Zygmunt Frankel

THE SHARK REEF


THE DESERT

Hour after hour, since early morning, the desert: the slow rhythmic swaying of camels, their soft plodding tread, the mounting heat, sandy wadis, and the bare steep mountains on both sides. The sea has long disappeared behind the coastal hills. There was a lot of excitement and lively talk at first, but then our guests had settled into their saddles and fallen silent; partly because of the heat - their faces were damp, with a rivulet of sweat here and there - and partly because the desert was getting hold and hypnotising them. It was very different from the standard cinema image of endless sand dunes. Had the region been richer in rainfall and colder, it might have tried competing with Switzerland; as things stand, however, the rocky mountain slopes are bare of any but the sparsest patches of sun-scorched vegetation. There is a little more of it in the wadis through which the water runs during the heavy but brief winter rains, and a few flat-topped desert trees also grow there; we had already seen an antelope cross our path. One of our Bedouin guides started pulling his rifle out of his saddle bag but then, with a look at me, slipped it back again. It was the closed season, something the Israelis have introduced. Before, and also now when nobody was looking, they shot at everything with four legs or a pair of wings that moved, and they were excellent shots. High in the sky, a vulture soared, scanning the desert for a dead or dying animal or man.

Bob and I were the only ones wearing hats; all the others had Arab keffiyahs which they bought at the souvenir shop in Na'ama, except Maria who had long owned one. (Ron and Ilan stayed with the boat.) Pierre and Claude have gone fully native, having also purchased long nightshirt-like galabiyahs.

Max had been looking a bit drawn and tense since the accident, and I would occasionally catch him throwing a quick surreptitious glance over his shoulder as if checking whether he wasn't being watched or followed. The other guests missed no opportunity to dissuade him from blaming himself for anything, saying that Werner brought it on himself by tangling with that moray eel, and had endangered Max as well. Maria also did her best to comfort him, to the extent, I believed, of spending the nights with him in the Zodiac in the stern while Helga was in my cabin. Death in one's close vicinity is supposed to be an aphrodisiac; I have seen and felt it in war, or rather right afterwards, as soon as opportunities presented themselves again.

I had been surprised at first that not a single guest has left after the accident. I thought it would scare them off diving in shark waters forever, or at least for a while. And then I thought I understood something. A diving vacation was a luxury, accessible to most people who could afford it. One paid for it and one enjoyed it. It impressed people who were not themselves divers, and it gave you a certain standing among the divers who had not been to coral reefs, but their numbers were dwindling. More and more have taken trips - to the Caribbean, the Red Sea, or the Great Barrier Reef of Australia - and many others would follow. But this death, of one of your diving companions, from a shark attack, was unique and special. For years to come, you could show a photograph of the group on board Sinbad with the Shark Reef in the background, pointing out the tanned and smiling Werner, and say "An hour after this photograph was taken..." or something of the sort. His death, after all the appropriate regret and sorrow, was an adventure, a singling out , an unexpected bonus granted the survivors, and they were going to cherish it for the rest of their lives and tell their grandchildren all about it.

At noon we stopped for a rest under a few dusty flat- crowned trees in a wadi. The heat has reached its worst, with the sun almost directly overhead. The trees gave imperfect shade, and we stretched a canvas awning between them to get a better one. Our guides prepared the sweet Beduin tea scented with mint to drink with the leathery paper-thin pittas, and we kept drinking cup after cup of it; one lost an awful amount of moisture in this dry heat. Then we dozed off for a couple of hours and woke up feeling much better except for a couple of headaches, so we drank more tea and swallowed some aspirins and salt. You had to have salt because you lost a lot of it with sweat, and it could account for the headaches. It was still as hot as before, and flies buzzed and tried to settle on our faces.

"What's that bird up there?" Max asked, looking almost vertically upwards and shading his eyes from the sun. " A vulture?"
"Yes," I said. "They soar in the hot air currents the whole day long, almost without effort, very high up. They have outstanding sight, and also keep eye-contact with their neighbours a kilometre or two away, so that when one sees something and swoops down, you can have a dozen of them, from all over the area, on the spot within an hour. One more reason not to lose one's way in the desert and run out of water."

We reached Sheikh Abdullah's camp in the late afternoon when the heat was at long last abating. The shadows were lengthening, and a light breeze had sprung up. There were a few low black tents at the end of a wadi, with small flocks of sheep and black goats near by, a camel here and there, and barefoot children running to meet us. When we stopped and dismounted, old Sheikh Abdullah himself came out to welcome us, and I introduced our guests to him. His face was very brown and old, and his beard and hair had turned completely white in the dozen or so years since we first met, towards the end of the Six-Day war.

At that time, the brigade I was serving in as a junior officer was advancing along a wadi some kilometres from here. We had taken part in a couple of skirmishes at the beginning of the short war, but since then had been moving forward unopposed, on the fringe of where it was all happening. The Egyptians were clearly beaten and on the run, and the war was due to be over any day, with the whole of the Sinai Peninsula in our hands. Then, having entered a wide and fairly straight wadi, we suddenly found ourselves under fire - small arms, mortars, and artillery - and had half a dozen killed and some twenty wounded within minutes. At the far end of the wadi, Egyptian infantry with some tanks had dug in, camouflaged themselves, and now ambushed us. We hastily took cover and returned fire, but did not attack right away. The Egyptians had had several days in which to dig in, fill a lot of sandbags, stretch barbed wire, plant mines, and camouflage their positions. They also seemed to outnumber us, and it is an old rule that an attacker should bring up about three times the resources of the entrenched enemy to take the position. Instead, we called on our airforce, which had been in control of the skies since the start of the war. They came shortly before dusk, and blasted the far end of the wadi for half an hour, leaving it in smoke and flames. During the first part of the night, the badly crippled Egyptians must also have observed, or at least heard, reinforcements reaching us while they couldn't count on any. Under the circumstances, it was no dishonour for them to withdraw as they did, during the the night. At dawn, there were only damaged vehicles and dead bodies left over there, and we occupied the position, watching out for mines and booby traps, and reorganizing to move on.

What struck us about the abandoned position was the thoroughness with which things had been stripped. One could understand the Egyptians taking with them the weapons and, why not, the money and watches of the dead whom they did not have the time to bury. But they should have also taken the dogtags and the documents of the dead soldiers instead of their mess- tins, cutlery, shoes, and blankets. They could have also left behind the toolkits, driving mirrors, radiator caps, and just about everything else that had been stripped from the abandoned trucks and tanks.

"It's the Bedoui," our colonel said.
"What, between their withdrawal and our arrival?" I asked. "In a couple of hours? In the dark?"
"It's quite enough for them, Cobi. Call it capitalist initiative."
"But we haven't heard or seen any of them at any time; can they appear and disappear like that?"
Several officers with experience of the Bedouin confirmed it.

A few days later, I was leading a small motorized patrol across a desert fallen peaceful again. The short war was over, and we were making ourselves familiar with the area, mapping, exploring, and, whenever we met them, establishing contact with the local Bedouin. Now, rounding a hill, we came upon one of their encampments. I stopped some distance away and waited. It is a Bedouin custom not to barge straight into a camp - this might be mistaken for an attack - but wait for an invitation. ( I was put in charge of one of these patrols because, in addition to my three European languages, I also knew some Arabic. On the move, our colonel had put the few of our officers who spoke it through an improvised crash course in Bedouin customs and manners, and we were appalled at what blunders could be committed and offense caused by following Western practices. Bedouin women, for example, were to be considered by the visitor transparent, invisible, and non- existent, not to be looked at or addressed. Personal weapons - this was hard to accept and took some persuasion with the men - were to be placed in a corner of the tent because the host was fully responsible for his guests' safety while they were under his roof. One was also supposed to take off one's boots, with all the unlacing it involved. During a meal, a sheep's eye was a delicacy to be gratefully accepted and eaten when offered. After a meal, a loud burp was to be brought up to show one's appreciation, and so on.

Presently a dignified elderly Bedouin came out of the largest tent, walked up to my jeep, and invited us in. It was my first meeting with Sheikh Abdullah.

While we were having coffee in his tent I saw a sheep being led aside to be slaughtered and asked Abdullah not to be offended if we declined the honour of a full meal on this occasion, being under orders to reach the coast by nightfall. Before we parted, he and I had began to be friends. I had told him about a Bedouin sheikh I knew in the Negev and it transpired that Abdullah and him were relatives. Out of earshot of my comrades, I told him about the Negev sheikh's part-time smuggling activities, mainly hashish between Jordan and Egypt, across the narrow strip of Israeli desert, to which the authorities, including me while on duty down there, would turn a blind eye. I made it sound as if the Israelis were very kind and forgiving towards the Bedoui under their rule, while the real reason must have been that combating drug addiction in Arab countries which were officially at war with us was not all that important.

When we were shaking hands near my jeep, again out of earshot, I asked him:
"Please tell me, o sheikh; what was this war really like, for the Bedouin around here?"
"We ourselves have not suffered," he said. "We kept out of the way and neither the Israelis nor the Egyptians did us any harm. But it was tragic that so many young lives were lost on both sides. Wars are very sad things, ya siddi."
"Very sad, o sheikh."

There was a short silence, as if in memory of the fallen.

"What I actually meant," I said, "was whether apart from these sad things which a righteous man can only regret, the war did not leave a little gift here and there; I am thinking, for example, of an Egyptian position not far from here which had been abandoned at night." He looked at me for a while with perfect pretence of not understanding my question, or even of being shocked at what I was suggesting, and then, having probably decided that I could be trusted, broke into a wide grin and exclaimed:

"Ya siddi; why, oh why can't you have those wars a little more often? Such treasures! Such profits to be made! Do you know how much such a beautiful automatic rifle can fetch from someone who respects weapons? And those soft warm blankets, and the tins of food, and the jerrycans. Treasures, real treasures!"

Tonight, we did have the whole leisurely meal. We started with coffee and the sweet refreshing tea while a sheep (paid for in advance in Na'ama) was being led out of sight behind the tents - a concession to tourist sensibilities - to be slaughtered for the feast. Our guests, after a day of sweat and dust, were sorry not to be able to take a shower, but accepted it as part of the desert experience.

Half-way through the meal, an army jeep showed up, with a sergeant driving, a young officer next to him, behind the mounted machinegun, and a radio operator at the back, with a tall antenna swaying over the jeep. They were on their way north, and planning to spend the night on a hill near the camp. Sheikh Abdullah, who knew the young officer - his name was Yoram - insisted that they share the meal, and after a few polite attempts at refusal they accepted, the soldiers gladly, Yoram slightly less so.

"The army around here got into the habit of sponging on the Bedoui," he told me later. "They think each of them has a bag of gold hidden in his tent, and, knowing that it is customary to offer refreshments to a visitor and even slaughter a sheep in his honour, they're overdoing it. I was trying to time our arrival here for later in the evening but failed."

The heavy meal, with piles of roast meat on large trays, following as it did a long day in the sun on camelback, left our guests sated and tired. Although the evening was growing cool and the huge desert stars had broken out all over the sky, they retired to their sleeping bags early, and the soldiers went to their jeep on the hill shortly afterwards. Abdullah and I remained by the embers of the fire, sipping coffee, smoking cigarettes, and talking in low voices.

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1997 Zygmunt Frankel - All Rights Reserved.
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