“Ahalan (Hello there) Aviel, what’s going on? Where are you? When will you finally open up the border at Taba?”
I receive voice messages like this on WhatsApp over and over again. Abu Nader, Santa Katarina, Abu Talal and Tamer get in touch with me every few weeks and ask how we are getting on. Israel’s land border to the Sinai in Eilat has been closed now for seven months.
“The Sinai is empty. We are missing you.”
“How are your family?”
“As soon as the border is open again tell your boys that we’ll pick them up in Taba.”
I also ask them how they are surviving the Corona crisis in the Sinai.
“Everything is boring without you.”
“There is no Corona here.”
In recent months, the government has hinted several times that they were considering opening the border at the Taba crossing. But so far nothing has happened. Petitions have been set up on social networks, where thousands of Israelis are demanding that the border be reopened. A kind of civil legal action was even submitted, which demanded an explanation from the government as to why other borders are open but the one to the Sinai is not. That was in the summer, when Israelis were permitted to fly abroad again, either to specific holiday resorts or as Israelis with foreign passports, which actually most people in the country have. But the Sinai was still closed.
The mainstream media are reporting how Israelis are managing to get into the Sinai anyway. They are flying to Istanbul, where they take a Corona test. From there they fly to Sharm el Sheikh at the southern tip of the Sinai. Recently, Abu Nader told me the same thing, as he has met a number of Israelis in Dahab and at the Blue Lagoon next to Nuweiba in the last few weeks. On the coastal strip between Taba and Naqeb (Sharm el Sheikh) the Mussina Bedouin tribe dominate. Abu Nader and Abu Talal are both members of this tribe. Santa Katarina comes from the Bedouin tribe of Jabaliya and is a friend of Abu Nader.
Santa Katarina was given this name because he comes from the mountain range around the St. Catherine’s Monastery. During the week he usually works in the coastal area and at the weekend he goes back to the mountains. He is easier to reach than Abu Nader, who lives in a deserted beach area, where the Egyptian mobile network doesn’t have any signal. Before the summer it was as if Abu Nader vanished off the face of the earth for several weeks. Zero WhatsApp. When I checked with Santa, he told me that Abu Nader was in the mountains with his herds. There was said to be good watering there after the heavy rains in the spring. Two days later, Abu Nader got in touch and told me that he had been in the region of Jebel Musa for several weeks. This is the Mount of Moses, or the Mount Sinai, below which the Greek-Orthodox St. Catherine’s Monastery lies. This monastery was founded in the 6th century and is one of the oldest in Christendom. The monastery library is probably the oldest Christian library still in use. It contains around 6,000 hand-written manuscripts in the Greek, Syrian, ancient Ethiopian, Arabic and Georgian languages, of which three thousand are from antiquity and some are even older than the monastery itself. I still remember my father telling us about how in the 1970s he was in the monastery for the first time and saw a section of this library, as well as the skull catacombs. This is a collection of the skulls of monks who have died there. Somewhere we still have a photo of it.
But back to the year 2020. A few weeks ago, Israeli journalist Akiva Novik made a comparison between the situation of the Sinai and Uman in the Ukraine. Why can Jews fly to Uman to the grave of their Rebbe and yet we are forbidden entry to the Sinai? The difference lies in the fact that the so-called “Uman Jews” have a loud and powerful parliamentary lobby in the Orthodox Knesset parties. The Sinai Jews however don’t have anyone who will raise a voice for them in the Knesset. Novik is a religious Jew, who travels several times every year with his family to the Sinai, usually during the Jewish holidays. The Bedouins prepare kosher resorts between Nuweiba and Dahab especially for these customers. “At Pessach (Passover) and at Sukkot (Feast of Tabernacles) everything is fully booked for the kosher people,” a Bedouin in Nuweiba told me last February, but because of Corona everything has fallen through.
It is important to also mention here that the border to Sinai has remained closed for political reasons, to keep the Israelis in Eilat, as otherwise many would pour right into the Sinai. During the Jewish holidays last year, over 150,000 Israelis were in the Sinai. “And we have no need to be afraid of the ISIS jihadists in the north of the Sinai,” our Bedouin friends encourage me and all the others. “We are Bedouins as well,” Abu Nader and Abu Talal reassure me each time.
However you look at it, the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula is part of Jewish history. The nation of Israel has always been linked with the Sinai. The people of Israel wandered for 40 years in the Sinai. It is like a transition zone between slavery and freedom. This can be understood in a physical as well as in a spiritual sense. The Sinai played an important role not just in the Exodus of the Children of Israel, but also in other significant stories in the Bible. Such as for the patriarchs and Joseph. In the New Testament as well, after the wise men from the East had departed, an angel appeared to Joseph in a dream. This angel commanded him to flee to Egypt with Mary and Jesus, as Herod wanted to kill the child. The family and Jesus were saved by going to Egypt, just as Joseph’s life was saved in Egypt after he had been sold by his brothers. Redemption followed: Joseph redeemed or rescued his family and Jesus appeared as the Redeemer. The Sinai has always held a special place for the Jewish people, and still does today.
Many Israelis consider the Sinai as a kind of entry to the rest of the Promised Land. They love the desert, the Red Sea beaches and the vibe of the place.
This explains why Israel’s largest Facebook page and website is called Sinai Vibe. Most are longing to be allowed to get back to the Sinai. And when we are able to travel there again, I’ll be sure to bring Bamba for the children. The Bedouins love Israel’s popular peanut-flavored snack. Abu Nader: “Bring three bags with you, my children have grown over the last seven months. Yalla. Shalom. See you soon. Inshallah (God willing) before the end of this year.”