The stone paths wind, ever upward, downward, over rooftops, into courtyards, or backyards, and then down again, reaching alleys lined with merchants, covered in 5000 years’ worth of wear and tear, etched from the souls of mankind’s most magnificent milestones.  I discover a route out of the maze, but invariably return to the Old City, pulled by its relentless ethereal energy.

Its monuments are imprinted in my mind’s eye: the Temple Mount, Western Wall, Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Jaffa Gate, Zion Gate, Lion’s Gate, Herod’s Gate, Damascus Gate, Dung Gate, and Golden Gate; the Kidron Valley, Hinnom Valley, Tyropoeon Valley, and Golgotha, where tradition maintains the Romans crucified Jesus.  Each resident with his own panache, often adorned with a cloak, robe, or suit; perhaps wearing a turban, top hat, kippah, kufiyah, hijab, or veil.  Young Arab men sporting crew-cuts; Orthodox priests dressed in full cloak with ponytail and bushy beard; Ashkenazi Rabbis seeming to defy death.  Young Jewish boys dressed in 19th century, Eastern European attire with yarmulke and side curls.  Muslim women veiled from head to toe, peering into the world.  Monks, priests, and holy men stroll these streets, as their forefathers did so many moons before.  Jerusalem has no bounds, forever leaning toward the Heavens.

Looking back, I wonder how my first experience in Jerusalem changed me.  The antiquity of the city repeatedly strikes a chord of deep interest.  The determination of its multi-faceted residents fascinates me.  So too, each culture resonates to a varying degree.  I showed up with paltry knowledge of Jerusalem and its inhabitants, and more questions than answers grew inside me.  One summation: the place brings seekers and seeks bringers.

The night before leaving, as happens, I booked a flight from Tel Aviv to Athens, Greece, with El Al, Israel’s national airline.  And so it was, 6 weeks after arriving, I waited at Ben-Gurion Airport, ready to continue the adventure.  Athens also captured my attention, but that’s a story for another day.  Suffice to say, the crowd went wild on that touchdown too.  Yet, the Levant and its cornerstone, Jerusalem, the golden, righteous, city of stone, eternally tattooed my psyche.

Athens: On Colorful Footings

As my impromptu quest approached the Balkan Peninsula, a foremost sensation arose: supreme serenity, divergent from Jerusalem, palpable nonetheless. Idyllic islands peppering the vast Aegean Sea, wrapped in pine, cedar, and olive. Fishing boats, catamarans, cruise and industrial ships, arriving and departing the port at Piraeus. Arcing toward Athens International Airport, the searing sun overhead glimmered off contemporary towers fraternizing with antiquious remnants, set amidst seven sacred knolls.   

Paging through a guidebook further exposed modernity commingling with antiquity: the Monastiraki Flea Market and the Central Market, each swarming with life. The once-exuberant Ancient and Roman Agoras, the commanding Roman Stadium, the seemingly incongruous Arch of Hadrian, and the enduring Acropolis, a UNESCO World Heritage site, with the imposing and iconic Parthenon standing dignified atop the city. The Municipal Art Gallery, exhibiting surrealist and impressionist pieces, and the National Archaeological Museum, with a myriad of artifacts spanning regions and eras of ancient Greece. Historic neighborhoods at the foot of the Acropolis: Monastiraki, Thissio, and Plaka, an animated bazaar. Anafiotika, a captivating, diminutive neighborhood with Greek isle ambiance, and Pysrri, a former industrial district, renewed with café’s, restaurants, and bars. Omonia Square, within a busy confluence of avenues, and Syntagma Square, the business district, present a mixture of Athenians and visitors from round the globe. The city bristles with dynamism, yet defies comprehension on initial impression.  

The airport was constructed, and Athens Metro expanded, in preparation for the 2004 Olympics. Alas, on our arrival, the metro line to the airport sat idle. Instead, I loaded my pack onto a bus and examined the route into downtown from a window seat. After Palestine, from the Greek, Palaistine, with its’ diverse assortment of culture and custom, Athens bears a decisively Western impression, albeit with a primordial hint of history drifting through the soothing Mediterranean air. Shoppers navigate archaic lanes filled with trendy fashion and home furnishing stores. Modern hotels, pharmacies, supermarkets, and gas stations contour the roads. 

A Tale of Olives

Athens originates with Athena, the Greek goddess of wisdom, inspiration, and civilization. Plato identified her as Neith, an Egyptian deity. Greek devotees traditionally presented an olive branch in honor of Athena. Sources recount that Cecrops, the first king of Attica, preferred the offering of Athena, a local olive tree, to that of Poseidon, a spring of saltwater, and duly christened the fledgling city in her name.

Olive trees are native to the Mediterranean basin, and wild species continue to thrive here. Differing accounts place the olive’s domestication on the Greek island of Crete, or in the Levant, with the Canaanites. In Greece, a tradition of grafting valued cuttings onto wild olive trees has developed into an art. This method establishes a productive and yet resilient tree, yielding fruit over hundreds or thousands of years. Throughout the Mediterranean basin, natives point to an olive tree of considerable age. In Lebanon, a tree still stands from 4000 BC. In the Galilee, another endures from 3000 BC, and in Sardinia stands a tree from 2000 BC.

Today, the olive branch has morphed into a global icon of peace. This trend also extends its’ roots into Greece, where, historically, victors of friendly games or bloody wars were crowned with olive branches. Olive oil served as eternal flame during the original Olympics, while athletes and royalty were anointed with the esteemed oil. The Games launched not far from Athens, in the Peloponnese, and fittingly, when the modern-day Games returned in 1918, Athens accepted the nomination.

An Athenian Golden Age

The 5th Century BC, an era of powerful city-states, the golden age of Athens. The century began ominously, when the mighty Persian Empire invaded Greece in 492 BC. Two years later, Athenians routed the Persian army at Marathon, on the Greek coast. After the battle, a man named Phidippides sprinted 26 miles to the central square in Athens to publicize the victory and perished on the spot. The race, in his memory, the marathon, thus tracks the distance Phidippides covered that fateful day.

After defeating the Persian army, Athenians unabashedly relocated the regional treasury from Delos to Athens. Soon after, masons began construction on the Acropolis, and in 438 BC, finished the Parthenon. Democracy took firm hold of the region during this monumental century. Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, the philosophical triumvirate, called Athens home. So too did Sophocles and Euripides (playwrights), Herodotus and Thucydides (historians), as well as Hippocrates (a renowned physician).   

Athens’ golden era began to crumble at the end of the century, during the Peloponnesian Wars, when Sparta skillfully defeated Athens and ascended to control the local seas. The wars also fostered the Plague of Athens, decimating the population by one-third. The Roman Empire conquered the region in the 2nd Century BC, and today, Roman ruins exist alongside Greek monuments. Athens then tumbled into obscurity for nearly two millennia, subjugated by northern and central European clans, and finally, in 1458, by the powerful Ottoman Empire.

Modernity Arrives

By 1832, the city contained no more than 5000 residents. Two years later, Greeks designated Athens the capital of their neophyte state, and in 1837, constructed the University of Athens, a byline connecting two cultures: golden Greece and this modern version. Schools of theology, philosophy, law, economics, science, and education, once again, offer Socratic instruction. The Propylaea, a building designed to emulate the historic entrance to the Acropolis, where visitors now enter that site, stands prominently, serving as ceremony hall and rectory.   

Nearby, the National Archaeological Museum, founded in 1889, preserves relics from the regions’ colorful past. Vivid statues, expertly sculpted reliefs, gleaming jewelry, and a stunning Egyptian collection greet visitors. The museum incorporates an open-air café in the center of the property. Situated a level below the first floor, it peers into the afternoon sky. Throughout the enclosed square, displays from the museum mingle with lush vegetation. For those seeking coffee and a reprieve from the masses above, an ever-welcoming environment awaits.

Athens, like many modern metropoli, ballooned in the 20th Century. In 1921, a war with Turkey uprooted more than a million Christian Greeks living in Turkey, many who settled in Athens. Immigrants helped expand the city’s population and boundaries. More than a third of Greek nationals, 4 million, now reside in the metro region. Walking Athens and its neighborhoods today provides an indispensable glimpse into the life of Greece’s most heralded municipality. Modernity dominates, and urban sprawl swells, but the remnants of a previous era, a golden era, live on.

Lasting Impressions

My final night, wandering to and fro, I chanced upon the Exarcheia Neighborhood, an enclave with anarchic traditions, quaint café’s, dingy bars, and crowded comic book shops. Intuition guided me down a few steps to a used bookstore in a decrepit, yet well-kept basement. Here, I studied the sometimes archaic, often eccentric material. After an hour of browsing, and a few intriguing discussions with the shopkeeper, I selected an esoteric text, A Walk With the Gods. Not until a mountainous Peloponnesian train-ride from Diakopto to Kalavyrta, and a hike to Mega Spilaio, a cliff-hanging monastery, could I properly reflect upon the book, and this, my first taste of Athens.

Sinai: Searing in Sand and Sun

In the summer of 2009, I devoted two weeks to the Sinai Desert. I loved my initial impressions of Egypt. Serenity and beauty abound. Egypt beams with radiant energy, from the ever-shining sun, and all those damn pyramids. I experienced Egypt, but not an extensive tour. My focus: the Sinai Peninsula, far from the hustle and bustle of Cairo or Alexandria, and just as distant from the towering, iconic pyramids of the Nile Valley.

Jerusalem to Sinai

This expedition onto Egyptian soil began at the border crossing in Eilat, at the southern tip of Israel. The drive from Jerusalem to Eilat meandered four hours through vast desert and desiccated mountains, past Jericho, the Dead Sea, and Negev Desert. Winding down the Judean hills east of Jerusalem, angling toward the Dead Sea, we bypassed Bedouin camps and improvised huts, with lean goats and camels grazing aside. Skirting the western rim of the Dead Sea, we sidestepped Ein Gedi, a lush oasis in the desert, and Masada, where in 72 C.E., 960 Jewish men, women, and children found refuge in a hilltop fortress built a century earlier by King Herod. Roman troops surrounded the families for nearly two years before the desperate Jews committed suicide en masse.

My nephew’s mother, Miri, a Yemenite Jew, pointed to theoretical locations of Sodom and Gomorrah. Her partner, Claude, from the coast of Monaco, traced the dried seabed now dividing the Dead Sea. Through the Negev Desert we navigated, an unforgiving terrain. Ultimately, we reached Eilat, at the northeast shore of the Red Sea, where the Gulf of Aqaba meets the nexus of Egyptian, Israeli, Jordanian, and Saudi Arabian borders. This basin has sustained a sizeable population since at least 8000 B.C. The hills outside are the likely locale of Moses’ sojourn in the desert. Aqaba, Jordan sits four miles east. The Saudi Arabian desert arises twenty miles south of Aqaba. Taba, Egypt, borders Eilat to the south.                                                              

( map)                                                ( map)

We adjourned a mile short of the Egyptian border, where Claude worked as an instructor at a scuba diving camp. My nephew and I swam in the placid waters, basking in the afternoon sun. Over a Maccabee beer, I discussed Sinai history with a Russian diving guide and his girlfriend. We reconvened, two years later, at my nephew’s Bar Mitzvah in Jerusalem. That evening, Claude dropped me at the border, and I entered the legendary land of Egypt, the Sinai Desert.

The Sinai Peninsula

Bedouin tribes, distinct from mainland Egyptians, remain a majority on the Sinai Peninsula. These nomadic desert dwellers first appeared from the 14th through 17th Centuries C.E., from Arabian sands. Christian hermits too, once retreated to these desolate mountains. Today, many of the shop and innkeepers of the Sinai coast hail from mainland Egypt. The entirety of Sinai resonates with Egyptian mythology. Isis, Osiris, and Horus – the Holy Trinity – are essential to the lore that emanates. And papyrus lives on.

Historically, the Sinai belonged to Egypt. Greeks, Romans, and Ottomans conquered. Egypt regained possession in 1906. From June 1967, after the Six-Day-War, until the Egypt-Israel Peace Treaty of 1979, the Sinai became a territory of Israel. Egypt acquired dominion in stages, starting in ‘79. In ‘82, Israel departed Sinai. The two have preserved an open border since ’79. Troubles along this segment of the border cause intermittent closures.

Tourism along the Sinai coast began to decline in 2004, when Islamic militants detonated a bomb in Taba, on the Israeli border, killing 34 people. In 2005, a bomb in Sharm al Sheikh, on the southern Sinai coast, left 60 dead. In April of 2006, three bombs exploded in and around Dahab, a hip coastal village, killing 23 people, including five foreigners. The blast wounded another 80 individuals. Egyptian officials deduced the attacks were planned by Jama’at al-Tawhid wal-Jihad, an Islamic terror organization. Since the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, militants have continued their campaign on the peninsula.

On the day I crossed, in May 2009, the border was free from disturbance. After weaving through armed guards and passport stamps, I took a shared taxi 45 minutes south to a Bedouin beach camp named Maganaa, splitting the ride with an intrinsically brave Israeli mother and her five-year-old daughter. Darkness descended. I bartered with the taxi driver and got deposited at Maganaa. From Israel to Egypt I traversed – my sense of place, again upended.

The camp sheltered ten guests, yet employed five staff. My abode, a comfortable hut paces from the sea, included breakfast, and cost less than $7 a night. The owner, Faysal, about my age, delivered a bag of Bedouin herb. “Keef Halak?” (How are you) – he asked. I nodded, smiled, and responded with English. He sat down, recounting a story, in fits of Arabic, bits of English, and poignant theatrics. His father founded the camp, but unexpectedly died as a middle-aged man. Faysal and his friends now manage the encampment. Dive teams and backpackers keep them afloat.

The next morning, I awoke with the sun. Gazing across the Red Sea, I glimpsed the Hijaz Mountains of Saudi Arabia, bathed in sunlight. In the foreground, shimmering, crystalline water, vibrant fish, and stunning reefs. I scanned left and right – no Western world, no modern convenience. I ate a hearty breakfast of beans, eggs, pitas, and dates. I conversed with a Canadian woman whose boyfriend was off scuba diving. The Sinai coast is renowned for obtaining diving certificates on the cheap. Not a diver, I swam instead, exploring elaborate reefs from above, all the while dodging hazardous sea urchins.

I caught the drift to move on, packed my gear, and flagged a taxi to a camp called Mondial in Nuweiba Tarabin, four miles south of Maganaa. Mondial, unlike neighboring camps, boasted modern bathrooms, though my showerhead was in disrepair. Gratefully, the shower contained a spout, near my knees, and I squatted to use it. Seeing no plush towels, I rummaged a hand towel from Jerusalem. The room was sparse, but adequate. I met a German spending his days bicycling and nights resting at camp, smoking menthols, sipping Nescafe, and cracking jokes with, and at, passersby. His penetrating green eyes, elongated nose, hideous cackle, and icy demeanor set him apart.

The village once mesmerized more visitors. Shops were still spacious, stocked, and abundant, but devoid of consumers. A galabeya, an Egyptian tunic, retailed for three dollars. A handful of homegrown bananas cost twenty cents. As a breadbaker, a preferred stop was the state-sponsored bakery. Pitas were on sale – that’s all they baked – six large pitas for less than a quarter. I bought fresh goat cheese to complement them.

Over time, I settled in and began to enjoy, perhaps even exude, the Sinai rhythm of life. I rarely noticed alcohol. The occasions I drank a beer seemed dissonant. Daily, I negotiated the beach or road into Nuweiba Medina, befriending shopkeepers and locals. Infrequently, I encountered women, always hidden, but countless children roamed. Often, a cluster of seven to ten ragtag kids persuaded me to buy village wares – a bracelet, a necklace, rings, an amulet.

Each morning, I stepped outside to the greeting: “Welcome to Miami! Welcome to Miami!” It was the only English phrase known by Ahmet, one of the staff, and his smile indeed welcomed guests. His uncle, Ibrahim, owned the camp, and Ahmet spent summers tending tourists. Ibrahim drove from project to project, managing from afar, but with a heavy presence. A camp dog leisurely           strolled the beach, while nearby shop owners shooed away stray cats.                                                                      

Nuweiba introduced me to other fauna of the Sinai. A calm evening, sitting alone on a beach, a hundred paces from camp, gazing at the stars, I turned to see a fearless camel sauntering along the sand, within ten feet, with moonlight glinting off pupils. Another followed close behind. The next day, I passed a herd of goats feeding on dry shrubbery, adjacent to a housing project. A shepherd stood to one side. Still another occasion, I chanced upon an ungainly camel, head inside a dumpster, munching scraps.

One blazing afternoon, I approached five Bedouin women on the beach. They stood, grilling cuts of meat, presumably goat, around a provisional fire. With curiosity, I began photographing. An old, stout woman reproached and scolded in Arabic. Nonetheless, they were intrigued by my presence, inviting me to sit and watch picnic preparations, giggling and clacking when I tried English with them.

Said and Walit, two shopkeepers, served up my first home-cooked Egyptian meal. Okra, carrots, chickpeas, tomatoes, and spices, heady, Middle Eastern spices – perhaps cumin, coriander, and cardamom – simmered in the back of the shop. A robust ceramic dish filled with rice rested on the floor, accompanied by the bowl of stew. Seven people sat encircling the rice and passed the stew around. Each employee poured a spoonful of stew onto a portion of rice and scooped up the result with his fingers. Pass the bowl to the next person and wait for the stew to return. I watched with interest as the owner ate first, and with purpose. Scalding sage tea and chilled bottled water closed the feast.

The next afternoon, I stood outside a shop, in the shade, practicing Arabic, with Said and Walit, while they picked up English. Clouds gathered and drops began to gently descend. Nuweiba had not witnessed rain in years. The town stood still. Spectators looked on as drops innocuously fell by. The minaret rang out, and still, the people beheld this chance occurrence.

Sharm al Sheikh

After Nuweiba, I jumped a bus to Sharm al Sheikh, on the southern shore of the Sinai, three hours south of Nuweiba. A Bedouin passenger on board handed me a gift, three miniature seashells. Passengers smoked cigarettes. Pyramid, I observed, was the brand of choice. I followed suit. The drive hugs the coast, but then wraps inland to arid desert, amidst breathtaking Sinai Mountains, with sun refracting off limestone. I kept three seats to myself in the back of the bus. No one seemed to mind.

Sharm, with 35,000 inhabitants, may employ a third of them as taxi drivers. I hopped in the backend of a battered pick-up truck, a Bedouin taxi, and paid the standard tourist fare, sharing the ride with ten lucky passengers. The town did not impress. It strays from Egyptian or Bedouin heritage. In 2011, Hosni Mubarak, then fleeing leader of Egypt, relegated himself to this modern oasis. At my hotel, booked on, the staff displayed disinterest, bickering on price and guiding me to a room with a broken A/C. Even so, the hotel aesthetically pleased. The grounds were impeccable. Sharm, and the hotel, cater to European tourists, and hordes of Russians. I intended to give it a chance.

The next day, out of patience, I grabbed a taxi to the port, hoping to ferry off to Hurghada, in mainland Egypt, and the entrance to the Upper Nile, and the pyramids and treasures it holds. I stepped into the office and realized I’d need to join a tour group to reach the mainland. My visa was solely for the Sinai. I thanked the men and said I had a change of mind. I’d stay in the Sinai Peninsula after all.

I hailed another Bedouin taxi to the Sharm bus station on the edge of town. I met two college guys from Virginia at the station: one with green eyes, the other with hazel. We chatted, sipped coffee and tea, and reflected upon Arab and American worlds. Pacing to and fro, what seemed to be eunuchs, delivering drinks and trays, walking Egyptian-style, upright, with head-on-swivel. After a long wait, we hopped a bus for Dahab, half way between Nuweiba and Sharm, still on the eastern shore. North we rode, 90 minutes or so. On the outskirts of Dahab, at the bus station, we snagged a Bedouin taxi into town and set out to find a cabin camp.


Dahab is an ancient Nabataean port. The Nabataeans, a Semitic race, collected wealth in managing the Silk Road, later constructing the colossal rock-hewn monuments at Petra, Jordan, their financial base. Today, Dahab contains inns, cafés, nightclubs, dive shops, and merchants, lined up and down the coast. A paved path runs parallel to the coast, separating each venue from its attached outdoor seating area. Tourists and locals traipse the path while waiters retrieve a lassi, mint tea, or hummus plate. Patrons sit on the floor or low couches, known as divans, smoking tobacco from a sheesh, gazing toward the sea.

(Dahab cafe - courtesy of Lily Leung @

A favorite store was a tea and spice shop, where I purchased sage and mint tea. On the wall – the stoic gaze of an Afghani girl, with distant, emerald eyes, a photo captured for the cover of National Geographic. The shop sold Indian and Middle Eastern spices: fenugreek, turmeric, ginger, cumin, coriander, cloves, cardamom, cinnamon, saffron, nutmeg, black pepper, among others. The shopkeeper insisted his store carries the only spices we should use in food. That afternoon, I wandered the coast, sampling coffee and beer at bayside cafés. Dahab is more lavish than Nuweiba, but less so than Sharm. I watched Star Trek with a burger and a beer and saw dimensional significance in the film.

Beer was not common in Egypt, but cannabis and hashish were readily available. The Virginia guys brought hash from Cairo, and a friend carried Bedouin grass. They rolled conical spliffs, mixing the grass and hash with tobacco, Mid-East style. Night set in. The Americans left and I sat in the small courtyard. Near me, seven Egyptians debated a weighty subject in Arabic. Suddenly, their speech transformed into the language of the plants around us. The words came from the plants, through the Egyptians, and into the world. Speech rolled off their tongues, showering reality with an enduring sense of peace, of harmony. The conversation soothed my soul and relaxed my brainstem. My body frozen, I peered at the plants and found relief. An hour after the Egyptians vanished, I stood and retired to my room. The ceiling fan provided a modicum of relief, and before long I slept, despite the heat.

The next morning, I enjoyed Arabic coffee and a cigarette at a neighborhood coffee shop. I connected with the Virginia guys and we snacked on olives, pitas, and cheese. They arranged a taxi to Saint Catherine’s Monastery for the subsequent morning. Dahab is the jumping off point for pre-dawn pilgrimages to the monastery, high atop Mount Sinai, a two-hour drive from Dahab, over bumpy, gravel roads. And, I’d heard tales this was not Mount Sinai. Instead, I parted ways and marched to the bus station. I owed Nuweiba a second visit.

Back to Nuweiba

At Nuweiba Port, milling were taxi drivers, bus drivers, a rare tourist, and fifty locals, lounging, smoking flavored tobacco from a sheesh, sitting on worn plastic chairs, huddled around a lone TV, blasting a 70’s black and white, Arabic dance and theater drama. A trio of inebriated Bedouin men invited me to sit and smoke the sheesh. I declined the smoke, but sat down anyway. They laughed at each other as the show went on in the background. After three minutes of conversation lost in translation, I moseyed off and hailed a taxi. The driver supplied a mint tea with two sugars. We cruised to Nuweiba Medina, the marketplace, and I walked the short distance to Nuweiba Tarabin.

Nuweiba Tarabin presented a comfort zone. Friendly locals. The only foreigners: an occasional German; a handful of Spanish and Russian. Local merchants might know Russian or German phrases. English, they seldom understood. A carpet seller from Alexandria, named Said, adept with English, stopped me on the street one afternoon. He invited me into the shop. We drank tea while he displayed books employed to study English.

A Bedouin stopped by on an old motorcycle and brought a package in. Said closed the door and unwrapped the package – a generous amount of herb. The Bedouin disappeared. Said and I resumed our English conversation. “Said,” he said, translates as “happy”. He projected the name well, and was set to open a second shop in the market. We strode to the shop, where construction workers stood by. He offered to let me manage it, and buy into the business. I grinned, but demurred.

A day later, the Sinai began to appear superfluous. I needed to return to Jerusalem. So I did. I stopped a bus by the side of the highway. The bus dropped me off at the border and I walked into Eilat, and back into a familiar world. I caught a cab with a Palestinian shrink from New York City and his Jewish wife, the two of them ranting on about Israel, Palestine, Iran, and the US. I waited three hours at the bus station and withdrew to Jerusalem, by the same route that brought me there.

So would I revisit Egypt or the Sinai? Would I tread onto its shore again? Absolutely! Egypt rewards explorers. Pyramids linger upon my list.

(Eyes of Horus)

Jerusalem - Old City


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 A few moments to catch my eye along the path...

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