Hassan, an unmarried 36-year-old Bedouin, is our guide on a six-day trek through the wilderness of the south Sinai.
He is a typical example of the thousands of Bedouin men who are dependent on tourism for their income. Together with him, we visit exotic oases such as Wadi T’bug and Wadi Jabal, climb the Jabal Abass Pasha (2,300m) and risk our lives on the slopes of Jabal Bab. At night we sleep under the stars.
On the morning of the last day, the weather is noticeably fresher. By noon, clouds are gathering and a cold wind has picked up. Tired and, lost in thought, we light a fire, eat some baba ganoush, and listen to Hassan, who sings Bedouin songs for us. Then suddenly someone cries: “It’s snowing!” Indeed it is, and not just a little bit. What now? We are at an altitude of 2,000m in the heart of the Sinai desert, it is getting dark quickly and we still have to find a place to camp. We do not have tents. All eyes are on Hassan, who is unable to suppress a smile. Without him we are helpless, and he knows it. The same knowledge that helped his grandparents survive in the desert now enables him to earn his living by guiding tourists.
He has seen the bad weather coming hours ago and takes us to safety in a sheltered space at the foot of a big cliff, which offers protection against the snow and wind. With a little wriggling about, we are all just able to fit in. The following morning, the sight of the desert is unforgettable; covered in a thin layer of white snow that glistens in the sun. Soon, small streams of water begin to gather momentum, eventually forming larger streams which make some paths impassable.
Hassan changes our route. We stop at a caper tree that has grown right through the cliffs in search of water and Hassan points out the suchkaran, a plant which people smoke to get high. This sometimes has deadly consequences, as it is difficult to ascertain exactly how strong it is.
If Hassan is not talking to us, he is talking to his camels. He has entire conversations with them. He thinks it normal. “A camel is a domestic pet. That’s why they all have a name. This one’s Rambo, because he’s so tough, and this one’s Michael, because he can dance like Michael Jackson. I asked Michael if he got cold last night – I’d never ask that of Rambo – He might see it as an insult.”
A modern Bedouin such as Hassan is neither fish nor fowl. Daily contact with tourists means that he is distancing himself from his own culture. He is Westernized – certainly in his ideas – but to us he is just another Bedouin man with a cloth on his head. Why is he not married? “A Bedouin woman is too old-fashioned for me,” he says. “I don’t find that appealing. I would like to marry a Western woman, but they don’t see anything in me. Maybe I’ll just marry my camel…”