Al-Ahram Weekly Online   1 - 7 December 2011
Issue No. 1074
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Life as it should be

In an exclusive interview, Walid Ramadan, the founder of Characters of Egypt festival opens his heart, and Amira El-Naqeeb listens

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Clockwise from top: one of the festival posters adorning a felluca in Aswan; Walid Ramadan during the interview; a lecture about tribal laws on the margin of the festival with Ramadan among the audience

How will the inhabitants of Heisa Island benefit from this event?

The people of Heisa will be shareholders in the company that will open in Heisa; anyone who owns a house will be a shareholder, and those who don't will benefit from the development that will take place in Heisa. This festival will be at Heisa for three years, and we intend to promote the island by encouraging cultural activities like inviting artists to do art residencies on the island.

My vision is that through these types of activities we will preserve the natural environment of the location and its authenticity, as well as inspire and attract talents from around the world to promote the destination for responsible tourism. That is the kind of tourism I want to attract.

How was the idea of Characters of Egypt born?

I wanted to promote Wadi El-Gemal in Marsa Allam. I thought about this idea because it was the easiest within my area of expertise and I have many connections with the tribes.

The motivation to create this event was a personal one. I wanted to draw attention to my project in Wadi El-Gemal and attract the media to write about it. After the first festival, the reaction of the people made me want to do this for the people; I wanted these tribes to reap the benefit.

This is the first time in 20 years that they hear songs here in Heisa. They have a covenant here that there cannot be singing at a wedding if there is a funeral on the island, and there may only be Sufi singing of El-Tariqa El-Marghanyia (the Marghani path) that some people follow here.

The young children were delighted with the joyful atmosphere; they weren't used to hearing songs. They also cooperated with the volunteers in collecting garbage from around the Island. For some tribes like the Bedouins of South Sinai, it was the first time for them to travel across Egypt. They were concerned about being stopped, harassed or detained by the police.

What were the challenges of bringing the festival into the light?

The police was against the festival. My only explanation for their behavior is that it was out of ignorance. In the first year, they sent us 162 policemen; the next year when we met with the police authority, as a joke, I gave a presentation that showed the policemen in one picture and two tourists sitting beside them on the ground, and said: "And that was the celebration of the tourists with the police festival."

That year they sent 62, the following 15, and this year three.

During the first years I wanted to throw them out, but this year I wanted to cooperate with them because I felt they really needed help.

What started you in the tourism business?

The first time I camped alone I was 14. I went to Marsa Allam for two weeks then my parents sent me to Hurghada to my uncle's house to study because I was behind in my studies. I was always fascinated by the lifestyle of the people living in Hurghada. Relaxed, having fun, diving, and living in the desert. I knew that this is what I wanted to do with my life.

First, I learned how to dive then became a professional diver. I lived everywhere in Egypt as I roamed the country. I made many contacts but didn't know how to use them.

In 2002, I met a very famous Canadian energy therapist and psychologist who has healing powers that use the aura. My position was that this is bogus, but my business partner believed in it so he brought her to the office. I mocked her talents and challenged her to read my personality. She did, and told me that I have the gift of linking people together.

I believed her because she told me positive things about my future, and I wanted to believe it to be true. So I tried using my gift and it worked.

How do you evaluate the success of the festival?

After 3,000 people came to Marsa Allam for the first time to see the festival, then became repeat visitors to the festival and Marsa Allam itself.

Why Heisa this year?

Until six weeks ago, the event was going to take place as usual in Wadi El-Gemal but we had some disputes with the Ministry of Environment and they refused to issue a permit to hold the festival in Fustat Wadi El-Gemal. This ministry never supported or helped us with the festival, although the event helped promote their work.

We first asked most of the tribes if it's possible to hold it in their hometowns, and they all welcomed the idea. Meanwhile, Wafaa El-Nil Association, the co-sponsor of the festival, sent a letter to the Ministry of Tourism saying that they are not interested in the problems and disputes, but they need the festival for benefit of Egypt. The Ministry of Tourism gave us full support to hold the festival wherever I choose, as long as it's not in Fustat Wadi El-Gemal.

Awad Morkab, a Nubian friend of mine for almost 25 years, suggested that we do it on his home island of Heisa. I figured it was the easiest place to be secured. The island has 1,500 inhabitants, any strangers would stand out; the volunteers know each other and the tribes know each other. The Nubians have always worked in tourism and are exemplary at maintaining their identity while working in this industry.

So, we decided Heisa was the best option.

What kind of recognition has the festival earned so far?

The World Tourism Organisation (WTO) chose Characters of Egypt as the case study of World Tourism Day that took place in Aswan last September. I felt that the three years of sweat, blood and paying out of my own pocket did not go to waste.

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