Letter from El-Sahel

Since the mid-1990s, El-Sahel’s 250-kilometer strip has become the prime summer destination of Egypt’s upper classes.

The three belly dancers stopped minutes before the call to the dawn prayer. As they were leaving the stage, the club owner, a former belly dancer who now wears hijab, took the microphone and started singing a 1980’s nationalistic song that praises the defiance and perseverance of Egyptian men. A number of Egyptian flags emerged from the few tables surrounding the stage; the tall and heavily pregnant woman in hot pants who had taken to the stage a couple of hours earlier joined the chorus for the nationalistic song. I later learned that she’s a loyal alumnus of the club’s dancing crew. The twenty-minute interval was a good opportunity to delve into the dinner that comes with the $80-a-head entry ticket: stir-fried brown rice, two jumbo shrimp, fried calamari, and a can of coke. Shisha is charged separately. Drinks are haram, or prohibited in Islamic jurisprudence, and thus not served. Isn’t belly dancing haram, too?

This club, about fifty tables condensed under a tent beside the Alexandria to El-Alamein coastal road, is but one example of the many entertainment spots that started to appear in the last decade on Egypt’s northwest coast (El-Sahel, in Egyptian slang), which stretches from Alexandria to the formerly sleepy fishing village of Marsa Mattrouh, where the marvellous Cleopatra’s Bath is located (and where an attacklast week on a police checkpoint left five Egyptian policemen dead).

Since the mid-1990s, El-Sahel’s 250-kilometer strip has become the prime summer destination of Egypt’s upper classes. The story began in the late 1970’s, when small groups of Egypt’s elite gradually sold their summer villas and flats in Alexandria and migrated westward toward El-Agami. Abdel-Halim Hafez, Egypt’s answer to Frank Sinatra, turned a small villa with a large garden, roughly a hundred meters from the Mediterranean shore, into his summer court. Rumors swirled among Cairo’s cognoscenti of “Halim’s haven.” El-Agami was a tranquil, almost virgin shore, a world away from Alexandria’s hustle and bustle during the summer months as hundreds of thousands of Egyptians descend on the city.

By the mid-1980’s, El-Agami had become the destination of choice for Egypt’s rich and famous. El-Fardous or Paradise Beach, at the heart of El-Agami, became the place for rubbing shoulders with the society’s stars, coming up close and personal with prominent politicians, meeting industry and business tycoons in a relaxed milieu, and the infamous ground for wild and exclusive parties.

Egyptians caught on. Within a decade, construction was booming in El-Agami. Hundreds of medium-rises, cramming thousands of middle class families, gradually surrounded the old villas that punctuated El-Agami’s narrow, tree-lined alleys. A few years after his death, Halim’s haven was sold and later demolished. By the mid-1990s, the private Paradise Beach was surrounded from both sides by two public ones. Teenagers were sneaking from these public beaches, where the vast majority of women were veiled and wearing loose robes, into Paradise, to look at bikini-clad sunbathers. Egypt-proper was closing on upper-class Egypt; privacy was threatened. El-Agami was no longer detached or exclusive. Gradually, it was losing its raison d’etre.

Egypt’s upper classes migrated westwards. Some families bought land from the local Bedouin tribes and built villas few kilometers away from El-Agami. Over time, few “touristic villages” (or compounds), with simple structures and facilities, began to appear. Units were sold through word of mouth to those in the know. It seemed that a string of new heavens were found.

Again, Egypt-proper came calling. In the early 1990’s, the Ministry for Housing and Development built two mega soviet-style compounds on tens of kilometers of sandy beaches. In less than two years, the government sold over thirty thousand units to public employees, armed forces and police officers, and scores of other members of the country’s then burgeoning middle class. These major construction projects were very different from the early compounds. They had public-sector groceries, butchers, kids playgrounds, often entertainment and gaming centers, and without exception, a mosque in every section of every compound. Traditional Egyptian restaurants —offering the quintessential Egyptian ful andtamaeya (beans and falafel) and shawarma—set up shops there to cater to the large families of owners and renters. Children, typically on bicycles or motorbikes, crammed the compounds’ streets at all times of day and night. The summer hits of famous Egyptian and Lebanese singers became the incessant background from sunset until dawn. Once again, Egypt’s upper classes began to escape, and again their direction was further west.

This time the new compounds that began to appear near El-Alamein and Marsa Matrouh had much higher quality and standards than the compounds of a decade earlier. Simplicity was out, luxury was in. Architects copied designs of resorts in Lake Como, Costa del Sol, Florida, and the Bahamas. Villas and chalets were increasingly large with ample space in-between to ensure privacy. Italian marble and Scandinavian wood were often used in decoration. Developers out-did each other to position their compounds as the new in place. Demand soared and prices followed. This summer, a three bedroom chalet of circa 200 square meters with a partial sea-view in one of the prime compounds was exchanging hands for over $1 million.

El-Sahel’s life has always been anchored on what the Italians call il dolce di fare niente, or the joy of doing nothing. But as new, exclusive compounds brought together the country’s upper financial echelons in detached, luxurious surroundings, life in the ‘right places’ of the strip has become a social bubble. Apart from the incessant chats over real estate, stock prices, and investment opportunities, these exclusive compounds gradually developed their own relaxed—and by Egyptian standards, highly liberal—value system. Not only did the compounds develop westernized look and feel; richness is, deliberately, in the heart of all things. Even language in these compounds has become different from that across the country: the young generation of Egypt’s upper classes have developed their own Anglicized slang Egyptian Arabic, which necessitates a decent command of English to comprehend. To a large extent, these compounds became the epitome of the immense economic and social divide that has grown in Egypt in the last three decades.

And then there are the ‘summer stories’ and the gossip: a hugely successful businessman in his late fifties spent almost every weekend in June and July in his newly acquired villa to be close to the daughter of one of his neighbours, a specially attractive twenty-year-old with equally strong interests in jewellery design and Middle Eastern politics; the successive affairs of a former minister with a penchant for married women; the semi-famous actor besotted with a divorced friend of his wife, among many other stories that make the rounds of the lengthy beach walks and the late dinners.

There is also nostalgia. The prime compounds’ immaculate gravel paths, greens, and pristine beaches evoke in many lamentation for a bygone era, “when the beauty of Cairo and Alexandria rivalled Paris and Vienna, when people were different: refined, polite, and sophisticated, when the country was ours.” Often the nostalgia is personal: a charming woman of a certain age recalling long-dead admirers—and a few lovers—while sipping Turkish coffee in the sunset’s soft glow; a retired diplomat triumphantly boasting of his conquests during his time in Europe (“You know what makes me really happy, that I have really lived my life; you should fully live your life; you understand.”). Flimsy layers separating joy and grief, respectability and debauchery.

By the end of the interval, I had eaten the shrimps and the fried calamari, but left most of the brown rice. I watched the pregnant woman in hot pants as she again ascended the stage. After the nationalistic song, and the pause for the dawn prayers, the singers went for another classic belly dancing ballad. I left slightly before five a.m. The club was still packed.

Tarek Osman is the author of the international bestseller Egypt on the Brink: From Nasser to Mubarak.

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