Zeena

arabic boat

Another astonishingly beautiful day in El Gouna, Egypt, so beautiful in fact that I am reminded of the Arabic word Zeena — it means decoration, and Gouna with her easily dismissed beauty seems like a prop to what is actually going on in the world.

The weather is cool, again, but not cold, and the moon is full. It’s the last one I may ever see in Egypt, as I have now booked my flight out in mid April. Because it’s cheaper to book a round trip, I also have a ticket to come back in early October, but I doubt I shall do so.

There is a mad terrorist now in the White House, and the damage he is causing must stopped by the mid November elections, and he must be removed either by Mueller or the 2020 Presidential.

Despite this unpleasant reality, I’m already looking forward to going back. I came here thinking I should escape the naked madness of right-wing America, but instead, arrived at the realization that I can remain sane amidst the gaggle of evil monsters who have infected our liberal society, because at least in the US, you have a Constitutional guaranteed freedom of speech.

It would be criminal of me not to write the books that are in me. I have seen much here, and have come to understand what is going on both in Egypt and the United States and in me personally at a deeper level than before I arrived.

New York is in my blood, though, and in two weeks I shall once again be in the city I shall always consider my true home.

Can’t wait to get where it ain’t all just Zeena.

leaving america

 

 

My name is not Mister

gouna cat

Stunningly beautiful day today in El Gouna; there’s whitecaps in the Red Sea: the cool North breeze is blowing away all the skeeters and flies.

So I decided to go to West Golf one last time to see Sandy the cat at the villa where I spent the last three months. Met the pool guy at the gate, who introduced me to the son of the owner and his wife. His name is Sam, and his wife is Sophia. He works in retail at Marks & Spencer; nice young couple from Bristol.

At Sam’s invitation, I went to the back by the pool to find Sandy.

She was hiding under the outside dining table and ran toward me as soon as she saw me, but probably only because of the tin of cat food in my hand.

It was such a pleasure watching her eat, and I stroked her back and tail one last time. She looked healthy, and happy to see me, and is becoming less feral: Sophia told me Sandy likes to bask alongside her on the sun bed by the pool.  So: I have domesticated a wild cat, and now she has a home, and will be safe forever.

I left after a brief chat with Sam, and took the bus back downtown.

The bus driver was in a complaining mood.

He told me how he had a fight with his landlord, and had to sleep outside in El Gouna last night in the street in El Bustan.

I empathized but I told him in my best oracular tone that a real man (ragil asseel) never complains about anything.

Did the rasoul Mohammed (PBUH) complain when the Kureish ( قريشي ) tried to kill him?

He took that in, then said a Mister had left a smartphone on the bus yesterday, but that he, the bus driver, had returned it to the front office, instead of selling it in Hurghada. I said what of it?  A true Muslim does not steal, even if he is penniless.

This was all spoken in fluent idiomatic Arabic.

I did not speak Arabic like this when I arrived 7 months ago in Gouna. The language of my childhood has slowly come back to me; but the authentic Egyptian accent is something I never lost.  This is why, as soon as I open my mouth to say anything, that I am viewed by Egyptians here as one of them, not as some “Mister.”

You cannot fake the Masri accent, and you have to be born to it to have it.

I got off the bus, wishing him rizk from Rabinna,  a way of saying rely on God, the same God I prayed to when my mother was having her operation yesterday.

He said, Allah yi khaleek, God keep you , then he said, ma’ el salama ya bey — go in peace, Bey.

This is what everyone called me as a boy. Not Mister, which is how all foreign men are addressed here by the locals. Not ustaz. Not basha, which is what the local young guys casually calls each other nowadays, robbing it of meaning.  Just Bey: the stately honorific of my childhood, and how I was used to being addressed, without a trace of irony, when I was a boy.

When I went to the family villa in Alex, I would sometimes look at the oil portraits of my great-grandfather and great uncles that hung on the walls of the salamlek, which is the smaller house in the Turko-Egyptian era of splendor where men would meet their guests.

My ancient primogentiure relatives all had huge moustaches (aka, shanabat), wore fezes (known here as tarboushes), and were actual landowning Beys.

I never met any of them, of course; or rather, I knew their pinochle-playing, decadent, reprobate sons and daughters — trying to preserve their dignity amidst the subtractive humiliations inflicted by Nasser.

Pity, that, as I would rather have enjoyed knowing the greatest one of them all, an authentic aristocrat by the name of Bahnas Basha, who had the self awareness that he had too much.

Ended up at Zomba’s were I had 2 foul and ta’ameeya with tahina and salata sandwiches, and washed it down with a large glass of freshly squeezed Orange Juice.

I ordered casually in Egyptian Arabic and the waiters all greeted me by my first  name, and then when I left, I felt saddened that I would be abandoning my country in two weeks.

No-one in America has ever pronounced my first name correctly, but here, it is a popular and respected name.  Here, in this place, in my country; not there.

Here, where featherless brown eagles attempt to soar above the desert while vainly searching for a voting booth.

Here, even though what you have in terms of the ruling class in places like Gouna is largely the cadre of nouveau riche who eventually took the place of people like el marhoum Bahnas Basha.

He was probably quite cultured, yet didn’t have the Special Eyes to not let that happen.

And by him, I mean everyone who once mattered, before going mad or dying.

I wish I could have warned them.

leaving america

What’s not to love?

 

 

 

 

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17 days left before I leave El Gouna, Egypt.

Today there was no wind in Gouna in the morning, but it picked up quite a bit, later in the day, creating a sandstorm and turbulent seas, and the wooden front door rattled all night.

The villa I’m renting till April 14th is on a “lagoon” (this is the name they have given to the many artificial coves and shallow canals that have been dug, unlike the nearby Suez Canal, by heavy machinery into the shoreline) that is the first one adjacent to Abu Tig marina, heading south.

The houses opposite me block the dreaded nightclub noise from Abu Tig, so the nights have been relatively quiet. But I went there yesterday to buy some provisions, and the place seemed to be undergoing massive demolition/renovation work.

There is daily construction noise here, as was the case when I spent three months in the West Golf section of El Gouna.

What you should realize before deciding to live here for any length of time is that El Gouna is one big construction/renovation site. Now you know, so don’t whine about it after arriving to do the expat thing; after all, Egypt has recently been named one of the most affordable places to retire.

One of my next door neighbors owns one of the hotels here.

She also owns the dock and boat that at first I thought belonged to the owner of this villa. Yesterday a large contingent of guests (they appeared to be family members judging from all the hugs) arrived, and they went on a boat ride. Today at 7am they went swimming in her pool, and then the inevitable gardeners showed up here.

I had planned to swim in the “lagoon” sometime during the day; it was smooth as glass at dawn, and the water warm. But it would have been with the knowledge that others would be watching. More on that in a moment.

The guy who takes care of the speed boat for the “Madame” next door — his words, not mine — spent much of the morning fiddling with the boat, which is docked right in front of the villa I am renting, then at noon all of Madame’s guest showed up again and went on the boat for a joy ride; and then in the early evening, there was much loud frolicking by the pool.

So much for my plans to swim in the lagoon.

Let’s take a step back.

There is little privacy in Gouna, essentially; if you come to stay here in a rented villa, prepare yourself for the intrusiveness of the many workers who will constantly be in and around and your rented property — including the gardener, the pool guy, the garbage guy, the guy who sweeps outside, and the crew that comes to trim the plants and hedges.

Moreover, be prepared that everything you do will be observed by someone:  your neighbors, the security guards, the bus drivers, the tuc-tuc desperadoes (who drive around constantly looking for prey), and of course all the waiters and shop keepers.

Also be prepared to deal with the fact that most of the locals (as well as most Egyptians whom you may end up sitting next to at places like 7th Star)  will have a cell phone stuck to their ears at all times. And more often than not, they will be smoking a cheap brand of cigarettes, such as Target.

This may not seem like a big deal, until you are trapped in a tuc-tuc with a twenty year old guy (there are no women commercial tuc tuc drivers in El Gouna) careening dangerously down the road, while talking on his phone and sucking on a fag that he positions someplace by the steering wheel in lieu of an ashtray.

You should also know that there are CCTV cameras in many of the fancier and not-so-fancy bars, restaurants and hotels. Then again, this will not be anything unusual for someone from London or NYC.

The sense of being watched by people talking in Arabic on their cell phones while looking to make a quick buck off you can be disconcerting, but at least it will not be as annoying as in the rest of Egypt, where both adults and children will often openly gape at you then blurt out the grating and ubiquitous HAL-LO thing they love to say in Egypt to foreigners; in Gouna, tourists are rarely hassled this way, and tuc tuc drivers can and do have their work permits revoked by security if you complain of harassment.

You should also be aware that the Internet here is not quite a free and open information highway, so keep that in mind when you use WIFI someplace to text anyone on your smartphone: the lovely things you just did and when you’re coming home and the state of your sunburn should be the extent of it, and avoid commenting on anything more sensitive than that.

Gouna is in effect a large gated community, with heavy security at the entrances; but much of this security is for show, if you appear to be a foreigner or have a foreign passport.

They are looking to screen the young guy from Cairo or Upper Egypt who seems like trouble. Unless they are coming on a car or bus from Cairo (which will have to pass multiple checkpoint on the highway leading to Gouna) and can convince the authorities that they own or are renting a villa or flat here, most Egyptians, especially young Egyptian men, cannot enter the place without a work or residence permit.

In other words, not just anyone can walk into town.

If the sense of surveillance bothers you, that is the price you will pay for coming to a very safe vacation place in winter at rates that blow away the competition. It is exceedingly cheap to come here for a long weekend or week from the UK or Germany; not so, alas, from the US, where there are no charter packages to El Gouna, mainly because Americans have stopped coming to Egypt.

It is pleasant to sit inside a villa with large glass living room doors leading out to the back porch (even if the carpentry is shit, and you have to go out the front door to get to the back “terrace”) and dining room windows like this one (the constant pestering flies make it unbearable to chill outside for any length of time, unless the wind is blowing strong), gaze at a Gouna “lagoon,” maybe read a book, and watch International CNN for a bit or a La Liga game — just make sure the villa already has a working WIFI wireless router (which they call here “access point”), and a fiber connected TV feed from Orange to an HD television, as standard Gouna TV on a non HD TV is unwatchable in terms of picture quality, as well as limited in the number of premium channels available.

You will not get the sense of natural beauty that the Mediterranean offers in say, the few less overbuilt areas that remain in the South of France, or Italy, or Spain, or, for that matter, cosmopolitan Alexandria before it was destroyed, but what you will get is what I would call a discount Riviera or Costa del Sol or Algarve experience.

In short, El Gouna is the go-to place for nabbing an affordable place by the sea and gazing at scorpion-infested mountains in the distance, and the crowds are nothing like Nice, Barcelona, or Albufeira in summer.

But who actually owns these places that you will be renting?

There are many Egyptians who have property in Gouna, of course, but also a lot of foreign villa “owners” (that is the term they use here, instead of homeowners). The latter tends to be a mix of foreigners who speculate in real estate, either as flippers, or those seeking long term rental income from properties they rent out much of the year.

There’s a contingent of owners who bought ten years ago (or more) big villas for, say, 70 thousand sterling that are (for now, as there is much volatility in this sector) worth anywhere from 200 to half a million quid. Gouna has been around for a few decades now, and it is expanding — a lot.

As is true the world over, rental prices get jacked up during high season.

This is coming up, as April is the month with the pleasantest weather in Gouna, and there are many activities that take place around this time, such as the perhaps overly sweaty International Squash Open and other organized events.

squash

This is what I am talking about

 

In the winter months, which can be exceedingly chilly at night, Gouna attracts package tour types (except for the short stay weekenders who will come for Christmas and New Year’s), who tend to be older Europeans — the locals refer to Gouna during this period as Dar El Mosenin, or the house of the aged.

But now that the weather is warming up, the crowds are getting noticeably younger, with large Egyptian families with gaggles of children who often run around unattended in the marina and downtown areas.

During this period lots of people from Cairo come to Gouna for Easter (celebrated by Copts) and Sham el Nesseem (which is celebrated by everyone).

Unsurprisingly, many villa owners will try to rook with exorbitant rates the unsuspecting tourist couple looking to escape, say, the lingering Manchester winters for a long weekend or an extended stay.

There are unadvertised networks for renting out villas at more reasonable prices. You just have to find them, which is tough to do unless you are already in Gouna itself, or have contacts that can hook you up.

This is why savvier travelers usually opt for the all-inclusive hotel-transport-meals charters from Europe, although some complain of problems with some of the hotels when they arrive. TripAdvisor is your friend, so do your research.

Apart from that, just don’t expect miles of sugar white, powdery sand: that is simply is not available here (but can be found further south, in places like Marsa Alam). The sand in Gouna tends to be coarse, reddish in parts, beige in others, a somewhat unattractive mixture of clay and detrital material supplied by the mountain wadis and the nearly constant trade winds that blow in from the North and the Eastern Desert.

As a tourist, you will most likely be unaware of many things taking place locally and nationally that may not be your cup of tea, but why should you care?

You are here for a few days or weeks of fun in the sun, and you might golf, or maybe catch some scuba or snorkeling action, maybe gawk at all the millionaire’s yachts in the marina complex, maybe enjoy some ersatz tea-with-the-Bedouins experience in the mountains, do some kite surfing, go horseback riding, and perhaps even take a guided ATV ride in the nearby desert.

And at night, if that’s your thing, you can go to a dance club or dine at an Italian restaurant that serves unrecognizable (and largely inedible) dishes or even semi drunkenly warble your heart out to some 70s or 80s hit in Abu Tig marina at 1AM on a Sunday, before you return, bleary-eyed, to what constitutes your reality the next day back home.

What’s not to love?

leaving america