The bearded stranger and a foreign woman were the only civilians on the bus as it headed south. On our right side was the Suez Canal, which soon opened into the Gulf of Suez. There were occasional signs of the last war: Hebrew writing, burnt-out tanks and ruined buildings. After a while the bus stopped: I climbed out to wait at the turn-off, with another army sergeant and the two foreigners. My destination was an army camp five hours inland. We waited, admiring the sunset, the blood-red clouds hovering above distant mountains. An army lorry arrived to pick us up - and agreed to take the foreigners as well. The lorry was full of conscripts and of food: vegetables and fruit in cane baskets, pigeon and chickens in cane cages, and lumps of raw meat. The conscripts focussed on the woman, an American. They pointed at the cucumbers and tried to stroke her ankles, until her bearded friend made it clear he understood their banter, slapped away some hands and sat himself between the woman and the worst offender.
The lorry left us at the army’s airstrip, in the hands of Major Magdi. He gave us tea and ordered me to drive him and the foreigners in his open jeep to the tourists’ ‘tent city’. He found them a tent and instructed the Israeli tour guide that they were to join his tour of the holy sites in the morning. He sent me back later with a box of rations for them: a generous man!
The American woman came to me and asked if she and her husband could please take a ride back on our coach, north to Suez and Cairo. I was the leader of a group of American expatriates from our evangelical church in el-Maadi in Cairo, so I had the right to decide. We had spare seats but I said no, not even for money. I climbed on board the bus.
She and the bearded stranger had arrived on an army lorry the previous night, shared one of the tourist tents and been allowed by the Israeli guide to join the exhausting day-long tour. The tour had started in the freezing pre-dawn: climbing Mount Sinai to be at the top at sunrise. Many of my group didn’t have the level of fitness required to climb to the top of the 7,500 foot mountain, despite the stone steps the good monk Stefano carved out of the rock in the seventh century. So we held a dawn service as far up as the least fit could make it. They did all manage the tour around the ancient St Catherine’s Monastery, where the Orthodox monks looked really unhappy at seeing tourists disrupt their peace. The Israeli guide was equally unwelcoming: he referred to Islam as ‘the Muslim movement’ and refused to acknowledge either Islam’s or Christianity’s claim on the old prophets!
It had been a truly holy and inspiring pilgrimage for us all, but tiring, and my group was now very ready to climb back onto our air-conditioned bus to head back to Suez. That’s when she asked for the ride. After I had said they couldn’t come the bearded stranger appealed to the French guide we had hired in Cairo. They climbed on board the bus.
On the coach there was lots of discussion about what we had seen and heard. Could it be true that, as one of the monks had told us, the Burning Bush was simply a bright-fruited raspberry bush? There was disbelief that the now remote oasis of Wadi Feiran, through which we drove, could have been an archbishopric in the 6th century, though the ruined monastery was quite impressive. There was a long argument about Jethro the Midianite, and whether he must have been a monotheist if Aaron allowed him to carry out a sacrifice. The woman joined in the discussions, which was annoying as she clearly was no evangelical and questioned basic things. When the bus reached Suez I couldn’t bottle it up any more: I resented their lack of faith and how they had over-ridden my decision. I also accused them of lying about being married. I was right; they blustered about not having wanted to offend us. They climbed off the bus.