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.

Simon and I splurged for a ticket, our only indulgence of the three-week trip. We’d seen the ad posted in the hotel lobby: Twenty dollars for an extra seat on a Dutch tour bus leaving from the Cairo Hilton at 5 a.m. We dozed for a couple hours in our hostel, awakened at three in the morning by shrieks, then laughter outside our window. We got up to look for the source of the noise, but found the alley empty.
It took nearly an hour for the bus to get out of Cairo. Additional tourists had to be collected from various hotels before we could leave the city. I picked up the novel I’d been reading, “Miramar,” by the Egyptian Nobel Laureate Naguib Mahfouz. I had hoped the book might give me some empathy for this perplexing country I was so happy to leave. After glancing over a few pages, I began to fall asleep.
A little after seven o’clock, a hundred miles northeast of Cairo, just across the Wadi Abu Rimth River, a dry ditch in the western Sinai desert, we crashed. Nothing religious or political about it. The Egyptian driver nodded off for a moment and lost control. The road was narrow, the margin of error slight, and he later admitted that he had been traveling over ninety kilometers per hour.

I remember waking up and seeing the road in the front window disappear, and suddenly we were spinning, one and a half clockwise revolutions. I heard screams of anticipation, and then the bus rolled. Two complete flips, eight sides smacking the road, until it came to rest, amazingly, upright, half of its length on the shoulderless two-lane highway and half in the desert.
The moment the bus came to rest, Simon and I jumped out of our mangled window, ran fifty yards, then stopped and turned to see if the bus would explode. Our response might have been instinctive or the result of growing up on chase movies and cop shows. The bus sat motionless, another Egyptian derelict.
From fifty yards, we could see no passengers on our side of the wreck. I took this as the worst sign, and tried not to imagine what awaited us on the other side of the bus. We crouched in the sand and watched the highway back up with cars, trucks and army jeeps. I’d later learn that the crash site was a short drive from a cluster of Egyptian army bases. People stuck in the traffic leaned on their horns, yelled out their windows in Arabic. We rose to our feet, oblivious to our own injuries, and as a mild shock set in we walked toward the bus.
Four or five passengers huddled close to the back wheel, crying hysterically. A moment later a woman ran over to the group, screaming in Dutch, falling into the sand. They all grew silent and then at once broke into terrible wails.

Simon and I took off running again, this time to some dunes behind and far from the injured. We turned away from the bus and talked loudly and deliberately—about nothing I can remember—to drown out the noises. We sat down and found our wounds. Simon’s chin bled continuously from a two-inch gash running from his bottom lip to the top of his neck. A flap of skin dangled there, but no arteries had been severed. My upper left thigh looked a bit chopped up; and though it bled a lot, I knew I’d be fine. Three Dutchmen, near our age—large boned, blond and hearty—walked over to us, sat down and quietly cried. Simon and I remained composed. At the time I didn’t know why.
The traffic had begun to move again, though slowly. We went to the roadside to look for help. A few Egyptians stopped to offer assistance, but nobody spoke English. After a while, a Japanese tour bus pulled up, opened its doors, and let out several passengers. A handful hurried over to the crash site, took photographs of the wreck and the injured, and minutes later climbed back on board. Seeing that their bus was half-empty, Simon and I begged the tour operator for a ride. At one point we got on our knees on the steps. But the tour operator, who spoke perfect English and was headed to Tel Aviv, refused to take us. We offered money and explained that I had to catch a flight. We told him that we were good people—British, American—we wouldn’t even need medical help; please don’t leave us here, we pleaded. He said no and the bus rolled on.
Finally, after close to an hour, some ambulances and a yellow city bus arrived. The seriously injured took the ambulances to Al-Ismailiyah hospital and the remaining half of us rode the city bus. On the bus nobody said a word. I’ve never in my life felt more awake. Even now I remember the beryl green eyes in the rear view mirror of the young Egyptian driver who took such caution knowing that the last place any of us wanted to be was driving in a bus again along that narrow Sinai highway.
Images appeared on the screen of my memory, each a warning sign posted along the road to the crash: the Brazilian across the aisle wearing a moneybelt with “km/h” embroidered on it, my anxiety about getting out of Egypt in a hurry, the laughter outside the hostel window, those abandoned tanks in the desert. I remembered boarding the bus, meeting the eyes of a pretty dark-haired woman midway down on the left-hand side. I directed Simon to the window seat in front of her, then sat down myself. When all the passengers had been picked up and the bus was on its way, I looked up and down the aisle and noticed that mine was the only armrest still up. I tried pulling the armrest down, but it was stuck. Forget it, I told myself. But then I thought of the woman behind me, felt her eyes on my scalp. Not wanting to seem like a weakling, I used both hands to force the armrest down.
The one person who died in the crash, a thirty-three-year-old Dutch woman, had been sitting in the middle seat in the far back of the bus with nothing to block her path to the aisle. That stubborn armrest, which opened the wound on my upper thigh, might also have saved me.
I thought about the moment when the bus began spinning. I was half-asleep, like everyone else. Had I been awake, had the translation of “Miramar” been more engrossing, I might have jumped up or forced my way into the aisle, but as it was, the crash felt like coming out of a bad dream. As the bus began its spin, I knew only that after a few seconds I would either be dead or alive.

The city bus driver dropped us off at Al-Ismailiyah Hospital, then pulled away. Before long we realized that nobody was in charge. Dried blood smeared the hospital walls; old fans clattered in the open windows. As the Jerusalem Post would later report, doctors wandered from room to room with needle and thread in their mouths, and several patients, not just the Israeli quoted in the Post, got stitched up without anesthesia. An Italian had twenty stitches sewn in his head; a Dutch tourist had the same number, plus several more up and down his arm. Most of the broken limbs set in Al-Ismailiyah would later have to be reset in Israel, in a few cases re-broken and reset due to incompetence.
Many of the injured, including Simon and me, decided to wait for the border at all costs. Simon would need plastic surgery back in England, which he must have known when he refused to let the provincial doctors close the cut. My leg continued to bleed until I took off my shirt and tightened it around my thigh. I didn’t even trust Egyptian iodine and bandages.
In the early afternoon several of us were taken to the police club, while those who needed operations remained in the hospital. The police club had black-and-white tile floors and palm trees, flourishing gardens and cool patios. Servants in white pants and shirts brought tea and sandwiches. Late in the afternoon, the mayor of the town arrived. He had been on the phone with President Mubarek, he said, and arrangements were being made with all of our consulates. He would keep us posted about departure times and whether we might make the border before it closed. None of us could leave until everyone had been sewn up, all bones set, operations completed.
I spent much of the time speaking in Spanish with the pretty dark-haired woman from the seat behind me. She kept tearing up imagining her parents in Buenos Aires hearing the news that she had died on some highway halfway across the world. Four years before, her brother had crashed his motorcycle. Now she was an only child. I wanted to tell her the armrest story and thank her for being so pretty. I wanted to say something she’d never forget, like, You saved my life. But my Spanish was poor; I knew I did not have the language.
I had always assumed that in the face of something unexpected and terrible, a sense of humor would make anything endurable. But people just wanted to go home, the day felt heavy, and for me a sense of guilt was creeping in. In the minutes after the crash, the sinister side of my imagination took advantage. A part of me hoped the casualty list would be long enough to make the papers in the States. This was before I had met any of these people, as Simon and I pondered the empty carcass of the bus from fifty yards away. Here was a chance for the folks at home to see what a great survivor I was. The headline in the New York Times would read 20 DEAD IN EGYPT CRASH and I would appear to have made it through by some innate ability I had to stay alive.
Such thoughts had crossed my mind before, but always at an abstract distance. Strapping into plane seats, I’d had visions of myself pulled onto shore after the crash, wrapped in a thermal blanket answering reporters’ questions. Watching news of hijackings, hostage takings, bank robberies, natural disasters, I had fantasized about being on the scene, imagining myself as the X factor who could have stepped in and saved the day. But after seeing the people on the other side of the bus, any thoughts of heroism fled to a far corner of my mind. Only later, speaking with survivors, did I feel foolish, like the twenty-one year old kid I was who knew nothing of the world.

imagePhoto courtesy Porter Shreve

On every flight I’ve taken since, I tense my legs at takeoff and landing, and in those moments when the plane hits turbulence I give myself over to whatever will happen, because what else can I do? I’ve traveled to other countries, rich and poor, but never at such a lofty remove from the place and people as I’d felt in the Middle East. Who knows what gave rise to my arrogance—the Marshall Plan, Hollywood movies, imperialist rhetoric from which even “progressive” children are not immune? I might have had some urge, primitive and male, to protect the village, or perhaps I was young and reckless, in ways that transcend all culture. Whatever the causes, my sense of invulnerability, my hubris, vanished with the crash.

By law, the border at Rafah between Egypt and Israel closed at 5 p.m. With apologies from President Mubarek we spent the night courtesy of the Egyptian government at a five-star hotel in the resort town of Al-Arish. The marble floors shone; the rooms, all suites, had French doors and balconies. Beyond the luminous swimming pool we could hear the soft waves of the Mediterranean splash and gurgle on the rocks.
All thirty-five survivors gathered at eight o’clock for dinner, most of us still in the clothes we had bled on all day. Several were in splints, leaned on crutches, wore eye patches or wide bandages; a few had bloodstained head wraps. We looked like the cast of a mummy movie.
The elegant dining room gleamed with international businessmen, resort travelers, officials, diplomats and Egyptian elites, everyone crisply dressed.
A nervous maitre d’ ushered us in and seated us in the middle of the room. Throughout dinner, we felt the hostile stares of the other guests, saw them whispering to their waiters, leaning in to their tables to comment under their breath. No one asked us what had happened, let alone if we were okay. Their outrage at this blight on the scenery played upon their faces. They watched us as if from a great distance, like we were castaways they had no intention of rescuing.
The more they stared, the more we drank—another bottle on the Republic of Egypt!  The more they whispered, the louder we raised our voices. Smiles began to brighten our table. We told stories, swapped addresses, promised visits to one another’s cities, and soon the stares of the elite disappeared from our periphery.
We were a circle of survivors, a band of derelicts in the developing world. For the first time the land we’d been traveling in did not seem so foreign. This place was not dead but alive, no longer remote but real. We were close enough to touch. We talked until the room was empty.