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The Fast Show

Fasting in Egypt’s Sinai Desert proves a journey of self-discovery

The Fast Show
Image: Joan Dalton & Robyn Woolston

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I ARRIVE at Matamir camp — which translates as ‘upright dignity’ — late at night, after a flight from Gatwick, a drive in a minivan, a spine-grinding jeep ride and a walk through the most extraordinary lime and sandstone rock walls — one of which appeared to be illuminated by a spotlight; it turned out to be the moon.

Our eight-strong group include an artist, a picture restorer, a philosophical vegan builder, a cardiac specialist, two psychotherapists, an elegant 60-something English teacher who’d flown in from South Africa, and Satish Kumar, a former Jain monk who’d once undertaken an 8,000-mile peace walk from his native India to the US. (He’d written a book about it, No Destination — a gripping read, as I later discovered.)

Everyone has a motive for coming on this ‘Desert Feast’, hosted by members of the Bedouin community in the Sinai Desert: a few, troubled by difficult emotions, want the balm this beautiful landscape can offer; one or two are simply keen to explore Egypt in a novel way. Ultimately, what we are all seeking is an escape from the rat race. Kind, complicated and thoughtful best describes our motley crew.

Part of our three-days-and-nights experience will involve going on a solitary fast, far from Matamir, our base camp, and far from fellow retreat participants too, armed with just a sleeping bag and water. Despite this lack of nourishment, we are told a feast of spiritual and emotional riches awaits us in the baking sands. Fasting, after all, has long been the central feature of many religions and a means of achieving spiritual enlightenment.

Historically, saints and seekers of all religions have holed up in the dunes and caves of Sinai — a triangle of land between the Mediterranean and the Red Sea. Moses himself and Saint Anthony, a Christian saint and monk from Egypt, are the best-known of these. More recently, a globe-trotting English vicar, the Reverend Peter Owen Jones, spent 21 days alone in a cave here, and filmed his experiences for a BBC documentary, Extreme Pilgrim. I’d missed it, but read about his experience in the book (of the same name) and it lent added impetus to the journey I’d signed up for.

Our guide for this trip will be Danny Schmulevitch, founder of the Makhad Trust, accompanied by his partner, Joan, and 19-year-old  son, Jonathan — the latter, utterly at ease in the desert. With his golden, tufty hair, he reminds me of a young camel, although far more sweet-natured.

The Makhad Trust is a not-for-profit organisation that helps vulnerable communities overseas and in the UK. In Egypt’s Sinai Desert, I learn, it strives to preserve nomadic culture and heritage. It does this in a practical way by helping Bedouin communities build wells, schools and garden oases. Labour is offered by volunteers, flown in on working ‘journeys’. More unusually, the trust also hosts week-long fasting expeditions.

Our Bedouin hosts — of the Muzeina tribe — include a father and son, both called A’id. Men of few words, they are deeply hospitable and gracious, endlessly serving us cups of hibiscus (or karkadeh) tea and patiently showing us how to wear their traditional headgear, the keffiyah.

For the first few nights, we sleep in individual ‘starlight suites’ — little nooks in the rocks where mattresses, blankets and solar-powered lamps have been laid out. Dozing off under the twinkling Milky Way is pure magic.

In the days before the fast begins, we rise at first light and gather in a big tent to eat gargantuan vegetarian feasts of heavenly flatbread, grilled aubergine, bean stew, tuna salads, fat green juicy olives, feta cheese, eggs, rice, oranges, tomatoes and creamy halva — a rich, sweet dessert made from sesame paste.

On foot and astride camels, we explore our surroundings, marvelling at the thorny acacia trees, shimmering sand dunes, silent canyons and wind-sculpted rock formations, which Danny calls ‘desert cathedrals’ and likens to the creations of Gaudi, Bach and Michelangelo.

On a visit to the Bedouin village of Nawamis, we finally encounter some Muzeina women, modestly attired and weaving brilliantly coloured tapestries that, I am told, would become rugs for the Bedouin tents, or even the tents themselves. Thanks to the proceeds from trips like ours, the sleepy village is now the site of a soon-to-be built school, garden, tribal meeting place, and a visitor/weaving centre.

We’re not here to sightsee though and nearing our lone period, we’re told to find a space to spend our three days and three nights of fasting. “Choose a place where you can create a condition for yourself to flower,” says our guide. Easier said than done. At first, I head towards the lunar-like valley behind the camp, but am put off by the harsh appearance of the granite rocks. Before long, hot, bothered and no doubt suffering from the onset of sunstroke — despite the lilac keffiyah I am now sporting (it must be nudging 40C) — my enthusiasm for the whole venture nosedives. I wander listlessly through foot-sinking dunes, rocky escarpments and whole-boulder gulleys and back to the camp, before refuelling and setting out again. Dear God, would I ever find the hallowed retreat space? On the point of giving up, shortly before dusk, I find it.

A test of strength

At dawn, after a group gathering to meditate and watch the sun rise, I withdraw to my new home-from-home — a ledge on one side of high canyon walls, with a reassuring view of our Bedouin hosts’ camp, about half a mile away. ‘At last,’ I think, exhaling deeply.

I have with me a few clothes, a thin mattress, sleeping bag, a blanket, matches (to burn loo roll or light a candle with), a journal, a book of poetry (by Rumi, the Sufi poet), a book on fasting, a toothbrush, soap, wet wipes, moisturiser, a towel, torch, hat, gloves, fleece — for the chilly nights — and 12 bottles of water. Oh, and emergency rations of an orange and three dates, which A’id junior had slipped me.

Initially, the silence and the blue sky are deeply restful. But I begin to feel ill. It’s too soon into the fast to be suffering detox symptoms, so I must have picked up a bug. Or perhaps it’s sunstroke. Whatever the culprit, my timing is lousy. I spend the long-awaited first day either squatting with my pants down or being violently sick. Hunger certainly isn’t an issue: I have no appetite.

Mostly, I worry I’m losing too much water. Mindful of the strength of the midday sun, I move to a shady spot. All I want to do is sleep, which is fine, but frequent naps leave me groggy and lethargic.

By nightfall, I am huddled in my sleeping bag, desperate for protection against the howling, gale-force wind. Why, oh why had I chosen a wind tunnel for my desert eyrie? I spend that night whimpering. So much for the hoped-for flashes of illumination, I think, between waves of nausea and vomiting — which, urgh, the wind hurls back into my face.

Next morning, I wake up gingerly. In slow motion, I gather my things and move to a more sheltered spot: a cave-like indentation in front of a breast-shaped sand dune. Here I feel calmer, cosier. However, in place of the nausea, I now have a vile headache and palpitations. I shiver endlessly, despite the heat. I am amazed, too, at how all-consuming these symptoms are. I try to remember why I’ve come here, and can’t. Writing in my journal is a struggle. My pen feels heavy. I start to feel faint. Alarmed, I eat half an orange and a date. Equilibrium returns.

To distract myself, I take a sand bath. Stripping off, I scoop up handfuls of silky, milky white sand, mix it with a little water and scrub myself all over before stretching out in the sun to dry. My skin shimmers and I feel like a goddess. I sleep 12 hours solid after that.

Moments of calm

When I awake, my head has cleared and I am blissfully free of every one of the aches and pains that have plagued me. A small miracle. To test the waters, I go for a little walk, and return feeling stronger; so I take a second walk, and feel better still. By mid-morning, I am — there’s no other way to put it — in a state of grace. I am acutely aware of the sights and sounds around me: an eagle gliding high in the sky, the plume of an airplane and, rather incongruously, Arabic music from a far-off radio, drifting across the dunes on the breeze.

Lying on my sleeping bag with the breeze on my skin, a bee buzzes around my face and I’m transfixed. As I study the cumulus clouds and sense the sun inch across the horizon, I feel I’m becoming a part of my surroundings.

At dusk, I gather twigs from a nearby acacia tree to make a fire — my attempts don’t amount to much. No matter, suddenly I can see what fasting is all about: not just a purging of the body, but an emptying of the mind, too. I spend that night wide awake, gazing in wonder at the moon. I have never felt so still and so full.

At dawn on day four, I return to the camp to join the others. Everyone else is glowing, too, despite the struggles they’d faced. One of the group had returned to camp on the first night, another had, on the sly, arranged for a Bedouin cook to bring her food parcels. The doctor, stiff and sore all over, curses his decision not to carry a mattress from camp.

A’id and his crew prepare a magnificent breakfast for us: courgette soup, scrambled eggs, bean stew, honey, fig jam, flatbread, fruit. I can only manage a little. Then I am handed two bottles of hot herbal wash (a cleansing herb called samwa). Crouching behind a boulder, I use it to sluice the sand from my face and body. Bliss.

When I return home, insights start to flow — and continue to do so. Although I’d craved solitude before the fasting trip, the experience has brought home to me how much I value the relationships in my life. I have resolved to eat less and to savour my food more. But most importantly, I’ve learned that the enchantment I sought was already within me. Without question, it has been one of the most momentous experiences of my life.

ESSENTIALS

Egypt

Getting there
EasyJet, Thomas Cook and Thomson offer chartered flights from London and regional airports to Sharm El Sheikh. British Airways flies from Gatwick.
www.easyjet.com
www.ba.com
www.thomascook.com
www.thomson.co.uk

Average flight time: 5h.

 

Need to know
Visas: UK citizens arriving at Sharm El Sheikh airport and staying for up to 14 days don’t need a visa. However, if you arrive at Cairo airport or plan to travel outside of the Sinai, then you’ll require a visa on arrival.
Currency: Egyptian pound (£E). £1 = £E9.54.
Health: Consult your GP about the usual jabs.
International dial code: 00 20.
Time difference: GMT +3.

 

More info
Books: The Rough Guide to Egypt. RRP: £15.99.
Extreme Pilgrim by Peter Owen Jones. RRP: £9.99.
Silence and Honey Cakes: The Wisdom of the Desert by Rowan Williams. RRP£7.99.

 

How to do it
The next Desert Feast, on 8-15 October 2011, costs from £780 per person for eight days, excluding flights. This includes accommodation, food, local transport, guides and tipping. www.makhad.org
To arrange day trips, overnight stays or camel treks in Nawamis, email Mirjam Duymaert van Twist. E: mirjamdvt@gmail.com