Glory is but a memory
In summer the resort town of Ras Al-Barr on Egypt's Mediterranean coast regains some of its popularity but little of its former glory. Dina Ezzat
remembers how things used to be
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Then and now: Ras Al-Barr has been a resort with a style all its own. Today, however, the style is falling short on flair
"What's left of the glory of the past? Look around and tell me if there's anything left. The glory is gone, and that's why it is the past. Now we have a reality that is not very beautiful and that no longer has the past's beauty." This was how Mohamed Ismail, owner of the Marine Al-Nil, a popular café at Ras Al-Barr, summed up this unique harbour that overlooks the meeting point of the Mediterranean and the Nile.
The interiors and present clients of the Marine Al-Nil -- established as Marine Fouad after King Fouad, king of Egypt until the mid-1930s -- testify to the account of its owner and manager. The interiors are shabby -- not simple, but shabby -- and the clients are not part of the well-off Egyptian society that frequents the trendy beaches of the northern coast of Egypt.
Modestly dressed clients, amongst whom there are few women, all of whom are veiled, provide Ismail with his business. It is a business that can keep him going, he says, but it is not one that encourages him to brush up his café to the standards it once had when it was frequented by the diva of Egyptian song, Umm Kolthoum, and other important figures. Today's image of the Marine Al-Nil offers a clear contrast with the photographs of the Marine Fouad that Ismail still keeps in his memory as remembrances of things past.
Ismail fondly recalls the days when Umm Kolthoum used to have a particular table on the terrace of the café he now runs. He recalls accounts he has heard about a visit paid by Asmahan, a prominent singer of the 1920s and 30s, to the same café. He also has accounts to offer about the visits of Queen Nazli, mother of King Farouk, to the then Marine Fouad.
Others have similar memories to share of the heyday of Ras Al-Barr. Sayed Abu Tabel, the 90- year-old owner of another café in the area, shares stories of visits from prominent movie stars and politicians. And in his biography, the late swimming champion Abdel-Moneim Abdu offered endless accounts of prominent state officials, including former prime minister Mustafa El-Nahhas, visiting Ras Al-Barr for a swim with Abdu, who first learned swimming in the waters of Ras Al-Barr.
"The past is gone, and it won't come back. This applies to everything, and Ras Al-Barr or Marine Al-Nil are no exception," Ismail says. "In the 1930s, and up until the early 1950s, this city was the destination of the well-off. Now, as has been the case for the past 40 years, it is the destination of those who cannot afford to spend a summer holiday elsewhere," he adds.
However, Ismail is reconciled to the current state of Ras Al-Barr, a place that he once knew as a favoured retreat of King Farouk, last monarch of Egypt. "Beauty does not last forever. And like me Ras Al-Barr has lost its beauty and is ageing," he says, laughing.
It was in 1947 that Ismail arrived in Ras Al-Barr from a neighbouring village in Mansoura. At the time he was only a teenager trying to find a better life. He found himself a job at the Marine Fouad, then a prestigious café-restaurant run by an Italian lady called Maria. "Maria was what Ras Al-Barr was all about in those days. Like her, Ras Al-Barr was beautiful and full of life," he says.
Ismail worked for Maria for some 30 years, until the second half of the 1960s, when Maria, like many other foreigners, left Egypt. For Ismail, it was all symbolic: Maria left; Egypt was defeated by Israel in the 1967 war; the residents of the cities destroyed by the war took refuge in Ras Al-Barr; and it was time for the final decline of this once beautiful summer resort that started to make its name in the 1880s, and lost it completely a hundred years later.
For Ismail, Ras Al-Barr had already lost a good part of its grace not long after the 1952 Revolution. "Things started to change slowly, especially as many foreigners who had used to run the best cafés, restaurants and hotels in the city left," he says. But the city still attracted middle-class holidaymakers, especially in the summer. "They used to come and fix their summer huts as of Easter holiday. The peak was from mid-June to late August," he adds.
After the Tripartite Aggression against Egypt in 1956, Ismail and other residents of his age agree, Ras Al-Barr started to be seriously transformed. It slowly lost its status as a summer resort for the middle classes since the residents of neighbouring Port Said, who had arrived in the city to escape the Franco-British-Israeli attacks, declined to go home.
"They were scared to go back," Ismail says. "The government did not want to force them, and they took the summer cabins that they had been offered as temporary refuge and turned them into permanent residences." A more aggressive inundation of people took place after Egypt's defeat in the 1967 war. This time round, older residents of Ras Al-Barr recall, things were worse. "The presence of the new residents dominated the city and intimidated holidaymakers," Ismail adds.
"I used to walk along the Corniche [of Ras Al-Barr] in the late 1940s and would admire the elegant gentlemen and the fashionably dressed ladies. By the late 1960s, the picture had changed completely," Ismail comments.
Today, the Corniche looks polished and refurbished. "It's fine," Ismail says grudgingly. "It's clean compared to how it used to be, but this is not the Ras El-Barr of the past and it never will be."
Judging by the roads and buildings around, Ismail is certainly right. It is not unusual to find heaps of waste waiting to be collected, as well as muddy roads and cafés and restaurants where neither hygiene nor style can claim a foothold. Today's holidaymakers in Ras Al-Barr would not have been the clients of Ismail's cherished Maria.
"It's pointless to talk about regaining the glory of Ras Al-Barr if no serious effort is made by the government to confront the environmental degradation," says Abdel-Nasser Abdu, owner of a three-star hotel in the town. "If the name of the city is associated with a fight over the construction of environmentally hazardous factories, then it is not realistic to think that local tourism could pick up," he adds.
Last summer was especially unfortunate for Abdu's business and for the other owners of hotels and furnished summer-houses in Ras Al-Barr. A battle between a Canadian company, E Agrium, and local residents over the construction of a fertiliser plant in the town dominated the press throughout the summer. Residents demonstrated and spoke out against the plans to build the plant, and leading environmentalists, including Mustafa Tolba, who were already lamenting the unfortunate fate of the town, joined the campaign.
The construction of the plant was held by opponents to be a serious environmental hazard to the residents of the town, already suffering from the side-effects of existing factories in Damietta, the area governorate. In a memo addressed to parliament, Tolba argued that "Ras Al-Barr is a very promising tourist destination, and tourist projects [not hazardous fertiliser plants] should be pursued as they are the most suitable for this unique city".
While the government ultimately succumbed to public pressure and announced plans to relocate the plant, as the residents of Ras Al-Barr noted at the time ambiguity still reigned over whether the plant was actually to be relocated, or whether it would be secretly integrated into one of the already existing and expanding factories.
Today, the public debate over the hazardous industrial zone around Ras Al-Barr is not as prominent as it used to be, but activists are still lobbying to block future industrial plans from coming to the town and to remove some of the existing ones. "It's true that Ras Al-Barr will never be able to compete with places like Marina [an up-scale summer resort west of Alexandria], but it could certainly get better," says Anis, one of the activists working against the further industrialisation of the town.
A carpenter by trade, Anis is determined to keep on lobbying support to keep Ras Al-Barr for environmentally compatible businesses. "I know that the deterioration that has befallen Ras Al-Barr has prompted some unfortunate industrial activities that are totally incompatible with what this town should be about, but it is never too late to reverse the damage," he says.
Like other members of his generation who saw only the final glimpses of the glory that was once Ras Al-Barr, Anis, now in his mid- 50s, is convinced that once the environmentally hazardous factories are removed, hotels and summer-houses will be rebuilt and the town will once again be a summer destination.
Anis knows that the days of the unique summer cabins that were once a hallmark of Ras Al-Barr -- of which very few are left -- are here no longer. But he is equally convinced that some other form of small and affordable summer-houses could be built, and that these could be elegant enough and beautiful enough to attract foreigners and Egyptians alike. He is particularly inspired by the low-cost and environmentally correct summer resorts in Sinai, asking "why not in Ras Al-Barr?"
The son of the former national swimming champion Abdel-Moneim Abdu, Abdel-Nasser, is obviously also hoping for a new day for the town when "Ras Al-Barr will be a destination for water sports".
"Think of wind-surfing," he says. "This is a perfect wind-surfing spot. And think of swimming championships and a camp for young people who take an interest in water sports. These are all things that could be done if the government were serious about reviving Ras Al-Barr as a destination for holidaymakers." Abdu makes no secret of his frustration with the lack of attention given to Ras Al-Barr. "Basic signs of cleanliness are often lacking, and there are many shanty-areas around the town," he says.
Umm Hani is one of the residents of these shanty-areas. Together with her family of nine, Umm Hani lives in half of a summer cabin. The other half is taken by another family of 11. Both families took up this spot -- no bigger than 70 square metres -- when they arrived in Ras Al-Barr a few years ago after being made redundant in the fields where they used to work.
They found the cabin empty and unattended, so they turned it into a refuge. Neither family is now willing to leave. "Where to?" asks Umm Hani. "We have no other place to go. If they want to remove us to build hotels for the rich, they will have to find us a place to go."
"Ras Al-Barr is not a place for the rich at the moment. It is predominantly a place for the lower middle class, and this is one of the reasons why it is not developing the way it should," says Essam El-Shayal, owner of a three-star hotel in the town. According to El-Shayal, it is because the town has been earmarked as a destination for less well-off holidaymakers that it does not get attention from government or investors. He is convinced that in order for Ras Al-Barr to pick up, part of the city has to be allocated to the more economically advantaged.
A single hotel room in Ras Al-Barr could cost around LE150 at present, while a small furnished apartment could cost about LE500 a week for a family. This price range, El-Shayal argues, is indicative of the little money that Ras Al-Barr generates as a destination for tourists and holidaymakers. In fact, he admits, the price range is indicative of the poor quality of such hotel rooms or apartments.
Both hotel owners, El-Shayal and Abdu, say that it is not usual to have customers from Cairo. Most of their clients are from nearby governorates, which are predominantly rural communities. This, they say, is unfortunate because it gives the town the reputation of being the "summer resort of the villagers, which is unfair but true to a great extent".
El-Shayal and Abdu argue that small investment will not be enough to give the town its much over-due facelift. Like Ismail, they insist that what is required is much larger investment. And, like Anis, they know that massive investment in tourism is unlikely to come the town's way as long as it is haunted by hazardous factories. It is a vicious circle, they admit.
For their part, the officials concerned do not seem to have much interest in giving Ras Al-Barr the chance of becoming a decent summer resort.
They suspect that a feasibility study would not grant Ras Al-Barr, as it is today, much luck with finding large investment from the private sector, and acknowledge that it would be very difficult to remove all the factories around the town to encourage uncertain investment.
For the time being, then, the town's past glory is likely to remain just a memory.