I am participating in Diane DeBella’s #iamsubjectproject. Here is my #iamsubject story:
One New Year’s Eve a few years ago I received an unexpected e-mail inviting me to “a rather special journey”. It went on to describe “a unique wilderness experience” in the Sinai desert in Eygpt, a place I’d never thought of visiting. I’m not even sure if I knew then where it was! I was attracted by the combination of a personal journey and a practical component, working with Bedouin people restoring their ancient gardens.
A few months later I met up with eleven other women and set off on a trip organised by the UK-based charity The Makhad Trust. The word “makhad” means meeting place in Arabic, and the work of the Trust involves opportunities for westerners to spend time with the Bedouin people of the Sinai. Flying into Sharm-el-Sheik we were met by the first of our Bedouin hosts, who drove us into the desert in jeeps. Here’s what I wrote in my diary about our arrival at the place that was to be our home for the next five days:
“The sky cleared as we arrived, with a half-moon bright enough to light our path. As we topped the ridge, the moon shone on a descending dune making it look like a snow field. Magical. And down to the left, our glittering camp, set in a hollow.”
We slept in an enclosure made from camel hair blankets and I awoke early on our first morning to see a Bedouin woman baking bread for us on the open fire within the camp enclosure. I had prepared myself not to expect much of the food, either in quantity or quality, but it was copious and delicious.
We were camped in Gebel Matamir, an area of what at first appear to be rounded sandstone bluffs rather like pepperpots. These are in fact consolidated sand dunes, with a thin veneer of rock. They have been hollowed out by the wind into many shapes and it is these which inspired the form of the ancient buildings at Petra, just across the Gulf of Aqaba in Jordan.
Once we had got used to the desert environment each of the twelve of us found a space which we would make our home for two days and nights, staying there in solitude, and fasting if we wished to do so. I was not afraid of being on my own, but found the prospect of fasting terrifying, as I’d never done it before. One of the other women told me that the hunger pangs would stop after a few hours and indeed they did. It was a remarkable experience, being there in my desert “room” enclosed by stone bluff walls, with nothing I had to do but move my water bottles into the shade. A time to be.
It was also the time of the full moon, which was incredibly bright and in the sky for a very long time. When it eventually sank behind the desert bluffs I saw what seemed to be a bright light appear on a hilltop in the east. I thought someone must be camping there but as the light gradually moved up the sky I realised that it was Venus, the bright morning star. What a glorious sight!
At the end of our retreat we met very early in the morning and had a wonderful breakfast prepared by our Bedouin cook Eid. We sat around a low table covered with a white cloth and broke our fast with vegetable soup. Then we were offered an array of bread, eggs, cheese and salad, but advised to eat slowly – “Shway, shway” as the Bedouin wisely say.
After our desert fast we left Gebel Matamir and rode on camels for several hours , stopped for a last desert supper and then got back into jeeps, heading for the village of St Katherine.
From St Katherine we walked on a rocky track into Wadi Tillah, a steep-sided valley, to the Amran garden. There are huge boulders scattered across the floor of the wadi and the rocks are much older here than in the Gebel Matamir area. The track is rocky and treacherous, passable only on camel, donkey or foot. Not a place for the faint-hearted, and yet here are trees and, behind a long stone wall, a long and verdant garden. We were there at the beginning of Spring, with blossom, new leaves on the pomegranate trees and broad beans nearly ready to pick.
The Bedouin of the high Sinai are descended from people from Romania who came to this area many centuries ago to work for the monks of the nearby St Katherine’s Monastery. They protected the monks and grew food for them in walled gardens scattered through the mountain valleys. Most of these gardens are now sadly abandoned as there are many fewer monks at the monastery. Furthermore the Bedouin have been seduced by the false promises of civilisation – the coming of the tarmac road to St Katherine’s village spelled the beginning of the end for many of the monastery gardens of Sinai as their owners moved to the coastal resorts in search of work.
Mahmoud Mansur is one Bedouin who has, however, continued the gardening tradition and now employs a number of others in a business growing and drying herbs. Mahmoud has a deep knowledge of the properties of both the plants he cultivates and those which grow wild in these mountains. He was a quietly authoritative presence amongst us and I enjoyed having an opportunity to work under his guidance, tilling the soil and planting seeds, rooted thyme cuttings and wild mint seedlings pulled from the stream running through the wadi.
It seemed as if we were planting in the dust, but the appearance of the soil is deceptive. The fierce sun – it is hot even in March – dries the soil surface very fast, but with water from a well the Amran gardens are well-watered for most of the year and very productive. Sadly the same is not true of other gardens in these mountains. The water table has been falling and, without work to deepen wells and build dams to hold the unpredictable rainfall, the restoration of other gardens to productive growth will not be possible.
After a few precious days in that peaceful garden we returned to the UK. Seeds had been sown in the Amran Garden and also in my heart. I raised money and returned to the Sinai with other groups in the two years following. We worked on projects alongside the Bedouin, building a dam high in the mountains to help ensure a continued water supply to a whole string of gardens in the valley below it. As I would not have endured my fast out in the desert without water, so plants cannot grow nor communities flourish without it. Water is essential for life, and I have learnt to value it.
Looking back now on my first visit to the Sinai I remember the nourishing spiritual experience of spending time alone in the vastness of the desert. I also appreciate having had the privilege to meet Mahmoud, Eid and the other Bedouin. They taught me something about the nature of friendship, which is not a trade, but something given freely and with generosity of spirit. I hope I do that better in my own life now, thanks to them.