Under the Black Blanket


Hell in a Reed Basket

Moses with the Ten Commandments

Moses with the Ten Commandments (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Update from Sharm el Sheik, a silvery beach town of casinos and unnatural fields of water-sucking grass, underutilized resorts and a McDonalds without the bacon deluxe cheeseburger.

Sharm means Shame in Arabic, and there is much of it to go around.

The palace where Mubarak retreated after he was deposed, before he went on trial, is just up the beach.

Here is where British and Russian and even Israeli tourists used to swarm and get sunburned and, some, too drunk to remember the Arabic for thank you, let alone the local rules about what sunbathing women ought to keep covered.

Here is where I saw my first - and second and third and fourth - burkini, the hooded wetsuit that honorable women don while snorkeling or slathering sunscreen on their righteous men, the sight of whose hairy naked flesh apparently doesn't offend God.

Here is where waiters who have long kept their conservative religious views under wraps now glower when a woman orders a drink, or outright refuse to fetch it.

Here is where a man on a flight from Cairo to Luxor started screaming at the Egyptair steward when he saw a foreign man and woman kiss on the plane.

Working with a documentary crew on sites in the Old Testament stories, we accomplished a Bataan Death March by train and car in two days across a swath Egypt. We retraced Moses' path from the colossal columns of the Ramesseum in Luxor, built by the pharaoh Ramses II, who ruled Egypt during the Exodus. We walked beside the reeds along the Nile, where the baby Moses was supposedly put into a basket by his mother, and then boarded a sticky night train north to steaming garbage-choked Cairo. Tracing the path of the Exodus, we then drove east on the old Pharoah's Road to Suez then south into the waste of the Sinai, aiming for Mount Sinai, the 7,200 foot peak and one of the desert mounts where God supposedly handed down the 10 Commandments.(Scholars think any of twenty mountains in the Middle East could have been the one in the Bible.)

During our own 40 hours of wandering the Sinai en route to climbing Mount Moses as it's sometimes called, we were hassled and obfuscated by skittery soldiers instructed to curfew Cairo at 7 p.m., to close petrol stations, to halt and turn back cars on unsecured desert roads that they say might, or might not, now be infested with gun-running, tourist-kidnapping Bedouins or other thugs taking advantage of the national political crisis.

This latest chapter of the Arab Spring opens beneath the searing sky of an Egyptian late June, in the sort of incapacitating heat that makes even the most efficient lose track of time, abandon goals and dispense with logic.

"There will be war in this country," predicted one of our party the night before the Islamic Brother Morsi was announced winner of the election. The speaker was an Egyptian tour guide who regularly must navigate his way through roadblocks set up by groups of uniformed men who would rather pass the buck up the cellphone daisy chain on requests for passage than be the last man to wave on a carload of westerners to meet its fate in some bloody international incident.

The modern-day pharaoh Mubarak might be dead, or he might be on life support, or he might just be malingering in a military hospital. All options are equally possible. The permutations of conspiracy-thinking are infinite.

As the military plays its winning hand - an elaborate patient plot to kill the revolution by degrees before dropping the axe - everyone expected riots in the streets in Cairo.

A death-struggle between extreme believers and secular kleptocrats passes for politics, while average Egyptians can only sigh and store up fuel, cash and food, waiting for calmer days. There is no constitution.

The Bible says that three millennia ago, Moses led his people out of Egypt, through epic wilderness and toward the Promised Land.

Moses never arrived, but he did get a glimpse of the goal from the peak of yet another God-loving desert mountain in Jordan called Mount Nebo, with its view of Jerusalem, arid hills of ancient Canaan and beyond that, the cool Euro promise of Mediterranean Sea.

"I have been to the top of the mountain," Martin Luther King said the night before he was assassinated in Memphis (another Biblical name, resurrected in far-off Tennessee). In that same speech, he said he no longer felt longevity was the chief aim of a human life.

The template for all stories about casting off oppression originated right here.

But there is neither Moses nor MLK, in Egypt, today.

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