Go Down, Moses
SOUTH SINAI – PILGRIMAGE SPOT. ARID WILDERNESS. TOURIST ENCLAVE.
Photographs courtesy Ahmad Hosni
Originally barred from publication in his native Egypt in 2010 by the local authorities, Ahmad Hosni‘s latest project, Go Down Moses, has been newly released online. A collection of essays by both Hosni and numerous other writers, the project documents the transformation of the region of South Sinai from a pilgrimage site and inhospitable ‘wasteland’ to a tourist enclave, and is embellished with Hosni’s own photographs of the region.
I recently got the chance to talk to Ahmad about his project, as well as the region in general, and its local inhabitants – particularly the Bedouin.
What prompted you to decide to publish a book about tourism in Sinai?
Sinai has a very interesting spatial history, and this is something that has hardly been researched, especially in comparison to Sinai’s cultural and religious history. You would be surprised to know how little written material there is out there regarding contemporary Sinai. Beyond travel sorties on one end, and Biblical studies on the other, there is virtually nothing in the fields of social sciences and the humanities, which is a shame. However, it is also understandable, because for a long time, Sinai was a difficult place to penetrate, partly due to logistical difficulties, and partly due to Sinai’s troubled histories. Researchers could not just do fieldwork there the way they would in Cairo. Areas are not easily accessed – physically and otherwise – beyond the sphere of the touristic. It is still hard to access, in many ways, and in many zones, particularly in the hinterland; or perhaps there’s just a lack of interest – I’m not sure. It’s probably a mix of both. It was for a long time, and still is, a forgotten land.
On the other hand, I have always been interested in the question of place: how does it come into being, and how is it represented? I wanted to do something related to the place I knew the most. I wanted to engage my personal encounter with the place using photography. Photography is a congenial medium for that phenomenological approach to things: to start from the experiential, and see how things appear to you, and how you correlate to them, and to engage this relatedness between myself (as a tourist, resident, and researcher) and the place.
How would you say tourism has affected South Sinai in recent years? What effect has this had on the local populace, as well as the ‘atmosphere’ of the land as a whole?
Tourism constitutes the main bulk of the economy in South Sinai, with numbers reaching up to 90% of the local economy, according to some reports. It’s the main source of income for the majority of the local population. However, that’s not all – it’s not just a matter of GDPs; tourism was the main ‘shaper’ of South Sinai.
Tourism is embroiled in the condition of modernity of the region that started to operate by the end of the 1960s. The advent of tourism heralded a new social and economic formation. It introduced a new condition of capital, and hence a whole new relation to the land. It was the time of a transition from the nomadic (or semi-nomadic) life to a sedentary one. Land became property.
True – tourism became the most lucrative source of income, although this new condition – this new social formation and social ecology – should not simply be reduced to the economic perverseness of that mode of production. We are talking about two generations (since the end of the 1960s) that grew to see their lives and their environment in terms of tourism as practice. There was also a gradually developing cultural perverseness of tourism – or a hegemony of it, rather. That is a totality that bestows cogency on something, and that dictates roles and assigns identities. Tourism is the main factor shaping and modulating that space in which all sorts of social interactions take place – a horizon of possibilities.
The advent of tourism heralded a new social and economic formation. It introduced a new condition of capital, and hence a whole new relation to the land
Everybody in Sinai would work in tourism, or grow to see tourism as the normal course of life. All that developed rapidly, starting from the beginning of the nineties. Now, the region is a tourist enclave. One cannot think of South Sinai without considering the conditions of tourism. As a matter of fact, the term ‘south’ in South Sinai, in contrast to the North, is a complete product of the social formation of tourism. There was simply no South Sinai before, as distinct from a ‘North Sinai’ prior to that. The South is where tourism reigns, and striates that space. Tourism put South Sinai on the map.
How do the benefits brought about by tourism and the transformation of the region into a major tourist destination for outsiders and Egyptians alike weigh against its more negative impacts?
Tourism is not necessarily negative. The book is a critique of tourism, yet it does not decry tourism as a negative thing, per se. What is problematic, is when you take tourism to be the modality for development. This, unfortunately was – and still is – the authorities’ approach to local development in the region. Their thinking is as such: if we build more five-star hotels, we will bring more tourists, and make more money and hire more people, and everybody will be happy.
This is, of course, faulty logic. Firstly, it ignores the fact that a region such as South Sinai, with such an ecologically fragile condition, cannot sustain mass tourism. Secondly – and more relevant to our discussion – tourism creates inequitable conditions of labour. The whole development strategy that projects the Gulf of Aqaba coast as a ‘Rivera’, apart from being unattainable, creates and augments inequitable distributions of income. Large sweeps of land along the coast were bought for cheap prices from local Bedouins to build major tourist complexes.
However, the thing is that they don’t really benefit from that. ‘I will never here a Bedouin’, a landowner would confess. I’ve heard that so many times. This can’t be reduced to bigotry so much as a response to a market logic of professionalism. The thing that most Bedouins don’t have access to – education and training – are the things that hamper their employment opportunities in the future, even in the field of tourism. The Government paid little attention to things like education and medical service when they discussed employment. They just thought of room capacity and better roads.
As a result, Bedouins are gradually left with no option but to move deeper and deeper into the hinterland. The space of South Sinai is striated into two spaces: one along the coast, and the other in the hinterland, separated by an asphalt road – a border that separates the two spaces along economic, as well as ethnic lines. The coast is run, owned, and inhabited by expatriates and Egyptians from the Nile Valley, and expatriates from all over the world. The hinterland, on the other hand, is exclusively Bedouin – a land with few water resources and medical facilities, and absolutely no job opportunities except in dwindling safari businesses, poppy plantations, drugs, arms, and human trafficking. It’s not a great place to be – although our romantic imaginations would tell us otherwise.
Things were not always like that, though. The original model of tourism (up until the mid-nineties) was the shoe-string camp, usually run by a local Bedouin. It was a very humbled, limited luxury (with of course very limited capacity), but it was a livelihood for many. It was very different from the current model that fosters the transformation of spaces into enclaves.
In his 1959 travelogue, Arabian Sands, the renowned British explorer Wilfred Thesiger lamented the decline of the Bedouin way of life in the Empty Quarter, and shuddered at the thought of the adverse effects of modernity on them. More than 50 years after Thesiger’s book was published, would you say he had due cause to ‘mourn’? What is the state of the Bedouin in the tourist enclave that South Sinai has become?
I am not aware of Wilfred Thesiger’s book, I have to admit. My project is different from his, however. My focus is not the traditions of the Bedouin, or their way of life; the book does not feature any essays on that subject. It is, of course, the predicament of this social group that comes as the result of those forces of production in South Sinai that is worthy of investigation, and I allude to this in my essay, Faulkner in Sinai. I am interested in the place, and how it came into being. What ideologies and forces that produced the palimpsest of space called South Sinai?
Tourism is not necessarily negative. The book is a critique of tourism, yet it does not decry tourism as a negative thing, per se. What is problematic, is when you take tourism to be the modality for development
Your reference is significant nonetheless, as I realised that whenever a body of photographs features images of ‘different’ people (e.g. a veiled woman, a man in ‘exotic’ attire, etc.), there would always be the tendency to recoil to a discourse of the ‘other’. There are aesthetics that modulate our expectations of what is legible, and what can be said.
Mecca, Jerusalem, Sinai – three major sites of pilgrimage that have, in the last century, seen an incredible influx of tourists and visitors from around the world, and which have undergone significant transformations. How would you say the ‘commercialisation’ of such holy sites has impacted their religious and spiritual significance?
There is a major connection between pilgrimage, tourism, and commercialism. It is not a new phenomenon. Pilgrimage and tourism, as forms of mobility, have always been entangled in some form of economics. Pilgrimage sties exist as a result of spatial practice, and its associated economic practice. Mecca is a case, of course, of a site that has always been a commercial city on the route between Yemen and the Levant.
Sinai is different, however, in one crucial way: Mecca and Jerusalem have always been cities. They have always been urban centres far before they became pilgrimage sites, whereas Sinai was not one. Sinai is an arid place, inhospitable to human inhabitation. Sinai came into existence as an actual, findable, and visitable place that could be visited as a result of itinerary mobility that took place during the early centuries of Christianity, which aimed to locate the site of divine revelation. In other words, it came as the result of pilgrimage, and mobility came prior the actual place and the map. As well, the place was less entangled in economic activity until the birth of modern tourism in the 19th Century, to some extent, and the late 20th Century. However, if we look at the similarities between tourism and pilgrimage, one can discern an interesting commensurability in the two. Sinai is the encrustations of these forms of mobility culminating in commercial mass tourism.
Why do you believe, since time immemorial, cartographers, geographers and historians alike have been fascinated with pinpointing the exact location of Mount Sinai? As you mentioned in your essay, Faulkner in Sinai, ‘… to change the geographical coordinates of the place did not change its obverse side: the event, with all its significations, spatial or otherwise’.
This has to do with the history of Sinai as a spatial entity. Sinai first appears in history as part of a narrative, as the mise-en-scène of a story; it did not reflect a real place. It might sound implausible, however, to call a place like Sinai ‘unreal’. Let me explain. There was no place known as Sinai in the cultural history of the region. Of course, the land we now recognise as the Sinai Peninsula has always been there, although it was not recognised as being a spatial entity, and likewise the mountain that later came to be called Mount Sinai. The area existed as wilderness in the generic sense – wilderness as a place that existed beyond culture, beyond the human – a ‘non-place’.
The word ‘Sinai’ suddenly appears in the Torah, as a reference to a mountain in the ‘wilderness of Sinai’. Historically speaking, there was not a place designated as such. The word itself, etymologically and philologically speaking, is not known to have been in use during that historical period.
Sinai is an arid place, inhospitable to human inhabitation. Sinai came into existence as an actual, findable, place that could be visited as a result of itinerary mobility that took place during the early centuries of Christianity
This fact posited a question for generations to come: what did the word mean? And above all, where did the mountain – or rather, the ‘wilderness of Sinai’ – lie? The very basic interpretation would be ‘that high place in the wilderness where divine revelation took place’. This played on an old archetype of city versus wilderness. Sinai was the ‘other’ place, outside, and obverse to Constantinople, Alexandria, and Jerusalem. This, of course, fascinated hermits, pilgrims, geographers, and explorers to try and locate the site. It all began during the early centuries of Christianity in the Eastern Roman Empire, and it was this recurrent process of itineration that would eventually ‘fix’ the place to where we now identify it. However, the mountain and the wilderness were always referred to as being in the precincts of Sinai – not the peninsula.
What is interesting here, are two things: one, that an event became the ultimate reference to the locality (i.e. Sinai was not an X,Y coordinate on a map, but a place where X happened on ‘cultural map’), and second, the insistence on Sinai as being wilderness – a trait that would add to the mythical nature of Sinai. There is, in the notion of wilderness, something that defies the fixity of the idea of the locale. This would give Sinai the buoyancy to be translated in different cultural and historical contexts, particularly in North America.
What is the connection between Faulkner and Sinai? Not only but does the title refer to a novel by William Faulkner, but you’ve also dedicated the book to him, and wrote about him in one of the essays in the book. What is the connection between Faulkner and Sinai?
Of course I had to dedicate the book to the man – I used his title! Firstly, of course, it was a matter of personal preference. I’ve always been a fan of Faulkner. I believe he is probably the greatest figure in English literature. There is something about Faulkner’s stories that makes them captives of a past, and holds onto events to the point where the future becomes a ‘future-past’ – something that will have occurred.
But that’s not all, of course – I did appropriate that title for a reason. It has mainly to do with the way places are featured in Faulkner’s stories. All his novels are situated in this fictional place in the Mississippi, which are not charted along geographic coordinates, but on events. Faulkner had drawn an actual map of the area – a country he called Yoknapatawpha – although instead of marking it with localities, he used novel titles, characters from novels, genealogies, and events, adding new territories every time he wrote a new novel. He wrote Go Down, Moses in 1942, and added a new territory of the same name, which intrigued me in its relation to place.
Faulkner indeed had a keen sense of place in his novels, and Go Down, Moses was no exception. As a matter of fact, place figured more saliently in this novel than any other, although I was mostly intrigued by the figure of Moses in the title, because there did not seem to be a clear reference to the storyline. Why did he title his novel so? Faulkner was tapping into a cultural history in America that remorphed Moses as a semantic figure – meaning that Moses had stopped being a historical figure, and was transformed into a meaning, a signification, and a fold of knowledge that will reappear in different forms according to different configurations of knowledge. What made this figure so reproducible in America was that it was tied to a set of tropes, with a complex relation to the land/wilderness, and hence to Sinai. There is a metonymy at play between all these figures, of which Faulker was aware, and he knew what he was doing by using such a title in a novel about land and class relations. Accordingly, this turns Sinai into a figure in Faulkner’s novel, even though he does not use the word.
As a Cairo-based gallery owner once told me, ‘Sinai is a vacation, and Bedouins like to stay in the sun. You make it sound like a time-bomb’. This summarises the place Sinai occupies in the public’s imagination – a tourist spot with friendly, laid-back, marijuana-smoking Bedouins
I never appropriately understood Faulkner’s story until I got to terms with his idea of place – of Yoknapatawpha. If Faulkner could use Moses in talking about his ‘South’ and its particular conditions, I thought I too could use the same title to discuss conditions in Sinai brought about by tourism, and take Moses ‘back where he belongs’, perhaps.
How do you view the future of South Sinai, especially in light of the recent political upheavals in Egypt? Will the free-spirited, lawless spirit of the Bedouin continue to endure, or will Thesiger’s worst fears eventually manifest themselves in the fullest?
I am not interested in preserving a Bedouin ‘spirit’, or anything of the sort. What matters for me is that people live a better life – not that they preserve their folklore. Unfortunately, this (the preservation of folklore) is the same approach employed by the Government that has led to the very predicament of the population being used as mere props in a diorama, and on tourist postcards. Of course, lives have changed – the Bedouin are not nomads anymore. Believe me, that is not a fun life to lead. Thesiger may be excused for thinking this in the 1950s, but we cannot be thinking so in 2012.
Unfortunately, as long as the ‘more hotels equals better life’ equation continues to underscore our approach to the region and its inhabitants, things are going to get worse. In 2006, the EU commission gave a grant of € 62m for the development of South Sinai, a project of which every single initiative funded was related to tourism in one way or another. Since then, life has gotten worse for the locals, and continues to. People plant poppies for harvesting opium, traffic drugs, arms, and people, and still live in extreme poverty because there is nothing else to do. Things are not going in the right direction at all. The recent events are just an indication of what could come next, and obviously, the officials in Cairo are unable to grasp the core of the problem.
In 2010, just a few weeks before your book was due to be published in Egypt, the local authorities refused its release. Why do you think this was so?
As a Cairo-based gallery owner once told me, ‘Sinai is a vacation, and Bedouins like to stay in the sun. You make it sound like a time-bomb’. This summarises the place Sinai occupies in the public’s imagination – a tourist spot with friendly, laid-back, marijuana-smoking Bedouins. This book is about a troubled land, and the local authorities did not like that fact. They would have preferred a more heritage-oriented, flashy touristy book. This book has no essays on heritage or culture.
That was just one reason. The other relates to the troubled relations between Sinai (as the periphery) and Egypt’s political centre. Tourism development in Sinai also serves another purpose (i.e. aside from its economic one), namely to re-territorialise the region which had long been a detached, disconnected, and rather forgotten ‘wasteland’. This is understood against the troubled territorial history of the area during since the beginning of the Arab-Israeli conflicts. The locals regard the beginning of recordable history as being 1982, and the main reason for this is tourism. It does seem that the book does not take that moment in history as its starting point, which is of course, a very limited view that I was not willing to subscribe to. Thus, I opted to pursue the book on my own.
Joobin Bekhrad (BBA, MSc.) is the Founder and Editor of REORIENT, as well as the Co-Founder of artclvb, an online platform for contemporary Middle Eastern art. He is also the author of a new translation of Omar Khayyam's poems from Persian into English.
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