Swimming with the fishes, yoga with Egyptians

“Tishmori al-atzmekh”.  Take care of yourself, pleaded the grizzled border agent at the Taba crossing, who I had never met before, calling my by the diminutive version of the name he read off my passport, the same nickname my father called me when I was little.  I was speaking on behalf of our group of four American students, which as a sort-of Hebrew speaker, sometimes smooths the process, particularly when the friends I’m travelling with are not white.  And being a sort-of Hebrew speaker who looks passably-Jewish puts me, for the moment at least, on the “inside” of Israeli society, despite the American passport I just presented, and the guard is worried about me in a way that he is not worried about my friends, maybe I remind him more of his own children, or maybe he thinks I am more or a target.

We turn off the Hebrew as soon as we cross, saying “marhaba” and “awfan” instead of “shalom” and “slikha”.  The owners of the camp on the beach where we are staying pick us up from the crossing, so they know that we came from Israel, but we play down the connection, present ourselves as tourists rather than students who have been there for multiple years.

At the camp, we relax, we snorkel, we curl up on the cushions reading our medical school books, and then, drawn back to the otherworldly universe that is the edge of the coral reef, we snorkel again.

Our second morning, a young man in green pants and perfect English with an undefinable accent, is walking around inviting people to a yoga class that he will be giving at 9:30.  One of my friends and I decide to go, and a few other women show up as well.  His name, he tells us is Ali, and he just got back from a month-long yoga retreat in Rishikesh, India.

It’s a good class, he has a good perspective on yoga, he seems to have internalized that it’s not a competitive sport, and his corrections are subtle and helpful.  It was a beautiful place to be doing yoga, on the sand, with the sea in front of us and the mountains rising up behind us, but the heat began to overwhelm people and we cut slightly short at the end.

Afterwards, my friend and I are speaking with him.  He says he is from here- from Egypt.  I mention that I haven’t been to Cairo but I want to go.  Ali is surprised- how did we get here if not from  Cairo?  We tell him that we crossed from Israel at Taba.  He asks us what Israel is like.  “There’s a lot of  . . . security,” says my friend.  I don’t want to blow our cover, even though I feel safe, but I also feel protective of Israel, defensive maybe.  “It has a lot of sub-cultures,” I say.  “You can go from a more traditional Bedouin community, to a very religious Jewish community, to a secular, modern one, and sometimes it’s all a bit mixed together.”

“And people are a bit aggressive,” says my friend.  “It’s true,” I said.  “They get in your business, though sometimes they mean well.  Like, an old man yelled at me a few days ago for not wearing a sweater, even though it wasn’t cold.”

Ali laughs.  “My grandfather would do something like that.”

I asked him what Egypt was like these days.  He told us that they had gotten a new monarchy in place of the old one, but now that the people had woken up, they would not stop fighting until there was a democracy.  He told us that he had gone to India to find himself, or to first lose himself, and then find himself.  He reminded me then of just about every Israeli I had ever met.

My friends and I went snorkeling one last time, and then headed in to shower and pack and travel back to Israel.  At the crossing, my friend expresses the hope that she doesn’t get the extra-special-for-non-white-people-interrogation that she got on her way back from Jordan.  We are behind a very large group of tourists, but eventually we get to the passport check, where I speak on behalf of our group again and there are no problems.

Then we are putting our bags through the scanner, and my checkpoint karma catches up with me, because my backpack is pulled off the belt, and I am asked to wait.  My friends go on ahead, anticipating that I will catch up at the border control station where I will pass through more easily than them.  I ask the guard why my backpack was pulled aside, and he tells me it’s not suspicious.  “Then what are you looking for,” I ask?  He says he is just looking.  And he looks through the wet towel and bathing suit balled up on top, and then through the overabundance of medical textbooks that I brought, leafing through them and shaking them out.  He then runs my bag through the scanner again, and clears me to repack in and go on.

In the meantime I had been talking with a Filipina tourist who’s own overabundance of souvenirs was being examined by the guard.  I told her that one of the friends I was traveling with had just come back from a medical student rotation in the Philippines.  She asked me if he had liked it, and I told her that he had said that his host family was very welcoming and had fattened him up.  She laughed, and I wished her a good trip in Israel.   I don’t say that I hope strangers don’t try to hire her to clean their floors or change their grandparents’ diapers, as happened to a few of my Asian friends here.

At the very last passport check, I was behind a Palestinian-Israeli family.  The border guard took the passports from the father, removed the tickets, and sent them on their way.  When it was my turn, he looked at me and asked me if anything had happened to me.  I was a bit sweaty and disheveled, but only from travelling.  I didn’t think I looked as if anything had happened, and he obviously wasn’t asking everyone that, he was just picking up the thread of Israeli border guards worrying about me.  “I’m fine,” I told him, and headed out to where my friends were waiting for me in the sun.