In January 2018, after working several days helping the monks of St. Catherine's Monastery harvest olives, one of the monks who we had become friends with, took us up to the hermitage of Sts. Galacteon and Episteme where St. Paisios of Athos had resided. He then brought us to the hermitage of Father Moses, which overlooked the monastery of St. Catherine's. Father Moses had been helping the Bedouin women living in the vicinity of St. Catherine's Monastery for years to get organized and improve their quality control so that their embroidery could be sold overseas. But he had to retire and the Bedouin women were left without help. By the providence of God, we were able to take over with Father Moses' blessing. We began small, working with a particular group of women he was most concerned about.
In January 2020, as we embarked on a hike out of the village of St. Katherine's towards the cave of St. John Climacus, a Bedouin woman with her young children came out from a little cinder-block house on the very edge of the village to ask us to come visit her for tea. We told her we would do so when we returned from hiking to the cave of St. John Climacus. When we did return, we were invited into her sewing room. We were amazed by the exquisite quality of her work. I also immediately felt a very strong connection with her. We purchased as many items as we could and it was my hope to return again, later in 2020. Unfortunately, Covid made that impossible.
During the pandemic, we knew this would be an especially difficult time for the Bedouin close to St. Catherine's Monastery because of their heavy dependence on tourism for income. I later made the decision to travel to Sinai in February of 2021 and return again a month later, in March, in preparation for a major Orthodox conference, Saint Kosmas Orthodox Education Conference in Arizona, where I would be a vendor. It was an important opportunity to both show and sell their embroidery and we had run out of most of what we had from previous trips.
I went to Sinai in February 2021, knowing the monastery and all facilities next to it, would be closed. So I made arrangements to stay in the village of St. Katherine. My original intent was to continue to work with the village of women Father Moses had first directed us to, but unfortunately, the interpreter who had been helping us, no longer was able to be involved. So instead, I walked to Hoda's house, the young mother and skilled seamstress, who I had met the year before by the trailhead leading to St. John Climacus' Cave.
She immediately recognized me as I walked to her house and was overjoyed. She told me that she asked her sister, Ada, three days before what might have happened to me, and Ada said, "Maybe she is coming?" It turns out, I began my long journey there on that very day.
Hoda is now my intermediary with all the Bedouin women Father Moses originally organized. We were able to employ the full 150 women community of embroiderers during our 2021 Spring Embroidery Project. Because they had been suffering so much financial hardship due to Covid, they were extremely grateful for the work. Hoda, in particular, is expecting her third child and did not have the money for prenatal care or the needed C-section (will be her third C-section). They have no insurance, so the unexpected income allowed her to get prenatal care and pay for the C-section.
These two trips were my 4th and 5th to Sinai. In every previous trip, I had stayed close to the monastery and my primary focus of activity involved the services and hiking to various holy places. This year, monastery services were unavailable and most of the hiking was closed by Egypt (though I did manage to make a couple of hikes anyway and will share photos later). So my primary focus of activity was with Hoda's family and her community. It actually was a great blessing. I had many fears and anxieties, still, regarding traveling in Egypt, safety, etc. and all of these were completely dispelled after spending so much time in the village of St. Katherine, walking everywhere on foot, and making the second trip completely alone. I felt safer there than I do here in north Texas.
I have become like a sister to Hoda and very much a part of her family. Our budding relationship is a deeply moving and meaningful experience. And I hope to travel there several times a year in order to better provide ongoing work to her community and help them continue a traditional art form. The beautiful thing about the women and their embroidery is that they are able to work together while watching their children play, study for school, and work. The older girls help with the embroidery while the younger girls practice on their own little projects. Because of Covid, the children were also homeschooling while their mothers worked, but the mothers are available to watch, help and care for their children as needed. It truly was heartwarming to watch.
Hoda's husband, Hussein, is deeply proud of his wife, her hard work, and talent. He built a sewing room for her and does everything he can to support her. He is helping to transport embroidery work to women in surrounding villages. Hoda's cousin, a Bedouin guide who wasn't currently working because of lack of tourism, did not see it beneath himself to help her with ironing and cutting linen. Everyone was willing to help one another to the benefit of the family and community, regardless of traditional gender roles.
Hoda's sewing room went from barren to crammed full of embroidered handicrafts as a direct result of our help. Glory be to God!