SHEIKHS OF THE DESERT
At the entrance to the Marina Hotel I ran into Yankele, wearing his striped T-shirt again, who was just leaving. I asked him whether Sheikh Muhammad was inside.
"Yes," he said, "in the lobby, drinking as usual. We've just had a little chat about some administrative matters around here. You going to see him about your desert trip?"
"His elder son is with him, sort of keeping an eye on him, so if Muhammad is too tipsy he will make the arrangements with you."
"A Moslem drinking openly like this? What does the tribe have to say about it?"
Yankele shrugged his shoulders.
"The tribe is not saying much at the moment, just bidding their time. In one way, not directly connected with alcohol damage, he may be drinking himself to death. It's not just the open drinking but his cooperation with us. Actually it's old Abdullah - you and him are good friends, aren't you? - who should have been sheikh, but we supported Muhammad because he was more pliable, especially since he discovered alcohol."
"All by himself, without any help?"
Yankele smiled, a dry little smile.
"As things stand now," he said, "he does everything we tell him, whoops, suggest to him. He will last down here as long as we do, and then they will finish him off for a scapegoat ,and Abdullah will take his place."
"Who will finish him off - the Egyptians?"
"No, his own tribe, I think. He's got the support of some of the younger men who make good money from tourism and have discovered cars, radios, beach girls, and, in some cases, alcohol like him; but as soon as we're out of here things are going back to what they were before and he's a dead duck."
"How about asylum?"
"It's his for the asking, somewhere around Eilat I suppose, but I am not sure he will ask. He's living in a fool's paradise and thinks it will last forever."
"You personally don't care much about what happens to him after we go, do you?"
Yankele looked at me with something like condescension.
"Cobi" he said, "the words "personally" and "care" are not in any Secret Service's dictionary. Don't you at least read thrillers, for God's sake? We have a job to do and are doing it the best we can. On our priorities list, the safety of Israel and the Israelis are at the top, and bodyguarding an impostor Bedouin sheikh in southern Sinai after we are gone somewhere at the bottom."
Sheikh Muhammad, of medium height, slim, with a black moustache, and still comparatively young, sat with his grown-up son in the corner of the deserted lobby, with several empty coffee cups in front of them, and a half-empty bottle of arack under the table.
"Ah, Captain Cobi" he exclaimed, getting up and shaking hands with me, "what a pleasure to see you again And how have you been?"
"Very well, thank you; and you yourself, Sheikh Muhammad? And you, Yussuf?"
"Also fine, thank you," they both said.
"And your family and relatives?"
"Also fine, God be praised."
It is bad form with the Bedoui to say that anyone is not well or anything is not as it should be. Even if all your family is on their deathbed and your flocks have recently perished, the custom requires you to say that everyone and everything is fine. Laugh and the world laughs with you, weep and you weep alone.
"Will you have a glass of arak, Captain Cobi?" he asked bringing the bottle out from under the table as if he kept it there for visiting infidels only.
"Just a small one, thank you. Your health, Sheikh Muhammad. Your health, Yussuf."
"And yours, Captain Cobi."
"I saw you talking to Major Yankele just now. A fine man, and a true friend of the Bedoui."
"Indeed he is."
"You know, Captain Cobi, I feel confident that the Jews and the Bedoui will remain good friends even after this coast returns to Egypt, with everything remaining as it is now, and people passing freely between Israel and Sinai. It would be a great pity if anything should come between old friends."
"A great pity indeed."
After some more polite small talk, we came to the forthcoming trip.
"There will be six guests," I told him, "then me and another one or two of our crew, probably Bob and Ilan, and perhaps Maria as well, and then two or three of your own people. Let's say we'll need a dozen camels to ride, and then another couple to carry the sleeping bags, food, and water."
"Three would be better."
"Three then. It will be the usual two-day trip: starting early in the morning from here, spending the night with old Sheikh Abdullah" (was it my imagination, or did Muhammad wince slightly at the name of his rival?) "then back along a different wadi, returning not too late so that our guests will still have the time for a dip in the sea and an evening at The Dolphin, unless their behinds are too sore from the saddles."
"They are comfortable saddles, Captain Cobi. I am sure the trip will be a great success, as usual."
We haggled for a while about the price, as the custom would have it, with Muhammad complaining about the rising prices and the devaluation, and me reminding him that I was an old regular customer who would keep bringing business his way if only the cost stayed reasonable. Finally we split the remaining difference, I gave him a deposit, and, after another cup of coffee and some more small talk we parted with repeated assurances of good will and friendship.
©1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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