I’m writing this 30 yards from the Red Sea, sat on a sun lounger in Sharm el-Sheikh. It’s the first week of 2011, and I’m surrounded by British people, bar one young Egyptian man who sells massages and another who sells camel rides. Across the water is Saudi Arabia. If I look hard enough, I convince myself that I can see it.
I’ve paid £520 pounds to be here. That’s inclusive of flights, airport transfer, in-flight meals, seven days’ accommodation, unlimited food and drink (though all but ‘local’ alcohol comes at a supplement) and use of various gym, games and pool facilities for the duration. The deal amazes me, though it’s unexceptional.
The resort is viciously tacky. Life-size plastic Santa Clauses jostle with inflatable snowmen for floor space, while cotton wool stands in for the snow that we left in England. Marble floors and terracotta paint, neon light and insistent Christmas classics on the stereo make a Lynchian netherworld, where it’s always time to celebrate but no one feels inclined. I half expect canned laughter.
Meals are taken in a canteen. The food is spiteful, from a wildly overcooked ‘beef Wellington’, complete with rubber pastry, to a repellent, starchy, cloying ‘Chinese chicken’. There’s not been a single dish that’s anything less than disgusting. The drinks are terrible too (though, for cash, there is some rather better stuff available), with just-palatable beer, not-palatable wine, and dangerous spirits.
After our meal last night, we were asked to fill in a comment card. We responded honestly, leading to a nasty incident with a disgruntled waiter, who pursued us out of the restaurant and berated us for the inaccuracy of our remarks. Comment cards are a feature of everything we do here, from the holiday reps to the in-flight team to the cleaners at the hotel. Dissent is unwelcome.
Most Egyptians never come to Sharm, and it’s easy to see why, quite apart from the fact that the average daily Egyptian wage would hardly buy you a burger. Outside the resorts are western fast food chains and shops selling tat: a gambling town without the gambling.
Days inside are littered with confusions. Fat Brits loll about in football shirts and tattoos, complaining inaccurately about misspellings on menus (“I’ve never seen vodka spelt with a ‘w’”), lamenting the absence of a “proper cup of tea”, or remarking on the fact that the Egyptian people waiting on them hand and foot “don’t speak good English.” My complicity in all this troubles me. I find myself aping these Brits (earlier paragraphs might be cases in point). Unfortunately, blunderbuss idiocy is infectious and chronic. You can’t unthink an ugly thought.
But mistrust and misunderstanding cuts both ways. So the male staff here – and they are nearly all male – are sometimes polite to couples and single men, but rude and sexually aggressive to lone women. One enquires how I slept the previous night. I say “well”, so he asks, grinning, if I had sex with my wife. She’s out of earshot, but not out of sight.
Yesterday, a bomb exploded in a Coptic Christian church in Alexandria. It’s Coptic New Year, and there’s a nervousness in the country. But, television news apart, you wouldn’t notice that in Sharm el-Sheikh. No one seems to care very much here, although the security guards have become slightly less discreet, the police a little more excited.
I’m writing this now on a train, somewhere under the City of London. One of the longest British winters I can remember is crawling, grimly, to its end. Others have thought far better than I could about events in Egypt of the last weeks. The despot Mubarak has fallen, and peoples across the Arab world consider uncertain futures. Pundits seem unsure whether to whoop at the sight of the demos revolting, or cower at what kind of democracy might emerge. Indeed, there may yet be no democracy at all. The people are speaking, but what they are saying hasn’t translated, hasn’t carried, so far.
Mubarak has fled, reportedly to Sharm el-Sheikh. He might feel entitled. After all, it was returned to Egypt by Israel as part of the peace treaty concluded in 1979 by his predecessor, Anwar Sadat, in whose government Mubarak served as vice-president. The transformation of the zone in the last thirty years has been a project and a trophy for the deposed leader. He held regional conferences there, trumpeting the twin marches of commerce and tourists to world leaders from private and public spheres. He built an expensive retreat on its shores. He may be there now, still, gone but not gone.
Sharm is in one sense a symbol of Egyptian, even of Arab power, an assertion of nationhood and brotherhood against Israeli designs. But it can also be viewed as a capitulation, the profits of an unprofitable treaty. More than anything, it seems to represent disjunction. Those values that find their expression here are not moral; they are not religious; they are nakedly financial. And they are certainly not the values of those indefatigable, heroic protestors in Cairo. The resort has remained defiantly open for business throughout the recent upheaval, though I imagine it’s been somewhat quieter than when I was there. It’s a pastiche of organic development, one that resembles a protected outpost for white-skinned drinkers, like a war-zone embassy.
The Egyptian uprising may come to have been a revolution, or more darkly, a coup d’état. But Sharm el-Sheikh seems itself a kind of coup: a coup de poing, a punch, straight to swollen kidneys. And the sea, the Red Sea, brings no relief – the osmotic pressure merely builds, sand on salt, land on water.