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Monday, September 03, 2001

A Return to Egypt’s North Coast

Impressions & Reflections
By AA Sept 3, 2001



As I board TWA 888 to Cairo, the usual range of emotions engulfs my whole being. Oh how do I do love going back. I long for my Cairo childhood of my trips to Sidi Abdel Rahman, to the beach to Alexandria, to flying a kite on the Cornish. I loved going to Alexandria last winter for the first time in 20 years, this time I am going to see the fine white sands and the bright turquoise blue and green see and the endless beach, fig trees and scattered desert cabins. Cabins, not houses, just little tiny sandstone buildings usually yellow or white, surrounded by gardens of cacti and figs. TWA is bad airline nowadays, I m glad they will be taken over. Their inefficiency is a gentle way to break us in for dealing with the bureaucracy on the other side. With only few months left for TWA the crew are all so self absorbed in their history and friendships with all else a distant distraction. I say goodbye to the skyline of Manhattan and think of Cairo Airport and hope for small lines and reason-enabled customs people who will not object to my laptop, surfboards or old video cameras.

The Cairo International Airport is designed for maximum congestion; a collection of nice open spaces funneling into narrower and gloomier parts. Seems that with fairly little effort a major improvement can occur. Unlike virtually all my of my prior trips to Egypt, we arrived at an off peak time, the arrival hall was virtually empty, a pleasant man who studied law for 4 years and had a professional career in the police force for over 10 years inspected our passports and insisted on bestowing my first name on the kids as their middle name and passed our document to another man who reported a computer glitch requiring my immediate arrest. This happens every time as I go into Egypt, I had hoped the Y2k bug might actually fix that but even that it failed to achieve. The kind senior officer, employed as passport control officer, managed to override the computer system and we were in. More of the funnel effect confrontation, a small little exit to masses and masses of humanity. I wonder to myself when will some one add more immigration control booth and bust out the exit into a much boarder area that makes it easier on those traveling and those greeting. Will they ever do it? Does anyone think it is a problem? Why? I already start moaning and I am not even back one hour!

Well the trip to the North Coast goes through Cairo City Center and the 6th of October Expressway. This expressway has wide lane lines in accordance with the Egyptian Standards, when will these standards be changed to make the lanes narrower so they actually mean something. A two lane elevated highway has in a fairly organized manner at least three lanes worth of cars. Maybe someone from the traffic standards need to go on a drive in Tokyo or Hong Kong to learn that we Egyptians are entitled to smaller lanes if that suits the way we live and drive, or if not just save the white paint. The traffic moves, slow but moves, the shear volume of it has forced a level of organization, Cairo is beginning to show signs of the heavy traffic people have talked and complained about for years, but traffic still moves far better than in most big cities. Wonder how Cairo will cope with the volume of traffic of place like Jakarta, Bangkok and Los Angeles. Funny though that the rush hour is really after 9 am, we must still have our priorities right.

Well, the desert road is no longer desert. The first 100 km out of Cairo used to be a fine example of the Sahara, absolute nothingness, no longer is the case. So much agriculture and construction along the way, I couldn’t notice Modiriah El Tahrir, which used to be the only patch of green between Cairo and the Rest House, the half way rest stop. The Modiriah was meant to be the living evidence of the Egyptians ability to conquer the desert; it is amazing and wonderful to see that so many years later that dream is becoming true in spades.

Well the Rest House still has its own bakery, I remembered the taste of these wonderful cheese pastries called “bataeh”. Here I am 20 years later sitting at the Rest House, which now has locations on both sides of this divided toll way having Nescafe and bataeh! I still remember the days when the economy was so bad there would be not a single car at the rest house and no bataeh. There is no doubt there are many more affluent in Egypt, not just more people; that is of course not to say that the same is not true for the poor.

Shortly after the Rest House, we go on this new road leading to Alamine, the site of the biggest tank battles of WWII, the place where Churchill felt that the allies were turning the corner and issued his famous caution of that time being the end of the beginning not the beginning of the end, oh very eloquent was this man. This is the place where Montgomery finally outwitted the Desert Fox, a place of miles of tombstones, a haunted desert of pointless deaths.

Marina Alamine, an absolutely huge compound of some 30 to 60 square Kilometers, an area that could someday have a population of maybe 100,000 people, beautiful desert architecture and large artificial lagoons. The brilliance of the colors, the colors of the lagoon, the sea the sand and the building are all truly wonderful. People say the water in the lagoon is filthy and causes ailments, others say water skiers have caused death on the lagoon, so I learnt quickly to limit my praise for the lagoon. What was also wonderful about Marina was the clear separation of residential from commercial area. The same old concept that existed in Maadi and was so successful it had to be abandoned, but this looked like zoning laws may actually be returning to Egypt.

Really disappointing that in this enclave of affluence in Egypt, the normal disrespect for basic traffic laws was very much the norm. One-way streets are a total joke in Egypt, even right here in Marina. Like the width of lanes, someone must figure out that designing one-way roads in Egypt is a silly arrogant exercise that does not fit with the desire of the way people drive, why design them in a place like marina and then ignore enforcement. Those who wear their religious views on their person seem not to think it a problem to break traffic laws, as if it is perfectly legitimate to drive through a red light or go the wrong way on a one-way street because this is the law of man not the law of god, as if you don’t have to worry about setting an example of proper behavior to go along with the outward statement of faith.

Staying with fundamentalists and social issues, the appearances in Marina were fascinating. We are obviously now getting into the prime of life to many second-generation veil wearers. So the rebellion has begun, some are wearing veils and leotards! some have the veils on very heavily made up faces, in the heat of the day, covering barely half the hair. Unlike the 70’s when many young women were taking to veil often to the opposition of their families, in today’s middle and upper classes Egypt the pressure is on women to wear the veil, almost the norm and hence the rebellion. That famous statue in Gizza heading towards Cairo University once showed a woman shedding her veil, later in the 1970’s it turned out to represent a woman taking up the veil, wonder what it will show in 10 years time.

What I did see of the North Coast gives the impression of continues chain of uninterrupted resorts, all about a 1 km deep from the water. Villas, cabins, townhouses and apartment buildings, with nothing higher than four floors, and these were set back from the beach. People complained of the over exploitation, but I loved it; it certainly beats the Florida east coast with its massive high-rise condominiums.

The North Coast is a relaxed place, Egypt at peace with itself; this is a place of tremendous natural beauty that we Egyptians built for ourselves, not for foreign tourists. It is built the way we like it, the way we like to do things. With the exception of some of the big social contrasts in Marina, this is Egypt in a rare moment of being truly at ease. The resorts are made up of individually owned properties, in some cases the entire resort is owned by a company. So these are not hotels like the red sea or Sinai, looking for Egyptians as last resort clients.

I got to discover more about the North Coast as I started my running. Well some of these impressive looking resorts only look so from the Matrouh Road, but as I got to see them from the beach I had a very different view. I run past hundreds of empty unfinished luxury villas and beach cottages, miles and miles of them. As I run on the Matrouh Road itself, well in fact mostly the old abandoned Matrouh Road, I got so see a different kind of beauty, the other side of the road the desert, for endless miles. This too is changing, indeed has changed so much. Lots of development and many new comers are changing the traditional way of life of the North Coast Arab and Libyan tribes. Many people are needed to service and built all of these new resorts. I was told that some places are turning into year round residences, especially in the bigger resorts.

Many years ago, before the resort boom and bust, when there was nothing, absolute nothing but an endless beach of unbelievable white sand and the most striking blue sea and one old torn tent I loved the North Coast. I loved it when there was no easy way to get there, no facilities, little water, and no people. Those days are gone, I am sure I can still find the same thing west of Matrouh I really wanted these days again, which I do! But what of the North Coast today? Overall I liked what I saw, a place of beauty that so many more now enjoy and own a piece of. Will it be spoilt, yes it will and it is already showing many signs of that. In some places the sand was filthy full of discarded plastic and the water is not as clean as it used to be. Will it get worse? Yes no doubt it will, until we as a nation learn to value the collective well being like we do the individual, when we learn that spotless homes and filthy stairwells and streets are just not good enough, it will happen someday and these resorts are a good way to start it again.

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