Sa-hell

Be gentle. Taken by a 6-year old.

I was reminded of the relationship between exclusivity and pleasure in Egypt this week when I joined members of my family enduring each other at close proximity, AKA having a summer holiday.

This year it was the Diplomats holiday village, on the North Coast, whose beautiful Mediterranean shores are gradually being cluttered with holiday resorts hidden away behind perimeter fences, security gates and entrance tickets. In addition to being financially off-limits, many of these resorts are in any case physically inaccessible: I caught a Superjet bus to the Marina resort (half an hour away from Diplomats and apparently the only stop between Marsa Matrouh and Alexandria), and saw some microbuses scuttling along, but imagine lugging two weeks’ worth of luggage and kids from Cairo in a microbus on a three or four-hour ride.

Unencumbered by kids or much luggage I enjoyed the trip from Cairo, because of the El-Alamein Road’s spectacular scenery – big skies and vast, empty plains, only slightly marred by the fact that we were subjected to Tamer Hosny in Craptain Hima for the duration of the trip. An elderly scowling gentlemen of discerning taste seated next to me rested his chin on his hands – which were gripping the walking stick placed in front of him – and closed his eyes throughout.

Diplomats is a labyrinthine warren of bungalows which in places reminded me of Bournemouth. The bungalows are not referred to as bungalows, of course, but rather as chalets, despite being altogether too grand for such a title. I got lost the second night there, attempting to return to our bungalow in the dark. All the streets look the same. Upstairs Auntie advised me to get my bearings through reference to a giant inflatable Pepsi can placed outside the central Social Club. It helped, but not in the dark.

The Pepsi can was an early indication of the extent of corporate sponsorship in Diplomats and elsewhere on the North Coast’s exclusive resorts. On the beach we sat underneath Pepsi umbrellas on Vodafone beanbags. Adverts for a particular bank adorned each street corner. Signs on the El-Alamein road announced that drivers in trouble can call an emergency number – courtesy of Mobinil. The state was conspicuous by its absence. Everything was very well done, very well organised, and reserved for 0.5% of the Egyptian population.

I’m not exaggerating when I say that I heard more English in Diplomats then I do on the Tube in London. The AUC graduating class of 2020 was apparently holidaying at the same time as me. The preference for English transactions is partly explained by the fact that many of the kids I saw on the beach were accompanied by their nannies, mostly non-Arabic speakers of African and Philippine origin. One exchange particularly struck me: a group of three teenage boys elected to bury a member of their group in the sand. “Let’s get cracking on this bitch!” said one of them, in the style of Sid from Last of the Summer Wine meets Notorious BIG.

And get cracking they did, first giving their victim breasts before proceeding to lovingly carve out a penis of frankly obscene proportions – which one of them then violently destroyed in a fit of possibly Freudian anger.

Speaking of knobs, an elderly gentleman decided to get his out in order to urinate – in the showers on the beach – exactly at the moment I was jogging past one morning. I wondered if he had mistaken me for a male, and was cottaging al fresco. My long-held conviction that jogging is evil was confirmed, in any case.

Instructions placed in the showers sadly do not explicitly ban pissing, but do mention that “workers and nannies” may only use the beach “in the designated areas” – a bantustan inside the bantustan. Where exactly these designated areas are remains a mystery. The workers I saw were invisible. Silently collecting rubbish, serving guests or looking after their children.

In Porto Marina I saw off-duty workers seated on the ground, eating, underneath a huge advertising hoarding showing a laughing family frolicking in water.

Nannies were everywhere in Porto Marina (entrance fee LE 10) a complex of shops, a hotel and time-share apartments, constructed around an artificial bay. Running through the mall is an artificial waterway on which punters can take a Gondolier ride (LE 20) past shops selling convertible Mini Coopers (around LE 300,000) and waterskiing equipment. My cousin’s kids wanted a ride on the boat which does a circle of the artificial bay (LE 25 per person). “Hatet2elab, hatet2elab” [It's going to capsize] six-year old Elvis insisted, when the boat rocked violently in the wake of a jet-ski manned by an eleven-year old slicing his way through the lake.

One of the nannies I saw in Marina was the same height as her charges, around ten years old, fragile and tiny. In the Andrea restaurant in the Hacienda resort a kid with a raspy, newly-broken voice stood outside the toilets. “Etfaddaly” [approximately, welcome] he said, as I walked in. “Etfaddaly” he said, as I walked out. Back at the table I watched an Ethiopian nanny try to rein in a particular boisterous child wearing a t-shirt reading, “records are made to be broken”. He was amusing himself by collecting, and lobbing about, chair cushions. His mother eventually took notice. “Keda 3abat” [that's stupid] she said, and the nanny attempted to restrain him. He gave her a nasty pinch on her upper arm, discreetly.

I mentioned the Andrea kid manning the toilets to my cousin. She suggested that families will send their children out to work whatever happens and that doing this type of job is better than children being exploited in workshops. At least there they learn skills, I said. Yes, but they’re exploited, she replied.

There is – of course – an artificial beach in Porto Marina, to match the artificial bay and the artificial Venice. Booths advertise video games and sell Zalabia. Children and teenagers parade up and down Marina’s central strip, while in the kids’ play-area sad-eyed women supervise other people’s manic children in a fluorescent, bouncy castle, nursery-rhyme, hell.

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7 Responses to Sa-hell

  1. helperF1 says:

    Really sad how parents think giving their children a foreign tongue is better for them.
    Sure it's advantageous to know one ore more extra languages, but to lose your own!! what else will you have left.

    Ps all the time i assumed you were a man. sorry about that

  2. عمرو غربية says:

    20 years in Egypt and I have not been once to Sa-hel.

  3. Forsoothsayer says:

    ok, we understand. you think people should bring up their own children.
    much of the corporate nature of sahel is objectionable, and they're ruining the beach. i would however like to know what you suggest in place of "holiday resorts hidden away behind perimeter fences, security gates and entrance tickets." it would be nice if Egypt was the kind of country where public beaches are well-maintained and safe places while being open to the public, but perimeters, security gates and tickets are the only way of ensuring that you are able to sit on the beach in a bikini. there are plenty of ungated public beaches in Alexandria – why don't you try them? I'm retty sure you won't like the swarm of possibly violent men which will immediately surround you.

  4. Scarr says:

    Actually, you've misunderstood, it would seem (and who exactly is the "we" in "OK we understand"?). I don't think that people should bring up their own children without ever enlisting help. My point it that people shouldn't exploit other people's children to bring up their own.

    Yes, corporate development is ruining Egypt's coastlines. And yes, unfortunately women don't have the freedom to wear what they want anywhere in Egypt. But it is equally sad that whole swathes of Egypt's best beaches (sorry, Alex isn't the same experience as the coastline around Marina etc) have been made unavailable to the majority of people. This bothers me cos it's a physical manifestation of the economic disenfranchisement which has denied access to people who don't fit a certain profile – from beaches, from gated communities (unless they're wiping floors), from jobs, from schools, from opportunity, from justice…

  5. Forsoothsayer says:

    we, the readers. yes, the working children are sad.

    i can't see the beaches as part of the greater (undiable) disenfranchisement. in fact there are many stunning Egyptian beaches that are unavailable to you and i – el arish, marsa matrouh, etc. before there can be pleasant public mingling of the sort that other countries have no trouble with, women need to be safe. there is some causality here, not just snobbishness. besides, when is the last time you felt comfortable as a woman occupying public space? i have never in my life been able to just stand or sit on the street without attracting notice and harassment. if that's the way it's going to be, then yes, there will have to be a certain amount of segregation. I'm aware it only exacerbates the problem, but i can't think of any immediate solution.

  6. Raquel says:

    Hi there,
    I am a Mexican girl with an Egyptian husband. I've been to Egypt several times and really want to "get to know" it.
    I've enjoyed your writings a lot. Your style is unique and really funny.
    Hope that you write again soon.

  7. Scarr says:

    Thanks a lot Raquel :-)

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