Derelicts in the Sinai

Travel Stories: Israeli fighter planes flew over his kibbutz and suicide bombers blew up buses on the lines he traveled, but Porter Shreve still felt untouchable. Then he found himself aboard an ill-fated tour bus rolling through the Egyptian desert.

07.25.05 | 1:14 PM ET

Jerusalem, IsraelPhoto courtesy freestockphotos

I had been working since the beginning of summer, 1988, on a kibbutz near Qiryat Gat in Central Israel. My fellow kibbutzniks had warned me not to accept rides from cars with the blue (Arab) license plates, and to be extra cautious in the Muslim Quarter of Jerusalem’s Old City. I had frequently taken those buses from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem that one routinely saw mentioned in the New York Times as having been bombed, run off the road, or attacked by Islamic extremists. Still, I had been traveling in the region with a sense of invulnerability that I had rarely felt in my own country or in my hometown of DC.

In one of the world’s holiest places, I had no religion. I’d been baptized in the Episcopal Church, though in the course of my twenty-one years had only been to a handful of Christmas or Easter services, an equal number of weddings and funerals, and would have quietly left the room had the question arisen: Are you a believer? I was an outsider, a non-participant in the struggle between the Jews and Arabs, and so I felt free to move around without fear of consequence. With the wanderer’s sense that there’s only one of me, I felt the opposite of safety in numbers. Mine was a safety in being alone.

I was not the only non-Jew at Kibbutz-Gat. Other volunteers had come from the U.K., Australia, Yugoslavia and Brazil. Another American gentile, a sad-faced African-American guy named Benny, had run a prostitution ring in Vietnam, but now he was stuck in Israel, perhaps forever. Word had it that if he tried to visit his family in Georgia he’d be arrested at the airport. Benny and I were two of a dozen Americans at the kibbutz, half of them kibbutzniks who had married and settled there, the other half young Jewish American volunteers who had come via the Aliya foundations, the Israeli immigration network. Though few of the volunteers thought seriously about settling in Israel, they had a strongly proprietary attitude toward the land and its people. My stake was negligible, my feelings about Palestine ambivalent, my role so undefined that without realizing it I had developed a protective skin, an observer’s distance that made me feel untouchable.
Sure, I knew the dangers of living in the Middle East. I had watched Israeli soldiers dancing in full uniform in a Tel Aviv disco with machine guns whipping around their waists like hula-hoops. Returning each night from the kibbutz bar, an old bomb shelter, I’d sprinted back to my room kicking my feet high so as not to be bitten by deadly snakes that had killed two dogs since the start of summer. From the fields where I worked I’d looked into the sky each afternoon to watch Israeli fighter planes flying their gorgeous formations. I had turned around on an Ashkelon beach at a sign that read: LEAVE IMMEDIATELY. YOU ARE IN A FIRING ZONE. I had seen live ammunition and hand grenades and snipers in watchtowers. And I had taken those buses. Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Those staples of the New York Times’ “Around the World” briefs. I’d missed one such bus by two days. A twenty-two-year-old Palestinian screaming “There is no God but Allah” had attacked the driver as the bus was climbing a steep hill into Jerusalem, throwing himself across the wheel, sending the bus over the embankment, killing eight passengers including himself. I took that same Tel Aviv to Jerusalem bus again, not more than a week after this attack had occurred. I studied each face, testing my newly acquired prejudices, mistrusting the young, the dark-visaged, those traveling alone, but never worrying that if one of those passengers attacked I might not survive.
Toward the end of the summer, three weeks before my scheduled flight back to the States, I took a trip to Egypt. My traveling companion was a British national named Simon, who had been all over the world and had an infectious zeal for risky travel. I asked some of my Jewish American friends to come along, but they had heard stories about Jews being harassed, knifed, mob-attacked in Egypt, so declined.
Simon and I crossed into the Sinai at Elat, the southern spike of Israel, and worked our way around the antennae of the Red Sea—the Gulfs of Aqaba and Suez, where one-time five-star hotels from Israel’s occupation of the Sinai stood derelict along the coast. Fifteen years before, vacationers had stayed in luxury, while we paid on average 43 cents a night for mosquito-swarmed 8-by-8 rooms.
As we approached Egypt, the landscape changed. Bright-hued Sinai mountains turned to flat gray desert; the view of Bedouins under tents drinking sweet mint tea gave way to burnt-out tanks abandoned during the 1973 Sinai war. From the North we took a train down to Egypt’s southern tip, past Aswan to Ramses II’s tomb at Abu Simbel, then worked our way up the Nile by felucca, a traditional, tall-masted sailboat. Our Nubian driver charged us twenty-five dollars for five days, chopped eggs, chicken shawarma, black beans and makarona included. Still we tried to haggle him down.
Simon and I realized we were among the few solo tourists in Egypt. Nearly everyone traveled as part of a packaged tour. They rode in air-conditioned buses and stayed in clean hotels. Their enormous yachts sent parasite-tainted river water lapping up the side of our felucca. They ate Western food and drank French bottled water unavailable in Egyptian stores. They assembled at the tombs and ruins in clean linen clothes. I suppressed my longing for comfort.
The danger in Egypt was of a different sort than Israel: the threat of knife over gun, of face-to-face violence, not the random bomb blast. Nobody spoke English, and the culture had a dead, entombed feeling about it, a palpable sense of failure, with office complexes and apartment buildings begun and deserted. As an American I brought to Egypt the distrust and bias of a forty-year U.S. policy unwaveringly pro-Israel.
What’s more, since I had never traveled in a developing country, I’d been experiencing my first taste of celebrity. In the Cairo train station, stepping off the second-class coach from Luxor, I was stared at, touched, smiled and more often than not, frowned at. I had the sense of what it would be like to be recognized or put on display. Children and teenagers took particular interest. They all knew three lines of English, and no more: “Hello,” “What time is it?” “What is your name?” When we responded, they didn’t understand us, and now weary of our celebrity, having enduring weeks of this already, we swore at them with smiles on our faces, using the most vulgar English insults we knew.

After three days in squalid Cairo, Egypt had worn us down. We’d had enough of Egyptian soldiers asking for pornography, then patting us down when we said, Sorry, no magazines. If you’re a Westerner, they thought, since you can have it, why don’t you? Enough of the incessant swarm of hagglers begging for money—“backsheesh, backsheesh”—and the labyrinthine streets that had us walking out of mosques into slums, where hoarse cats moved nervously about, skeletal dogs cooled off in raw sewage, shopkeepers rested their heads on counters, peddlers sold sabra cactus swarming with flies, and the thick odor of rotten chicken clung to the heat.
We’d go to the museums, not for Byzantine or Coptic art or the jewels of the Egyptian kings, but for the air conditioning, the drinking fountains, the clean restrooms, and to be among museum-goers, strolling the exhibits with our hands clasped behind our backs. Every day we walked from our cheap hostel to the Cairo Hilton to sit in comfortable chairs and watch the tourists, smelling of oatmeal soap, board their brand new buses for air-conditioned rides around the city.
Here was the first irony I’d recall on the day of the crash: how grateful I was to be boarding a plush Travco bus filled with packaged-tour travelers.

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Porter Shreve is the author of the novels Drives Like a Dream and The Obituary Writer, which was a New York Times Notable Book. His travel writing has appeared in Salon and The New York Times Sophisticated Traveler.

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