“All the old paintings on the tombs, they do the sand dance don’t you know?
If they move too quick, oh whey oh, they’re falling down like a domino…
Foreign types with hookah pipes say ay oh whey oh, ay oh whey oh,
Walk like an Egyptian” – Lyrics by The Bangles
I spend a lot of time every year in Eilat resisting the idea of crossing the Taba border. On the other side of the border you’ll find the Sinai Peninsula, which is currently part of Egyptian territory ever since Israel gave it back to them…twice. Most people only seem to remember 1982 and forget about what happened in 1956 when Gamal Abdel Nasser tried to nationalize the Suez Canal.
I resist the idea of crossing the border, even though the Sinai Desert is not technically considered a part of biblical Egypt and I have no intention of seeing the pyramids or going as far as Cairo. But many of my scuba diver friends claim that some of the world’s most magnificent reefs can be found in the Red Sea about 250 kilometers south of Eilat in a place known as Sharm El Sheik, so it’s a huge personal temptation to visit.
“You really must see it,” they all insist, and my biggest counter argument is that it seems rather perverse to go there after G-d went to so much trouble to take us all out!
But I decide to stop resisting the irresistible when my oldest son, the ardent Zionist, starts referring to Sinai as ‘Southern Israel’. The trigger for all of this is a recent news report in the Jerusalem Post that Tala’at Sadat (Anwar’s nephew and a member of the Egyptian Parliament) has been leading a popular, grass roots political movement called the People’s Front for the Liberation of Eilat. If Eilat is still considered ‘occupied’ and I’m one of the persons occupying it, then logic compels me to view the Taba border as somewhat irrelevant.
When I finally make it to the other side of the crossing this past week, the Egyptians take one look at me and immediately extend that extremely familiar and well-known Arabic greeting, “Buon Giorno”. And by the way, if you’ve been searching for the Italians lately, don’t bother looking in Italy because they are all on vacation and every single one of them has booked a package deal in the luxurious Sinai resorts of Naamah Bay.
“Hello,” I respond in English and then they all try to guess where I’m from since they don’t recognize the accent. They guess England, or Canada, or every other primarily English speaking country except for the United States because there aren’t any American tourists to be found in Sinai these days. This is making the locals very sad of course, because the Americans have a reputation in Egypt for being world-class shoppers and generous givers of ‘baksheesh’ (gratuities and tips).
My U.S.A. passport immediately earns me an invitation into every shop and store, even though I say I’m not buying, but shukran (thank-you) anyway. And the merchants don’t press the matter, as you might expect, because all they really want to do is serve sweet tea and discuss politics with someone who they consider to be an ambassador of good-will.
“Come in, come in, “ the market sheiks of Arabia all beckon, “Don’t be frightened, we aren’t the Mafia here, you know.” And when I laugh and tell them I’m from Chicago, they grow a little bit wide-eyed and nervous because, in their minds, that means… I am the Mafia!
“Chicago, Chicago,” they raise their eyebrows and nod, “Bang-bang, boom-boom, Al Capone”, as if it’s still an everyday, ongoing occurrence that the U.S. government guns down its infamous citizens without due process. Then they ask me, in all seriousness, how I can live in such a dangerous city (as if their own problems with radical terrorists are mild by comparison)!
And then they ask another obvious question, because I’m sporting one of those colorfully striped and fringed headscarves wrapped around my hair in the fashionable style of an observant married woman from Israel.
“Are you really an American? Because you look so…so very Arabian,” they all agree.
“Well, to tell you the honest truth,” I admit, “I do have relatives that came from Egypt.”
“Aha, aha, we knew it right away,” they all bob their heads up and down and continue, “And what was your family doing here in this country, what was their occupation?”
“They were real estate developers,” I answer.
And when they ask what sorts of things my family built, I smile and say, “The pyramids.”
They don’t quite get it, but that’s OK because they laugh out loud anyway and think we Americans have the greatest sense of humor in the world. I decide to leave it at that, and am secretly pleased to notice Israel’s flag flying in several commercial locations while I’m in town. My brief excursion into the desert coincides with Ehud Olmert and Hosni Mubarak’s Sinai summit meeting in Sharm El Sheik.
But my visit also coincides nicely with the weekly Torah portion that describes our ancestral sojourn into 400 plus years of bondage. And so I cross the Taba border into Sinai for a few days, marvel at the significance of it all, and try to think about the very good advice we were given as a new nation: Tell your children about the Exodus, remember the day you left Egypt for all the days of your life, and don’t abhor the Egyptian because you were a guest in his land.
What an amazing era we live in! Once upon a time we were strangers in a strange place and eventually we ended up as slaves. Then with the mighty and outstretched arm of G-d, we left and wandered around in the Sinai Desert for 40 years. Today you can be a tourist in this very same location, and you might even see Israel’s flag fluttering in the air if the Prime Minister happens to be in town.
You can dive the Red Sea, take a ride on some camels, shop in the bazaars, and you can even discuss politics and sip sweet tea with the market sheiks. You can be a foreign type, smoke a hookah pipe, and then you can do a U-turn and head on back to Jerusalem. And if you want to walk around in the land of the pharaohs and talk your own talk, just remember you’ve got an independent country you can return to now. You are living during a miraculous period of Jewish history and do not, for a single moment, take it for granted. Because guess what? Even if you cross the border at Taba and take a hike into Sinai, no one is going to force you…
to walk like an Egyptian.
The words of this author reflect his/her own opinions and do not necessarily represent the official position of the Orthodox Union.