The Israeli Arab family brought meat, the Egyptian waiter prepared the barbecue grill. And now the bush is burning, and the bush is not food: Mohammed the waiter took a broken reed chair that was lying on its side, one of dozens of chairs scattered about the deserted beach that was once the commercial symbol of the Sinai beaches, broke it into pieces and put it on the makeshift barbecue.
The chair refused to burn. Long minutes elapsed before it finally caught fire, and the chair generations of Israelis had used was slowly consumed. Was this the chair on which I used to place my little Uri, worried lest he fall from it to the sand? Is this the chair upon which I read Zeruya Shalev's "Hayei Nisuin" ("Husband and Wife")? Maybe I was sitting on it when I drank my first Egyptian Stella beer here? White smoke rose, and Mohammed and his guests ate kebabs from Nazareth and canned pickles from Beit Hashita, by the chair-fueled fire. They tossed the leftovers to the pack of stray dogs, just about the only ones left on this enchanted shore.
It's dead in Sinai. At the tail end of Passover, the holiday when multitudes once streamed to these beaches, we found ourselves almost completely alone on the Bir Swair beach. Once, not so long ago, before a series of three terror attacks, you needed really good connections to find an available room here on Passover. We would make reservations a year in advance for Passover and Sukkot, the two special holidays for us and others like us, for whom Sinai became a regular part of the life cycle. We'd call up Dedi Zucker, who had connections in the place, and ask him to try to arrange one more room, one more night. This year, Zucker didn't come. Or even call. Not one of the regulars who used to be here, Passover after Passover, showed up this time.
We are the generation of the wilderness. Year after year we'd note how the children had grown, how paunches had expanded and hair had thinned, and this Passover they didn't come. Not even the regulars. The world is dead and Sinai is dead, love is dead and peace is dead, terror has triumphed, at least here, at least now.
They warn us about the dangers of smoking - and we continue to smoke; they warn us about the carnage on the roads - and we continue driving as we please; it's only the travel advisories of the Anti-Terror Unit that we meekly obey.
The endless lines at the border are no more. "How long did it take?" we used to ask everyone when they finally reached the shore. We'd proudly announce that it took us "only two hours" to reach the Egyptian "engineer" who would take out his pencil and write down the car's license plate number on the crumpled piece of paper in his pocket. All those endless discussions of the best time to arrive at the border were rendered meaningless. There were no photos of long lines in the newspaper, just a bored Egyptian officer sitting in his office, not even at the inspection post, and stamping passports.
The journey south was just as surreal: Dozens of unfinished and perhaps never-to-be-finished construction sites, skeletons of mansions abandoned in the sand. Resort villages and luxury hotels, malls and shopping centers of every color, started with the big economic boom here and halted after other kinds of booms - from the three terror attacks in Taba, Dahab and Sharm al-Sheikh. What do we really have here? A fleeting, shattered dream? Or a reality that was merely interrupted?
The Aqua Sun is closed. A holiday village that, because of its owners - Vered and Hisham, an Israeli woman and an Egyptian man - was also a symbol of something lofty. Now they only meet here occasionally to give their daughter Yasmin a sense of family. Yasmin is 9, and the night she was born, at a hospital in Tel Aviv, there was a fire at the Aqua Sun that threatened to burn down the whole place. A cook flipped an omelet and the reed roof caught fire. A line of frightened people, guests and hosts, stood on the beach passing buckets of water from hand to hand, from the sea to the fire, in order to put it out. This was during Sukkot 1998. The "chef," Mohammed, was reduced to tears.
Chef Mohammed died a while ago. Now there is just the twin holiday village, Ghazala, built a few years later several hundred meters to the south. It, too, is owned by Vered and Hisham, and is still open. Vered Leibowitz and Hisham Nasim. I once passed by their home in the Yad Eliahu neighborhood, and on the door a sign said "Nasim Leibowitz." I had to backtrack and take another look. Who is Nasim Leibowitz?
In Sharm al-Sheikh, the Ghazala Hotel was bombed. In Dahab, the Ghazala grocery store was bombed. Only this Ghazala is still defiantly intact. Terror hasn't yet won out completely. We put our suitcases in the room and quickly get ready to go the Aqua Sun - the name always reminded me of the blue Aqua Velva aftershave my father used to use on holidays. I spent some of the happiest moments of my life in this place.
The beach umbrellas are overturned, the dining room is locked, the bar is abandoned, the window in Room 607 - my regular room - has been shattered by the winds. In the plaza outside the dining room, the Nubian waiters - all from the same remote village on the Sudan border - used to do their traditional dance, wearing colorful Bob Marley-style hats, every evening after dinner. The plaza is deserted and the Nubians remain only in my imagination. Afterward, the guests would disperse for their daily ritual - climbing the hill behind the reception area, the only place you could talk on a cell phone. There were years when the Egyptians wouldn't allow cell phones into Sinai. Zucker's son once smuggled one in in his underwear.
This is where our children grew up. It was the only place where they not only parted for a while from their addictive electronic toys, but also met Arabs as human beings. On these sands, Mohammed and Dan, Ayman and Uri, Islam and Ira played, vacation after vacation, year after year. It was their most educational field trip, perhaps even more important than the March of the Living. Here they learned that there is someone to talk to, or at least someone to play beach volleyball with; that there are Arabs who don't blow themselves up and don't stab people and that they are actually human beings, just like us. Here, their hosts also learned that there are Israelis different from the ones they see on television - nonviolent, unarmed, not condescending. Now Uri is serving hamburgers in Tel Aviv; he won't be seeing any more Arabs. Ahmed is a taxi driver in Cairo, and he won't be seeing any more Israelis, perhaps ever. A sad and oppressive silence hangs over the Aqua Sun.
The rows of huts have also turned into a ghost town. Only the signs still mislead. Shantibeach - written in one word in Hebrew; Alexandria Beach, Half-Moon, Diamond and Baba-Buba Bazaar. All like it used to be, but now deserted. The signs still offer all kinds of good things: makloubeh, pancakes, fresh fish, omelets, yoga from 6 to 8, jeep trips, and more.
How many nights of love blossomed here in the huts, and how many love songs were played on guitars - Bedouin, Egyptian and Israeli love songs, all mixed together, in the one place in the world where it was possible. And what's left? A sack of falafel mix in the empty kitchen of the Half-Moon, a young Egyptian offering a puff of hashish early in the morning, and an empty bag of Bamba drifting about the beach. "Kosher for Passover," it says, though it's not clear for which Passover anymore.
Hooray - some of the regular employees are still here. Islam, who has since got married and had a baby girl named Salma; Akram, who is getting married next month; Mohammed, who is grooming his mustache; Ayman, who asks about the kids and Omar, who dreams about the investor from Lithuania who said he'd come back here next year. Dedicated as always, they will do everything to make your stay pleasant. They loved the Israelis and the Israelis loved them back. These are also their best years, the years of the big vacation, this is their second home. But the home is half empty. Of the 200 employees, only 14 are left. Some work for 250 Egyptian pounds a month, about 200 shekels, when the trip home costs between 100 and 200 pounds.
Omar describes the distance to his home: It's 1,600 kilometers to his home village near Luxor. A 20-hour trip each way. He only goes home once every three months. If anyone in the village asks him why he works with Israelis, he'll immediately rebuff the questions. Meanwhile, he's dreaming about his Lithuanian bonanza: A doctor from Lithuania who was here and talked about investing a million dollars, or a million Egyptian pounds.
"What is money laundering?" the charmingly innocent 21-year-old Omar asks us. They're still here, but their dreams carry them far. One wants to go to Europe, another wants to go to Dubai and a third wants to be with his Russian-Israeli lover - who is married with two kids. Every once in a while he goes up on the roof of the dining room, where the reception is better, and talks to her on the phone.
The shores of Saudi Arabia sparkle across the way. Maybe that's where salvation will come from. Those beaches, which always seemed threatening, menacing, beyond the mountains of darkness, now appear closer than ever. The Saudi initiative, you know. A Russian-Israeli family that brought some raw tehina from Nablus for their young son, sits down to dinner. A couple of Russian backpackers have arrived from Dahab and there's great excitement. There are new guests; the occupancy rate has almost doubled. An Egyptian family also came this time, which is something very rare around here, practically earthshaking. The lights of the ornate mansion that an eccentric Egyptian architect built for himself on the hill south of here glitter from afar. He dreamt of turning the place into a honeymoon destination for celebrities; once he talked about how Sting would come here. It looks like Sting isn't coming either.
The Bedouin are also in despair. There are no more beads for five pounds or camel rides for ten. Only the sea is the same sea and the magnificent sunrise is the same sunrise. The kinds of rugs that lie on so many Israeli floors are rolled up in a big pile next to the Baba Buba Bazaar. A helicopter from the multinational force, an Egyptian flag on its belly, circles over the shore, a reminder of forgotten threats.
Omar likes the Egyptian democracy, but any day he could get a phone call from the army calling him up to be drafted. "The army develops patience and individual talents, but I don't need that anymore," says the young man with a shy smile. In his village, people ask him why he doesn't work in Egypt. Egypt is not here. He sleeps in the last hut, together with a friend.
Akram says that if he comes to visit Israel, the authorities will make trouble for his family. The Ghazala is too small for him. He misses the Aqua Sun and the tree of lights that he built next to the dining room, which now stands dark and abandoned. Akram's mother was sick and he made a vow to her: If she gets well, he'll get married. Now he has to keep his vow. But what can he do? Islam is going to Cairo, a six-hour drive from here, to get his toothache taken care of. He wants to be back by Monday, when a group of Russian women who do yoga is due to arrive. Hisham is in the western desert with a group of hikers on a desert safari.
The rumor is that on Yom Ha'atzmaut, the Ghazala will be full. In the meantime, they're building and dreaming, as usual. Last week, they added another door at the entrance to the bar. Countless skeletons of odd structures, fragments of a dream, stand on the beach. It's unclear what they are. At the gourmet Yasmin restaurant in the Aqua Sun, the windows were removed long ago, but still, until recently they were building a new reception area next to it. Now this building stands with windows suspended in air, with no ceiling. And what was this other structures supposed to be - with what looks like a couple of pools - or maybe bathtubs - in the middle? Oh, Hisham, the dreamer.
The food is tasty, better than ever. On the bar's stereo system, Leonard Cohen sings over and over again about the end of love - for as long as the generator is working and there's electricity. Sometimes they also play Balkan love songs, world music. Early in the morning, another ritual repeats itself: An Egyptian fisherman walks on the beach, attached by a rope to a boat in which his elderly father sits. He walks and walks along the beach, pulling his boat, which floats on the water. Where he's going and where he comes from, no one knows.
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