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Go Down , Moses. A book on South Sinai

Go Down, Moses is a book about a place. A good place to start is with the subtitle: A book on South Sinai. This book is about, and limited by, a particular region in the south of the Sinai Peninsula. ‘South’, however, is not merely a matter of geographic coordinates or borders. The ‘South’ here is a territory marked by a practice: tourism. One thing that makes South Sinai different from the northern part is the predominance of tourism as the economic model. It could be that in the South one is either a tourist or works in tourism. This might be an exaggeration, for it can be difficult to think of the many other possible activities, occupations and roles as non-existent and the space in between as a social vacuum. Such an exaggeration, if it entails any kind of reality, speaks to a hegemony that leaves things in a state of perpetual polarisation, of becoming either this or that and leaving few options in between. The South explored in this book is territory defined by a set of spatial practices. [1] To this end, I like to invoke the concept of ‘territory’ and claim that South Sinai is a territory of tourism; a concept articulated not only by the markers of ownership or appropriation but by inscription of meaning. Yet, as will be explained, any historiography of tourism in Sinai cannot escape its signage as biblical territory. Borrowing on Edward Said’s remark on the ability of narrative to produce a territorial object, I wondered if it could also explain the transit from biblical territory to one of tourism. [2]

Textual landscape
Sinai has always been imagined but unseen, imagined not as a lived-in place but as a distant landscape. I would like to pause here to explain that landscape is not synonymous with place, view or scenery. Landscape means composition of the surface of the earth or an image of the land. I like to refer to W.J.T. Mitchell’s definition of ‘image’ as an actor in a historical stage, a presence or character endowed with a legendary status. [3]

Sinai first emerges in history as part of a narrative event. The word ‘Sinai’ first appears in the Hebrew Bible to refer to the mountain in the wilderness where Moses encountered divine revelation. [4] While the etymology of the word has been the subject of many theories, what is significant is that the use of the word is completely novel. It did not represent a location with a hitherto recounted history but rather the generic topography of a mountain in the wilderness. Sinai was born out of a place, beyond culture and history. Sinai was less a place than a combination of a place-in-an-event, or an event-place. It is close to what Mikhail Bakhtin would call a ‘chronotope’, except that its spatio-temporal connectedness seems to be leaning towards the temporal. [5] Sinai exists in past-time, for soon the word disappears from the rest of the Biblical text yet the afterimage of the place still lingers on.

Being an event-place, or a chronotope, means that the place (the mountain) cannot be directly re-experienced within the narrative diegesis. It also means that a textual invocation of the past event (divine revelation) will automatically invoke the spatial. Sinai continues to exist in the text in the form of a landscape image and epithet: the wilderness. Within the biblical context, the iconography of wilderness is hardly that of a non-place. The motif is of a dual character: wilderness as a place of danger, entailing encounters with demons, and therefore a place of ordeal and trial. But it is also synonymous with spiritual purity, divine grace, birth and rebirth. It is interesting to note that a Sinai-wilderness experience seems to be invoked as a favourable experience in later biblical texts to the extent of a nostalgic portrayal of a golden age. [6]

Fixing place
To be a pilgrim is to seek a destination.

Pilgrimage to Mount Sinai reached a peak between the fourth and fifth centuries. It was Emperor Justinian’s decision to build a convent at the foot of the present-day Jebel Musa that would ultimately fix the site of Mount Sinai. We do not know for sure the reason Justinian chose the less popular Jebel Musa over Serbal as the biblical Mount Sinai. The decision to opt for the more arid and less hospitable plain of Jebel Musa, sixty kilometres from the community in the Feiran valley, may well seem odd. One thing for sure is that it locates Sinai away from the population hub of Feiran and back into the wilderness. The building of the convent of St Catherine marked the point at which Sinai moved from a mythical time-place into a concrete one. Sinai was no longer an evanescent ‘somewhere’ in the wilderness but a destination on the map. For the pilgrim or the traveller, the mountain marked the moment at which the trajectory was concluded. Moreover, the monastery marked a centre, a nidus around which the space was organised. To use J.B. Jackson’s nomenclature, the mountain charted Sinai’s political landscape. [7] For centuries to come, most of the south of Sinai became a medieval demesne, a monastic holding where the monastery was the centre of judicial and fiscal authority.

The advent of modern tourism after the Six-Day War in 1967 signalled a spatial shift in the history of South Sinai. From a spatial point of view, tourism was different from pilgrimage; if pilgrimage fixes site as primary and road as secondary, the new practice would reverse that order. For the new travellers, it was the path and the landscape that mattered. These were not pilgrims but young free spirits, beatniks and nature-lovers. Sinai was seen as a natural backyard, a vast open space where one could roam freely without coming across a significant Arab population. Sinai was a land without people par excellence and viewed in sharp contrast from the mainland. While the experience was secular, it was also subtended by the myth of the initial encounter. Once again, Sinai was a counter-place.

Nodes and termini

If the beginning of tourism can be explained in terms of the forward projection of a landscape image and the ideologies it implied, the spread of tourism during the 1970s and 1980s would not have taken place without building on an existing cultural ecology and spatial practice. Such an ecology did not revolve around the act of pilgrimage, monastery, the Mountain of God or any instantiation of what J.B. Jackson would regard as political landscape, but a vernacular one. For local nomads it was not the mountain but the valleys that mattered. The valley was more accessible and temperate. The valley was the abode; the milieu of habitation where social relations were drawn along the migratory path. I prefer to use the word ‘peregrinate’ to migrate or travel. The latter denotes a change of place from origin to destination, while ‘peregrinate’ stems from the Latin roots of ‘per’ and ‘ager’, which mean across or about a territory. [8] It is a word that connotes a peripatetic state of mobility. The vernacular landscape of Sinai was a landscape of peregrination, one around about and across. Unlike the political landscape, the vernacular landscape could not be charted around a centre. Instead it was made up of nodes where social relations were concentrated.

One of these nodes was Melga, a flat area that lay at a point conjoining a number of valley outlets and across the Monastery of St Catherine. If the mountain and monastery denoted a fixity of site, Melga denoted ephemerality and transience. The word literally means ‘meeting point’. In practice, Melga was a place where local nomadic Bedouin would camp for one or two nights on their seasonal migration from the higher to the lower valleys. It was a point of congregation. After 1967, the area was frequented by a new category of traveller, nature tourists stopping on their trekking routes to the high mountain areas. Eventually, Melga would lose its ephemeral nature and become a tourist rest-spot, the core of which has since become the village of St Catherine.

Melga was one incidence of those transient social nodes-turned-economic termini. Most of the towns in South Sinai trace their genealogy to this new form of mobility, or nodality, the most basic everyday unit of which is the mag’ad. The mag’ad is like a porch, sometimes attached to the house, sometimes standing at a distance from it. Sometimes there is only a mag’ad with no house attached. A mag’ad has no walls to mark its circumference and its peripheries extend to blend into the landscape. In this regard, it is neither interior nor exterior. The word is derived from qa’ad, to sit. A mag’ad is a meeting spot—more like a salon of sorts. A mag’ad is associated not with place but with a person, family or group of families and is hence territorial in nature. It demands attention; a passerby is expected to stop, however briefly, and not doing so could be regarded as ill-mannered or even treated with suspicion. It is a point of vigilance and a point of ingress into the landscape. It is where a new entry is processed. On the one hand, it is a point of repose and, on the other, it is a point of encounter with the other, this time the tourist. This is where the new tourist first stopped. As their numbers increased, some mag’ads were separated from the residential space and allocated the sole function of being tourist rest-sites, gradually developing into the shoestring campsites dotting the Gulf of Aqaba coast and other popular trekking routes. In a manner not unlike what happened with Melga, those campsites would provide nidi for villages like Dahab and Nuweiba.
The new nodes (now shoestring camps) provided context for a new type of encounter between the tourist and the local that assigned new roles and definitions of labour and identities. The new economic enterprise introduced a separation of work space from living space. Wilderness was introduced as the sphere of work reserved as tourist space.

Pages and landscapes

Go Down, Moses is a book of landscapes. It is said that landscape is a portion of earth’s surface that can be comprehended at a glance. [9] To do so you have to step back and compose from an ample distance. But how close can one get before losing the integrity of a landscape? Could it be an interior? A close-up of a can of coke? A portrait? It is also said that landscape keeps its meaning at the surface. This landscape was a fragmented one; it is a landscape always in-the-becoming. It has no surface because there is no photo-series (and it is the series that retain harmony). This is a landscape that lost its integrity by defying the basic tenets of landscape, namely the fixity of position. It is a landscape composed from the position of the travelling or peregrinating subject, transported around and about. It is a landscape performed, where the snapshot is the visual basic unit of a real travel sentence; malleable, fleeting and unmotivated. There are no places in this book, only landscapes compiled as crosswords of snapshots where every snapshot activates the next in a flux. A nexus of banalities.

To rise before me—Rise, O ever rise,
Rise like a cloud of incense from the Earth!
Thou kingly Spirit throned among the hills,
Thou dread ambassador from Earth to Heaven,
Great Hierarch! tell thou the silent sky,
And tell the stars, and tell yon rising sun
Earth, with her thousand voices, praises God.

Hymn Before Sunrise
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Selection of images from Go Down, Moses. A book on South Sinai by Ahmad Hosni, 2009. (Unpublished)

[1Henri Lefebvre would define spatial practice as the “terms of use of the space, the interrelation of orders and what paradigms govern their meaning.” See: Henri Lefebvre, The Production of Space, translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith, Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1991, pp. 16-18.

[2MITCHELL, W.J.T. “The Panic of the Visual: Conversation with Edward Said,” in Edward Said and the Work of the Critic, ed. Paul A. Bove, Durham: Duke University Press, 2000, pp.31-50.

[3MITCHELL, W.J.T. Iconology: Image, Text, Ideology, Chicago: University Of Chicago Press, 1986.

[4Sinai is first mentioned in Exodus 1:15. Other biblical nomenclatures appear as ‘Horeb’ and ‘wilderness of Sin’ and refer to the same event-place but their use to denote specific locality is hitherto undocumented. There are a number of theories regarding the etymology of the words, but that extends beyond the scope of this article.

[5See Routledge Encyclopedia of Narrative Theory, eds. David Herman, Manfred Jahn and Marie-Laure Ryan, London: Routledge, 2005.

[6The Significance of Sinai: Traditions about Divine Revelation in Judaism and Christianity, eds. George J. Brooke, Hindy Najman, Loren T. Stuckenbruck, vol. 12, Themes in Biblical Narrative, first edition, Leiden: Brill, 2008; and Israel in the Wilderness: Interpretations of Biblical Narrative in Jewish and Christian Traditions, ed. Kenneth E. Pomykala, vol. 10, Themes in Biblical Narrative, Leiden: Brill, 2008.

[7JACKSON, J.B. Landscapes: Selected Writings of J.B. Jackson, ed. Ervin H. Zube, Massachusetts: University of Massachusetts Press, 1952, p. 143.

[8Oxford Latin Dictionary.

[9JACKSON, J.B. Discovering the Vernacular Landscape, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1984, p. 8.


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