A random tweet seen just reminded me of when I met a group of Jews in a desert oasis. It happened like this: I was in Egypt for several months in the winter of 1997-98. I started off in charming Aswan, spent a week or two under canvas in a then-remote part of the Red Sea coast, and then a month or so in Alexandria (an experience recounted, in part, here: https://ianrmillard.wordpress.com/2019/03/07/when-i-was-not-arrested-in-egypt/).
I left Alexandria to visit the remote oasis of Siwa, in the Western Desert not very far from Libya, southwest of the Qattara Depression and only a mile or two from the first great dunes of the Great Sea of Sand:
I lived for a month, maybe longer, in a kind of small concrete chalet in the garden of the very small hotel I used. The hotel garden was sand but planted with closely-situated date palms. I discovered that dry date palm fronds, fallen from the trees, burn easily. Thus I inadvertently started a “tradition” of having a fire around which people gathered and talked in the cool of the evening.
Most visitors to the oasis would arrive on the one bus (a luxury Mercedes coach) in early evening, stay only one or two nights, then return to Alexandria (an 8-hour journey via Marsa Matruh on the coast). By the time I left, I had spent at least a month there and was the longest-resident foreigner save for a Finnish person who did Tai Chi on the flat roof of the hotel (well, maybe you have to be a little unusual to stay long at Siwa!) and an Anglican nun who wanted to set up a Christian centre there (not a very good idea even if the authorities approved it, which was almost inconceivable). Turned out that she knew a man who had tried (unsuccessfully) to teach me Physics when I was at school in the early 1970s. Small world.
I met a number of mostly young people there. I myself was an arguably youthful 41. Apart from the Finn and the English nun, I recall quite a few others who stayed at the oasis for longer than average. Some were more eccentric than others.
There was an odd young man from somewhere near Lancaster. When in the UK, he lived in a caravan on a red squirrel conservancy and had inherited a small legacy (£12,000, I think) from his grandmother. He had lived for eight years on that, in India. He said that India was both cheaper and dirtier than Egypt. I found both statements hard to believe.
Another oddity, also English, was someone about 28, whom I at first took to be some sort of evangelical Christian, but who in fact was a militant atheist. Very militant. He had bicycled across vast expanses (including the Kazakh steppe), using a specially-built bicycle which had water storage inside its frame. He had cycled from Alexandria and was planning to cycle from Siwa to the next oasis, Bahariya, a journey of some 250 miles to the East, on a desert road used only by occasional Egyptian Army patrols, perhaps once weekly. Not a good place to get a flat or run out of water. I wonder whether he made it.
One young lady, a very attractive French girl from Rennes, the capital of Brittany, was rather interested in me, but had a boyfriend with her, a pleasant young fellow from Montpellier, so our animated conversations did not lead anywhere, or any further…
We temporary “local expats” would eat such as molokhiya, a rather slimy but oddly tasty soup made mainly from green vegetables (jute leaves); more often we might have falafel, and maybe drink helba, a kind of yellow-green herbal tea made from fenugreek (Siwa was dry in both senses).
So what about those Jews? They were tourists from Israel, travelling in a group. Students. There seemed to be about 8 of them. None of them seemed to be overtly attached. The girls were quiet, pleasant, modest; the boys slightly less quiet. Only one was extremely unpleasant, a transplanted New York Jew aged about 25, with beard and carrying at all times a thick and obviously unread paperback about “the holocaust”. I cannot recall the exact title, something about the SS and “holocaust” anyway. This particular Jew was studying at some university at Jerusalem and within minutes had marked me as a probable enemy! My copy of Alan Clark’s Barbarossa probably triggered his interest.
The others in that Israeli group, in discussion with other tourists (including my French “girlfriend” who never became a girlfriend), seemed to be reasonable in that they were not looking for war with the Arab world, but of course the unspoken elephant in the room was the historical basis: the migration of millions of Jews to British Mandate Palestine and later Israel, which displaced the previous occupants.
Still, in that milieu, by the “camp-fire”, one could briefly believe in an Arab-Israeli concordat. Only the occasional presence of the American Jew Zionist fanatic disturbed that pacific fantasy. He personified the Zionist fanatics who never quite get around to moving permanently from New York, Los Angeles or London to “Eretz Israel”, yet they are the ones who, as much or more than the “native” Israelis, push the hardline Zionist agenda. Look at the recent film featuring the former heads of MOSSAD, Shin Beth etc. They seem, in principle, less warlike than both the American (etc) “diasporic” Jew fanatics and Israel’s own political leaders.