Illustration: Daniel Chang Christensen.

In Egypt, there are numerous, sprawling deserts. Perhaps Egypt herself is a vast desert, split by a valley made by the river, and chosen by her people as a home since time immemorial. A desert in the west and another in the east. The first marks the borders with Libya, famous for its sea of moving sands. The second overlooks the coast of the Red Sea, and in its far north lies the Sinai Peninsula, which marks the Egyptian border with Palestine.

I have been to the Eastern Desert several times, driving by myself an old white jeep; solid and strong enough to withstand the wild road, to jump over the hills of sand, and to cross the rocky places peacefully. The Eastern Desert represents about a quarter of Egypt’s land, less than half the area of the huge Western Desert, but it is of great importance. It benefits from a rich variety of mines. There are monasteries of wide renown, such as Saint Catherine’s Monastery, and the mountains exceed heights of eight thousand feet, among them the summit of Shair al-Banat. Its nature reserves, like the Wadi El Gamal National Park, are filled with corals and fish and ancient ruins.

My trips in the Eastern Desert, although few and scattered, are still vivid in my memory, not only because of the amazing nature, but also because of the friendships I have with the inhabitants of that place. Women and men with dark skin, who appear in between mountains and valleys, so calm and shining, their faces full of signs like the desert’s wrinkles and hollows, their eyes carrying the purity and transparency of the sky. They constitute an authentic part of the desert, which would not be worth much in their absence.

* * *

I spent long days gathering material I needed to build an article about the Eastern Desert. Acquiring the requisite information was no simple matter, as the writing pertains to top-level political activity. The writing process was taking place in the shadow of a regime whose grip is strengthening, entrenching its foundations, laying out its laws and establishing a new reality in which only one voice is heard and one tune is sung. The writer becomes increasingly bewildered and muddled.

A sort of crude punishment could be imposed upon a writer who criticizes the government’s aggression toward its citizens, or who mentions the forced migration they are resisting, or who discloses the mass destruction and bombing of their houses, and the random detentions and disappearances they are facing every day.

Because one could face arrest or prison or military trials for engaging with this subject, I will instead turn to history, to the vibrant culture of this place, to the rich life that it holds.

* * *

When I began to explore the origin of its names, I discovered a lot of information linking the far north of the Eastern Desert with precious stones. It is a desert rich with gold, copper, phosphates, manganese, and iron, and most importantly there are many gemstones. The most famous of these gemstones is turquoise, and the desert was once called “turquoise land,” a name with special luster, and probably taken from the ancient Egyptian civilization that fulfilled its needs from this land for centuries. This land is also called Sinai, a name derived from the word “Sin,” the moon god of the Babylonians. Some historians say that the name also means “stone,” after the many mountains of this region. The Sinai peninsula’s southern capital, El Tor, means “moon” in the Aramaic language, and so the name can be translated as “moon mountain” or “moon stone.”

It has long been described as a land of battles; even its relics indicate the presence of a thousand-year-old military route, the “Way of Horus.” This road cuts the Sinai to go north, where the ruins of forts and remains of citadels can be found, and was the very route taken by the Islamic military commander ‘Amr ibn al-‘As when he came to occupy Egypt. Sinai has for centuries been a crossroads for armies and a coveted territory for colonial powers. Its importance became clear with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, linking the Red Sea and the Mediterranean. Military attacks against Egypt followed, and she was subjugated by European occupation, interspersed with battles, wars, and revolutions, until liberation in the 1973 war. The rest of the land was restored in the 1980s through negotiations.

This long history reflects the significance of the Eastern Desert, and how that continues. Recounting the past is my only refuge given the dire constraints of the present.

* * *

Deserts are full of enormous contradictions. Their silence is louder than any sound. Their suns are incendiary, while their nights are bitingly cold. Many see them as frightening and depressing, while others go out of their minds in love. They seem to be in a state of death, but they contain much vitality. The Eastern Desert ripples with plateaus, mountains, and plains, and reptiles such as lizards, snakes, and scorpions of common and rare forms are to be found. They inhabit the cracks, slip between the rock spaces, and transform to become part of the sand.

As for the birds, some, like the Egyptian vulture, the Sinai rosefinch, and the griffon vulture, remain in the limits of high areas such as Mount Sinai, whereas others, like the Palestinian bulbul and the desert lark, prefer to gather in the low areas. Wild billy goats live in the mountains and are given the name “king of the mountains”; they’re able to climb enormous distances of more than two thousand meters. It is said that the goat leaves his spot on the mountain just once a day in order to get water from the valley closest to him. Like so many other species in this desert, the wild billy goat is on the verge of extinction.

Factors such as drought and intense heat on the one hand, and then torrential rainfall and flooding on the other, in addition to overfishing and hunting, do not alone threaten desert wildlife. High sound frequencies and explosions exacerbate the crisis, whether linked to acts of violence, mining, or construction. If birds and wild animals are well equipped to cope with nature’s difficulties and climate fluctuations, they may not be able to overcome the severe challenges that man creates. He keeps going deeper, recklessly and without regard for his fellow inhabitants, who enjoy an independent and precious life alongside him, replete with established rituals and astonishing vocabularies.

Sometimes heavily armed campaigns are launched and fierce battles break out here and there, and with them the chances of survival of several species of birds and animals diminish. And when traditional news is broadcast about a new project to build an elevated settlement in the desert, and when people consume news about victories in the destruction of mountain hideouts and caves exploited by violent armed groups, it does not usually come to mind that these developments, desirable from an economic and security angle, have dangerous consequences for the other creatures that live in this desert.

* * *

I finished my article four days before the deadline, and I have included part of it in the previous few paragraphs. I sent it to those I count on so they could give me a reasoned opinion. I waited for their replies, expecting additions or amendments, or for them to fill in incomplete information. I was happy with what I had produced, and I was anticipating sending it in for publication.

A telephone call reached me at seven in the morning, and another call at nine. I panicked and my pulse raced after what was said in the two phone calls. I spent the whole day talking to myself and reviewing my options, trying to stay calm as usual, smiling as I am used to. Heavy hours passed without me finding a way out or knowing what to do. The responses surprised and distressed me, such that I wished I had not requested them.

I closed my eyes at 2 a.m., unable to fall asleep. For the first time as a writer, I felt forced to accept the opinion not to publish. The close friends I had consulted—a great political thinker, a highly regarded historian, and a law practitioner mainly concerned with freedom and rights—believe the current situation in Egypt is grave, and different from before. They all strongly advised me against publishing the article. The lawyer, who has defended some of Egypt’s political prisoners, told me that writing about what is happening in that desert has become criminal.

He said, “Why are you rushing? A trial awaits those who write about this matter from near or far. This is neither a fact nor an unlikely scenario; we can say that it may or may not occur. But in these times, arrest is always imminent—just yesterday a law was published forbidding writing and describing the punishment.”

The words shocked me. The article was on my computer. Is it better to erase it? Writing has become dangerous now. I considered memorizing what I had analyzed in the piece, what conjectures I had raised. Maybe there is no need to publish a document that may bring harm, even though I, and my three friends, see only a good piece of writing, a point of view, no more and no less.

* * *

“Al-Falaat” in the Arabic dictionaries is the wilderness of the earth, because it is scoured of all goodness and isolated. “Al-Qafr,” the wasteland, is known as an empty place where there is no vegetation or water. “Badia,” on the other hand, is the opposite of urban. When people went out of their settlements to herd animals, it is said that they had gone to the “Badia,” and they were called Bedouins. These and many others are all names for what we know in modern Arabic as the Sahara, “desert”; that is, any space of earth that is open and soft. Arabic speakers do not usually write about “Badia” unless they are considering ancient history, and certainly no one in this day and age speaks of “Al-Faqr” or “Al-Falaat,” unless he is composing verses of poetry.

These names are now absent; they belong to a past when the Sahara occupied a central space in the concerns of its people, who were conditioned by its intensity and united by its nature, who immortalized the desert in their heritage and made it the stage of their lives. For its part it generously bequeathed them gifts.

When the Arab Sahara is mentioned today it does not bring to mind the titles of old poems by the great poets, such as Al-Mutanabbi, Imru al-Qais, and Bashar, but conjures other scenes, scenes of scarcity and danger rather than richness and beauty. Perhaps hunters or illicit activity, perhaps checkpoints and permits, or vicious wars and armed forces. Operation Desert Storm, which played out in Kuwait, has not faded from memory despite the passage of years. The expanded military operation Desert Wrath lasted only a few months in its theater in the south of Libya. When you recall the desert in Egypt, you may also visit the memory reel of those missing among its dunes and who sought refuge in its oases, those who were in a plane crash or those who lost their way.

Usually, those whom others want to disappear are thrown into the heart of the desert, any desert, as the desert can swallow a lot without leaving a trace. The desert is a labyrinth for those who have not explored its paths and there is no escape from it without a guide, but for those who know it backwards and have formed undrawn maps in their senses and minds, navigating its composition is a pleasant outing. In the Eastern Desert there are still tracking specialists, and the Bedouins are still excellently able to distinguish every ripple in the sand, however lightly it appears, unnoticed by ordinary people. If a living creature vanishes, either human or animal, they find it with minimal effort, so well that security personnel turn to them for help.

* * *

I went to the library, wanting to write a new article about the desert, instead of the one that my friends had practically berated me over out of fear of its consequences. A nice new article that will not become the source of great danger. In writing about history there is a refuge, safety with abundant references. I rose and left home early, knowing the library opens its doors at 9 a.m. I climbed the stairs to the third floor, and came face to face with an old man, thin and bald-headed, who eyed me with a smile and without moving, as if inviting me to leave. He was laying down in front of the library door, on a wide wooden chair that was like a sofa, completely blocking the opening. I gave him the morning greeting, apprehensive at his position of repose, and asked if the library had not yet opened.

He looked at me and said, “The library is closed. The administration closed it up, you can come on another day.” I was astonished and pinned to the spot on the last stair. “Closed? Why?” The man answered me as if he were still trying the fresh words in his mouth: “I do not know, do you work inside? Go to the administration to clear it up.” I said angrily, “No, I do not work here but I want books.” The man left me to answer his mobile phone, and I turned on my heels. I went downstairs, at my wits’ end, wondering what the reason could be for its closure. It’s a branch of the National Library and Archives, a body of the Egyptian government, that does not publish to the anger of those in the regime, is not hostile or critical, and does not raise its voice at any misfortune. Maybe it had not paid its yearly rent?

* * *

Throughout the ages, the Eastern Desert has not been one of those deserts devoid of inhabitants, despite its harsh environment. Evidence of human traces and indigenous inscriptions date as far back as the fifteenth century BC, when the Canaanite civilization flourished.

Some of the tribes in the north of the desert are well known: Al-Sawark, Al-Tarabin, Rumailat, Al-Masa’id, Al-Aqeelat, Sawalha, Hamada, and the Bani Wasel tribe. To the south there are tribes such as Bashari and Ababiba, and many of these Arab Bedouin tribes still retain features of desert life and its customs, except they are no longer so nomadic, for there are houses and markets, and even schools, a stable society.

The vast majority of these tribes live by herding grazing animals. Some are known for raising camels, and there are those who extract gold and silver from the mountains in small amounts. And there are some tribes that resort to fishing from the rich shores of the Red Sea. Some of these tribes sanctify nature to a great extent, so much so that a warning circulates among them that it is less grave to cut a man’s head than it is to cut a tree. The public interest in the desert is small, except for those who have fallen in love with it, their lungs tied to its air, addicted to the soft guiding light of its stars.

* * *

When I reached the ground floor, a young man sitting behind a partition startled me: “Do you want the library, madame?” I said in distress, “Yes, but it is closed.” He replied quickly, “I have the number of the director, she was on the phone a few minutes ago and asked me to give her number to library members who want her assistance.” My face lit up when he dictated the number to me and hopes rose as I punched the buttons on my old mobile phone. Perhaps the closure was only for a day or two, until they could remove the traces of pesticide sprayed in various halls. Perhaps there was a stocktaking of the library’s contents, or maybe they intended to replace the old seats that have long hurt my bones, or they decided to repaint the peeling walls and patch the cracks in the floor. “Hello… is this the library director?”

Her voice came to me on the other end: “Yes, speaking. Who’s calling?”

“I am Dr. Basma, I have been visiting you often for several years.”

“Hello, Doctor, please go on.”

“I want to access the library’s books. Have you closed for some reason?”

“In reality we do not know anything. The administration closed the library and we were not told the reason! I asked the guard at the bottom of the building to tell the members to call me, so they could address the administration in turn, and emphasize the importance of the library and its role, so that officials might listen and respond, and we can reopen it.”

I was astonished at her response.

“Really? They closed the door without prior notice or warning? Without giving any reasons or justifications?”
My mind raced, trying to understand the recent closure of several libraries in Egypt. In each case, an order was issued that they cease to exist. The appropriate authorities produced a relevant pretext for each one’s closure, but these libraries subjected to sacrifice shared something in common. They did not please the authorities. Their activities went beyond tolerable limits, and their proprietors were not approved of. Winding up the call, I said, all but going mad at the utter futility of it all, “I will go to the administration today, but I am not predicting a good outcome, madame. What’s clear is that they do not want anyone to read. This is one of the many waves of idiocy and madness that are sweeping over everyone.”

I walked without caring about anything. What I had written was forbidden, and what I intended to write was met with unanticipated hurdles. Websites are blocked and libraries are undesirable. The atmosphere is suffocating, and the desert, which was once a refuge, is no longer guaranteed; it too is closed. There is no widening in the horizon, no vastness in the sky. Heavy clouds fill the space, inhabit the chest, and cover the senses. At times the state seizes pens, and at other times it breaks the hands that hold them.

I questioned the staff I came across around the library. I saw their heads shaking and their lips muttering words of regret. My efforts were fruitless in the end, and I did not find a resolution to lift my anger and gloom. Misfortune is a companion, but the heart is resilient, and determination does not disappear.

* * *

According to religious scripture, in the far northeast the Egyptian desert received Moses among its mountains and Moses received the Ten Commandments on its land. Then the land received the family of Christ, traveling to Egypt, leaving the monasteries, churches, and monastic centers on their way, and passing by the famous cities of Rafah and Arish and Pelusium. History has made a spiritual legend from this desert land, enchanting those who believed in the creation and mythology all over the earth.

In the desert, souls are liberated figuratively, and may be liberated materially in certain circumstances. They leave their bodies and do not return to them again. In the desert there are many conflicts and wars; it is not only a site of comfort for those oppressed by modern civilization and tumultuous cities, but it is also the origin of pains and scars.

Various gangs and violent armed groups have been roaming the deserts of several countries in the region in recent times. There is no clear sense of the number of their victims, who include not only those who have lost their lives but also those who have been kidnapped, trafficked, and enslaved.

Egypt’s Eastern and Western Desert have not escaped the violence and wounds. A little over a year ago, gunmen opened fired at a bus on the Western Desert Road whose passengers were visiting the well-known monastery of Samuel the Confessor in Upper Egypt. Scores lost their lives in the attack, including children and youth, with few surviving. Two years earlier, in 2015, and in the context of a heightened security alert, a convoy of Mexican tourists was bombed by planes and helicopters that assumed the vehicles that were transporting the tourists belonged to an outlaw armed group planning to detonate an explosive device, or ambush the security forces, or target civilians. Deserts across Egypt have become theaters for bloody events, their calm and tranquility turned to anguish.

* * *

In Egypt there are different-colored deserts, most of which lie to the west of the Nile Valley. There is the White Desert national park in the New Valley, a chalky desert with distinct white limestone formations, some of which are very large, in wondrous shapes. There is also the Black Desert located at the Bahariya Oasis, which has hills covered with volcanic matter that give it its distinctive color. In Wadi Hamra, the red valley found on the road to the great gulf region, the sand, mountains, earth, and desert plants have a remarkable red color, and it appears that the reptiles, rodents, and other creatures have also evolved with the area to acquire the same color.

I used to prefer the customary color of sand. But since the smooth yellow began transforming in many pictures into crimson red, sand soaked with lakes of blood, I have lost my desire and appetite for the desert in general. The calm hills of gold no longer have a place in my memory.

I thought a lot about whether I was being overly careful, and if the caution was exaggerated, and what if I chose to disregard the warnings and send the full article on time, remain committed to the agreement that I had made on a topic I had chosen. But the photographs of detainees published on social media, day after day, hour after hour, do not leave any room for committing brave acts. It is not heroic when its impetuousness and recklessness may be fatal. Ignoring the facts does not negate them, and does not immunize one from bitter consequences. What do I put onto paper? I have compressed my thoughts and searched as diligently as I am able for information hidden in the ground, as if I were excavating a diamond.

* * *

The Eastern Desert is in the midst of radical change. Part of it is in the process of depopulation, while another part may stand to gain from an influx of money. There is talk of massive investments and dreadful, frightening ambitions, which will likely lead to corresponding environmental changes. In all cases, the desert as we know it will cease to exist. It will become increasingly modern and developed, and the wild goats will no longer accept it as their habitat. The deserts will be crowded with the aircrafts of elites and their equipment and bulldozers and fleets of flashy cars. Likewise, the migrating birds that are guided by permanent features of the landscape sketched out below them will no longer visit. No doubt the map will change, disordering the compass that leads the flocks in their familiar flight paths.

Whatever the conclusion, coexistence will not occur, for pure and poetic ideas such as the protection of nature and wildlife are considered an intolerable luxury so long as human beings themselves are degraded of rights, crushed.

Basma Abdel Aziz

Basma Abdel Aziz is an Egyptian writer, psychiatrist, visual artist, and human rights activist living in Cairo. She is the author of the novel The Queue (Melville House) and a weekly columnist for Egypt’s al-Shorouk newspaper.

Henry Peck

Henry Peck writes about culture, technology, and human rights. His work has appeared in the New York Times, National Public Radio, Almirah, and elsewhere.

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