Opinion |

An Israeli in Egypt: Fear and Lotioning in Sinai

After crossing the desolate border between Egypt and Israel, I met a tall Egyptian in a fine suit with five different kinds of hash

Shir Reuven
Shir Reuven
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Nuweiba, Egypt, October 2016.
Nuweiba, Egypt, October 2016. Credit: Maya Horodniceanu
Shir Reuven
Shir Reuven

The border crossing between Israel and Egypt is quite bare and stark, as if implying that Israel would prefer not to call attention to the boundary that dispels its longtime fantasy of being a European country. This is where the country ends – and it’s not in Europe. Embarrassing. It seems as if an effort was made to blur this fact cosmetically, to make the border crossing look like a nondescript bank branch and not the dramatic result of wars and peace agreements. On the walls are faded photos of clerks with tense and scary smiles, with captions like “Smile, things are looking up,” and “Give a smile, get a smile.” The expressions on their faces make it seem like the captions should really say: “Smile, it’s just me and you’re in the endless maze I created for you in my basement after stalking you for the past three years.”

>> Ignoring travel warnings, 20,000 Israelis flood Egypt's Sinai over holidays <<

We took the nighttime bus to Eilat so we could arrive early at the border crossing and get through it fairly quickly, before the people arriving by plane formed a huge line at the terminal. At 6 A.M., the line wasn’t bad, but it still crawled and was made up of people who all had one thing in common: A hush came over them whenever the announcement of the Foreign Ministry travel warning blared on the PA system. “The National Security Council reminds you that a serious travel warning is in effect for travel to Egypt and the Sinai Peninsula.” People stopped their conversations to let the announcement pass, just like what would happen in a restaurant if a homeless person were to walk in off the street and start cursing.

The Taba border crossing terminal linking Israel and Egypt's Sinai Credit: Eli Herskowitz

(When I worked as a waitress, part of my job was to shoo away the homeless woman who hung out in the street outside before asking for money from the high-tech folks who came to the restaurant for lunch. I didn’t want to shoo her off, less out of pity and more because I didn’t like the thought that the customers were such delicate souls that they couldn’t ignore her all by themselves. I would go up to her and awkwardly ask her to leave. “Everyone here is a son of a bitch!” she would shout. Unfazed, I would reply, “Yeah, and they’re cheap with the tips, too.” “Your mother is a whore,” was her retort. “Wrong – she’s a teacher.” And so on, until she eventually got bored and left. In other restaurants on the street, she at least had a chance of giving or getting a slap.)

As soon as the recorded warning was over, the people in line went right back to discussing scuba diving, comics, fashions for the upcoming winter, whatever – with all the blandness of morning talk-show banter.

We got to the beach, where we were going to be sleeping in lean-tos, and went to eat breakfast. Across from us was a tall guy in a suit with five kinds of hashish laid out on a table. Eight hours of traveling and waiting made my manners evaporate. I stared at him until he asked us if we wanted to smoke with him. His sign was Cancer, and he spoke English that he’d learned online and was just waiting for the right people to come along and pull it out of him, like King Arthur’s sword.

We complimented him on his clothes, and he said, “When I was 12, I started working because my father was a scumbag who ran out on us. We lived in a ghetto. I didn’t want to study, because in Egypt studies get you nowhere. There are engineers and doctors driving cabs. After a few years of supporting my family, I understood how to make money, and I got a good job in a bank and sold loans. I got a commission on each one. I rented a big house, and my mother, sister and brother moved in with me.

“A few months later, I sold a really big loan and got a nice commission. That was the first time I ever had more money than I needed, and I didn’t know what to do with it. I just looked at the balance in my bank account every day and that was it. Within days, my father popped up, out of nowhere. He knew about the money, and he made me buy three Armani suits – blue, gray and black. He said: ‘These suits will help you make even more money.’ Only the gray one fits well; I never wear the others.”

So, I asked him, did they really help you make more money? “No, I told you, he’s a scumbag.”

In the morning, I awoke to a shouting match that was gradually toned down to an exchange of fierce whispers between a couple with a child who were sleeping near us. The argument was about the duvet – did it need to be changed and, if so, who was supposed to do it.

Here are two excellent tips for changing bed linens easily: A. Go to a therapist, shed your defenses, meet someone, fall in love, move in with him, and then divide up the household chores so he’s always in charge of changing them; and B. Migrate to a rich country where you’re at the bottom of the food chain, be consumed with homesickness, be on the verge of starving and the brink of despair, to the point where you consider going into prostitution, “find the hope within yourself” as per a popular song, and then become a maid and change rich people’s linens rather than ending up dead on them instead.

I didn’t share that advice with the couple because we’d already had a little clash one night when we were lying on the beach and the young father insisted on lighting a campfire right next to us, even though we asked him to move it so we wouldn’t have to inhale the smoke. “But this is just where I pictured it,” he said, as he went to bring over his sleepy child. The family’s whole trip seemed to be designed so that the parents could imbue the kid with formative memories that they’d envisioned down to the last detail. They were as stressed-out as a determined bride who knows exactly what impression she wants to leave on her guests, come hell or high water. Besides making the campfire, they also collected shells on the beach, played guitar, sang Israeli rock songs from the 1990s, and basically treated their offspring like a lump of tofu with no desires of his own and no purpose in life other than to soak up all these tailor-made experiences.

“Come on,” the dad said to the drowsy kid. “Come learn how to make a campfire.” Kid: “I don’t want to.” Dad: “Look, you start with pieces of paper. The paper catches on fire, and then the branches on top do.”

The kid threw sand on the campfire and the dad said, “No, no, that’s how you put it out! Now we’re trying to light it.”

I hoped the kid would carry on with his rebellion; that he would be a good representative of the present period, when there’s no real need to know how to start a fire – and anyway, as long as his dad was using a lighter to start the fire, the conditions were obviously not so difficult. But he fell asleep in his mother’s arms by the fire, just as they were getting the words wrong to yet another song by Knesiyat Hasechel.

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