Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 November 2007
Issue No. 869
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Of skirts and stilts

It was a culture-tourism event of much promise, and Youssef Rakha just about enjoyed it

Click to view caption
From top: the tannoura turning Hurghada's Mamsha into a Sufi dream; reflections on the boat on the way back from Giftun Island

Once again, a sojourn touted in superlative terms turned out to be ridiculously shoe string-like. It would've been okay had the event lived up to its raison d'être, but when, 48 hours into a two-day German-Egyptian Friendship Festival, you realise you haven't met a single German, then the frustration really sets in. I told a lie: our little travel-journalist delegation did run into an English-speaking German newspaperman at one point, but he was in Hurghada for a different reason, if I remember rightly, and the fact that we had friendly conversations with him was due entirely to individual initiative. There was, of course, the lebenslauf himself, accompanied by his Lebanese wife. One could've been grateful for his company alone: German Ambassador Bernd Erbel is witty, humorous and speaks near-perfect Arabic. But with some 10 Egyptians to one German, the friendship felt a little too one-sided for comfort. The said 10 Egyptians did not include, as I was told they would, the minister of tourism -- and this is the only explanation I've been given for the more mundane disappointment of having to get from Cairo to Hurghada and back by bus, not plane. Nor would the bus be quite such a trial if it didn't arrive over an hour late, every time.

When I heard the word sahafi for the hundredth time in half an hour, I remember noting that we were moving much slower than a regular-service bus, which is slow enough. Then I realised I had actually started counting the number of times my fellow journeymen had used the Arabic word for their job. I couldn't help wondering whether a busload of bored reporters was such a good idea, after all. As it turned out, the friendly banter and over-the-top commentary on current events -- mostly Press Syndicate-related, but also political and economic -- was one of three saving graces of the whole journey. It was a window onto the average Egyptian journalist (and I include myself in that category): hypercritical, somewhat spoilt, more eager to analyse than to investigate. Ah well. Notwithstanding the allegedly three-star Three Corners Empire Hotel, together with such ministrations, the remaining two saving graces were more than enough compensation for discomfort and, well, incomprehension (since we were never really briefed about what was going on). First, the sumptuous meals during which I had the honour of meeting the affable founder and director of the NGO that organised the festival, Hagar Mustafa, as well as the ministry's head of the Egyptian Tourism Authority (ETA) Amr El-Ezabi, a truly cosmopolitan and committed impresario, unlike so many Egyptian officials one has come across; and, secondly, the few hours of frenzied outdoor entertainment the event amounted to, in the end. Before and aft, there was a press conference and a boat journey out to Giftun Island, the latter preferable by far, as well as sundry shorter trips in and around town; whether in terms of being late, losing the way once they got there or failing to get there in the first place -- the bus drivers we had were invariably bad news to the end.

Held at the Steigenberger Hurghada, the press conference was a well organised interlude featuring Erbel, El-Ezabi and Red Sea Governor Abu Bakr El-Rashidi and presented by the troop's appropriately cool-tempered leader, Safari editor Mohamed Akl, which highlighted the quality of the Three Corners Empire all the more. The many-course lunch which followed it -- smoked salmon, steak and other wonderful things -- was so beautifully presented at the seaside terrace you could hardly believe you had actually woken up for a thoroughly disappointing buffet breakfast at the Empire. More significantly, while full of praise for the initiative -- and no one could deny the Egyptian-German Friendship Day is, all things considered, eminently praiseworthy -- neither the press conference nor the many conversations that took place that day, managed to define what an Egyptian-German Friendship event might actually be about. In retrospect one is forced to concede that the journalists' disappointment -- all disappointment amounts to false expectation, does it not? -- was really a side-effect of misunderstanding, if not misinformation, though here as elsewhere it was impossible to direct the blame. What had been promoted as a festival -- implying several different events, was actually a single evening; what was meant to be ministry hospitality turned out to be governorate hospitality -- believe me, there is a difference; and rather than a cultural encounter between Egyptians and Germans, what the event's title implied was simply further consolidation of Hurghada's status as the Little Germany of the Red Sea -- hardly news. Still, the drama of how the event came about, disclosed informally by Mustafa during the final wait for the bus that took us home in the dark, is worth recounting in full: it serves not only as an inspirational story but a cautionary tale about Egyptian bureaucracy, too.

It all started last year when the opera-singer friends of Mustafa, a former USAID employee who eventually branched out with her own Association for Integrated Development -- "dealing with shortages wherever they present themselves" -- introduced her to a group of their own German opera-singer friends. Visiting Egypt for the first time, the latter wanted to see Little Germany, though one presumes they didn't describe it as such. On the spur of the moment the idea came up of organising some kind of informal event on the Mamsha, as Hurghada's promenade and principal gathering point is known. All that was needed was there: two nationalities of performers with instruments, one able curator "very good at writing proposals", as Mustafa describes herself, and no end of potential sponsors -- the hotels and other establishments lining the promenade, eager to animate their surroundings to help draw in business. With "no support from anyone", Mustafa explains, the event was enough of a success for her to think of expanding it the next year -- which process (of expansion) now involved the German Embassy -- by far the most consistent, best organised party. The Ministry of Tourism ETA did wonderful work, too, although Minister Zoheir Garana's decision not to show up seems to have reduced their contribution, whether financially or morally, with local officials failing to back up the event as much as they might have had the minister been present, and the Red Sea governorate that, though eager to cooperate, seems to have very limited resources dedicated to either tourism or the media.

The result? A melange of complications too difficult to make sense of, and certainly impossible to outline here, that left Mustafa sitting on a bench an hour or so after the festival started, crying her eyes out for the umpteenth time after a particular troupe refused to get on stage until they had been paid and, failing to secure the money on the spot, she had to sign cheques in her own name to the amount of LE11,000. "And everyone," she was heard whimpering, "just stood about doing nothing..."

And yet people hardly noticed there was anything wrong, so rich and various was the programme: the children of the local German school (evidence of the growth and stability of the German community in the Red Sea); the Wings looking formidable on stilts; several different animator troupes including a rendition of the Lion King; the famous Egyptian tannoura (skirt) whirling dervishes -- not to be confused with the Turkish Mevlevis who probably influenced them; the Incredible Ashraf Shamshoun, who had a minibus drive over his abdomen at the end; and an incredibly energetic presenter in a white suit who spoke no less than seven languages without managing a single correct sentence in any of them. The atmosphere was certainly festive, and to the many Germans, Russians, British and other tourists -- some of whose compatriots were on stage at various points -- the notion of curatorial complications or disgruntled journalists was probably as far away as downtown Cairo. Mustafa suffered in silence, but as the fun gathered momentum, she, too, cheered up eventually. The sad part was her being unable to join in the boat journey the next day: she had to sort out money matters at the governorate. The travel-journalists ended up relaxing, along with the embassy's representative Magdi Abdu, a helpful man if ever there was one, and the ETA's Mohamed Salama, competent, informative, dedicated, on the mini-paradise that is the Giftun protectorate, with some of the world's clearest waters and least spoiled sand. But my own favourite part was lying back on the boat and listening to Mohamed Mounir while the sun descended slowly, spot-lighting a particular spot, then another, waves lapping all around.

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