the first flight I ever took to a Muslim country, a passenger behind me started freaking out mid-flight. He was in his mid-20s, he was German, he had done so much cocaine that he thought he was having a heart attack. We made an emergency landing in Thessaloniki and our airplane sat on the Tarmac for an hour surrounded by Greek soldiers while the stewardesses bitched out the young partymacher and told him he’d be sent a bill for everything.
Such a shame for the young man. He could have just waited to start the party on arrival in Egypt. Our flight was going from Berlin direct to Hurghada, an Egyptian resort on the Red Sea where a young German with some money to spend would have no trouble getting blitzed, blazed, sunburned and laid.
I don’t pretend to be able to list all the reasons why people around the Muslim world are torching Fish Zingers or dying at the “Day of Love”. It’s a complicated dance of sophistry that lets people make tinny little videos in the hopes that others will kill over them, and then to have that plan actually work.
But for one local, legitimate discontent, you only need look at the post-colonial resort culture on the Red Sea.
Hurghada was an abomination from the moment we stepped off the plane. It was then, and is now, a jumble of trash heaps and new construction and thin dogs and wary touts and all on top of each other on a sunblasted stretch of Red Sea coast, hot and full of hustlers.
But it was the cultural collision of the place that was most unsettling. Even the poorest street urchin spoke fluent German, but only for cadging, not communicating. The first night we strolled along down a street lined with “bazaars”, which were actually storefronts about the same size and interest as a rundown chip shop. Merchants drank tea in front of their shops, narrowed their eyes at passersby, and occasionally sang out out a lie or two about their wares.
You’re never going to find a natural brotherhood between impoverished locals and package tourists, but in Hurghada, it all seemed to border on contempt.
In part, that was because there is barely such a thing as a local in Hurghada. It has little history at all beyond its life as a resort: the Allies and Axis powers fought for control of its oil fields, and then during the Arab-Israeli wars it was a moderate Naval base, but it wasn’t until after those hostilities that Hurghada began the path of becoming its present-day self, opening up to the outside world.
The nothingness was, at the beginning, the attraction. In 1981, the New York Times sent foreign correspondent Christopher Wren there overland with jerry cans of extra fuel for the ride across the desert:
The town of Hurghada, on Egypt’s Red Sea coast, is one of those increasingly rare backwaters that still promise something akin to a real beachcomber’s holiday. There is little but sun, sand and water. The unsullied beach stretches for miles, the sun shines almost every day and the swimming is little short of spectacular. Exquisite coral reefs offer some of the best scuba-diving and snorkeling in the world. Colorful fish abound in the clear salt water and lobsters as heavy as 11 pounds have been taken off the barren offshore islands. The biggest evening entertainment is still the sunset.
Fast-foward a dozen years to my visit, and there was plenty to do beyond the sunset. And although it wasn’t quite Ibiza, Hurghada had its shares of bars and nightclubs. Wherever those Germans thought the plane was taking them, it wasn’t really Egypt. Because while there are good arguments to made that alcohol isn’t actually disallowed by the Koran, rural Egypt is deeply conservative and dry on all levels. Clubbing and drinking might be part of the European culture, but it is anathema to most Egyptians.
So, too, was the sunbathing. Behind the great walls of the resort complexes, Germans and northern Italians bared all, or at least most, in an effort to capture the sunlight that the accident of their birth had denied them. On my visit to Hurghada, this free-body-culture, which is such a virtue in Germany, had an imperial feel. There could be no clearer sign that these planeloads of sunstarved visitors neither knew nor cared where they were. They paid money and so they should get do exactly as they pleased.
It also meant that Muslims would not work the beach or much any other place in the Sheraton, where I had a room. And so, all the cabana boys and bartenders and groundskeepers in their Hawaiian shirts had their forearms exposed, and on those forearms you could see the tell-tale cross carved in their flesh when they were boys. They were all Copts, the Christian minority that makes up 10% or so of Egypt and has been both victim and occasional perpetrator of religious chauvinism over the years.
[The maker of this latest YouTube video that has the Muslim world aflame is reportedly a Coptic Christian from Egypt, though he charmingly described himself as an Israeli Jew in first media encounters, so as to drag a third race into his dystopic little holy war]
I left Hurghada after a week. I would have left sooner, but a package tour is a package tour, and I was a teenager in tow of my German host family. A friend of mine from Moscow—Russians later displaced Germans as a major stream of visitors, and there are now direct flights from Moscow to Hurghada as well—found himself in Hurghada just a few years ago, and left almost immediately, for all the same reasons I found in the early 90’s.
Meanwhile, those waters that had charmed Wren in the early 80’s are treated with all the grace of the trash piles behind the concertina wire. Even twenty years ago, the nearshore reefs were a graveyard of broken coral. You had to take a boat to the offshore islands to see living coral, and even that was beginning to choke on the exhaust of the resort town.
Just after my visit, the first terror attack hit the Red Sea coast, and it hit in Hurghada. It was a drive-by shooting that killed two Egyptians and a German tourist in 1994, alleged to have been carried out by the Islamic Group, the main militant organization fighting the Egyptian government. Men hanged for that crime, but the murders marked the beginning of the security regime that now accompanies any visit to Hurghada. The marvels of Luxor, which we visited by a minibus on a day-trip, now can only be seen as part of an armed convoy of tourbuses that tries valiantly to bring it huffing tourists across the desert to the Nile Valley and back again without loss of life.
Newsweek’s Owen Matthews, who lives in Turkey and could be forgiven a preference for his adopted homeland, found Hurghada and its tourist-army a useful foil for a piece on Turkey’s vacation coast.
Giant beach resorts like Kemer, in southwest Turkey, might resemble places like Hurghada on the Egyptian Red Sea coast, but they are actually quite different. Whereas visitors to Kemer can easily wander to neighboring towns for a fish dinner (with local wine), guests at Hurghada are guarded against Islamic fundamentalists by armed soldiers and strongly discouraged from leaving the resort. “Hurghada could have been anywhere; there was no sense you were in Egypt,” says Mike Heard, an Istanbul-based financial analyst who has been to both. “Kemer felt more relaxed, and safer–the natives didn’t look like they hated you.”
It’s a fine summation of the charmless mix of Hurghada. My only addition would be to say that in Hurghada, they don’t just look like they hate you.