This story appears in the March 2009 issue of National Geographic magazine.
All seemed quiet in the coastal village of Taba. On this night, as on every other, the sun dropped west behind the Sinai mountains so that darkness slid downhill, gathering speed as it approached the sea. At the Hilton resort, guests shrugged off bikinis in favor of evening dresses and sport coats. The desert wind blew cold at night in October, so the hotel's management drained the seawater pool until morning.
The Red Sea resort offered a miniature model of the Sinai dream—the dream of a Middle East where old enemies trade land for peace and terrorism for tourism. The British ran the hotel, Egyptians staffed it, Europeans and Russians—and many Israelis—frequented it. Outside, Egyptian and Israeli flags fluttered alongside each other. True, a month earlier the Israeli government had warned of an imminent terrorist attack, but such warnings always came and went. Here visitors could forget that the two longtime enemies had traded possession of the peninsula several times in the past half century or so. During wars in 1956, 1967, and 1973 Egypt and Israel stormed across the peninsula; in 1979 the two countries signed a peace deal, and Israel yielded control to Egypt once more. The pact still stands after 30 years.
Sinai has always been a place of such paradox—a harsh land of ethereal beauty, of both strife and symphony. Despite all the peninsula's geopolitical importance, for instance, its largest population is the group that cares least about national identity: the Bedouin. During the back-and-forth battling of recent decades, the tribal people blended so well into the landscape that they almost seemed a natural feature, like dunes trodden by conquerors.
As the evening deepened, guests migrated from the restaurants to the casino, bar, and discotheque. Everyone celebrated Sinai-related holidays on this weekend: The Egyptians remembered their army's thrust into the peninsula in the 1973 Yom Kippur War, and the Israelis commemorated their ancestors' biblical journey through the desert. In recent years people had taken to calling this coast the Red Sea Riviera. It embraced a decadence and an abandon that set it apart from the rest of Egypt.
The Israeli border lay just a few yards away. Beyond it, in Elat, off-duty firefighter Shachar Zaid emerged from a movie theater where he and his wife had just watched an American film about firefighters. That's when a muffled sound rolled through the town: whomp.
Zaid ran with his wife toward the sound, toward the border. Along the way he met his off-duty fire chief, changing into his uniform in his car, and six other firefighters arriving with the town's three trucks. Zaid climbed atop one of the ladder trucks with his chief, and they approached the border without knowing exactly what lay beyond. Egyptian soldiers, equally unsure what was happening, stood blocking the checkpoint with automatic rifles.
Staring at each other across an invisible line, the Egyptians and Israelis encountered a sudden international dilemma. How they acted that night in 2004 would become emblematic of everything that had come before in Sinai's past and everything that lay ahead. The Egyptians had to decide whether to defend their sovereignty against an old enemy. And the Israeli firefighters faced their own choice: Whether to stage an eight-man incursion onto Arab soil.
For millennia the Sinai Peninsula has served as a bridge. A land bridge for people moving from one continent to another, yes, but also a metaphysical bridge between man and God. The forebears of the three great monotheistic religions are all said to have sought refuge in this triangular desert. According to the Bible, Moses received his assignment in Sinai when God spoke to him from the burning bush, then wandered the desert with his people for 40 years. As a child, Jesus and his family fled into Sinai to escape a jealous King Herod's wrath. Early Christians hid from Roman persecutors among the peninsula's lonely mountains, establishing some of the first monastic communities.
The oldest continuously operating Christian monastery in the world—St. Catherine's—sits at the foot of Mount Sinai, where Moses is said to have received the Ten Commandments. It is Sinai's spiritual hub. "Sinai is the only place where we have icons from the sixth century to the present," Father Justin, a monk, told me. He walked in long black robes, his silver beard reached halfway to his thin waist, and his face glowed, all of which recalled Moses himself descending with the stone tablets. The monastery compound is embraced by mountain peaks, all pink-faced, as though flushed by the high elevation. Among the basilica, the library, and other structures, Justin pointed out a less expected one with a small crescent on top: a mosque.
According to monastic tradition, Muhammad also took refuge in Sinai, during the seventh century, and stayed at the monastery. Today the monks live alongside Muslim Bedouin who work in the monastery, and Justin said the relationship—contradictory, at first glance—illustrates something special about this in-between place.
"When you look at conflicts in the world today, so many are centered on the Middle East and tensions that have been here for millennia," he said. "And then the Sinai becomes a very important symbol, because you have fervent Christians and very fervent Muslims, and we're divided by language, by religion, by culture, by so many things that make for conflict, and at the same time there's been this amazing harmony."
The key, he said, is simple: "I think there's a common reverence for Sinai as a holy mountain." Their common interest, that is, supersedes their differences.
Fourteen centuries ago Muhammad agreed. After his encounter with the monks here, he issued an oath of protection for "the Monks of Mount Sinai, and … Christians in general," a handwritten copy of which Justin keeps in the ancient library. Muhammad decreed that "whenever any one of the monks in his travels shall happen to settle upon any mountain, hill, village, or other habitable place, on the sea, or in deserts, or in any convent, church, or house of prayer, I shall be in the midst of them."
And further to the point: "No one shall bear arms against them, but, on the contrary, the Muslims shall wage war for them."
A radical young man—a dentist, of all things—decided in 2002 to form a terrorist group in Sinai. The details of his early work emerged only after questionable interrogations by Egyptian authorities, including alleged torture, but the story is familiar in its broad aspects: Khalid Al Masaid formed Tawhid wa Jihad—Unity and Holy War—to lash out against the United States and Israel, which he felt had humiliated the Arab world. Al Masaid regarded Egypt's 1979 peace deal with Israel as a collusion with the West. The deal led to the creation of the Multinational Force and Observers, an international team of peacekeepers who stifle movement along the Egypt-Israel border. To Al Masaid, the peacekeepers were more than an affront; they cut him off from possible Palestinian help. The dentist needed followers—disaffected young men willing to strike out against authorities, against tourists, against Israel, against Egypt itself. He found them among Sinai's own people.
Sinai's land bridge has offered passage for prophets and pilgrims, traders of goods and ideas. But like any bridge it also holds strategic value in war. Armies have marched across its dunes as long as men have fought: the pharaohs with their chariots, the Persians, the Greeks, the Romans. The Islamic conquerors and their nemeses, the European crusaders. The Ottoman Turks and the British. All have carried the sands of Sinai on their soles.
The latest iteration of war, between the Egyptians and Israelis, shaped life on the peninsula today. It shaped the literal topography—bunkers and trenches still cross the horizon—but it shaped the human landscape in more unexpected ways. Although the current truce began 30 years ago, mainland Egyptians still often regard Bedouin, the desert herdsmen who make up more than half of Sinai's 360,000 or so people, as collaborators with the enemy. The Bedouin simply showed no loyalty to any government, Egyptian or otherwise.
As I left Mount Sinai, a policeman directed me onto the roadside at one of Egypt's many police checkpoints. A junior officer climbed into the backseat. He said he was "from Egypt," which in Sinai meant he came from Cairo, and he wanted a ride across the peninsula. Such behavior is expected in Egypt, where the police are imbued with universal power. But something more surprising happened as we drove past a water pipeline the Egyptian authorities were laying through Sinai, as part of an effort Sinai dwellers call the "Cairo-fication" of the peninsula.
"Never stop to pick them up," the policeman said, indicating a family of Bedouin with their goats. He shook his head in the rearview mirror. "They are treacherous. They are not human."
Unlike people in many other Arabic countries who revere the Bedouin—consider Saudi royals swaying in a traditional Bedouin sword dance or Libya's leader pitching a tent during a state visit in Paris—Egyptians have never embraced desert-dwelling tribes. The Bedouin migrated from the east; the Nile inhabitants came from the west. The Bedouin historically roamed vast territories, but Nile culture is agrarian, respectful of cultivation and stillness, and suspicious of nomadic wandering.
In the 1970s, after Israel took over Sinai following the Six Day War, its government—also uncomfortable with paperless, border-defying citizens—pinned down the Bedouin with jobs, paying them to manage Sinai's vast nature reserves, among other things.
In Israel I had met with Dan Harari, who worked as a bureaucrat governing southern Sinai during Israel's administration. In his home office was a photo of him sitting at an unlikely desk planted in the desert, signing checks for a line of tribesmen that extended beyond the frame. "We knew we couldn't control the Bedouin," he said, "so we just used their knowledge of the place." It worked, he said, telling stories about a Bedouin man he "loved like a brother." After Israel fully ceded control of Sinai in 1982, the Egyptian government dismantled the Bedouin program and formed the Tourism Development Authority, designed to stake a claim on valuable land.
Near a freshwater spring in the Sinai mountains, I spoke with a tiny, elderly Bedouin woman named Sheikha Salima, who estimated her age as 70 or 80, maybe more. She looks back on the peninsula's alternating conquerors much as she does the alternating striations in the cliffs surrounding her goat-hair tent: They merely mark the fickle passage of time. "It was better when the Israelis were here," she said, shaking a bead-strung fist in defiance, not at an abstract Cairene power but at the junior police officer just a few feet away. "They have destroyed our customs," she shouted with the bravery of untouchable old age. Her veil fluttered before her puffed breath. "They have pushed us from our land."
Her well was almost dry, and goat droppings carpeted the floor of her home. In the old, migratory days she might have moved on during the difficult season. Now she had nowhere to go.
The policeman shrank from the Bedouin woman's wrath. He understood what she meant about the land. And he knew too well just how explosive such anger could prove.
Deep in the desert in the spring of 2004, a group of men gathered with a peculiar set of equipment. They carried mobile phones, washing machine timers, gas cylinders, and TNT. The explosives came from the desert, where they had been discarded following the easing of tensions with Israel. A religious extremist named Iyad Salah—a follower of the dentist Al Masaid—had recruited this small group, which included a day laborer, an appliance repairman, and a metalworker. Others were jobless, and most came from a town called El Arish, on the Mediterranean at Sinai's northern edge. Among the dunes the men rehearsed their plot, setting off explosives in the sand.
The pair of near-naked women onstage found the bass beat as the disc jockey tweaked the volume, and the huge screen behind them showed two cherries quivering on stems. Above the crowd two other women twirled and dangled on elongated silk sheets, hardly noticed by 2,000 young people dancing below. An air of expectation filled the club called Pacha, expectation mingled with liquor and deodorant, and everyone watched a duct overhead until—yes, at last—it gushed bubbles and white foam. From somewhere, everywhere, young people appeared in bathing suits and underwear, leaping into the foam and then splashing into the club's pool.
"Where did you get the dancing girls?" I asked Adly El Mestekawy, the club's owner. "They're not Egyptian."
El Mestekawy laughed, moving to the beat. "Russia," he said.
After Egypt last resumed control of the Sinai, businessmen from the Nile Delta developed its coastline with remarkable speed, importing Cairene values, workers, materials, rhythms. The peninsula boasts some of the finest dive sites in the world, luring young tourists from Europe and beyond. Bedouin grazing grounds gave way to international hotels, clubs, shops, bars. Traditional culture bowed to glitz. The Sinai fractured, with a schism between coast and inland that may as well have split the Earth's crust.
El Mestekawy, a Cairo native, pioneered the development in Sharm el Sheikh, near the peninsula's southern tip. In his office, away from the thump of the dance floor, he unfurled a colossal photo of the town 20 years ago—except there was no town. The photo showed only a squat gray building, a few tents, the sea, and endless desert. "There we are," he said, pointing to the gray lump. It started as a hotel and later became a nightclub. "Otherwise just the Bedouin."
Where are they now? I asked.
He waved a hand west. "The hills," he said.
Along the boulevards outside the club, thousands of tourists flocked beneath electric palm trees, sipping mango smoothies and wearing sunglasses at midnight. The only Egyptians in sight served drinks and gave out flyers. They were the lucky ones who held work permits that allowed them past the checkpoints outside the city.
The next day the scene on the beach might have been Ibiza or St.-Tropez, except for the rarest reminder that we were indeed in the Middle East: Topless sunbathers strained to ignore the lone figure in a full black niqab, sitting like a slab of onyx while her husband splashed in the surf.
El Mestekawy's assistant, Timi, drove me in his boss's sport-utility vehicle to see his next business venture. As we rounded a bend on the coast, an enormous sand castle loomed. "Biggest in the world," Timi said. When it's finished, he explained, it will serve as a marine playground, with an aquarium, water park, and restaurants.
We climbed the castle, dodging workers from Cairo who were building the structure, which wasn't made of sand but from chunks of fossilized coral. At the top we overlooked the Red Sea with its treasures: a thousand species of fish, coral reefs, mangroves. This beautiful, fragile underwater ecosystem started the boom, and now, remarkably, Sinai has overtaken Cairo and the mainland as Egypt's top tourism destination. The population of Sharm el Sheikh has leaped tenfold in 20 years, while the number of tourists has gone from 8,000 a year to more than five million.
When Egypt took over control of the Sinai, the state—eager to stamp the territory as its own—bulldozed Bedouin camps and homes to make way for wealthy mainland investors. One hundred percent of Sharm el Sheikh's coastline now belongs to developers. Bedouin tribe members believed in a principle called wadaa al-yad—literally, "put your hands"—by which a man owns land when he improves it with irrigation, for instance, or trees. So some Bedouin laid concrete foundations beside their homes, hoping the nod to permanence might impress the state and save their property. But the government bulldozed those as well.
One powerful Bedouin tribal leader, Sheikh Ishaysh, refused to abandon his camp on the coast north of Sharm el Sheikh in a village called Nuweiba. "They came with a rich man who said he had bought my land," he said. The sheikh shook his head—the rich man had dug no wells and planted no trees. "I told them, 'I will die here.' " Sheikh Ishaysh stared down the developers, but many of his compatriots simply gave up and moved inland.
Meanwhile the Cairo-fication reached beyond cement and pipes. Few scholars have studied the Sinai Bedouin closely, but Clinton Bailey, a respected anthropologist, has spent four decades among the tribes. His assessment is bleak. "In the 1970s there were many poets composing traditional poems with contemporary content. Today there isn't even one worthy of the name poet," he said. "Daughters are no longer taught to weave carpets and tent curtains. Young men know less and less about the relationship between tribes or sections of tribes. The diet is no longer traditional. Very few still know tribal stories and histories."
Reaching El Arish, home of most of the men who rehearsed their plan in the desert, isn't easy. All roads connecting south Sinai to the north are considered "security roads" and off-limits to visitors. I bypassed them by driving up the west side of the peninsula, giving Cairo as my destination at police checkpoints, joining a line to ride a ferry across the Suez Canal to the capital, then instead veering away toward the Mediterranean coast.
The north feels separate in more ways than bureaucratic; even the landscape bears no resemblance to the high, pink mountains of the south. Sand dunes roll into the distance, reclaiming roadways and stretching all perspective at eye level. Everything seems far away in northern Sinai.
The Egyptian government once saw much promise in the north coast. A generation ago El Arish shone like a jewel on the Mediterranean, with wide beaches and rows of palm trees that produced fleshy dates. The city received the state's favor, and good schools grew up among resorts and businesses. Geographically El Arish is better suited than the south for touristic development, with its flat topography easing into sandy beaches and shallow seas, rather than steep mountains crashing down to coral reef.
But two decades ago the explosion of southern development drew all resources away from the north. And unrest in Gaza, just 30 miles away, drove out the last foreign tourists.
Entering El Arish now feels like attending a spooked dinner party, with plates of half-finished food and empty chairs where the guests should be. I passed a shuttered tourism office and a boulevard of abandoned resorts that faced the Mediterranean. In the city center young men stood on sidewalks, gazing into the streets, as though perpetually awaiting something. According to one study, more than nine out of ten people age 20 to 30 have no full-time job, much less any hope of obtaining a work permit for resorts in the south.
After a short time in El Arish, following weeks elsewhere in Egypt, something felt out of place: There seemed to be no women. In other parts of Sinai any social divisions relate to class and tradition, not religion, and women appear in public as often as men. But El Arish has drifted into a brand of Islamic conservatism that keeps women mostly at home and almost always covered. This is the environment in which Iyad Salah recruited his Bedouin conspirators, including the Flayfil brothers, Muhammad and Suleiman.
I found the Flayfil home in a poor village on the outskirts of El Arish. A boy ran to bring out elderly Sheikh Ahmed Flayfil, who blinked as he entered the sun-blanched courtyard. He did not sit or pour tea, which broke all Bedouin protocol. After a long look, he asked, "Are you here to ask about my dead sons?"
The sheikh sighed and stared out toward the never ending dunes. People in town talked about how his sons had grown long beards and retreated to the desert for their prayers instead of joining their neighbors in the mosque. The sheikh had disowned his sons.
At last he said, "They died."
And he withdrew with no further word.
There were two other bombs that October evening. In Nuweiba, Asser El Badrawy stood on the balcony of his hotel, looking north along the coast toward a backpackers' camp. That's when he saw a great blast rise from the campground. Moments passed, and the sound of the explosion arrived; below, his guests on the beach—almost all Israeli—turned to see a small mushroom cloud forming over the blast site. A nuclear bomb, El Badrawy thought. The Sinai enjoyed a reputation as a peaceful place, so the sight of the cloud made no sense. And in the irrationality of the moment he ran to his bathroom and hid, waiting for a blast wave that didn't arrive.
On the road outside the camp, a man in a car had tried to drive in but had been startled at the last moment by the appearance of a guard with a lantern. He hastily backed up the car and got stuck in a sand dune. Then he walked away and detonated the car by remote control. At a nearby camp, another driver parked near a palm-roofed restaurant and exploded his car, destroying the restaurant and several bamboo huts. The blast killed two Israelis and a Bedouin. Again the driver walked away unseen.
The third target was the Hilton, farther north at the Israeli border. The two men in the vehicle that pulled up to the lobby—the leader, Salah, and laborer Suleiman Flayfil—could have been anyone: new guests arriving, staff workers, deliverymen. Inside the hotel hundreds of guests danced, ate, or slept. Salah and Flayfil parked and walked away. Inside the vehicle a TNT package was wired to a washing machine timer, which clicked away its final seconds. The vehicle exploded with tremendous force, collapsing the entire western side of the hotel, sending ten stories and their contents sliding like an avalanche toward the ground. Cars in the parking lot were tossed aside and burst into flames. Glass shards and furniture flew in all directions; concrete spiral staircases lay strewn about.
The bomb killed 31 people and injured many more, including Israelis, Egyptians, Russians. It also killed Salah and Flayfil; their timer had gone off too soon, and the blast caught them before they left the hotel grounds. The Egyptian government responded with its peculiar form of investigation, rounding up thousands of suspects—figures vary from 2,400 to 5,000—including many Bedouin from the El Arish area.
Ten months after the bombing, the surviving Flayfil brother, Muhammad, died in a shootout with police. Three other Bedouin suspects—Younes Mohammed Mahmoud, Osama Al Nakhlawi, and Mohammed Jaez Sabbah—were eventually caught and sentenced to death by state security courts, with no right of appeal.
Near El Arish, in the same mud-brick village where the Flayfils' father had disowned them, I met with the parents of Osama Al Nakhlawi in their small, clean home. They sat on the floor in a simple room and served tea. They spoke quietly but wrung their hands, sometimes their own, sometimes one another's.
"Anyone they suspected, they picked up," Al Nakhlawi's mother said. Egyptian police say her son built the bombs. She unfolded a recent handwritten letter from him, already so well worn that it flopped like cloth in her hands. In it he deplored the treatment of his Bedouin tribe.
"We the children of Sinai," he wrote from death row, "are dealt with in a racist and discriminatory manner in comparison to the children of the Nile Valley. … Some of the officers accuse us of being loyal to the Jews, and at the same time they are trying us on the basis of killing Jews."
Many in El Arish contend the government's heavy-handed reaction to the bombing only further divided the population, as the bombers had intended. And indeed, in 2005 more bombers struck the Sinai at Sharm el Sheikh, killing scores of people on Egypt's Revolution Day: a clear assault on the Egyptian authorities rather than Israel. Al Masaid, the group's dentist founder, died in a gunfight with Egyptian police, but, authorities say, his followers struck again during the spring holiday of 2006, at the resort town of Dahab, killing at least 23 people.
All this might have been desired, and even predicted, by the Hilton resort bombers in Taba. There was, however, another, unintended consequence.
As Israel's chief developer of southern Sinai during its time there, Dan Harari, the bureaucrat who issued Bedouin paychecks, had signed permits for the construction of the Hilton Taba. He knew it well. After the Israeli pullout of 1982, Harari had found a new job across the border in Elat. He worked as the fire chief.
The night of October 7, when he heard the blast, he changed clothes in his car, shedding his casual holiday wear and pulling on his wrinkled gray uniform shirt. As the town's three fire trucks and the off-duty firefighter, Shachar Zaid, arrived, he climbed aboard the lead truck and turned on its siren. "I saw the people. I saw the smoke," he said. "I knew there were people I needed to save."
The Egyptian guards at the border crossing stood with their automatic weapons, ready to fire. From their perspective, it seemed the whole world had turned inside out. The nearby hotel lay in ruins, wailing masses of people were converging on their position, and now a battery of enormous trucks had arrived, piloted by their age-old enemies. After a brief hesitation—questions and answers shouted across that invisible line—the Egyptian soldiers made a momentous decision: Suspending their country's sovereignty, they withdrew their weapons and stepped aside so the fire trucks could enter.
At the site of the disaster, the Israeli firefighters worked alongside their Arab counterparts to put out the fire and pull bodies from the wreckage. The rescuers discovered that a main source of water for the fire trucks, the hotel's seawater swimming pool, was empty, so the work was fiery and slow.
The Israelis and Egyptians—both victims and saviors—seemed more alike than apart in those hours. The rescue workers shared food and water—a gesture that in the Middle East carried resounding symbolism. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon lauded Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak for his country's cooperation, and both leaders vowed to "continue cooperation in the ongoing struggle against terror."
The Egyptian government, characteristically, is now applying sheer authoritarian might. Distrustful policemen and soldiers from Cairo blanket the peninsula, seeming to appear wherever two roads intersect, wherever two people meet, vigilant to keep Sinai locals and foreigners apart. But others are urging a softer path. The International Crisis Group, a leading nonprofit agency focused on conflict, issued a report in 2007 that called for the Egyptian state to "alter a development strategy that is deeply discriminatory and largely ineffective at meeting local needs." Clinton Bailey, the Bedouin expert, says the government should heed an ancient Bedouin proverb: "If you muzzle a hawk, you must feed him."
And the visitors have been returning. The day of the Taba bombings there were as many as 15,000 Israelis on the peninsula. The numbers dropped sharply after that, but the day I arrived in Sinai, during the 2007 Passover holiday, 1,700 Israelis crossed the border to visit.
People in Sinai have always blended in unexpected ways, whether on a sacred mountaintop or in camps on the beach. The Hilton Taba terrorists tried to take advantage of this mingling: With one bomb they could attack the Westerners who ran it, the Egyptians who worked there, and the Israelis who visited. But their plan went astray in one sense; their bomb, to some degree, fused those disparate groups into one injured people, as the victims pulled together to salvage lives after the disaster.
Every act of trust in the Middle East is relative. But like the monks and the Bedouin on Mount Sinai, the people in Taba had common interests—if only dancing in a hotel disco—and so made themselves some measure less vulnerable to the dividing power of terrorism.
That was why firefighter Shachar Zaid crossed one of history's most disputed borders to work alongside Egyptian counterparts. "That was our way to tell the terrorists, You did not succeed," he said. "And they did not succeed."