Cairo is a smoggy hell-hole, where the polluted air sticks constantly in your throat and you spend the last 10 minutes of every day pulling black snot from your nose. If you want proof that CO2 emissions are hurting the planet – the only thing you have to do is go to Cairo and breathe. You’ll taste the Earth’s pain in your mouth, (if your taste buds haven’t burnt away) and you’ll no doubt wonder “how could anybody live here, let alone come here on holiday?” The usual escape would be a hotel room. A little bit of peace and quiet in your own space. But the ever present car horns of Cairo’s streets travel through even the thickest of walls, and for SOME unknown reason your travel partner has booked you into the only hostel in Cairo hosting an all-day, 72 hour Islamic festival.
Now I have nothing against festivals at all. I love them. The music, the dancing, the drugs. These things are all fantastic and I don’t mind people doing them at all… just as long as they’re doing them nowhere near me! Music is noisy, dancing is for people who enjoy looking like tits and the less I say about drugs the better.
But hell, I’m kind. If you want to play a little music and do a little dancing, who am I to object? Have your festival!
So they had their festival. In the hotel. Was there music? Technically, yes. This Islamic festival didn’t have actual music. You know. The type with a tune. It simply had acapella karaoke. In fact it’s pretty fair to say that it was an Islamic karaoke festival, because all they seemed to do was sing karaoke. Really loudly. All day.It was the first thing I would hear in the morning and the last thing I would hear at night. And it was always the SAME SONG! Of course, I don’t actually speak Arabic so I can’t prove that, but I’m absolutely positive they just sang the same thing continuously for 72 hours! Listen to anything repeated for that amount of time and you’ll start to get a little agitated.
The agitation was increased by the lack of dancing. It seemed to be strictly forbidden. So instead everybody just sat. In silence. Looking uncomfortably around at everybody else. Like some kind of weird Islamic school disco with karaoke.
Now have you ever been to a karaoke bar? I have. It was amazing. I got up and sang an awful rendition of Paradise City by Guns N Roses. Everybody cheered. They loved it. I loved it. And why did we love it? Because we were all extremely pissed and didn’t know any better. If we were sober we’d have all been cringing, but instead we felt that singing Aerosmith songs in front of complete strangers was a perfectly acceptable thing to do.
The problem with Islamic karaoke though is there’s no alcohol.Sober karaoke? How is that a good idea?
So the Muslims sat for 72 hours. They sang bad karaoke. Sober. Very very loudly. And there wasn’t even any drugs to save me.So where did all the fun come from in this festival? When they slaughtered a goat in the middle of the street! Right in front of the open hotel doors. While I tried to eat a Cornetto.
That was enough for me (admittedly, the goat was tasty!), so we immediately set off on the bus to the Egyptian beach paradise of Dahab. A countryside escape!
If countryside existed in Egypt that is. I don’t know about you but countryside makes me think of green fields, hills, woods (oh, woods!) and possibly a stream or two. But the Egyptian equivalent is rubble. Their rural areas could probably be classified as the biggest building sites in the world, but for that to happen they’d actually have to decide to build something this century. (Ho ho ho!)
Reaching Dahab though we realised it was a paradise in comparison to Cairo. Dahab is a small beach town, that was totally dead due to the off season. Each hotel in the town is positioned right on the sea front giving a beautiful view of the Gulf of Aqaba. Far across the Gulf you can see Saudi Arabia, so close that at night you can see the lights on the shore miles away. But most importantly it no longer felt like my lungs were being corroded away. The air was fresh and there wasn’t a karaoke machine in sight. Life was good….for a while.Then another annoyance started to crop up. Western guilt.
Have you ever had Western Guilt? It happens every Comic Relief. You know the slow motion videos of African children starving? The ones that make you take a deep, long look at yourself? The ones that make you wonder “why the fuck am I sitting at home in my boxer shorts watching Comic Relief while some poor kid is dying. What have I done to deserve this luxury?” That horrible feeling in the pit of your stomach, like you’re somehow responsible for all of the hunger and pain in the world. That’s Western Guilt.
The Western Guilt started to hit me right about when I realised there wasn’t actually anything to do in Dahab. It’s biggest selling point is it’s a beach resort. So you can eat, swim and snorkel. But mostly you can sit. Sitting usual leads to thinking, and thinking in my case usually leads to horrible negative thoughts.
After a few days in Dahab I became disillusioned with the whole place. Suddenly I started to hate myself and the town more and more. It dawned on me that Dahab isn’t Egyptian in the slightest. It’s a Spanish resort pretending to be an Egyptian town. But even then, a Spanish resort isn’t a “Spanish” resort. It’s an English resort created in Spain.
I can think of two main reasons why we go on holiday:
1/ To escape our own environment.
2/ To experience new environments / cultures.
Dahab is a place which allows you to fulfil neither aim, because it’s a constructed environment built for the Western tourist. Everything in Dahab is taken from Western culture and all forms of Egyptian culture have been extinguished. Something I started to feel partly responsible for. Guilty.
By paying money to go to Dahab I realised I had enabled its survival. I was one of the stupid tourists who had ensured its success and at the same time this meant I had also encouraged the destruction of the real Egyptian culture it had replaced.
I started to wonder how our waiters felt. To have their identities devoured by the faceless, bland identity of a tourist destination. One evening one of our waiters spoke to Porter enthusiastically about his rural hometown. We hadn’t heard of it, but to him it is the most beautiful place on Earth. “There’s nowhere I’d rather be” he said. So why was he in Dahab? For no other reason than to wake up every day and serve us pancakes. There’s that guilt again.
With Dahab, Egypt has sold out. Given part of its land and people away to the Western world. But did they have any choice? Didn’t Western tourists force it upon them by settling for nothing else? By not wanting the actual Egyptian culture, but instead asking for Western culture in Egyptian surroundings. So that tourists can pretend to their friends that they’ve gone to Egypt, when really they gone to a constructed safety-zone.
A Dahab holiday is a holiday where you are always fully protected from Egyptian ideologies and ways of living. The bus into Dahab passes through half a dozen security checkpoints. At all times the bus protects you from the “dangerous” outside world, a window is always there to constantly block you from Egypt. The holiday resort in Dahab shields you – even in the open – from anything in Egyptian culture which might challenge you or – heaven forbid – cause you discomfort.
On the beach one day it dawned on me that I was one of those people rejecting Egyptian culture. I couldn’t handle Cairo, it made me feel bad and this was my escape.
I figured out that even though Cairo did make me feel crappy I was actually experiencing something real – it was my own emotional reaction to Egyptian culture. Escaping to Dahab – away from any semblance of culture wasn’t the answer. We should bask in how bad we feel about other civilisations, because the discomfort is real. To escape the discomfort is to lie to ourselves. To pretend uncomfortable ways of living don’t exist and to shut ourselves off from these experiences is to be narrow minded.
To go to Dahab. To experience a fake, fabricated lie. It’s not real.
To stand in a hotel doorway. Cornetto in hand, while a goat gets slaughtered in front of you. To pick black snot from your nose every night for ten minutes. To get ripped off by a taxi driver who takes a 2 mile detour thinking you wont notice. That’s real. And no matter how crappy it makes you feel, that’s Egyptian culture.