Deep in The Desert
Reaching El Arish, home of most 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 check points, 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 as streaching 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 recieved 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 mountins 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 converstism that keeps women mostly at hme and alomst 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 outskrits 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 joinning their neighbors in the mosque. The sheikh had disowned his sons. At last he said, “They died.”