As my doctoral studies draw to a close, and the number of my days in the middle-east seem to dwindle to a bounded uncertainty, I weigh my opportunities in the balance between daring and prudence. The invitation to join a group of students and postdoctoral fellows to go diving in Dahab in the troubled land of Egypt, before my return to Scotland, was a difficult one to refuse, despite the dangers.
To some, it may seem foolhardy; to many, it would be; and indeed, perhaps it was: since the Egyptian revolution of 2011, in which the former President Mubarak fled from Cairo and the Military took control, this beautiful country, once a hive of tourism, has seemed increasingly out of bounds. And Egypt has yet to find its political feet. Mohamed Morsi’s subsequent election to the presidency in June 2012 was short-lived. Following massive protests, Morsi was forcibly removed from office, and the government ostensibly lies for the moment in the hands of an unelected acting President. Despite having one of the longest histories of any state, Egypt remains uncertain of its modern identity, violently torn between Islamic factions, and swayed by liberals and secularists.
However, living for a little while in a country many imagine to be wracked with peril, one learns to localise and relativise the dangers of the world. “Dangerous!’ cried Gandalf. ‘And so am I, very dangerous… And Aragorn is dangerous, and Legolas is dangerous. You are beset with dangers, Gimli son of Glóin; for you are dangerous yourself, in your own fashion”. Whilst the Sinai Peninsula is not to be travelled lightly, certain parts of Egypt, like the lovely coastal village of Dahab, continue to receive a steady trickle of tourists – but of a different sort; they are those who know something about the place they are going to, and some of the people who live there. Dangerous? Yes, but a danger negotiated with knowledge and risked in the familiarity of affection.
Dahab is a truly delightful and friendly village, situated on the southeast coast of the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt. For anyone who has travelled in the East, there is much that is typically Arabic, yet different, and we spent many contented hours stretched out by the sea in the Yalla Bar, one of many colourful coffee shops and restaurants on its coastal road that open out onto the sea front. Dahab is known in Hebrew as Di-Zahav, being named after one of the stations of the Israelites during the Exodus from Egypt. “We want the Israelis to start coming again”, confessed an Egyptian at our hotel, who invited me to sit with his friends by the fire to listen to haunting Bedouin songs of frustrated love. “Israeli girls are so beautiful!”
On the day of our arrival, our group set out in two jeeps across the desert to a point a few kilometres North of Dahab, to go snorkeling over ‘The Blue Hole’. This was a remarkable experience: the water is beautifully clear and alive with fish and other aquatic creatures I cannot put a name to. Within only a few feet of the shore, the rocky floor dramatically gives way to a deep blue abyss. Equipped with a snorkel so you can see and breathe under the water, it seems as though you are flying over the edge of a cliff! It also feels rather perilous. The Blue Hole has claimed many lives, and though beloved by scuba-divers everywhere, it is also known by another name: “the diver’s cemetery”.
On another day, a smaller number of us elected to climb Mount Sinai at midnight, to await the sunrise. The ascent up the Siket El Bashait (the camel road) was seldom steep, but even in the bright light of a full moon, the path at times felt treacherous underfoot. Indeed, we began on the wrong foot with our Bedouin guide, who introduced himself with the words, “I am Moses, and I will be your guide up Mount Sinai”. We couldn’t help but chuckle, yet the joke seemed to escape him: “Why do you laugh? That is my name, ok?!”. We set off up the mountain at a terrific pace, passing the monastery and many mournful camels (that appeared as rocks, until they moaned and turned their heads disdainfully), pausing finally near the summit in a freezing shelter to huddle with many other pilgrims in dirty blankets, like Afghan refugees, awaiting the coming sunrise. With the first glimmers of light breaking across the horizon, we stumbled quickly up a set of roughly hewn steps to the summit, as the skyline burst into flames across the panorama of The Holy Mountains. The view was severely spectacular, and somehow forbidding. The trip to Mount Sinai was the only time any of us felt ourselves to be ‘unsafe’, though perhaps we had nothing to fear besides our hilariously bad-tempered tour guide (and the threat of pneumonia). I myself suspect ‘Moses’ would have gladly sold us (back) into slavery with Egypt, had the opportunity arisen, but we made it back to Dahab safely.
The day I decided to go scuba-diving for the first time felt much like the morning of a major exam, to begin with; I was admittedly apprehensive. There is a certain despicable machismo that arises among sporty white men — which is finally receiving attention from the sociologists — that makes the simple pursuit and enjoyment of physical activities considerably more difficult for those who fall outside certain culturally-defined parameters. Nevertheless, I wanted to overcome my fears and go diving! After a remarkably short time above the water, learning some basic survival skills with an instructor, we plunged beneath the waves, and the sea floor dropped sharply away beneath us, as we glided over coral reefs and swam amidst small shoals of exotic Red Sea fish. It is a truly remarkable – even spiritual – experience, with your life hanging by the cord connecting the tank you must carry on your back to the regulator you must bite in your mouth, sinking ever-deeper away from the familiar world and into the hands of an unseen instructor hovering close behind, where you cannot see him. Yet you forget the fear, as you gaze at the wonderful things around you in a very different world in which you have briefly been permitted entrance. Perhaps I have surprised myself by swallowing my fears this week (as well as a certain quantity of salt water). Undoubtedly there are many who would be surprised, if I troubled to tell them half the things I get up to when they aren’t around.
There is perhaps nothing so sad in life as the feeling of being unknown. And there is perhaps nothing so galling in life as the presumption of people who think they know us. Those who feel unknown feel unloved, but those who imagine they know us ‘to a T’ seldom love what they see –- on the contrary, they dismiss it, and we are not free to express what we are or what we are becoming around them. Yet the command to ‘love one another’ that reverberates down the centuries is not a call to delimit with dismissive categories, but to fan into the flames of actuality, through eternity, what exists now as inexhaustible potency; the imago dei in each of us is not readily circumscribed. Pride and prejudice, however, leave us ill-placed to know each other, or even ourselves. For we can only know in part what we only see in part; we are called to love an unseen whole which belongs to One who alone may call himself “I am”. And we ought to tremble at this mystery, which descended upon Mount Sinai in fire: we are finite knowers, made in the image of the Infinite.
Our opportunities for knowing and loving each other, in this life, are also limited and fraught with peril. Today, a tourist bus containing Korean pilgrims on route from Mount Sinai exploded within a mere fifty meters of the Egyptian-Israeli border, only hours after our own safe passage across the Sinai peninsula. I myself suspect the bus contained the same Koreans we met on the summit singing Christian hymns — a grievous turn of events. Our guide in Egypt, a pious Muslim and an old friend to some of our group, wrote the following message to us: “I thank God that you are all safe… I couldn’t hold my tears when I heard the news from Taba. I really do love you all”. There is more to living life well as a Physicist than computing the Lagrangian on survival and success. I am glad I went diving in Dahab.