One month ago today I landed in Cairo to begin my three-month journey through Egypt, Jordan and Israel for the purpose of sharing the cultures of the Middle East with the rest of the world.
This is a synopsis of what I’ve done during this first month, how I spend most of my time currently, and news about a change of plans for months two and three.
I have spent my first month entirely in Egypt. I stayed in Cairo for a few days then took an eight-hour bus trip to the town of Dahab, South Sinai, where my Connect the Cultures partner Joseph Nazir is based and from where I am writing this.
I return here every year to visit my friends and to continue strengthening our bonds. The majority of my long-term friends in Egypt are Egyptian. I have one male Bedouin friend and this year am fortunate to be meeting and making friends with Bedouin women. I did not expect to be spending so much time with Bedouin women this year, but this is how it is turning out. As they share their world with me, I become increasingly fascinated with their ancient tribal culture.
I’m living in one of their homes deep inside the Bedouin district of Dahab. Bedouins are traditionally nomadic, and I have realized it is not possible for people or camels to carry sofas and beds around while they are wandering through the desert. Even Bedouins who have built permanent homes in Dahab still sit on thin floor mats on grounds made of small rocks in their tents, called arishas, where we spend all day. Inside their houses, where we rarely spend time, we sit on carpets or on slightly thicker floor cushions.
I cannot sit cross legged for hours around a fire as Bedouin bodies are accustomed to. It hurts my back, my right hip and left knee. I shift positions a lot. If I were to spend several months sitting on the ground, though, I think my body would adapt somewhat.
In my home here I have two beds, both of which are very short, although Bedouins can be tall people. The beds are extremely hard. I am not sleeping well. In my home I don’t have sofas or chairs and instead have only floor mats. So I have become a bit of a sleepless ground dweller.
Sitting on the ground for hours every day and sleeping on a short, hard bed are the only difficulties of this lifestyle. The people I’m meeting and making friends with are lovely, and I am so grateful to be able to get to know them and for them to invite me inside their culture.
Much of what Bedouins and the other people of the Middle East tell me and show me is private, so I keep it to myself. Before writing something that would be personal to someone, before showing their photograph or giving their real name, I get their permission. If they say no, I don’t do it. I only share with the world what people allow me to share.
There are three posts so far about month one of my journey:
Meeting the Zabaleen people of Cairo
Meeting and getting to know a bit about the culture of Bedouin women
My Bedouin friend Hemaid speaking about education for his people
Change of Plans for Months Two and Three
I never set my Middle Eastern travel plans in stone. I allow myself to be free, without a set date that I will move from one country to the next or a fixed date to return home. I buy a one-way ticket, see how things flow in the first country, then decide when to move on to the next and, finally, when to fly home.
This year I have altered the route of my journey from what I had originally announced. Instead of traveling to Jordan after Egypt and then heading to Israel, I will be traveling to Israel first and then on to Jordan. I will cross overland from Egypt into Israel on March 22.
It is because of the Jewish holiday season of Pessach (Passover) that I’ve changed the order. No matter how I organized it, during the second two months of my trip I would be in Israel during Pessach. Once I began lining my plans up more solidly after arriving in Egypt, it became evident that it’s smarter to place Israel before Jordan.
Pessach is a major eight-day holiday in Israel. Almost every year since 2011 I have been in the country during this holiday, living for a month or two in an apartment in my old neighborhood in Tiberias. However, this year when I called my landlord to reserve an apartment, I learned that my complex is being rented out as holiday apartments this year rather than regular furnished apartments. So I will be able to stay in Tiberias for only the two weeks before Pessach instead of a month as I’d planned.
However, this is the perfect year for me to move on from Tiberias after only two weeks. Tiberias is a Jewish city and while I’m there I spend time primarily with Jewish Israelis, Arab Israelis and Syrian Israelis. This year I want to better get to know Palestinian culture. My plan after Tiberias was to spend a week in Palestinian territory. Now I’m able to increase this amount of time.
I would love to stay in East Jerusalem, as I have contacts there. However, because of another holiday, Easter, during which tens of thousands of Christians flock from around the world to Jerusalem, raising prices of accommodations, I am probably going to rent an apartment somewhere in the West Bank (Palestine) for a couple of weeks. I visited the city of Nablus in 2009 and liked the vibe there more than any other Palestinian city I’ve visited. It is there that I hopefully will stay.
In previous years I wouldn’t have felt too comfortable staying in Nablus, as it’s not a popular tourist destination and there are not a lot of English speakers. Now, however, I am studying Arabic. I’m able to speak and understand more words than I’ve learned on the street over the years, I can read it with limited understanding and am able to pronounce the words I read. So it won’t be necessary to always find an English speaker to feel comfortable getting around. I’ll start searching for an apartment this week or next.
The Most Important Thing I’ve Learned So Far
The period of transition from America to the Middle East is usually quick and easy for me. This year the beginning few weeks in Egypt, although very good, were also quite trying. Being in the country not only to spend time with friends as in years past but to do work for Connect the Cultures has been a major shift.
I knew before beginning this project that it would be a challenge. While I thought the biggest issue would be piquing the outside world’s interest in this region, what has been a problem this first month is people’s reactions to what I’m doing.
Connect the Cultures is like my baby. It’s one of the most important aspects of my life and the most important work I’ve ever done. Some Middle Easterners are starting to better understand my project, to be supportive as well as interested in contributing. The challenge has been with Westerners, from whom I have received some uninvited, unconstructive criticism, which was hurtful and slowed things down a bit. But khalas (Arabic for “it’s finished”).
I’ve decided to look at any future misunderstanding or negativity I encounter about my project as a learning experience. I’m ready for anything now, so it’s okay.
No matter any adversity, I will keep on being friends with the people of the Middle East. I will continue to absorb everything I experience inside their cultures. I will go on sharing what they permit me to share with you. Because this is what I love.
By: Sabina Lohr, creator of Connect the Cultures