Bad picture of a good sunset.
Last year I went on a holiday to Gouna, a magical make-believe gated city on the Red Sea. I wrote something about it that for one reason and another forgot to post on my blog. I’ve just returned from a week in Gouna and dug out what I wrote last year and thought that I might as well bung it online.
I finally escaped Cairo, sweating in its summer fury, for Gouna, a couple of months ago. We conveyed ourselves there by Go Bus, securing the last seats to Hurghada, that coast-destroying aberration just up the Red Sea coast from Gouna.
Go Buses leave from Cairo’s central Abdel-Meneim Reyad Square, which houses both a microbus hub and numerous exits and entrances to the October Bridge and downtown Cairo. It is a sludge of vehicles driven by people furious that other drivers exist. Go Buses pick people up outside the office. There is no formally demarcated stopping area other than a cigarette-smoking man sitting on a chair barking orders into a loudspeaker at throngs of families and their suitcases.
Our bus left at 3.10 a.m. and we raced through Cairo’s empty streets to Nasr City where more passengers embarked and a hurried young man thrust a complimentary meal at us in a cardboard box.
Once on the road the film started. It was Sarkhet Namla, (“the scream of an ant”) a mediocre film about class injustice and poverty whose central trope (the poor have no voice in this country, we are all ants) is repeated several thousand times to numbing effect.
We watched a different kind of film somewhere in the middle of nowhere. It was daytime by this time, we had watched the sun float out of the sea somewhere in Sokhna. At a police checkpoint a young policeman in plain clothes got on board and languidly surveyed the passengers. He then selected some of the male passengers and demanded to see their IDs before ordering four men off the bus. They were all in their mid-twenties and from their dress, clearly working class. They were taken into an office next to the bus and the grumbling passengers still on the bus watched as the men’s suitcases were searched. Some of us got out to stretch legs or smoke cigarettes.
We asked two policemen on what basis the men had been targeted.
“They are suspects,” one of them replied, without specifying suspected of what. The policemen/conscripts themselves were as usual, poorer, than the men their superiors had stopped, dressed in rumpled, dirty khaki uniforms, their shoelaces undone or torn, their authority as tattered as their clothes.
I remembered hearing once that Egyptian men of a certain profile are refused entry to Sinai unless they can prove that they are employed in one of the resorts. Maybe the same policy applies to all tourist areas. One of the suspect men laughingly told us that he has been working in Hurghada for eight years and this is the first time he has been challenged.
Half an hour later all the men were back on the bus and we were off again.
Since this was the bus to Hurghada we were deposited at the entrance to Gouna. It consists of a security gate and a gently trickling water feature. A passing microbus took us to our hotel.
The interior of this microbus was entirely covered in expressions of devotion to Jesus and Christian Orthodox saints, it was like a mobile church. A small television screen played a tarneema sha3beyya, the first I have ever heard. I enjoyed it. The lyrics flashed across the screen next to images of nature and small children, while the driver, who was from Qena in Upper Egypt talked to us in the waterfall that is the Sa3eedy accent with its tumbling Gs for Qs and Js for Gs.
As is typical, we arrived on one of the hottest days so far of this summer. It was like the sun had taken umbrage at something we said about its mother.
Patrons of Moods, in Gouna’s marina, bathe in water coloured by swirling patterns of boat oil, which everyone ignores. The sea is placid, disturbed only by the passing of enormous yachts and tumbling children pursued by nannies.
Gouna’s marina area is a film set of perfectly constructed buildings in tasteful colours gazed at by the enormous yachts. It is all very calm and very clean. The “downtown” area five minutes away is slightly shabbier, if it possible to use that word in connection with Gouna, and seems to be where the town’s less well-off residents live judging by the ordinariness of some of the boxy apartment blocks there. Visitors are ferried about by tuktuks for LE 5 per trip. They hurtle along the well-signed, well-maintained roads at breakneck speed.
Gouna has its own security force, a library, a hospital. You cannot hear the call to prayer, either because the azaan is quiet or the mosque is at a far remove. It is all very pleasant and – like the majority of tourist and holiday resorts here – as far away from Egypt as you can imagine. Visitors are hit over the head with reminders of where they are by the usual pharonic trinkets and a place called the Nubian Village, but otherwise there is something distinctly and disconcertedly un-Egyptian, almost alien about Gouna, like a 7ft wrestler in a knitting class.
On our first evening, in an area of the town between the Marina and Downtown, we saw the silhouettes of a crowd of people, standing perfectly still. They turned out to be almost life-sized cardboard cutouts of “ordinary” Egyptians: a plump woman in a veil, a disgruntled looking man carrying a plastic bag. It was a strange, soulless display, lost figures scattered around some scrubland, but then Gouna – for all its wonderful qualities – seems intent on reducing Egypt to a two-dimensional spectre of itself and neatly packing it away in the basement.
At a Vietnamese restaurant called Saigon we went to, twice, because it is so good we had a chinwag with one of the waiters who told us that he is known as Bonny because his real name is “too difficult” for the Vietnamese owner and staff.
“What’s your real name?” I asked.
“Abanob”, he said.
We protested that this is not a difficult name, but he said that it is two syllables too much for his Vietnamese colleagues who he says are all extremely economically named with one-syllable appellations. Another waiter announced that everyone, even his parents, call him Maradonna because he was born on the same day as a momentous act by that diminutive Argentinian. His real name was again something distinctly Christian.
I wanted to enquire about the large number of Christians employed in Gouna but it seemed an indelicate question and was in any case based largely on my own unscientific observations. I didn’t do a survey of religions, but the majority of employees I encountered either bore obvious signs of being Christian (crosses, tattoos) or responded to unambiguously Christian names. I wondered how the recruitment process works, whether Christians radiate towards Gouna, baby of the Christian Sawiris dynasty, whether it puts off any potential Muslim employees.
The bus journey was just as unpleasant as last year, and began with another passenger fighting with the harried staff about his seat, which kept falling off.
The film lineup this time was a comedy that made light of domestic violence followed by an Ahmed El-Saqqa flick about women and babies. We stopped at the same checkpoint for nearly an hour and poor young men got on the bus and singled out other poor young men for random body searches and ID checks.
Gouna is still majestically aloof and doesn’t give a toss about what is happening in the rest of Egypt. Life proceeds gently, at the slow rhythm of the waves lapping the shore where the beautiful people continue to frolic. The most dramatic thing I experienced there was a drink holder falling off my bike and a series of cryptic conversations with the woman in the Information Centre who is nice but clearly unused to being asked for information about Gouna.
The town is not entirely impervious to the outside world though: numbers are clearly down and business is suffering.
A boat driver who took us on a tour of the lagoons so we could snoop about (at a safe distance) the millionaires’ villas said that tourism has taken a nosedive ahead of June 30. He maintained that he and other workers in Gouna are prepared to put up with a couple of months suffering if it means that the Muslim Brotherhood are driven out once and for all.
An aunt who has lived in Gouna for three years issued spirited imprecations against the package tour “rubbish” from Europe that is now being admitted to the place. An observation to which I will add nothing other than I hope she wasn’t referring to half-Europeans resident in Cairo.
I encourage everyone, Egyptians, Eurotrash and non-Eurotrash alike to do their bit for the Egyptian economy and visit Gouna. I believe those in Europe can currently get mad good deals. Do it. And if you do go, go to the Zia Amelia restaurant and die and go to heaven as you feast on the most delicately prepared empty carbohydrates you will ever consume.
And nobody has paid me to write any of this, more’s the pity.