Al-Ahram Weekly Online   4 - 10 October 2012
Issue No. 1117
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Bewitching charm and camels

Sinai has long been an important destination for pilgrims, but many travellers today come to the peninsula as tourists drawn by the spectacular pleasures it has to offer, writes Ibrahim Farouk in the fourth part of an Al-Ahram Weekly series

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From top: in the heart of a unique landscape; the trade-mark tree; Sheikh Mubarak Hamid; Blue Hole: mountain, jeep and imagination; promenades to dream of; the beautiful beast

Do believers and the bewitched look upon it with infatuation and mystical intent? Is it truly, as Muslims believe it to be, the "Place of Gathering" for all people on Judgement Day, separating believers from sinners? Sinai is much more than a cherished land in the hearts of Muslims, and for Christians too it is a holy land, with thousands flocking to St Catherine's Monastery to light candles and follow the paths of saints who lived at the monastery hundreds of years ago. For Jews, Sinai is also a holy land, since it was here that the Jews crossed out of Egypt in the biblical account, being lost in the desert for 40 years.

Sinai is an ancient land with many fascinating stories to tell. The prophets wandered through it. Abraham travelled across it on his voyage out of Egypt to build the House of God, and Moses passed through it during the exodus from Egypt, with God speaking to him directly on Mount Sinai and allowing him to defeat the Pharaoh. In the Christian account, the Holy Family also fled across Sinai from the Romans and the persecution of the Jews.

The longer one spends in Sinai exploring its secrets, valleys, mountains and deserts the more one realises that this is still a mystical land with a precious soil and stunning sky and holding many as yet untold stories, albeit more contemporary ones and with different twists. There are secret worlds in Sinai that only sometimes reveal themselves to visitors, while others are only known to those versed in the history of this ancient land.

Sinai has long been both a crossing point and a flashpoint, and it has also long figured as a source of much untapped wealth. The former Mubarak regime obstructed economic and other opportunities in Sinai, compounding its problems, and many of its most attractive destinations became the monopoly of a handful of powerful individuals who treated the peninsula almost as their own private property.

Some Sinai residents call such people "devils", along with the posse of special interests and administrators in local government who, they say, were only interested in depleting Sinai's resources and obstructing anyone who tried to improve and develop the peninsula.

THE LEGEND OF DAHAB: There are many legends in Sinai, perhaps more than there are people and even older and more permanent. The present writer's journey to rediscover Sinai, eventually travelling to all corners of the peninsula, began in Dahab, a tiny place in south Sinai which until recently was nothing more than a small settlement lived in by the Al-Mazinah tribe.

This tribe, spread out over the coastal strip of the governorate of south Sinai, inhabits the area beginning at the edge of Ras Sidr and advancing through Al-Tor, Sharm El-Sheikh, Dahab, Nuweiba and up to the southern edge of Taba. Two main branches of the tribe are found in Dahab, the Al-Ghawanma and Awlad Ali.

Dahab is now a tourist resort in south Sinai located on the Red Sea in the southeast of the peninsula some 100km north of the world-famous tourist destination of Sharm El-Sheikh. It is also located about 140km from the Israeli town of Eilat, and it overlooks two gulfs, Al-Qawra near the city centre and Lagoona on the northeastern edge of the town, and it is perhaps this dramatic backdrop that makes it one of the most sought-after resorts for tourists after Sharm El-Sheikh.

In the past, the town was a small Bedouin fishing village that became known in the 1990s as a diving spot, fishing area and destination for water sports that require wind, such as windsurfing and kite-surfing. Many hotels and tourist compounds have been built in Dahab, and it is today divided into two sectors. The Bedouin compound called Al-Assla is located in the southern section of the town, while Dahab's commercial and administrative district is in the north. Near the border with Israel is Coral Island, where the Crusaders built a fort in the Middle Ages that can still be seen today.

The first mayor of Dahab after it was liberated from Israeli occupation in 1982 was Air Force Major-General Mohamed Khedr, nominated to the post by the then minister of defence, Mohamed Abu Ghazala, along with the then south Sinai governor Lieutenant-General Aziz Ghali.

Dahab is now famous for its golden beaches and stunning diving spots, making it a magnet for tourists since it offers more affordable prices than some other diving destinations in Sinai. There are also safaris and health spas, as well as parachuting and water sports that are not available in Sharm El-Sheikh, including windsurfing and sailing. The wind in Dahab makes it ideal for sailing enthusiasts because of the surrounding mountains.

Dahab is divided into several areas. From north to south, there are Ras Abu Galoum, a nature preserve and diving area, the famous Blue Hole diving area, Canyon, another diving area, and the Blue Hole-Canyon-Al-Assla road, which hosts hotels and tourist villages that are either operational or under construction. Al-Assla is home to about 75 per cent of Dahab residents, especially members of the Al-Mazinah tribe, and it is composed of the settlements of Mubarak, Al-Zarnouk and Al-Assla.

The Al-Malil area is parallel to the coastal road and includes small hotels, caf│ęs and houses. Al-Masbat is a tourist hub that begins at Al-Manar Street and goes through Al-Masbat Bay and houses a large number of shops, diving centres, caf│ęs, camps and hotels. Al-Mashraba is composed of a large number of caf│ęs and diving centres, as well as the sole ancient monument in the area, the Tal Al-Mashraba, the remains of warehouses used by the ancient Nabataeans. Lagoona is home to a number of hotels and diving centres, and it has the only sandy beach in the city.

Dahab City houses government offices and big hotels, while Wadi Qani is still under construction. It is touted to be the new Dahab because of the large number of hotels, services and residential compounds. Many people believe that Dahab, meaning "gold" in Arabic, acquired its name because of the golden colour of its sands. However, Sheikh Mubarak Hamid, a tribal elder in his 80s who has the title of sheikh although he is not really the tribe's leader thinks otherwise.

Sheikh Hamid dismisses ideas that the town's name originated from the colour of its golden sands and tells an intriguing story instead. According to him, "one of our tribe's Arab ancestors was travelling across Sinai near here with his caravan and was looking for food and water in the desert. He wandered far from his fellow travellers and was lost until he reached the spectacular beach in what is now Dahab. Overcome with exhaustion from walking, he fell asleep. But when he woke up and saw his surroundings, with their clear sea, majestic mountains, and comfortable sands, he was enchanted and lulled back to sleep, his heart and mind bewitched and mesmerised."

"Finally, his fellow travellers found him dazed and in a state between wakefulness and sleep. They too were taken by the surroundings, and when they asked him what had happened, he said, 'my mind was bewitched, and I was touched by magic'. In Arabic, he used the word 'zahab' to describe losing his mind, and that is what the travellers called the place, the word eventually developing into 'dahab'."

WHERE EVIL IS STRUCK DOWN: Sheikh Hamid and his family in Al-Assla still live an authentic Bedouin lifestyle. The meeting area for the tribal council is made of palm reeds, and the ground is covered with handmade carpets. A campfire made of local wood doesn't emit black smoke like it would in the cities and the Nile Valley.

Sheikh Hamid commutes between Dahab and the Bedouin villages in the Al-Nabq reservation and the Mejereh Valley, in order to oversee the tribe's affairs. A few days earlier, he had concluded a group wedding of a large number of the tribe's young people. The celebration lasted several nights in Al-Assla and the Mejereh Valley where the wedding took place and the newlyweds reside.

The sheikh has onerous daily duties, but he still finds time to play with his great-grandchildren and the tribe's other children, taking them in his pick-up truck to buy sweets, clothes and toys. He is also the problem-solver of the tribe, arbitrating disputes and participating in peacemaking.

Sheikh Hamid explained his admiration for Dahab's uniqueness, splendour and charm. "I have lived here for many years, and I know every inch of the place. It is a blessed land that is only hospitable to good people. Locusts may sweep across Sinai, devouring the plants and everything else, but they never enter Dahab or dare to go to Al-Assla. Anyone who has lived here will tell you that."

"God protects Dahab from anyone who wants to harm it, and the corrupt are stopped in their tracks. When ousted former president Hosni Mubarak's sons wanted to seize scenic spots here for themselves in an illegal manner during the last two years of the former regime, the revolution took place to protect them. But this is nothing new: Dahab has always had guardian angels protecting it against evil."

"Let me tell you another story. Thirty years ago, a developer illegally acquired a building licence for a tourist village at the entrance of the Blue Hole near the Canyon with the help of corrupt officials. The land was the graveyard of our tribal ancestors, and although we met with him several times to plead with him to find another spot he ignored us and started construction work anyway. Our pleas seemed to have fallen on deaf ears, but before construction was complete he and his son were killed in a road accident on the way to Cairo from Dahab. He had no other children, and his heirs bickered endlessly, so the project is still incomplete today."

Sheikh Hamid's stories make up one chapter in the history of this city that until the early 1990s was little more than a beautiful beach without electricity or services and speckled with palm-reed huts. It mostly hosted young Jewish tourists from Israel, who crossed the border at Taba and were looking to enjoy themselves at very little cost. These tourists brought canned food, drugs and alcohol with them, claiming Dahab for a time as the land they had lost after years of Israeli occupation.

According to local stories, some of these young people went into business with newcomers to the area. Dahab was far from Cairo and close to Eilat, and they were happy to spend the night there out in the open on the beach. Today, things have entirely changed. The beaches of Al-Masbat and Al-Mashraba now welcome a very different type of tourism. Diving, kite-surfing and windsurfing aficionados from Germany, Britain, Italy and Russia flock to them, for example.

Yet, although life has changed radically in Dahab, some problems have remained. There is still tourist development without a vision, and there is still development that takes place without proper regard for sustainability or public benefit. There have been stories of land being sold in a shady fashion and of real-estate deals and joint enterprises being set up that benefit only a small clique of the peninsula's residents.

The corruption of the former Mubarak regime undermined development opportunities in the city, and people trampled the area underfoot without thought of the future. Injustice and oppression also took place under the former regime, and some of those who previously rose to exert influence in Dahab did so by carefully managing their relations with the ousted Mubarak regime, being able to amass considerable wealth in doing so.

Even in some of the local tribes there are those who benefited from the previous regime, becoming millionaires by doing so, while other tribal members remained herdsmen tending their flocks and unaffected by the developments around them. Amid all this upheaval, a new class was born of foreigners who, many Dahab residents say, manipulated the local market in order to gain assets at cheap prices, monopolising jobs and land without paying taxes to the state.

Ambassadors of Egyptian cuisine

One of the success stories of Al-Masbat is Mustafa Abul-Fadl and his friend Adel Yehia from Mahalla, Gharbiya governorate. Abul-Fadl and Yehia have developed a sterling reputation not only among local residents, but also among the many tourists from around the world who patronise their restaurant, for their excellent Egyptian cuisine. The two men's success story is a model to be emulated, and it is all the more remarkable given the difficulties they faced for many years because of the injustice and prejudices of the former regime.

Abul-Fadl left his hometown in Mahalla 20 years ago after he finished middle school on a challenging journey into the unknown. "I looked for work in Mahalla but found nothing, and I had no money to keep going. I left home after I had borrowed 30 pounds from my sister and I travelled to Dahab in the early 1990s. I met Adel, a school friend, there, and we decided not to leave Sinai until we had achieved success and made our families and country proud."

"We started with nothing, washing dishes in restaurants and telling each other that at least this was better than going abroad and doing the same jobs in foreign countries. We worked long hours, and there was never enough water or electricity. As a result, we had to alternate washing our clothes and preparing our meals, all the while living in a modest tent. We shared our joys and sorrows, and we were pursued daily by security and police officers for no reason. Every night they would come to arrest us, so much so that we joked about it, like many Egyptian young people at the time looking for a better life. Whenever we saw a police truck, we would climb right into it even without being asked to do so, because that is what they would want us to do."

The friendship between Abul-Fadl and Yehia gave them strength in their darkest moments. "One night, they threw us in jail and the cell was filthy with the sewage pipes backed up. I was exhausted, but Adel lifted me up off the ground so my condition didn't worsen, and he stood there holding me for hours so I could get some rest. Despite such trials, thanks to God we succeeded in our work and established a name in Dahab as the best restaurant chain in the city with exceptional service. As a result, Egyptian cuisine has become an ambassador for the country."

"We were successful and men from the Interior Ministry and their relatives would come here to eat for free. We did not serve cheap imported meat, as some people suggested. Instead, we continued in our work with honesty and purpose, and we succeeded by the grace of God."

Today, Abul-Fadl and Yehia hope to see a modern Egypt with a booming tourist industry that grows steadily and quickly, offering tourists the service they deserve as guests of Egypt who must be met with hospitality and warmth, long a feature of Egyptian culture. They also offer education and awareness-raising programmes for young people working in tourism, helping them to become more aware of the needs of their foreign guests.

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