Guest Memories of a Happier Sinai

Recent suicide attacks at El Arish and Dahab in the Sinai dumped me into rare nostalgia. I knew both places in a very different era. In 1979, Enquirer Editor Luke Feck agreed to let me cover the hi

May 3, 2006 at 2:06 pm

Recent suicide attacks at El Arish and Dahab in the Sinai dumped me into rare nostalgia. I knew both places in a very different era.

In 1979, Enquirer Editor Luke Feck agreed to let me cover the historic return of the first land captured by Israel in four wars with its Arab neighbors. It would be at El Arish, a desolate town on the Mediterranean shore.

It was that kind of story, and he was that kind of editor.

The Sinai peninsula was under Israeli control, an often-fought-over wasteland between Egypt and Israel loaded with religious significance. The Sinai is where Jews believe they accepted their Covenant with God. It also is home to one of Christianity's most famous monasteries, St. Catherine, where monks continue to care for what they believe is the burning bush from which God spoke to Moses.

But in 1979, impoverished El Arish, distant from Mt. Sinai and St. Catherine monastery, would be a symbol of the accelerating movement toward peace negotiated by soon-to-be assassinated Anwar Sadat and former terrorist Menachem Begin.

By May of that year, Sadat had visited Jerusalem; he next would visit Beersheba.

An Israeli warship soon would pass through Egypt's Suez Canal. People in both nations anticipated direct, commercial air traffic. It was an optimistic, if naive, moment. Intifada wasn't even in the lexicon.

The Enquirer paid my airfare and three weeks' expenses in Israel and Egypt. I also took my annual vacation there, mixing tourism with journalism. That gave me six weeks in the Middle East with my wife and our 9-year-old daughter.

From Jerusalem, access to El Arish was on an Israel Defense Force bus. I was the rare greenhorn on the bus, parachuting in to cover a story that others had lived with for years or decades; some had served in the IDF in 1948, 1956, 1967 or 1973. Talk on the bus was largely about how vastly improved Israeli-Egyptian relations might be the keystone to bridges to other Arab countries.

At El Arish, we stood in the sun, took our photos and notes, and it was over within minutes. With brief, crisp ceremony, Israeli soldiers hauled down their flag and Egyptian soldiers raised theirs — no memorable speeches, no banquets. Back on the bus.

In Jerusalem again, I hoped to take the first commercial bus from Israel to Egypt on the ancient coastal route through El Arish. No way. Customs/immigration officials failed to volunteer for the new Israel-Egyptian border in that isolated, impoverished town.

Last week, two bombers killed themselves attacking international peacekeepers and Egyptian police at El Arish. That followed a far bloodier attack at Dahab on the Gulf of Aqaba, on the Sinai's eastern shore.

After El Arish, I covered two more stories in the Sinai: a Cincinnati family whose settlement would become Egypt and American civilians monitoring strategic passes between the Suez Canal and Sinai plain leading to Israel. That left me with a desire to see more. Israelis said that fascination was not uncommon, even among IDF soldiers who fought there or served in the desert between wars.

That brings me to Dahab. My wife was in Tel Aviv, dealing with Jewish Agency officials on behalf of Jewish refuseniks unable to obtain visas to come to Israel from the USSR; our daughter and I took a safari into the Sinai. We bounced through the desert and up rocky trails in retired IDF trucks converted to tourist use. We swam in a desert pool, were guests of Bedouin villagers, spent a night at Mount Sinai and the next morning at St. Catherine monastery.

Dahab was the next and last stop before turning north to Israel. Dahab is between Israeli Eilat/Jordanian Aqaba at the head of the gulf and Sharm el-Sheikh at the mouth. I'm not surprised that Dahab became a popular resort and diving destination; coral and stunning aquatic life are everywhere.

The last night, we again slept on the sand and under the stars. We awakened to the the sun rising over Saudi Arabia and the gulf. It was anything but a resort then. Bedouin lived in sprawling tents woven of black and gray goat hair, little girls with long sticks herded goats and men drove pickup trucks to work elsewhere.

Since Israel turned over virtually all of the Sinai, Egypt has made a serious effort to create a tourist industry where four-wheel-drive vehicles and backpackers once were the norm. Internet maps assure potential visitors that Dahab is a scuba and snorkel dream.

The three bombs that killed and wounded an uncertain number of residents and visitors at Dahab targeted Egyptian businesses and visitors. It was the latest attack on the tourism industry, probably by Egyptian Islamists who oppose President Hosni Mubarak's authoritarian rule and close ties to the United States.

Contact Ben Kaufman: bkaufman(at)