Penny Arcade Says

A cultural icon of Downtown New York, Penny Arcade is a writer, actress, comedienne, social commentator, political activist, and one of the inventors of Performance Art (for which she apologizes!)

Monday, January 12, 2009

In Sinai Three

Naseer has brought me my Nescafe and tahina and lebne (the soft flat pita type bread of the region.) Yesterday in Ein Hudra, the lovely palm filled oasis where we spent the night , I watched Zainub make this same bread by hand and two days before Ayesha, the sister in law of Achmed, who was our mountain and desert guide, let me try my hand at it. This is bread without yeast, just flour , salt and water. For many years the Beduins lived on this and milk which they call leben, the same word in Bedu, as the word for life. I learned this word as a child at our next door neighbor Vickie George’s house.Vickie was a vivacious, gentle, laughing presence in my childhood. Lebonese, she made Lebi each day, a lovely yoghurt that I discovered before Dannon became a hosehold word, in her house. “Lebi “ , Vickie would tell me each time I visited her hoping for this treat, “In our language means life.” That is how important Lebi is to Lebonese people and here it is the same. I was just thinking a moment ago about how the word ‘multicultural” has been so corrupted. As a immigrant Italian child, I grew up truly multicultural and not only because I was child born in America to Southern Italians. My childhood was filled and surrounded by Lithuaians, Armeinians, Polish, Black, Ukrainians, Greeks, Irish, French Canadians etc. We ran in and out of each others houses. We ate each others food. We heard each others original languages spoken in the homes, because nearly everyone I grew up with spokeEnglishoutside and their own language at home.
Now the word multicultural has nothing to do with people but with politics and it is used in a divisive way. In my show Bitch!Dyke!faghag!Whore! I say , “Oh, the new multiculturalism! The one that excludes white people !”

As the bread comes out the fire, ashy grey, Jamal takes it away and on a rock he beats the ashes, dirt and sand off it. I have never tasted such a bread. It is like the bread of my childhood, but without yeast and it is a wonder to the mouth.
After 5 days in the desert we return to Green Beach. I am sad to leave my camel but ready for the life by the sea. The wind is up but the sun is very warm and the bright blue sea, which is after all not red, is lovelier than the Med 30 years ago. Naseer tells me that while we were being beaten by the wind in Noamis, the wind created havoc at the beach. Huge sandstorms, which helmut told me he experienced there last March had wrecked the camp and it took two days to clean the huts and pavilions. Helmut told me that last March, the sand flew so hard that even sunglasses didn’t help and that he had to take refuge in a hotel up the beach. It was impossible to remain in the Hosha’s which are made of reeds and bamboo, and while covered with rugs , the wind blows the sand right through them. There are white caplets on each wave and they do a rolling march towards the shore in time.The wind is picks up reminding me again of two nights ago as we rode towards Naomis in the desert. After lunch in Waddi Azalea, it started to get cool and then a light wind started and it grew and grew. Helmut was walking and I on the camel, as the wind whipped us and I started to freeze. The way was rocky and high, with black slab slate everywhere, with the freezing wind it felt like a true hell..a dark, stony, cold place, not the hell of mythology which is hot and fiery.
We stopped to eat lunch which Jamal started to prepare as soon as we arrived at our destination in the Waddi Azealea. He began as he did every lunch by first unpacking the camels, hobbling their front legs with a length of rope, so they couldn’t wander off, then gathering wood for the fire, making the bread and tending it as it baked in the embers. He then made a big salad of tomotoes and cucumbers fresh from his father Oude’s garden, and a hot dish of stewed okra and vegetables that he prepared in the fire.. Oude has quite a green thumb and the other morning in Waddi Disco, he had proudly shown me his garden and the young fig trees he had planted. As we waited for the food to cook we had chai (tea) Even now a few days later, tea made the ordinary way, where you pour boiling water on tea leaves, fails to satisfy the way tea made in the black kettle, with sugar boilng in it does, the black kettle nestled in the embers and boiled with sugar insures a piping hot tea that feels and tastes like a nectar.. As we sat eating in Waddi Azalea, the wind started to rise and the sun hid behind a cloud and Helmut and I both felt cold. We slept for a while after lunch and when we started off again, Jamal having washed everything, packed the camels again etc the wind had really started to rise. We were excited as we were heading for Noamis, a preBeduin, pre- Pharoh, settlement that baffles historians. Noamis is thought to be more than 4000 years old. Round , flat stone huts
perched on a rocky desert plateau. As we started off the wind gained steadily. We were crossing a high sierra plane that was all black slate, crumbling , jagged mountains of the stuff and the desert floor covered in shards of the same. Without the sun it was a bleak and somewhat eerie landscape. Sitting on a camel takes some core work as it is like riding a dolphin, the camel rocks back and forth , it is no wonder that camels are called the ships of the desert. The wind grew and grew. I wrapped myself in my wool shawl and felt like Mary in the desert with Joseph looking for an inn . The fact that it was two days before Xmas was not lost on me. The wind became huge as we trudged on for a couple of hours. Finally we saw in the distance a Beduin settlement of 4 tents and low houses. “See Ahmed?” Jamal called from behind me. “No “ I said barely able to speak from cold. “See! There’s Ahmed’s jeep!” There in the far distance I saw a smudge of red thru my watering eyes.It was a vast barren plane between some rocky outcroppings and low black mountains. As we got closer I saw that the figure crouching in front of an unfinished concrete ,block house was Ahmed. Still closer I saw that under his huge Beduin winter cape stood little Sabah. I immediately forgot the cold and shrieked “Sahbah” with joy! The first morning in Waddi Disco, a valley of great beauty that has something of the vibe of a minuture version of Arizona’s Monument Valley. A place of giant free standing rocks, where Ahmed lives with his family. Oude and Etireh, his mother and father and his sister Aida, her husband Eiteg and their two sons, Hallad 4 years three months old and Sabah age 3 years 2 months old. Also living there are Aesha who is married to Mohamed another son, and Jamal. Waddi Disco got it’s name from a party Ahmed held there that has become a bit of a legend among Beduines, because the music rang from the mountain walls, echoing and creating a giant sound. Our first morning there, having started our trip from the asphalt road into the mountains where we picked up our camels, we road the 20 kilometers to sleep our first night at Ahmed’s camp, stopping half way in another Waddi to have tea with a Beduin woman who was tending her goats and shared her fire and tea with us. The Beduine’s, once a fully nomadic people, still spend 90% of their time outdoors. A rug, a fire, chai and any place becomes home. Beduine hospitality, forged in the harsh desert life demands that any stranger be housed and fed for three days.While one cannot expect this ‘free’ care in todays world of have and have nots, we were given this kind of welcome everywhere we went in the desert. Our Beduine guides were paid for our trip but no Beduin we encountered on our journey into the desert ever charged us to share there fire and tea. Lonely Planet’s Sinai Guide states that while “Tea was always offered to strangers, one now had to pay for this tea” and I refute this statement. As we pushed on to Waddi Disco that first day, I was feeling strangely natural in the camel saddle. I have a fear of heights and yet for some reason being up high on the camel felt safe to me as was directing him right and left. Camels plod and I was nervous that she might bolt and kept the green plastic rope in my hand much to Jamal’s consternation. I suppose that the camels are trained to subtle messages, as Jamal kept telling me to let the rope lay low to the camels side.The camel was packed wide and my short legs were stretched over her saddle bags, stretching my inner thighs. The solution is to sit with one leg bent in front of you but the first day on a camel this feels precarious, so I rode as one would a horse.We arrived and marveled at the beauty as Jamal and Ahmed got busy making lunch. Ayesha , Ahmed’s sister in law came to bring chai and then food, a salad, a kind of very soft feta cheese, lebne bread and chai and more chai. As evening came Ahmed said “You haven’t even gone to see my parents , to see how they live. “ I’m going now “I exclaimed, rose and walked the long expanse between his camp and their compound. Sheep and camels stood around goats and several tented out buildings stood, one with it’s gate ajar. I will never forget what I saw as I entered the gate. Around a blazing fire laying to the right, on a rug was a large man, leaning on a huge bundled blanket, his head wrapped nonchalantly in a blue Turban.This was the patriarch Oude. “Hello!” he said in English
and extended his hand to me with a broad smile. Think Anthony Quinn. Across from him in colorful clothes, her face wrapped in a black veil from which she puffed a cigarette discreetly, was Ahmed’s mother, Ethfay. To her side was Aida, round faced, covered in her veil and scurrying around cooking, was Ayesha.They made room for me on the carpet and I looked at them in awe. It was like going behind the curtain of time.We drank endless cups of chai , I asked everyone their names 4 times. We laughed a lot.Slowly after several more cups of chai I returned to Ahmed’s camp.
Ahmed had a woolen tent, that the women used to weave from goat wool but Helmut and I chose to sleep under the overhang of the canyon, there around the fire, stars twinkling above us. The next morning I went across again and encountered Ahmed’s brother in law Eiteg, husband of Aida, who was preparing to go on a jeep trip with some tourists later in the day. He greeted me kindly and offered me tea. This was when I met Sabah, his son. Sabah is a sturdy little boy with sparkling eyes, good natured and a constant smile. Although he is only just past three, he has tremendous focus and loves to commuicate.I fell in love. Hallad his older brother, is shyer, scowling a lot and coarser in everyway. Ahmed tells me Hallad is slower and doesn’t talk as well as Sabah who is a year younger.Hallad spent the whole time scowling at me, sticking out his tongue and avoiding my touch as Sabah sprawled in my arms and played little verbal games with me speaking the English he had been obviously taught by his father and uncles. Sitting by Eiteg’s fire early that morning as he prepared to go to Ein Hudra and pick up tourists for a jeep trek into the desert, Sabah finds a nail and a rock and proceeds to bang the nail into the wood that holds up the tent. After a few minutes he finds another rock and stows it in the sleeve of his little shirt. Sabah pounds the nail in and then knocks it out. He is delighted. I tire of the game and take the rock from his little dirty hand. He smiles up at me and takes the second rock out of his sleeve and starts to pound the nail again, laughing at my surprise. I marvel at his awareness. His presence is crystalline joy and openness. I think “My god what charisma..what could this boy accomplish?”
In Naomis, Ahmed has arranged for us to sleep in an unfinished concrete block house. The fllors are sand and it is damp and cold. The wind has been blowing for hours across this desolate plane. Across and behind there is an excampment of 5 Beduine tents. I see people moveing slowly there, women, braceing against the wind. Hallad comes around the corner with 4 other children. His face is dirty and snot pours from his nose , from all their noses. Sabah stays close to Ahmed but is happy to see me, flirting from a distance but I am so coold even his 2 ½ year old charms can’t change that. The children disappear and Jamal starts to make the fire but he and ahmed realize it will be too smoky in this room where Helmut and I must also sleep so they move everything to the other room.
Helmut and I sit on rugs , bundled in our coats and wrapped in blankets.Outside the wind roars like a devouring monster.There is no moon. The window is shuttered anyway.The children creep in and out to stare at us. It is clear that they rarely see westerners.
This is a close to the family trek. Ahmed’s business seems to be an extention of what he himself lives and Helmut and I like this. Ahmed calls us to eat . The room is smoky and Ahmed cracks the glassless window.I am too cold and tired to eat much. I drink the hot sweet tea. It is a comfort to the mouth and hands. Quickly I go to my rug to sleep, wearing all my clothes and my down coat and two blankets. I awke in the night to pee. I step outside the wind is fierce.The stars look cold too and distant. I am not afraid in this dark which amazes me. Each day I sink deeper into the absolute safety of this desert and this way of life.
The next morning I wake up. I go outside and see movement far across the way where the Beduine tents are. The wind is gone. The sun shines. Soon I see the children start to mill around between the tents and I walk over looking for Sabah. An older women, her forehead tattooed in the old way comes out of one of the compound and smilingly beckons me to come with her.She was the one who Jamal had greeted with great tenderness the night before. I follow her. She has a spacious tent. Her fire is burning and she asks “Chai?” and I nod yes. She is smiling. Clearly chuffed that I am there. She pours me tea and hands me a pile of Libne, the flat bread and motions me to eat as she does. She takes out a metal vial and offers it to me. I see that it is Kohl and without a mirror I apply it to my eyes. She nods approvingly. Slowly the place fills up with younger women including Aida. Now I understand, this is the mother of Aida’s husband Eiteg. The women cover their faces up to the eyes. But never take their eyes off me. Several are beautiful. Several have babies at their breasts and they feed them modestly.The children run in and out and are scolded by Leyla, my host. A few older children come including a boy who speaks some English. I greet everyone with the little Bedu I know. “Inti shedeen?”
Do you feel good? And they answer laughing .Pleased and surprised I am speaking their language. “Shedeeda! Shedeeda!” (Good! Good!) Jamal comes to find me. “eat now “ he says. But I make a face and lift my tea glass and say “Shay! (Chai) and everyone laughs. Clearly confused he leaves the tent. Leyla takes out a bundle and I realize I have now entered her ‘bazaar” She opens it and the familiar pile of plastic trinkets appears , nothing I am interested in. But then I see the black wool ring that Beduin men use to hold their weils in place. Helmut had gotten one that was too big for him and this one seems smaller so I announce to Leyla I will by it . the price is 13 EP 3 more than it costs in town of 50 cents. Then I see an Beduine veil, the old style but not an old one, with two slits for the eyes and a t at the nose /forehead with fake gold tin coins. Not so long ago the veils were decorated with real coins , silver and the women wore their wealth on their faces. I say I will buy it too. Leyla is delighted and I motion that I will return.
I go the fire that Ahmed has built outside the grey concrete house. Ahmed looks up at me laughing
5 days in desert not enough for Susana! You need 2 months!” I laugh and agree with him. “Why you not eat?” he asks me worriedly. “I am not hungary” I tell him, “it is a good thing.” But he is confused. I return to Leyla’s tent with my wallet. I sit on the rug across from her and quickly the tent fills up with the children hanging abck so the grownups can sit on the carpet. Leyla pours me more tea and says something to an 11 year old girl who scurries away. Minutes later she comes back with a rolled carpet. Leyla unfurls it and it is over 20 feet long.Red , Blue with White and black stripes. Proudly Leyla points to her chest and I realize she is telling me she wove it. She tells me she wants 400 pounds for it . The rug is nice but what would I do with a 20 X 3 Beduin rug? The she motions to cut it. Half for 150 Eygption pounds. $30. I want to buy something from her so this works for me.leyla continues to pull things out for me to inspect and to all the Beduine women I meet she has endless plastic
trinkets many I suspect are made in China because everyone has them and they all look the same. I repeatedly tell the women.."I want something you made." Days later I will meet Greta at Ghannah Lodge who has been coming to Nuweiba for 17 years. In teh past three years she has created an eco lodge, stunningly beautiful and a school for teh children and now embarks on a womens craft collective. Afte asking for days about Ghannah Lodge and getting no resonse I finally mention it to Ahmed who also has no idea what I am talking about till I say..The people who run it are Belguin. He brightens up and says "Greta." "Yes, I say "Greta is the womans name." I had also found her on Couchsurfers and she had resopnded but since i had intermittent internet and everything in Nuweiba is ditances..everything so spread out, I hadn't gone to find her.Immediately Ahmed takesme to Ghannah Lodge. "So we can return before dark, to your fish dinner."Ahmed says. This was the night before I flew to germany so Helmut and the
harold and his wife and daughter Nina and Tom were having a fish dinner althogh I hadn't expected Tom but was delighted when he showed up at the tent. Whether he was coming to say goodbye to me or if it was just the lure of teh fish dinner I don't know.
I jumped in Ahmed's jeep and we headed towards Muzeina Village, a concrete jumble of houses with rutted dirt roads where many of the Muzeina live. As we rounded a bend the loveliest seascape came to view with Palm trees, a paradise , an oasis..."My God ! It is so beautiful!" I exclaimed.The sign was diifferent but we walk down the slope and dogs start barking, three of them. There at the promenade of the sea, in a lovely pavilion stood Greta, wiry with long blonde hair and very pretty.Gracious and welcoming she asked me to sit and offered me tea or coffee and within mintes no seconds , i felt as if I had always known her. As we waited she told me about Ghannah
which means paradise in Bedu. I had learned the word for paradise the day before and suddenly realized I had been pronouncing Ghannah the country Ghana
no wonder no one knew what I was talking about! It is pronounced Jennah.Hedy, another Belguin, she of the smiling face and intelligent eyes took me for a tour. she had been there 9 years. "Do you go to Belguim ?" I asked as she showed me the small stone Hoshas, each very clean and beautiful and the big Beduin tent and the Yoga Room. "rarely" she replied and of course I understood. Who in their right mind would leave paradise? Then the lights went out. We retruned to Greta who called for candles. We sat and she told me of her plan for the Women's Craft Collecive. I told her my response to the plastic trinkets and she exclaimed "You see, she says the same as I!"
We agreed that the plastic trinkets were ugly and frankly unbuyable. yet the two fold problem was quickly explained to me. First, the Beduins are losing their crafting skills. "None of teh younger girls know how to weave or embroider." Greta tells me. "It is so much work, far easier to sell the plastic jewelry. then there are teh toursits who want to spend just 10 pounds ($1.25) for a souvenier." yes, I agree . It is a terrible conundrum. But How to address and rectify we wonder together.

Leyla profers a tin container of Khol for me to buy. I say "No, I will take these things here." I have my small pile infront of me.As I take oout my money , everyone leans in towards me. I pull oout the bills laying out two 50 Pound notes.."No,No" everyone yells . It turns out they are not pounds but pisastras..cents. looking over my pile of 25 and 50 pisatra notes "Abdul laughs and says "You are a poor girl" and i and everyone laughs. Over an dover I count out my money, making a big show of it and everyone is enjoying it. This is a story telling culture. show and tell is the age old entertainment here in teh desert and I make the most of it and I am very entertaining in the self deprecating way that is a hallmark of my performance style.Finally i hand ove rteh money but I am 3 pounds short. leyal motions that it is fine but I triumphantly find another 5 pound note and place it across teh pile of bills I have already given her. leyla looks momentarily confused. "Tell her " I say to Abdul, "That I am paying more than I am supposed to." He laughs and translates and everyone laughs and Leyla pulls me to her and kisses my face.


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