The Sinai Peninsula can claim more of our attention than most bleak places on earth. Three great religions find inspiration here, where Mohammed trod, where Moses received the Law, and where St. Catherine is venerated. A hyphen of sand and rock between Africa and Asia, the Sinai has from ancient times been as much a battlefield as any place in Europe. In our own age we have come to know it well as a combat zone in the Middle Eastern dispute, and this is what brought Burton Bernstein to it in the first place.
He covered the 1969 phase of hostilities between Arabs and Isrelis for The New Yorker, "felt an immediate and mysterious connection with that strange, often misunderstood wilderness," and decided he must return. In 1978 he made four shots excursions -- one of only 38 hours -- from Jerusalem, and he often had the invaluable company of an American-Israeli anthropologist, Dr. Clinton Bailey. This book -- part history, part analysis, but mostly travelogue, with fine photography supplied by Magnum -- is the result.
Bernstein's most striking quality is the absolute fairness with which he approaches the Arab-Israeli question, rare and priceless in anyone (in this case an agnostic Jew) who might have been expected to feel deep tribal loyalties tugging at his pen. He does not lay blame, but clearly regards the mutual hostility and suspicion as a tragedy that follows from extremists getting out of hand. His most cutting asides are kept for the British, who doubtless deserved them before, during and immediately after the Mandate, though not, I think, as richly as Bernstein evidently believes. His greatest sympathies are for the Bedouin, the one group of people in this region who threaten nobody, though he is apt to romanticize them like any other tourist instead of seeing them starkly as peasants living at a subsistece level, with all the limitations that implies. Yet it seems odd that when he had the chance to visit a Bedouin poet in his tent, Bernstein preferred to kill time in the honk-tonk resort of Naama instead. He had, after all, left the Jerusalem Plaza Hotel only four days before, and would be back there by nightfall.
Apart from his deft use of the Old Testment to color his chapters with neat Biblical sketches, the most vivid things here are his descriptions of a visit to St. Chatherine's Monastery on Mount Sinai, and of a couple of days he spent with the U.S. Sinai Field Mission at their base in the United Nations Zone. He conveys the seediness of the Orthodox monks and their historic monument rather well, including the vast assortment of bones in the ossuary, which looked "as if a tornado had hit a medical school." At the American base he is sutiably impressed with electronic equipment that can detect the slightest movement on the landscape miles away, but doesn't bat an eyelid when someone solemnly assures him -- without a trace of self-mockery -- that "We're such a tight, patriotic community with a sense of mission that our people behave themselves." Which brings me to something more than a quibble about Bernstein's book, for he himself often speaks in the same tone of voice.
He employs words like "harrowing" and "perilous" to dramatize his field work, when "tedious" and "irksome" would more accurately describe what is happening. He writes of "sucking the thin air for whatever oxygen it offered," which suggests an epic struggle in the Himalayas, rather than a scramble up Mount Sinai at 8,576 feet. He says "The four of us had gone through a lot together," when the worst of that lot had been a hassle with the monks of St. Catherine's about accommodation at the monastery. Bernstein, in short, has a weakness for hyperbole. Hyperbole, issuing from the mouths and embedded in the minds of those responsible for the wretched belligerence of the Middle East, has helped to bloody the Sinai time after time in our generation. It always had been a sin against reason, whatever the context.