June 29, 2003

moses and monty python



All credit to Moses. Nowadays Mount Sinai is a straightforward two-hour hike up a well-worn trail, but three millennia ago it must have been absolute murder.

I was expecting a mob of people and was amazed to find myself absolutely alone at the summit for sunset. Amazed and grateful. Standing atop a fantasyland of jagged, pitted, striated crags and canyons, eroded by the wind into twisted coiled dragon-shapes, stained by the last crimson rays of the sun, on the very mountain where Moses, so legend has it, received the Ten Commandments -- a magical moment.

I suppose I can't in good conscience leave you with the notion that I have become lone-wolf-in-the-wilderness Intrepid Man. I wasn't that alone. Not far below the summit are a half-dozen Bedouin huts/shops providing tea, Coke, chocolate, and mattress/blanket rental; two more overnighters showed up shortly after sunset; and just before dawn an Italian tour-group horde arrived. But still.

In the middle of the night, unless all three of us independently dreamed the very same thing, twenty or thirty monks assembled around the ancient chapel near the summit, and sang haunting Latin hymns for half an hour.

I found no burning bush up there. But at the foot of the mountain, in the seventeen-century-old Monastery of St. Catherine, grows what is alleged to be an offshoot of the very same bush that spoke to Moses. They claim that no other bush like it is found in all the Sinai peninsula, and that all the many attempts to cultivate cuttings from this bush in other places have failed. I remain a skeptic, as always, but it's a cool story.

And then, bringing me back to earth:

Like other impoverished tourist destinations, Egypt is populated by many, many touts and hangers-on who will attach themselves to you and try to wheedle baksheesh if either a) you look like a mark or b) you're excessively rude, in which case they may harass you just to piss you off.

Their usual chat-up lines are "Where you from?" or "Where you going?" My usual answer to the first is "What's it to ya?" and to the second "I seek the Holy Grail." ("I seek enlightenment" turned out to be too abstract, "yo' mamma's house" excessively adversarial.) Both usually confuse the tout long enough for a getaway. But today, in a crowded market in Sharm el-Sheikh from where I write, I gave some kid the usual answer, and kept walking, and then I distinctly heard somebody call out to me:

"Hey! My friend! What is the airspeed of a swallow in flight?"

My faith in the universe is newly restored.

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