Q: 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.
Q: 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.
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.
Q: 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.
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.
Q: 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.
Q: 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.