The BOOKPRESS April 1998

Dahab


Louis Friedman

We had coffee with Ezra in the dining room at six a.m., then followed him out to the dusty white pickup loaded with crates of fresh green and yellow mangos. I sat in the middle so Ezra wouldnít stroke Katiís leg or brush past her breast every chance he could. I wanted to avoid anything that would mar our last few days together, even though she assured me these wouldnít be our last days at all.

We drove south through a barren landscape: desert to one side and sea to the other, no trees, houses, no telephone poles. Mostly we were surrounded by relentless blue sky. Ezra was a quiet old Yemani who spoke little English, even though he had a Canadian wife and eleven children back at the kibbutz. Now and then heíd smile, point to something, and make a comment in a guttural, unintelligible Hebrew. We passed Ein Bokek, Masada and Sodom that way, then stopped for felafel in Arad before descending into the Arava Valley and the long final approach to Eilat. Ezra was in a hurry, and by noon he was dropping us off at the main square.

Eilat seemed like a big city to two people accustomed to quiet rural life. Kati and I looked both ways before crossing the street and consulted each other on every decision. We did manage to buy candles, bottled water, cigarettes. I put a bottle of vodka on the counter at the store, and Kati came up behind with two more.
"We can use these for trading in Sinai," she said.
All stocked, we took a bus along the beach to the border crossing. I watched the shore as we drove, and beyond it the Jordanian town of Aqaba, Eilatís estranged sister city, looking like the poor relative that she was, a shoddy and distorted reflection of Eilat in the sparkling water of the bay.

The border crossing was at Taba; it wasnít much. Nations had squared off over these four hundred yards of brown dirt beach front, but I couldnít see why. The bus let us off near a white mobile home with several army jeeps parked outside. A large sign announced in three languages, " ISRAEL PASSPORT CONTROL . " Inside, four people shuffled paperwork behind a cheap plywood counter. A girl in an army uniform yawned and took my passport. She didnít open it, just looked at the gold American eagle stamped on the blue cover. She lazily brushed the embossed emblem with the pad of her thumb. Katiís Swedish passport received greater scrutiny.
"You understand," the soldier said, Iím only doing this for your own protection. She emptied Katiís pack onto the counter and examined each item. "Has anyone given you any letters or packages to deliver for them?"
"No."
"Who packed your bag?"
"I did."
"Where did you pack it?"
"At Kibbutz Ein Gedi."
"Do you know Miriamís husband?"
"Ezra? He drove us to Eilat this morning."
The girl smiled and stamped the passport. Israel is a small country; we werenít surprised the girl knew people at Ein Gedi.

We exited into bright sunlight. Three hundred yards down the highway stood the tan buildings that marked the Egyptian side of the border. As we approached I saw a fence across the road, and soldiers with machine guns. Beyond were many buildings and vehicles. I tensed as I neared the first soldier. I was in sandals and kibbutz indigo shorts, my rolled up tee shirt serving as a shoulder pad for the duffel of provisions slung over my shoulder. Passport held before me like a shield, I walked through the gate with no eye contact, head rigid, eyes looking straight ahead to the looming mountains of Sinai on the horizon. Kati trudged along beside me, her footfall matching mine as we crossed the border in a single stride. Another soldier pointed us to the first building in a dusty row of wooden cabins where a man in an officerís uniform sat at a single desk. His was the only chair in the room.

"Passport," he demanded. He held out his hand and we each gave him our passport. He leafed through them. "You need insurance stamp. You go Sinai, you need stamp. Next door." He turned his head back to the newspaper on his desk. We walked out and over to the next cabin . A sign read INSURANCE OFFICE . There a man sold us stickers for ten dollars each. We took them to the next in the row of buildings, this one labeled BANK. A man with a tie licked our stamps and placed them in our passports. He inked a large seal and pressed a red emblem over the stamps. We each gave him twenty dollars and he gave us each fifteen dollarsí worth of Egyptian money.
"Commission." He smiled. Then there were no more buildings, only another gate where another soldier looked at my passport with its stamp and seal, handed it back to me and waved me through. I walked through the gate and into Sinai, then stood and waited for Kati. The soldier was taking a little more time with her, talking and trying to joke. I looked away. There was a bare stretch beside the road that was being used as a parking lot. Several decrepit taxis were parked, their Bedouin drivers waiting for business. There was a dilapidated bus also, an old Leyland Royal Tiger . Next to it, a small group of prospective passengers sat awaiting departure. I wanted to reach Dahab quickly, before the group waiting for the bus. I approached a Bedouin boy sitting on a battered light blue Peugeot . "How much to Dahab?" "How many people?" " Two ." "Five. Each." "Three. For both." "No." "O.K. Here is five for two. Take it." I held it out to him and he took it. We tossed our gear in the trunk and climbed into the back seat; the driver returned to his seat on the hood . "Letís go," I called. He ignored me. I got out and walked to him. "Come on." "I wait," he said . "For what?" "More people." I looked back at the border crossing. It was a dusty still life, no one moving, and on the road beyond, no one walking down from Taba. "There are no more people, " I told him.
"More come, " he replied with confidence.
"How many do you need? "
"With five I go".

I walked over to the bus and the small crowd waiting to board. "I have a taxi to Dahab with room for three more. Five bucks apiece, same as the bus . Let Ďs go; weíre leaving now. " There was some conversation and then three people came out of the pack, Germans, two girls and a boy. We all climbed into the Peugeot and the driver, Hamed, fired up and departed .

Kati and I sat in the front seat with Hamed, the three Germans in back. They were volunteers from a kibbutz in Galilee. It was hot in the car even with the windows open, and after the first few minutes we ran out of things to say . There was something hypnotic about the drab Sinai landscape rolling past, the monotonous droning of the old Peugeotís motor, the rhythmic flapping of a patch on one tire. Kati fell asleep, slumped against the door. I reached over her and pressed the lock down. In the back seat the German girls were both dozing. Fritz, the German boy, was smoking and staring out the window at the sea. I pulled out a pack of cigarettes, lit one, and handed it to Hamed . He looked about twelve years old, thin and dark. He wore a Bedouin kaffiyah, torn jeans, no shoes, and a tee shirt with the single word DISCO. He sucked on the cigarette extravagantly. I lit one for myself. "You live at Dahab?" I asked him.
"I Dahab? No. Naíama." Naíama was another village farther down the coast . "Naíama very beautiful . Tourists come to see almog."
"What is it? "
"Plants in the water. "
" Coral? "
"Yes, corals . Beautiful corals . " He took a last draw of the cigarette and tossed the butt out the car window. I had been at Naíama once before, ten years earlier. It was Sharem el Sheik then, we made it one word - Sharmelshek. The Israelis razed Sharm when they left, and Naíama sprang up haphazardly soon afterwards. I had seen the coral then; beautiful. But since then Egyptian fisherman had worked the reef with dynamite. Their explosions stunned the fish and sent them floating to the surface to be picked up in nets. In a few years the reefs were mostly destroyed, and the fish scarce. A shame.

I looked out the window; the terrain we were passing was flinty and barren: low stone hills, vast fields of scree, high mountains misty in the distance. Gradually the hills got taller and closer to the road. They were granite, dull greens and reds mottled with veins of black. Kati awoke. "Where are we?" she asked .
"Halfway, " I answered her.
She lay her head against my shoulder. "I feel good. Iím happy weíre together." She squeezed my hand in hers .
"Me too, " I said.

We reached Dahab in the late afternoon . Hamed dropped us off on the highway outside of town . He was going on to Naíama . We stood on the road getting everything out of the taxi and one of the German girls asked me, "Where are you staying?"
I nodded toward the cluster of low huts nestled in a crook of the bay. "Over there, in a hosha."
"Do you think there is one for us?"
"I donít know. Probably. Ask." I picked up my bags and Kati and I walked away. The Germans held a little conference. I waved to them, and we walked the hundred meters or so to the village.

A small boy ran over to us as we entered the ring of grass huts. "You want hosha?"
"Yes."
"Come." He led us to a hut in the circle. I shook my head and pointed to one nearer the sea.
"That one."
"O.K." We walked over to it and the boy pushed open the low metal door, a piece of sheet scrap fastened on with twine. The floor was clean sand, the walls reed, the ceiling dried palm fronds. We negotiated the price, agreeing on a dollar a night. I gave the boy a pack of cigarettes and told him to bring me some of the local Bedouin tobacco in exchange. He nodded and left.

Kati went looking around while I set up the hut. I spread blankets in the sand and put our bags in the corner farthest from the door. I buried the passports a foot deep in the sand floor, then lay down on the blanket for a nap. When I awoke it was twilight. Kati was asleep beside me. It was colder, and a breeze off the bay rustled the palm fronds above us. I shook Kati awake. She opened her eyes and didnít know where she was for a second. There was a flash of terror on her face and then she relaxed. "Iím hungry," she said.

Outside the ring of huts, lined up down the beach were other, larger buildings, cafes and Bedouin teahouses also made of reeds, fronds, and scrap. The first one we came to was a low structure, open toward the sea. Inside were shallow pits dug in the sand with a fire in each pit. Around the pits sat people on carpets, drinking tea, eating, playing backgammon and talking. There were torches stuck in the sand on either side of the doorway and tinny reggae music blared from a tape deck hidden in a back room.

We saw the three Germans. They called us to join them. "I see you decided to stay in the village," I said to them as we sat down. Fritz didnít look very impressed with Dahab so far but the two girls were excited. "Isnít this great?" gushed the shorter one. I hadnít noticed in the taxi so much but she was unusually beautiful. The flickering light from the fire glinted red and gold on her hair, her teeth glistened. It was hard not to stare at her. Fritz began to look even less impressed. Kati was busy talking to the other girl, Geli. They were Rika and Geli. I didnít know which one Fritz was with - maybe he didnít know yet himself. A lot of people come to Dahab to decide things like that. We ordered food, and sat and talked around the fire. Some other people joined us, a Dutch couple, an American, three Israelis. It was surprising to see them there. Most Israelis stopped coming to Sinai after the shooting at Ras Burka a year before, but these three were unconcerned. They were city boys, chakchakim from south Tel Aviv, down on the Sinai coast to party and maybe to meet some traveling women. One of them was already sitting next to Rika. Their heads were close together and they were laughing at something.

We ate rice and felafel then washed it down with tea. Fritz lit a joint and passed it around the circle. We watched the full moon rise over the Saudi coast. It came over the tops of the mountains gold, and turned silver as it rose. The tide rose with it, and the water was lapping the edge of the teahouse, a few feet from where we sat.

"Tomorrow begins Ramadan," one of the Israelis was saying to Fritz. "There will be fasting all day and a big feast at sundown." Suddenly the atmosphere in the teahouse seemed stifling. The long ride down and the nap had given me a headache, and I was tired of watching the interaction at the teahouse. Kati was playing backgammon with one of the Israelis, her back to me. I got up, walked down the beach and stood at the waterís edge. Everything seemed wrong. Kati wanted to have a good time here, but I couldnít get the thought out of my mind that Iíd never see her again after she got on the airplane back to Sweden. I stared out at the sea, the small waves black and silver in the moonlight. Nothing ever goes as planned. I felt guilty for not being satisfied, for not remaining in the teahouse and socializing.

"What are you doing?" a voice behind me asked. I turned: Rika. Her eyes seemed to shine.
"Looking," I answered. "What are you doing?"
She smiled. "I wanted to talk to you. When I turned around you were gone. Is something the matter?"
"No. I just felt like walking on the beach."
"May I join you?"
"Why not?"
We walked along the beach in silence. A few hundred yards away from the Bedouin village we came to the trunk of a palm tree lying half embedded in the sand. We sat on it and watched the breakers come in. Rika asked me if Kati was my girlfriend.
"Yes. But in two days sheíll be back home in Sweden."
"What will you do then?"
"I donít know. Go back to my kibbutz, I guess."
"Will you see her again?"
"I donít think so."
"Do you want to come to Naíama with me?"
I looked at her. "Arenít you with Fritz?"
She made a face. "Not at all."
"Iíd like to come to Naíama with you. That wouldnít be very fair to Kati though, would it?"
"I donít know. That is between you and her."
We stood facing each other. In my mind Kati was nearly gone, already receding. But we had to finish it out.
"I guess not," I said to Rika.
"I understand. Maybe we better walk back now. Your girlfriend is probably wondering what happened to you." She spoke without sarcasm, but it stung me to hear it like that.

I walked Rika back to the teahouse but I didnít go in. Instead I returned to my hut and stretched out on a blanket. It was dark, broken slivers of moonlight seeping in through the roof of palm fronds. The cool sea breeze blew through the reed walls. I fell into a dreamless sleep.

"Sweet sweet." I awoke.
"Sweet sweet," a voice called from outside. A shaft of sunlight was square in my face, through a hole in the roof. Kati was sprawled next to me, still asleep. I poked my head out the rusty metal door and saw a small Bedouin girl, five or six years old, standing outside the hut. In her hand she clutched a wad of flat Bedouin pita bread dripping with honeywater, the typical Dahab breakfast. I bought two and brought them inside. I shook Kati gently to wake her and we had breakfast, spitting out the grit that was on the pita. The sun was already high and it was warm in the hut. We would go for a swim.

Outside, in the circle of huts, everyone was preparing for the day. The Israelis were haggling with a Bedouin sitting in a taxi. Fritz was buying some pitas from the little girl. In front of the teahouse an old Bedouin with some chickens was negotiating with the Sudanese proprietor. They were too far away for me to hear, but I could see what was going on. The old man clutched the chickens by their legs and they hung upside down, limp and thin, their heads brushing the dirt. The Sudani had his arms out to the side and his palms turned upward as if saying, "Thatís as high as I can go."
Farther away, on the other side of the huts back towards the highway, two people were loading backpacks into the trunk of a taxi. A flash of blonde reflected in the sun. Rika, on her way to Naíama. With her was Jeff, the quiet American from the teahouse the night before. So. I turned away, vaguely jealous though I had no reason to be.

Kati came out and we walked up the beach. Beyond the huts were pens filled with sheep, goats, and camels. The beach was littered with their droppings. We continued past that place and walked several kilometers until we could only just see the Bedouin village, tiny huts around the curve of the bay. We didnít talk much as we walked. I had nothing to say, and Kati was still half asleep.

We came to a place we liked. There was an indentation in the beach, another palm tree half buried, sideways in the sand. We put our things down on the tree trunk and waded into the sea. It was waist deep as far out as I wanted to go, the water warm and clean. I dove under and then came up just as a wave broke over my head. I swallowed some sea water and let myself be washed back up on the shore. Enough play. I came out and stood dripping in the sand. Kati was swimming, thirty or forty yards out. She dove, then surfaced nearby, then under again.

I lay on my towel by the section of palm tree and watched her. The sun was already high and beginning to bake the beach with a dangerous intensity. I couldnít see any colors; everything was a glaring black and white. Kati still swam, a little farther out. There were sharks in these waters but it wasnít something to worry about. A shark attack never happens to someone you know. When she dove her feet flashed white in the sun and then a moment later her head would come up.

There were books lying on her towel with her things. I picked one up. Kurt Vonnegut in Swedish. I started leafing through it and a sheet of paper fell out. It was a half-written letter that began "Kare Jan," Dear Jan. I donít read Swedish so it seemed harmless to look at it. Halfway down the page I came to a sentence I did recognize though, one Kati had taught me, "Alske dig," Swedish for "I love you." The letter was dated a week earlier. I carefully replaced it in the book and put it back with her other things. Now I understood why Kati insisted on returning to Sweden first instead of coming to the States with me in the fall. I didnít feel anything about it really. Everything seemed all right. I wasnít offended. My sense of unease vanished. Now I understood the quietness, the awkwardness, the long looks Kati had been giving me. She knew as well as I that we wouldnít see each other again after this trip.

Kati came out of the water and stood in front of me, dripping on the sand. It was a hot and beautiful day. I squinted up at her from where I lay on the towel, the sea behind her and then far off across the water, mountains. I wanted to say something but I couldnít say what I felt. It was a pang, a sudden fondness, almost love, a regret, a flash of realization that someone was waiting for her back home.
"Maybe you shouldnít go to Sweden, Kati. Why donít we just stay here?"
"Forever? I donít think so."
"Sure?"
"Yes."
There was no more to say. I wondered how soon Rika would arrive in Naíama. Kati lay on her towel and picked up the Vonnegut book. I sat up and looked around. Behind me, across the beach was a stand of palms. Beyond that, a wide empty, rocky field stretching all the way to the road that paralleled the beach, the highway back to Taba. Beyond that, the high mountains of Sinai loomed, their tops faintly lavender in the mix of sunlight and haze. On the rocky field before the road was movement. A string of camels, tiny in the distance, plodded northward, a rider on the rearmost beast.

Louis Friedman is a writer and teacher in Cincinnati, Ohio. His story, Tel Aviv Bus Station, was published in Jewish Currents magazine.

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