Disneyland in Sinai: The Illusion of Peace

For Eid, the holiday marking the end of Ramadan, many Cairo residents travel to the Sinai peninsula. This year they converged with beach-goers from Israel celebrating Rosh Hashanah, or Jewish New Year.

Lounging on a beach with your former enemy -- and that's not to imply that Egyptians and Israelis are now friends -- in the very territory over which your soldiers fought and died, may seem an odd holiday pastime. Israel wrested control of Sinai from Egypt during the Six Day War in 1967. Egypt retaliated in 1973, staging a joint offensive with Syria on Yom Kippur, Judaism's holy day of fasting. The memory of vulnerability that led to this defeat still smarts enough for Israel to shut down the West Bank on Yom Kippur each year.

Although Sinai was not returned to them until the Camp David accords of 1978, Egyptians remember October 6th as a pinnacle of recent history. Addressing his people after the offensive, then-president Anwar Sadat called them Ya sha'ab Oktober (The people of October). It's a charged time of year, in a prickly piece of real estate. But this is Sinai. Ma feesh mushkila. (No problem.)

Having joined in the general hiatus from Cairo, I stayed with friends at a beach camp in Ras Sheitan, about 40 km south of the Israeli border. Palm-roofed umbrellas shade beach bums who strum guitars and gaze across the water to the mountains of Saudi Arabia. Fellow loungers attribute the camp's popularity to its laid-back feel. "I was supposed to stay for twenty-four hours and I've been here for a week," laughed Matthieu, a self described member of Tel Aviv's underground rock scene. "There is nowhere like Sinai."

An Israeli musician (whose young son played with the son of the camp's Bedouin owner, both of them shouting in Hebrew) invited us to dinner, "to celebrate the new year."
"Which new year?" a Swedish friend asked.
"Rosh Hashanah." (Duh)
That night much of the camp gathered on the sand. While male musicians played, women passed around apples with honey and piles of pomegranate seeds "to sweeten the coming year". The Bedouin servers brought plates of fish, rice and salad, and the musicians continued their inexhaustible repertoire of Hebrew songs. Those gathered were Israeli, French, American ... the Egyptian guests were noticeably absent.

Culturally, Sinai belongs to neither Israel nor Egypt, but remains the territory of the Bedouin. The non-affiliated vibe extended from a staff member's t-shirt in Hebrew, Arabic and English, proclaiming peace and love, to the murals of nude yoga practitioners decorating the "front desk". Pirate-like Matthieu, despite his full-body tattoos and French background, is the norm here rather than the exception; everyone is similarly unique. There is Avi, also from Tel Aviv, who sports an incongruous cross on a thick pectoral. There is Amil, another Tel Aviv resident, who joined the nightly jam sessions with a haunting flute, although double amputations prevented him from joining in the swimming. Amil compares the camaraderie of the camp to an idealized (aka lazy) kibbutz, or communal farm. However, like the (later) kibbutzim, the system relies on inexpensive Arab labor: by the 1980s, hired Palestinians carried out much of the hard farm work, while today's medley of holiday makers pay 25 Egyptian pounds a night (about 5 USD) to be waited on by Bedouin staff.

Ma feesh mushkila: one wonders whether the Bedouin care who owns Sinai, as long as tourists keep showing up. Samil, a Bedouin guide who lives with his camel up the road from the camp, says that whether Egypt or Israel lays claim to Sinai, it will always be Bedouin. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu's plan for "economic peace" in Palestine seems manifested in the camp's mix of nationalities, raising the question of whether global capitalism might eventually erase national boundaries, leaving conflict analysis to the Marxists.

Yet politics never disappear completely, even in Sinai.
An American friend and I found a flag in the water and hung it up to dry. Our Egyptian friend confirmed it as Jordanian, (Jordan lies east of Israeli's brief Red Sea coastline). Ahmed, one of the staff members, approached us.
"I'm going to put this here," he said, folding the flag out of sight.

It seems the easy neutrality is a construction, a carefully preserved Disneyland where political realities are unwelcome. Yet they remain just below the surface. I was speaking to Eid at the "front desk" when an Israeli man complimented my Arabic. I explained that I lived in Cairo, and told him that meeting Israelis in Sinai had come as a welcome surprise, because I had never met any elsewhere in Egypt. "Yes, the Sinai is special," he replied. He tried to engage Mozi, a staff member, in his enthusiasm. Clapping him on the back, he said, "It is the Egyptians that will bring peace! We just talk about it, but they are the ones that are making it happen." Mozi did not react, but carried a tray of food out to a group of guests. The Israeli laughed awkwardly.

As another October 6th approaches, (ironically, also the day on which President Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by a radical Egyptian unhappy with the Israel-Egypt Peace Treaty, the anniversary shared by the two countries will evoke very different responses. Israel will mourn the 2,688 soldiers killed in the war, while Egypt will celebrate the reclamation of Sinai (and its military dignity) with Armed Forces Day. I'm hoping to return to Ras Sheitan to see whether October 6th will cause the mask of Xanadu to fall, or whether peace, at least on one beach, can persist...