|Al-Ahram Weekly Online
13 - 19 September 2001
|Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875||Current issue | Previous issue | Site map|
A Diwan of contemporary life (407)
Sun, sand and sea -- Egyptians indulged in all three in the early 1900s when summer resorts started flourishing. The emergence of resorts had its reasons: the construction of the Cairo-Alexandria railway line provided easy transportation, and Alexandria had a sizable expatriate population whose concern extended to developing its beaches. Consequently, it was not long before there emerged sectors in Egyptian society keen on emulating this European lifestyle. Ra's Al-Barr, which Al-Ahram focused on most, was the first of Egypt's resorts and became the modern concept of the tourist village. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* examines the coastal amusements of the time
Talaat Harb; Lord Cromer; Omar Makram; the Khedive Ismail.
The flight to the northern coast to escape the summer heat in the capital and to soothe oneself in the cool, refreshing waters of the Mediterranean is a luxury which Cairenes only began to indulge in, in the late 19th century. There were initially only two reasons which compelled inlanders to head to the coast: the search for a livelihood and the carrying out of a sentence, such as that which was passed against nationalist leader Omar Makram who was exiled to Damietta in 1808.
A number of developments contributed to the emergence of the phenomenon of seaside holidaying in the era of the Khedive Ismail. The birth of the Egyptian railroad in 1852, with the construction of the Cairo- Alexandria line, provided the necessary transportation. The railway was completed in 1958 under Said Pasha. Under Ismail, a boom in railroad construction linked various parts of the interior with the Mediterranean ports of Alexandria, Rashid and Damietta. Egyptians could now reach the coast in a matter of hours instead of the several-day boat journey down the Nile or the Mahmoudiya Canal, after which travellers reached their destination exhausted, if they arrived at all.
The city of Alexandria had also changed dramatically. The large influx of Europeans under Ismail, bringing the ratio of foreigners to some 15 per cent of its population, left an indelible imprint on the city's character. As more and more Greeks, Italians and French made the famous port city their home, Alexandria rapidly expanded eastwards as new residential communities with foreign names sprang up along the Ramla tramway. The new quarters had the benefit of the undivided attention of the Alexandrian municipal council, which was dominated by expatriates, whose concern extended to the development of Alexandria's beach resorts. These, too, were initially populated primarily by foreigners while Egyptians were largely relegated to the role of wide-eyed spectators, aghast at the display of flesh among the frolicking bathers.
It was not long before there emerged sectors in Egyptian society keen on emulating the outward aspects of European lifestyle. These ranged from fashions in dress to domestic furnishings and leisure activities, including the summer migration to seaside beach resorts. Thus, Egypt's Mediterranean coast saw an increasing number of civil servants flocking to the beaches in June and July to return to Cairo in September and October. Leading the flight of officialdom to cooler climes was, of course, the khedive, who boarded his private train for one of his palaces in Muntazah or Ra's Al-Tin. On a separate train would follow the women of his household and their retinues. Not long afterwards ministers would board yet another private train bound for Bulkley, where they would continue to run the affairs of government while the members of their families were swept up in the whirlwind of holiday socialising.
The same applied to the upper echelons of the British occupation. It is a little-known fact that when the Denshwai crisis erupted in July 1906, British Consul-General Lord Cromer was on his way to Port Said to board a ship to the UK, leaving his chargé d'affaires to handle this delicate issue. This man, in turn, also pulled up stakes for the summer to head for his summer residence in Alexandria. Few are aware, too, that Butros Ghali, the minister of foreign affairs, was serving as chargé d'affaires for the minister of justice who was spending his summer holiday in Europe. It was in this latter capacity that Ghali served as the head of a special tribunal formed to try the accused in the Denshwai incident. It was thus pure coincidence that Ghali, instead of the vacationing minister of justice, became the target of an assassin's bullet less than four years later.
The more distant shores of France, Italy, Turkey and Lebanon had long been summer destinations for Egypt's landed gentry and other members of the social upper crust. Quite frequently Al- Ahram would provide its readers left behind to endure the sweltering heat of the capital with accounts of the comings and goings of Egyptian travellers in those distant parts, accounts which no doubt helped to stimulate domestic tourism among other segments of the populace. These consisted primarily of the rising middle class which would seize whatever time available to swarm to Alexandria's less exclusive beaches or flock to newly-built entertainment halls of both the innocent and not so innocent varieties. (The latter would not infrequently come under attack in the press.) San Stefano was particularly notorious for its dancing casinos where scandalous forms of European dancing became all the rage.
Some sectors of society established their own resorts at a respectable distance from the general run of holiday-makers. The Suez Canal Company, for example, sequestered its own stretch of beach in Port Said and built wooden cabins for its staff. Some Egyptians eventually managed to penetrate the restricted area though they remained a small minority. More downscale was the area that sprung up to the east of Alexandria in Abu Qir. Overlooking the gulf in which Admiral Nelson defeated Napoleon's fleet in 1798, this virgin site became the ideal locale for the bourgeoisie who considered it their home away from home.
Thus, by the first quarter of the 20th century, beaches of various class distinctions had become the habitual migratory destinations for Egyptians eager for a balmy repose from the heat. What was still new, however, was the phenomenon of the resort village which would come to life in the summer season and revert to something akin to a ghost town for the rest of the year. This was most unlike the already existing cities that would buzz temporarily with a more intensive frenzy and then breathe a sigh of relief as vacationers returned home and life resumed its normal pace.
Ra's Al-Barr was the first of Egypt's resort towns. This "piece of triangular, sandy land whose tip -- or 'tongue' as the ancients called it -- is located at the juncture of the Nile and the Mediterranean," wrote an Al-Ahram contributor, had long been the summer resort for the people of Damietta and Daqhaliya. But if Ra's Al-Barr was originally a calm, out of the way resort village for locals, unlike Alexandria, which was filled with people from around the country, the situation changed dramatically in the 1920s.
In August and September 1927, Al-Ahram featured six articles by a certain Saleh El-Bahnasawi, who was vacationing at the time in that Mediterranean resort. Appearing under the headline, "Ra's Al-Barr: sights and observations," El-Bahnasawi's articles are testimony to the birth of the modern concept of the tourist village in Egypt.
If Ra's Al-Barr had been slow to attract tourists from farther afield than its immediate vicinity, undoubtedly the reason was poor transportation, as El-Bahnasawi learned from first-hand experience. It took him over five hours to get there on the "Eastern Express," what the employees of the Railway Authority called the Cairo-Damietta train, which made 16 stops along the way. "What keeps the authority in this day and age from having the train make only the major stops, in Zaqaziq and Mansoura?" grumbled the weary traveller who would then have been able to reach Damietta in some three-and-a-half hours at most.
El-Bahnasawi was in for another disappointment when he reached the end of the line. Damietta's train station was far from an elegant edifice for welcoming incoming tourists. All he found was "a long mound of sand that served as a platform, in the midst of which stood a rudimentary structure to provide shade and alongside that a decrepit WC." At the end of the platform were five small dilapidated rooms, "one for the station inspector, the second to serve as the men's waiting room, the third the women's waiting room, the fourth a warehouse and the fifth for dispensing tickets."
To make matters worse, the station was located on the left bank of the Nile; the city on the right bank. He, therefore, had to lumber, baggage in tow, along a pebble and rock strewn path in order to reach the ferry that transported visitors to the other side. "Just as you hear the whistle of one boat signalling that it is about to depart, the owners of another boat rush up and offer you a cheaper price for greater comfort." Unwitting tourists, of which El- Bahnasawi was one, always went for the better bargain and chose the second boat, "if you can call it a boat!"
After they set off, they discovered that it was not such a bargain after all. El-Bahnasawi had to pay six piastres, no trifling sum at a time when most means of city transportation cost a fraction of that amount. Second class passengers, generally servants who were seated near the engine, had to pay three piastres and every piece of luggage cost an additional three piastres. "Thank God I only had one bag with me else they would have left me high and dry," he remarked caustically. Then, during the short trip up the Damietta branch to the mouth of the Nile, passengers would fret over whether they would reach their destination at all. Like El- Bahnasawi, foremost in their mind would be the widely published boat accident two years earlier in which several passengers lost their lives. Apparently, this little stretch of the Nile was notorious for boating accidents due to the "ignorance and greed" that, according to El-Bahnasawi, drove boat operators to fill their vessels beyond capacity and to vie with one another at full throttle.
Relieved to find their feet once more on terra firma, the passengers found themselves assaulted by swarms of hotel touts, "boasting the advantages of the accommodations they were pushing and denigrating the facilities of others." At least here, El- Bahnasawi was better off than others; he had made his own arrangements beforehand. Thus, when one of the touts came up to him and delivered a short speech, he was able to respond with "a silent applause" and told him smugly, "I'm headed for a cabin, not a hotel."
And head to his cabin he did. After trudging through more sand, he finally found himself on a smoothly levelled road. The reason for this amenity, he discovered, was that the governor's cabin was located at the end of the road. "True, the status of the governor should be respected, for he is in charge of the affairs of the city and its resort. But people expect a governor to give them as much care and attention as he can so that their gratitude to him and esteem for him may increase."
Rows of rickety cabins in Ra's Al-Barr in the 1960s
Finally, El-Bahnasawi found his rented cabin. In spite of the arduous journey, he was glad to be in Ra's Al-Barr. It was the perfect alternative to Alexandria, "where everything, except for its surging sea, is exactly as you find it in Cairo." Ra's Al-Barr offered "something temporary that nature made for man so that when he comes to take solace by the seaside, he can delight in something new and unexpected and can wonder at the gift the Nile gave him when it carved that triangle of land."
After settling in, El-Bahnasawi immediately set out to inspect his surroundings. His accommodations were located in the midst of 16 rows of cabins constructed of straw matting and wood. They appeared to have been rather rickety affairs which "do not keep out the sun or the wind and sand." But then, it appears that the cabins were not intended to be permanent structures, for the Cairene visitor learned that each cabin was designed in accordance to the whims of its owner after coming to terms with the contractor hired by the Damietta municipality to construct these cabins every season. The seasonal work certainly provided a lucrative business for the contractor, who charged LE6 for every room, bathroom, kitchen and servants quarters. The costs of maintaining such a cabin during the summer season, which lasted from the end of June to the end of October, could run up to LE50. The contractor was also clever at cutting his own costs for he was notorious for recycling "old and decayed wood and straw matting used in previous seasons." He was also supposed to build water tanks and provide furniture but the former were rusty and the latter worn and shabby. Certainly, if the contractor had not held a monopoly on cabin construction the facilities would not be so ramshackle, for which reason El- Bahnasawi urged the Damietta municipality "to investigate other means to construct cabins out of materials not as combustible as wood and straw matting." He went on to suggest that the municipal authorities consider premises "modelled after the chalet His Majesty had built for his visits to Fayoum in the spring or along the lines of the chalets they use in the summer resorts in England and Germany." El- Bahnasawi, one cannot help but conclude, was both well travelled and accustomed to more upscale comforts.
The Cairene tourist's criticisms do not end here. Off he went to that tip of land on the juncture of the Nile and the Mediterranean for some peace and quiet only to find "the din and commotion of coffeehouses, restaurants, hotels and commerce." Why, he asks, should the owners of these premises prefer the banks of the Nile to the coast of the sea? The resort town was clearly in need of some sound reorganisation along with an injection of finance, and he could think of no solution other than to form a national company with "Talaat Harb Bek, the great financier and founder of magnificent enterprises," as its head. The company would help "what we can only imagine to be the poor municipality of Damietta" to develop the resort in a manner that would ensure "the greatest benefit and optimum results."
It was not until his fourth article, published in Al-Ahram on 13 September 1927, that readers got a glimpse of some of the merits of Ra's Al-Barr. Above all, its beaches were idyllic. Unlike Alexandria's uneven and rocky shoreline, the smooth, sandy beaches of Ra's Al-Barr "permit you to walk along them for as long as you want." El-Bahnasawi goes on to inform readers that two hours every morning, from 7.30 to 9.30, were reserved for women bathers. During this period, "the coast guard prohibits men from bathing or walking along the beach." This system was applied to beach resorts throughout Egypt.
But whatever raptures the writer felt for the resort's natural attributes soon took second place to more practical concerns, notably food and water. Since Ra's Al- Barr had no fresh water resources of its own, water had to be brought in by barge from Damietta and then distributed to water- carriers who delivered it to hotels and cabins in water skins. A skin full of water cost one piastre, "a high price, considering that the average cabin household consumes no less than five and sometimes more than 10 skins of water a day." Although water may have occasionally been in short supply, El-Bahnasawi's wit when commenting on such problems was not. In the cities, he wrote, "the water companies cut off the water supply for short periods whenever a pipe burst or in order to repair a tank. In Ra's Al-Barr, the water carriers are the water company and they cut off the flow at their whim and only turn it back on after you have worn your feet sore trying to find them and gone hoarse pleading with them. Then, even if you need two or three water skins, you are lucky to get one."
Food was available in shacks that served as a marketplace in the centre of Ra's Al-Barr. There, "one can find everything one needs in the way of food, personal hygiene and attire." However, he points out, the owners of the stalls are from Damietta and the municipality gives them the freedom to keep resort visitors at their mercy." In addition to the exorbitant costs of daily supplies, there was also the problem of the late delivery of milk products. The cause: the negligence of the medical inspector who was supposed to give his seal of approval to these products before they were shipped to the resort from Damietta.
It was always the case that when a senior government official was in town, everything worked in tiptop shape but as soon as he left life returned to normal. Ra's Al-Barr was no exception. The departure of the governor of Damietta from the resort in mid- September "greatly affected the contingent of summer tourists who prefer to come to the resort at this time of year. All the merchants and salesmen upon whom the resort dwellers rely for their needs moved back to Damietta and the water carriers all but disappeared." What El-Bahnasawi failed to mention, however, was that, as is the case with resort towns everywhere, the end of the summer season was approaching and as prospective buyers decreased, merchants naturally left town.
Although Al-Ahram readers would have come to the conclusion that El-Bahnasawi had little positive to say about Ra's Al-Barr, his final episodes correct that impression. In Ra's Al-Barr, he wrote, one can find a homey, familial atmosphere which cannot be found in other resorts. "It is rare to find one resort dweller not knowing another, for the resort inhabitants not to gather in the same parties or call on one another in their cabins, for the women not to flock together to take walks or bathe in the sea... All are extremely polite and of laudable character."
The informal domestic atmosphere was reflected in people's attire. As soon as they arrived in the resort, people peeled off the "false clothes" of the city. "Everyone wears galabiyas or pajamas whenever they go out or assemble, for here they refuse to be constricted by Western suits, shoes and socks." He continues: "What most strikes you when you first visit Ra's Al-Barr is that everyone dresses the same. They remove their hats to greet the sun and they wear the ordinary clothes I have mentioned as though they are in their own homes. As a result, this resort is blessed with the type of comfort in which freedom manifests itself in its fullest sense. Here people can truly rest their bodies from the strains of work and effort they exert throughout the year and reinvigorate themselves in this excellent climate and fresh air, enabling them to return to work charged with fresh energy."
El-Bahnasawi concludes his letters from Ra's Al-Barr with a number of recommendations for improvement. The resort town needed a central water tank and proper sewerage. Cabins had to have electricity and be better constructed to guard against fire.
Nevertheless, these recommendations leave us with the impression that El-Bahnasawi intended to return to Ra's Al-Barr the following summer. Indeed, it was not long before the municipality acted on his recommendations. Perhaps, too, he was lucky to have seen Ra's Al-Barr before the age of modern tourist villages, with their frenzied discotheque revellers, replacing the more convivial galabiya-clad family gatherings of the past.
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.
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