|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
14 - 20 June 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
Pushing back frontiersLeaving the beaten track of his old life behind was a man who set out towards new frontiers and pioneered a new life
Profile by Fatemah Farag
Long before I met Adli El-Mistikawi I had heard the stories. They were of a man who left hearth and home, not to mention a successful career in computer engineering (an up-and-coming profession) in the early '80s to head out to the then no-man's-land of just-liberated Sharm El- Sheikh. There he leased the skeleton of an Israeli aeroplane hanger and started a small tourist business. They were tales of a man who rode his horse bareback by the sea, the skin of his bare chest glowing with the bronze colour of the sun, his long hair, tied back in a pony tail, flowing in the wind.
When I finally met him the hair was cropped short, he was dressed in conventional sportswear and we sat out on a terrace overlooking the sprawling structure that is his hotel: Sanafeer.
I explain the purpose of the interview. Though I'd explained earlier over the phone, the idea of a profile doesn't seem to go down easily. "I was born in the year of the Dragon. I am a Libra. I am of the generation of the revolution," he quips, giving me a sly smile, his head cocked to the side. "OK. I was born in September 1952. My family lived in Heliopolis. There were no palaces, nor was there poverty -- an average life. My father was an electrical engineer -- that is, until the Revolution ensured that tens of thousands graduated from the same faculty. Then his profession was reduced to that of an electrician."
He is hesitant when it comes to talking about himself, a reluctance that is concealed by the initial flippancy and feigned cynicism of his answers. It was the beginning of a long interview where we would play cat and mouse: he would hide and I would seek the answers that would explain why a man who had it all by conventional standards "stepped out" and built a new life from scratch.
"You are really taking me a long way back," he tells me before calling to his wife: "You should come and listen to this. I am sure there are probably a lot of things you have not heard about."
I chide him: so you are a son of the revolution? "Millions were affected by the revolution, so how could I not be?" He spreads out his hands before him, almost defensively. "My father was a communist -- a poet for the movement. So communism came to me almost as an inheritance."
The family moved to Algiers ("the country of the million martyrs," he tells me) in 1970. In five years El-Mistikawi obtained a degree in engineering, specialised in computer science and returned to Egypt, where he eventually got a job in the computer department of Al-Ahram organisation, married and had children. He also dabbled in politics. "I became active in the communist movement, which was nearing its end. I watched it say good-bye," he tells me before talking of turning points. "Life is made up of different parts. In the beginning you are just a student. Then you start to take responsibility for yourself. At this point you really have to be convinced of the decisions you are making." So I guess it was enough of inherited convictions and following society's golden standard regarding 'how to achieve success?' "I decided I would choose my own life. There was an element of frustration, but that was not the reason why I made my decisions -- it just made it easier to take them," he explains.
First there was the long journey to fulfil his "responsibilities" to a home, wife and children. "I went to Saudi Arabia because Al-Ahram salaries were not enough then to support a family. Back home, Infitah was happening. Being in a high-tech profession, I decided to accept an offer with NCR and was sent to the US." Once again El-Mistikawi struck gold. He was given the best specialised training and became responsible for designing programmes for Africa and the Middle East. "It was a great life. It was "Mr Specialist has come," "Mr Specialist is going..." That was between 1980 and 1982.
Photos: Randa Shaath
"You know what is behind the rock you are chiselling away at? I have flown high and looked beyond and seen there is a mountain of stone. So should you go on wasting your life chiselling away at stone, or be smart and sit in its shade and enjoy yourself?"
On his visits back to Cairo, Adli began to feel constrained by the growing city. "Pollution was getting worse and I could no longer run to the beaches of my childhood and so was forced to move further out in search of respite. In 1982, Sharm El-Sheikh was opened to Egyptians after the end of the Israeli occupation and I came immediately to see what it was like." He was obviously taken with the place but at the same time he had made regional director at NCR and could pick and choose where to go and how to live. "I felt I had reached the stage in my life where I must emigrate and make a radical change. I could choose to do it within the framework of my current life, by staying with NCR and moving abroad, but I would have to go without my family. Or there could be an internal migration to Sharm: far away from the Nile Valley and population explosion. I felt I needed to return to nature and opted for Sharm. I could sit on the beach all day and sell some fish and make the same money I had been making. Then I set up a supermarket and snack bar."
To understand why what Adli did in the early '80s was so unique, one needs to take note that what he did was simply not done. No one left a great job and educational background not to mention city life to go out to uncharted territories. It was a time when entrepreneurship and breaking with conventional life were pretty much unheard-of. When the mere notion of a "supermarket" was barely making an appearance in the big city, what would people make of it way out there on the beach?
Going back in memory, what seems to be most clearly impressed on El-Mistikawi's mind is the sheer beauty of things. "There was a little electricity and a few people who all felt alike. It was an open, unrestrained sort of life. We would buy a huge bag of lobster for LE10 and sell it for a lot of money. Sometimes I thought what I was doing was a bit strange, but I was always an athletic person and always loved camping, and so it came naturally that I would start a camping service next to the supermarket. Three years later Sanafeer started."
He describes the early Sharm days (the first five or six years) as a time when he felt he had hit upon a wonderful secret -- a secret it would be better to keep to oneself. But soon the secret was out and Sharm started to grow. El-Mistikawi grew too: "I became an investor. After all, I had come for two reasons -- to enjoy this heaven and to liberate myself from the job." And despite the fact that the business has grown and it takes long hours every day to run his affairs, he still feels liberated. "At least I can decide when I want to stop. I stay as long as I am enjoying my work. Because I work in entertainment a lot of what I do is very enjoyable, and in the end I feel like I have done something really important."
As we talk, the Sanafeer courtyard is coming to life with belly-dancers -- part of the Thousand and One Nights show -- while a group of people are squealing in the lit pool beneath the waterfall. Yes, Adli takes his entertainment seriously. His place is known for the most popular night spot in Sharm (the Bus Stop disco) and pictures of rowdy pool parties make their way into society magazines. He sits back comfortably, in his element, and makes plans over the phone for the upcoming evening: it is around 11pm, and obviously the night has yet to begin.
Adli has made a philosophy of his business. He feels that entertainment is what the modern human being needs and seeks the most. "Why are people travelling like crazy? There is global pandemonium, all sorts of problems that cannot be solved by local or regional political bodies. Nobody has the power to solve the big problems. In the meantime, people need to survive the crises and they need to release their stress. Entertainment and travel are the windows that give people the chance they desperately need to enjoy life." Just as El- Mistikawi solved his problem by simply stepping out.
The irony, of course, is that success has marred the unspoiled qualities that drew this pioneer to Sharm in the first place. Again, for Adli, this is a matter of different stages. "First there was the beach, now there is the city. Each has its charms. I think it is rare for a person to witness and be part of the development of a city from scratch. In history, the evolution of civilisation takes hundreds of years. In Sharm El- Sheikh, it has taken us 12 years. That is an amazing thing to have witnessed."
Fascinating -- and the cost? "Yes, we spoiled some of the environment. But that happens wherever tourist development happens, as in Spain. In the end, we spoiled the environment for a good amount of money." And no, he is not that comfortable with his realism. "There are theories that human beings have spoiled all they can spoil and in the end the planet will rejuvenate itself. That eventually humanity will advance sufficiently to do so." He shrugs. "I am not so sure."
But back to the person, rather than the ideas? What is left of the family man who went to Saudi Arabia to support his home, the NCR regional director or, for that matter, the young leftist student? "I believe there is continuity in my life and ideas. It is just that my philosophy of life has developed to take clearer forms. As a young person I was enamoured of nature and at the same time I was a leftist because I was concerned with the burdens human beings carry. Today I still want to understand humanity's problems. I am interested in a comfortable life: I have not turned into some kind of tycoon or changed from a socialist to a capitalist. I just realise that the forms our concerns take must change because the world has changed drastically."
We sit back and sip something cold. "You are one of those people who believes in doing their bit to chisel away that rock between humanity and a better future?" he asks. I nod in defiance. He decides to give me some worldly advice. "Let me tell you something. You know what is behind that rock you are chiselling away at? I have flown high and looked beyond and seen there is a mountain of stone. So should you go on wasting life chiselling away at the stone, or be smart and sit in its shade and enjoy yourself? I am not saying one should not think -- but maybe sitting in the shade will help us think better." He winks devilishly. Ah. Adli's choice is alluring and I find myself thinking of how wonderful it would be to never wear a business suit again and ride bareback on the beach, long hair tied back in a ponytail.
Recommend this page
© Copyright Al-Ahram Weekly. All rights reserved
Letter from the Editor
|WEEKLY ONLINE: www.ahram.org.eg/weekly
Updated every Saturday at 11.00 GMT, 2pm local time