A Sinai Story

Sahara Camp, Ras Sheitan, Sinai.

The night ferry from Aqaba to Nuweiba is a reminder that travel’s penchant for pleasure is a relatively new thing. Most of the ship’s passengers are Egyptian migrant workers, men on whom Jordan’s service economy depends. They are packed on deck, many dressed in traditional long shirts and giddy with going home. One, a caretaker in an Amman office, says that he has not been back to his family in Port Said in a year and a half, and jokes that he has spent all the money he has saved just on presents for his children. Inside, women returning from pilgrimages to Mecca sleep, their patterned abayas drawn about them, and a Jordanian truck driver passes round a picture of the baby he is leaving behind.

By contrast, the beaches at Ras Sheitan, fifteen minutes’ drive north of Nuweiba’s port, are a little slice of traveller utopia to rank with the world’s best. Where Sinai’s mottled red mountains drop into the sea, the otherworldly beauty plays host to an alternate side to the Middle East: a strip of reef, beach hut and hedonism. The place is a collective pressure valve for Egyptians, Israelis and others where hashish is smoked openly, women can wear whatever they feel comfortable in, and life moves at an altogether less frantic pace than those living in the region are used to.

For many this will not be the image that the word “Sinai” conjures up nowadays. Indeed, there is fighting up north, an insurgency that has taken on the mantle of the Islamic State amidst a wave of state repression. Though that fighting is far away from Ras Sheitan and the south coast, the toll taken on the region’s industry by past atrocities is obvious. Swathes of empty accommodation litter the roads, and sand is coming up through the cracked floor of Nuweiba port’s passenger terminal.

A ferry docked at Nuweiba port.

It is a situation not helped by an incident on April 18, when Islamic State gunmen opened fire on the ancient St Catherine’s monastery, killing a police officer.

Egyptian army officers walk in St Catherine’s monastery, Sinai.

The numbers are far from their peak, but tour groups are still driving the stunning road up to the monastery. Each bend brings a new hue of rock, or a sudden vista out across a sand field. The monastery itself looks as though it could have been hewn from the great slabs of mountain that hem it in, yet still manages to be graceful. The interior of the church conjures up all the pomp expected of Greek orthodoxy, with icons in flaking gold and plump chandeliers hanging low. Catching a moment in that church alone, in a brief interval between other visitors, brings home the sensation of a place outside time.

The road to St Catherine’s monastery from Nuweiba.

Western tourists in Sinai speak of a special atmosphere that draws them back here time and again. A physical and mental beneficence quite at odds with cliched ideas of the desert’s sterility. Ahmad Saleh, a herbalist in the village next to monastery, says that Sinai is actually a wonderful habitat for herbs to grow, despite its barren appearance. 472 species in total, and 19 of them not found anywhere else in the world. He makes and sells his own herbal mixes — he was just prescribing an elderly gentleman something for memory loss when I visited. When asked how he discovered the medicinal properties of his plants, he laughs and says they are like his children. “I know which of my children to send for bread, and which of them to guard the sheep. I grew up amongst the plants — I know each of them, and their personalities.”

Ahmed Saleh in his garden.

Back at the beach, locals, Cairenes, Israelis and Palestinians socialise freely, and the sound of Hebrew mixes with Arabic and English. In a region where liberal spaces all too often exclude conservatives — and vice versa — beer drinkers and the religiously observant share tables. It is a world away from the vision of the Islamic State, and although much of it comes from the tolerant culture of the local Bedouin, it is clear how much the region depends on visitors to survive.

Pilgrims heading to Saudi Arabia, on the Nuweiba-Aqaba ferry.

It’s a special place, and I hope that people keep coming. I know I can’t wait to go back.

For more, you can read my report in Middle East Eye.