Monday, July 23, 2012

Remembering Dahab 1973 - 1983

It struck me this week that it is almost 40 years since I first went on holiday to Sinai.  My parents used to drive down regularly in their small tinny oil-cooled Renault 4, in which air conditioning meant opening the window. Sinai was under Israeli rule and peace with Egypt seemed like an unattainable fantasy.
Most Israelis went to Neviot, a Kibbutz erected near the Bedouin community of Nuweiba on the coast, but my parents drove down to the Bedouin community of Dahab, about 100 kilometres further down the coast and a good 500 kilometres from our suburb of Tel-Aviv.  There was a Kibbutz next to Dahab as well, called Di-Zahav and its name was said to hail from the golden glitter in the sand (zahav is gold in Hebrew).  There was speculation that the Israelites might have built the golden calf there.
Those in the know, which somehow included my parents, did not stop at di-Zahav but drove down unpaved roads, along the shore to Dahab. The Bedouin had a series of bamboo shacks there which they rented out, and they operated small, roofless kiosks. The bedouin lived inland, in black tents nestling at the foot of the mountains, and at dawn one would see a young girl in the distance, dressed in black, leaving the tents and taking a small herd of goats into the mountains.  As she started to vanish into the ravines, another girl would emerge with another herd.  This went on for about an hour.
Twice a day, the tide went out exposing a reef covered with fantastical creatures, see-through worms, sea-urchins, star-fish in incredible colours, crabs in myriads of sizes with and without shells and the odd oyster. If you sat on the edge of the reef, you could see multi-coloured fish in all shapes and sizes swimming in the deep.
I used to walk along the shore in the morning and explore the washed up flotsam of one of the world's most beautiful coral reefs.  There were very few tourists, just a few annoying Germans who had somehow got to this rather desolate place with its incredible sea.
There was no need for tents. One simply slept on the sand with a little bamboo wall protecting against the wind. Rain is extremely rare in Sinai and impossible in the dry season. At night the sky was covered in stars and I once counted at least thirteen shooting stars as I went to sleep (I assume I witnessed a meteorite shower).  Incidentally in the wet season there were flash floods which would carry chunks of road away.  As one drove down, one would see large huge chunks of sand, held together by asphalt sitting next to the road.  It looked as though a giant had stuck his hand in the ground, pulled up a piece of road and then deposited it on the ground.
Washed out desert roadway

Sinai returned to Egypt in 1979, after Sadat's impasse-breaking visit to Jerusalem.  It is not part of the promised land or the 1917 League of Nations "Jewish Homeland" and the only settlers were fun-loving leftists who, as soon as peace came, quietly packed up and went home. The peace treaty granted Israelis visa-free entry to the coasts of Sinai but in the early years few took it up. 
In early 1981 my family returned to England. My parents had never taken out full Israeli citizenship and so I was not called up for military service. In 1983 I visited Israel with a girl-friend (Emily Brown, later lead singer of the Hangman's Beautiful Daughters  We were 19.
My old school friends were the Israeli generation most affected by Israel's invasion of Lebanon.  They spent over six months fighting in the Lebanon and were almost universally completely miserable, so I saw no reason to join them (I returned to Israel in the Nineties' and then did military service). We spent a few days in a flat adjacent to the Western Wall (lent by a friend) and went down to Sinai.
We were the only tourists in Dahab.  Well almost.  The first couple of nights, there was an Australian woman who was there with her Egyptian boyfriend.  We slept on the beach and washed in the sea. The Egyptian police didn't like us and took our passports at night, much to the Egyptian boyfriend's embarasment. It seemed politic to pretend not to be Jewish, so I listened politely as he made outrageous anti-Semitic statements.
 I formed a freindship with a bedouin guy who was operating a tiny kiosk and we played endless games of backgammon and chatted in Hebrew. The younger bedouin had all been through the Israeli school system and spoke fluent Hebrew. I remember ordering a fish dinner and then watching as he went onto the reef with a stick and a bit of string and caught me a fish for dinner.  It was delicious. 
There was a small US army base (MFO: Multinational Force Observers, next to Dahab, where a few tens of American soldiers monitored the peace.  Most, as I recall, were black men not much older than me who came from Atlanta. They were very friendly and seemed to have little understanding of where they were. The Bedouin enjoyed their occasional trips out of the base, when they spent freely.  I remember spending several minutes trying to catch the sentries attention as he was too engrossed in his Walkman to pay any attention to me.  The Israeli in me was struck by this failure in his job as a sentry.
I no longer remember how long we spent there as  one's awareness of time would blur in Sinai, and one simply focused on being. The future and the past seemed irrelevant, while the present was entirely stress free.
I returned to Israel in 1991 and a year later Rabin was elected prime-minister and peace almost broke out in the Middle-East.  The Palestinians got autonomy, Israel made peace with Jordan and the Sinai coast turned into "the new Riviera". I visited Sinai many times in that period and Dahab was unrecognizable.  The reef had mysteriously vanished and been replaced by a narrow strip of beach covered in restaurants serving every kind of international food.  they had no chairs, you were expected to lounge on carpets against chopped-down palm trees. Water was pumped from the ground but it was undrinkable because masses of sewage was pumped straight back in. Signs posted by the British Embassy warned of 40 year sentences to those caught with recreational drugs, which didn't seem to stop anyone from publicly smoking cannabis everywhere.
A narrow road ran between the restaurants and their lounge spaces which were directly at the sea-front.  You could buy everything and stay in all manner of hotels - including the Hilton. See for a vision of its present.
It was horrible. I used to periodically go through for a look and some shopping, but I tried not to stay there.

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