Maybe once in a lifetime everything comes together to make a memory so profound that the experience of wonder long lost in childhood returns to us as adults. This happened to me many years ago after making a random decision to turn left. At the T-junction at the end of the desert road from central Sinai, the driver stopped, waiting for instructions. Right or left? Right would take me to the tourist resorts of Dahab and Sharm el Shekh. I chose left.
Sign language convinced the driver that I wanted simple camping accommodation. His initial disbelief was strong opposition, but after a few shouted questions to people on the dirt track, he proceeded, muttering, avoiding kids and camels and a dead cat, to stop outside an enclosure of reeds. The entrance revealed neatly swept sand, three tiny reed huts, a large, black Bedouin tent and a well. Through the palms, the water of the Gulf of Aqaba gleamed cool and still. This was the place for me.
The driver, intrigued to see a Westerner willingly choose to stay here rather than at the Nuweiba Hilton, and infected by my enthusiasm for the place, helped me inspect one of the huts. The single mattress on the gritty floor had a lumpy pillow and a huge, heavy, bright red blanket. A candle wedged into a bottle was the only light. The toilet was behind the black tent. A crowd had gathered, all eyes fixed on me. The deal was negotiated, again in sign language. I would stay two nights; I would pay one pound (then R11). Everybody looked happy. The driver hurled my bag at me, slapping my shoulder in a brotherly way and drove off in a cloud of dust.
I moved in, gratefully closing my sore eyes against the glare fo the day, seeing again the miles of desert road, the Valley of the Gazelles and the grandeur of the Biblical mountains. I awoke at dawn. I walked over the sand to the shaded roof at the sea wall. Some Bedouins lay rolled up, looking and sleeping like logs. Others were facing Mecca, bodies moving in a language of prayer and thanksgiving. A mist half-shrouded the mountains of Saudi Arabia, 12 km across the Gulf. There was absolute stillness in the silver flatness of the water.
As the warmth of the day reached him, a young boy unrolled himself from his blanket and stood scratching on the sea wall. Suddenly he began shouting in excited grunts – sounds that came from his abdomen. He clapped his hands and slapped his thighs and waved his arms wildly. Then, just metres away, there was an almighty leap of metallic muscle out of the water, vanishing as suddenly into invisibility.
The boy launched himself into the water, and the dolphin surfaced next to him. I looked for signs of panic from the others, but they just smiled reassuringly. I watched entranced as the boy and the dolphin played, mimicking each others’ moves. Baffled, I turned to the group. As everybody tried to explain, I was overwhelmed by a Babel of sounds – not Arabic, but the unmistakable lingua of the deaf-mute.
I learnt that the boy was capable of calling to the dolphin. She had been wounded and, presumably, cast out of her tribe, and now lived with the Bedouins. She was the answer to prayer. The Bedouins had been desperate, with no hope for their future. Fishing brought no money. The children could not go to school. The young men couldn’t afford to marry. While other villages had attractions for the tourists, El Muzeina had none. But then a fisherman called Abdullah had befriended the dolphin far out in the Gulf. He had noticed that she was alone, and out of compassion, had fed her scraps of bait. She had taken to following him back to shore and now lived in the villagers’ water, responding to their calls, swimming with them and allowing them to rub her tummy.
Word had spread. Suddenly, tourist buses began stopping at El Muzeina, bringing visitors who would pay to see and swim with Oline, the dolphin. Israeli marine biologists had come. Their report was shoved at me to read. It explained how to behave in the presence of a “tame” dolphin and honoured the tribe as the family of Oline.
Intermarriage had rendered 47 per cent of the villagers deaf-mute. It was the will of Allah. Just as it had been to send Oline to El Muzeina. Just as it was meant that I should stay for 10 days to swim with Oline.