Gebel Musa: Mt. Sinai, looms before you. It’s the wee hours of the morning and the first light of dawn is proceeding the sunrise on distant ridges behind you. You’ve been hiking for about an hour now, climbing steadily passed Bedouin camel riders offering to carry you to the top of the holy mountain, calling: “Camel? I give you good price!” The only other sounds are the crunching of your feet on the loose stone path, the tinkle of bells on the saddles of the camels, and your own breath.
Up ahead in the purple light and hanging from the towering peak, now only well under an hour away, a flickering fire signals some activity. Most likely it’s a kiosk selling tea and coffee and maybe, if the peak is as near as you’re beginning to think it is, blankets in case it gets too cold.
Gebel Musa is a holy place. Archaeologists may dispute it, but Judaism, Christianity and Islam all recognize this as the place where God gave the prophet Moses the Ten Commandments. Here, in the southern Sinai peninsula, after crossing the Red Sea and still wandering in search of the promised land, Moses’ band of former slaves to the pharaohs, camped during their trek across Egypt. Here, Aaron waited with the rest of the Jews for his brother to return from his ultimate vision quest. Still today, there are many pilgrims who come to this place to see and feel the power of history for themselves. Several of them seemed to have gathered at the kiosk up ahead; you can hear the hushed voices of people discussing the climb and drinking tea before they make the final ascent.
Suddenly, crashing through the nearly mystical peacefulness of misty silence and dawning purple and steady climbing, comes a scraping seething sound. Xchxchxchxchxhxchxchxch. It takes a moment to recognize this sound because it’s so loud and unfamiliar. Xchxchxchxchxhxchxchxch. Then you do recognize it as it echoes across the ridges and rocks around you. It’s the sound of pressing the back of your tongue against your soft palette as you scrape air through the gurgling gap. Xchxchxchxchxhxchxchxch. It’s the sound of hacking up phlegm.
Try it now.
Really. Stop reading and make the sound. Loud. Really retch up a gob of phlegm from deep down. After you’ve rid yourself of the results in the appropriate receptacle, come back and read on.
You remember the sound now? Xchxchxchxchxhxchxchxch. High upon this holy mountain, in the otherwise dead silence, someone is retching and scraping louder than you’ve ever heard anyone do so ever before. And the sound keeps coming. You reach the people and you try to make out with your headlamp just which person is doing this. It’s so loud! You’re not sure if this person is really going to be OK! Xchxchxchxchxhxchxchxch. People have come from all over the world, some seeking a deep religious experience on the top of this dry mountain in Egypt and someone thinks it’s really quite OK to hack like they’ve swallowed an unwound spool of thread. Xchxchxchxchxhxchxchxchxhxchxchxch.
Egypt is a place where people frequently blow their nose into the street by plugging one nostril and exhaling forcefully out the other. Who needs tissue? Bedouins still live in their traditional desert homes and they don’t come in contact with very many people. Xchxchxchxchxhxchxchxch. So it’s even more surprising when this unholy noise is not coming from one of the locals. Instead, a Bedouin man is just as shocked as you are at the tiny Korean woman who is retching over and over again near his stand. He trying to tell her to stop but she doesn’t seem to understand. He’s yelling at her and shooing her away but she just angrily waves him off. She just keeps doing it, now a few feet from your ears and it is just amazing how loud this is. Did you really try it yourself a moment ago? Maybe you should try again now, only really with some gusto this time. I doubt you’re even close. The little woman was incredible!
You’re a little stunned, but the sky is turning pinker and you’ve got another 30 minutes of steep hiking before you make it to the top of holy Mt. Sinai. You’d like to make it up there before sunrise. For all you know, the burning bush is still on fire up there, or maybe God has selected you to deliver his updates to the original decalogue, “Oops, sorry, I meant to add one forbidding slavery. Are you getting this? Get out your chisel and take this down: Don’t be silly, women are not property. Hmm, oh, and also, really this time, Thou Shalt Not Kill! Stop it with the wars already!”
Off you go to finish the hike. Surrounded by the beauty of the rocky landscape, the sunrise, and the swirling power of history, and now, the faint echoes of someone hacking up a phlegm-ball. Really adds to it, doesn’t it? I wonder if that was a sign.