I’m just back from another Sinai trip. A few days in Cairo then 10 1/2-hours by bus to Dahab.
In Cairo I stayed at the same $10 Downtown hotel I’ve briefly called home on numerous occasions since my first visit to the city in the late 1980s. I’ve seen the place buzzing, filled by young Israelis and foreign backpackers, and empty, save for the elderly Scots lady resident who has long preferred Cairo to Edinburgh, with no fuel for hot water. This time it was different again. International visitors were few. The reasons for the collapse in Egypt’s tourism are well known. However, domestic travellers appear to have taken up some of the slack. An almost 50% devaluation of the Egyptian Pound (LE) has made foreign travel expensive for Egyptians. As a result many are choosing to restrict their travel to Egypt. My hotel was full.
Travelling from Cairo to Sinai involves either a 50-minute flight or a 10-hour bus ride. The British government advises against flying to Sinai’s airport gateway, Sharm el Sheikh. Following the bombing of a Russian MetroJet flight in 2015, killing all 224 passengers and crew, no Russian or British direct flights have operated. Lapses in airport security were identified in the subsequent investigation. Though no advisories are in force for Sharm el Sheikh itself, the British government advises against overland travel through the entirety of the Sinai peninsula. For UK tour ops the glittering jewel in Egypt’s mass tourism tiara remains off limits.
I took the overnight GoBus from Cairo to Dahab – about 90km north along the coast from Sharm el Sheikh. A ticket cost LE145 (about £6.30). The bus left at 9:00pm and arrived into Dahab the following morning at around 7:30am. Police and military check points punctuated the route. Standing in a line, in the middle of the night, my ‘checked bag’ was searched twice. My passport was examined more times than I can remember. Egyptians themselves require special permission to travel to Sinai. Checks on their IDs and documentation were even more stringent. That said, a raft of alternative-minded young Egyptians have adopted Dahab as a weekend escape, a kind of turn on, tune in and a bloody long bus ride to somewhere less conservative. For tourists Dahab is a breeze.
Dahab existed before tourism. It has grown chaotically but organically. It’s still small – though no one is quite sure how small, maybe fewer than 10,000 people. It’s relatively resilient style of tourism has helped it endure the worst of the Egypt’s downturn. Visitors today are either domestic weekenders or summer holiday families, foreign residents or independent foreign travellers. Perhaps most surprising is the number of young Israelis now choosing to venture across the border to Dahab. Some estimates bandied around suggested 50,000 have journeyed to Sinai this year. This influx in the face of government travel advice at least as negative as our own.
I’ll write about my travels for the Indy, but in the meantime I thoroughly recommend Sinai. For adventurous hikers, have a look at sinaitrail.org – something I tackled last year – and for an alternative Red Sea break (see indirect flights from the UK with Turkish Airlines or Egypt Air to Sharm – then a taxi) Dahab for tourists is engagingly earthy crunchy.
This short magazine piece focusing on tourism in Crete was commissioned in 2012 and then sat on until stale, falling between the cracks of editorial redundancy and changing Travel Editors. Now seems an apposite time to blog the text, as Greece’s January 2015 election promises to pitch Europe, and more specifically the EU, into a renewed turmoil.
‘Not so many English here,’ declared restaurateur Vassilis Kargiotakis. ‘They stay down on the coast,’ he made a drinking motion with his fist and thumb, ‘and I’m sad about that. But there are not so many Germans either – they think it’s dangerous. And they’re right. The sun is too hot!’
Of late Greece’s economic travails have been a constant headline. Economists, not noted for their ability to reach a conclusion, seem determined their own variation on ‘the collapse of Greek civilisation as we know it’ gets air time. Meanwhile, this summer on Crete, the sun still shone, credit cards were welcomed, ATMs dispensed crisp fifty Euro notes and cafes served ice-cold frappes to clients inhaling deeply on their breakfast cigarettes. It was business as usual, just less of it.
At the leafy Kronio taverna in Tzermiado, high on the Lassithi Plateau, Vassilis motioned at a departing family, ‘They’re Belgians. Very nice, but they come to a small village restaurant in the mountains and ask for pizza…’ He rolled his eyes as if imploring local-boy-made-good, Zeus, to give him strength. Outside, possibly as the result of a divine crossed line, a corpulent priest in billowing robes and flat-topped kalimavkion hat wafted towards the restaurant’s shady vines. ‘Take your time,’ said Vassilis, leaving to greet the smiling cleric, ‘I’ll drink raki with you later.’
The previous day I’d driven beyond the White Mountains to the south coast, quite literally to the end to the road. A further fifteen minutes through clear, deep blue water and I’d reached Loutro, a village accessible only by boat or on foot, where welcoming tavernas were permanently moored in a Bohemian enclave of the 1970s, devoid of English Breakfasts and oxymoronic Happy Hours. Lunch of fresh fish had set me up for the dusty hike to Glyka Nera, Sweetwater Beach, and a refreshing dip in the warm Mediterranean followed by iced-tea at a solitary café. Crete it transpired was a big island whose winding mountain roads, hidden valleys and convoluted coastline held more than just popular resorts.
A Greek Salad arrived; green leaves mixed with slices of ripe tomato, black olives and salty feta. Wiping condensation from the bottle I poured a glass of pungent retsina. Beyond the taverna’s open front a white-haired old woman swept the pavement and occasional scooters whined down a street of mostly shuttered shops. At a far table a French family played a hand-slapping game.
As the priest tucked into a plate of grilled lamb chops Vassilis returned, as promised nursing a glass jug of raki and having no truck with polite refusal. ‘This year it’s a little bit down. Many English come. Mostly young people for the bars. They don’t have rucksacks anymore. They stay all-inclusive and when they go home they have no story to tell. As you can see many shops are closed, they’re friends of ours. It makes me very sad.’ A contrasting cry of laughter erupted from the French table. ‘We are lucky, we have the French,’ pronounced Vassilis, slamming his empty raki glass on the table, ‘they’re travellers.’
Cretans have weathered German invasion, civil war and military dictatorship, the economy is just the latest sorrow. However, for visitors the famous filoxenia hospitality is genuine and in adversity perhaps stronger than ever, even if they order moussaka and chips…
FACT BOX Nick Redmayne stayed at the Aldermar Royal Mare (aldermarhotels.com), Hersonisoss, Amazones Villas and Apartments (amazoneshotels.com), Stallis and Enagron Ecotourism Village, Rethymno, and travelled with Jet2holidays (Jet2holidays.com) who offer seven-night holidays in Crete from £238pp including flights from several UK airports.
By 2010, tangible progress was apparent. In Freetown the drone of generators and rattle of water trolleys was no more, refuse had been collected, streets had been cleaned. A raft of Sierra Leoneans had returned from long sojourns in Europe and the US, many with the intent to help rebuild their country.
Having read his enthusiastic and informative Visit Sierra Leone (http://www.visitsierraleone.org) newsletters I finally met propagandist-turned-tour-operator Abimbola Carrol in Freetown during this latter trip.
In the light of the Ebola epidemic, an undeserved assault on Sierra Leone’s hard won progress, I emailed Abimbola for his appreciation of recent events. Below, pretty much unedited, are his responses to my questions.
Interview with Abimbola Carrol. Freetown/UK. November 2014.
Q: What was the mood in Sierra Leone before Ebola?
The mood was generally positive. The economy was looking healthy with real GDP growth for 2014 forecast at around 14%.
The tourism industry which is closely related to my business was also expecting an increase as new hotels were coming online, other improvements in the sector and as a result of the overall economic growth.
Q: Were there obvious shortcomings that led to the current crisis?
There were a few things but I think primarily as this is a completely new region for this disease it was unexpected and weak
health systems made it worse. Everyone was blind-sided and opinion on the best way to halt the spread was conflicted. This is the first time the disease has made its way to urban areas, and since then everyone has been playing catch up. By the time it was declared a global problem, it was effectively out of control and even then response was slow.
Q: What are the effects on daily life?
Africans are an expressive and affectionate people. So I think instructions not to touch, or care for loved ones that may have fallen ill go against our intrinsic response. It is not easy to change one’s behaviour almost overnight, especially if there is an underlying lack of trust in the messenger. The no contact rule (for the most part), the presence of chlorine buckets and the more frequent sound of ambulances are probably the most visible effects.
An unfortunate consequence of this outbreak is that deaths from other diseases (treatable in some cases) have also increased because of fear of Ebola and lack of urgency.
Q: What’s the economic impact?
The Minister of Agriculture was quoted as saying “The economy has been deflated by 30% because of Ebola“
It’s devastating and could get a lot worse if the disease is not eradicated before long. We have seen the collapse of a major mining company (London Mining) in which Ebola played a part. In other cases there have been staff lay offs and salary cuts.
The hospitality industry has probably taken the most direct hit. My company has seen a 90% reduction in some of the services we offer. The leisure aspect of our business is almost at zero and we’ve had 100% cancellations on all tours from October to June next year.
In May we had nine flights operating to Sierra Leone. By the end of October we were down to two with one reducing its frequency. Thankfully just last week Air Cote D’Ivoire started operating. Elsewhere, some hotels have closed and the local entertainment industry is non-existent. The movement of people and goods is also restricted so very few industries are unaffected.
Q: How do Sierra Leoneans rate the international response?
It became clear that it was beyond Sierra Leone’s capacity alone to deal with Ebola, so we are grateful for the international response. Their efforts combined with those of local players means that the level of optimism is higher than at any point prior.
Q: We’ve all heard how ‘fragile’ and how ‘ill-prepared’ Sierra Leone’s health system appeared. How are people helping themselves?
Yes, that has been well documented. The response from Sierra Leoneans both within Sierra Leone and outside has been outstanding; coming from individuals, students, organisations, companies, religious groups and civil societies. They have been involved in everything from volunteering, direct fund-raising, gift packages for health workers, lobbying international MPs to developing a workable plan for the implementation of Convalescent Serum Therapy (CST).
The medical professionals, pickup teams, burial teams, contact tracers and all those who continue to put themselves on the frontline have done this country great justice.
Q: What do you think the future holds? Is the spirit of the people crushed or is there an underlying resilience?
When you consider what we have been through it would be safe to say that we Sierra Leoneans have enormous resilience. This does not mean that we can continue to go through these horrors in our lifetime. Sierra Leoneans deserve better.
We just need to keep singing from the rooftops about all the things that make Sierra Leone and West Africa great. The future remains bright because the potential and the positives of Sierra Leone outweigh that which continues to hold us back. We have to believe this, if only for our children’s sake.
Abimbola Carrol: Biog.
Sierra Leonean born, Abimbola Carrol lived in Sierra Leone before the conflict forced him to flee in 1997 and continue his studies in the United Kingdom. Driven by a desire to portray a positive side of his country, he set up Visit Sierra Leone (http://www.visitsierraleone.org) in 2004. Relocating back to Freetown in 2007, he began his tour operator business and continued efforts to brand the country as a tourist destination. Like others in the travel industry, Abimbola’s business has taken a direct hit as a result of the economic effects of Ebola.
At the showcase agricultural community of Las Terrazas in Cuba’s Sierra del Rosario, I sip a café con leche at the state-owned Café de Maria and try to tune my Short Wave radio to the BBC.
For Cubans, conduits to world news remain constricted. Internet at six Convertible Pesos (CUC) an hour is out of reach for most – a Cuban doctor earns just twenty CUCs a month; satellite TV is available only at international hotels.
Beneath the café’s veranda hens and chicks scratch in the undergrowth, wary of overflights by ever-watchful turkey vultures. Concentrating to distinguish the calm tones of Bush House there’s determined local interference. Cocks, loudly complaining sets of feathery bellows, crow almost constantly, dogs bark, babies cry, women shout in delight or desperation, live music plays and motorised wheelbarrows… well you get the picture. I turn off the radio.
Later, in Trinidad narrow cobbled streets and pastel–coloured buildings are distinctly un-socialist. Formerly a centre for Cuba’s highly profitable sugar industry the once brash opulence of its ornate architecture is now described in official UNESCO terms as shabby chic.
At the Museo de Historia Municipal, a 19th century plantation owner’s house, miserable earthenware and bone shards of Cuba’s pre-colonial civilisation are lost in a display cabinet. A brace of British naval canon stand to attention in the courtyard, still saluting a dark 18th century deal with Spain that saw Britain swap Cuba for Florida, ending the Seven Years War. In a side gallery a case contains one of the country’s few star-spangled banners, a flag that flew over Trinidad in December 1898 at the end of the Spanish-American War. Nearby, a typewriter used by El Comandante Che occupies the same cabinet as photographs of Fidel Castro canvassing voters before the 1952 election – an event negated by Uncle Sam’s man, Fulgencio Batista, who led a coup d’etat before votes were even cast.
At its height supplying almost a third of the world’s sugar, Cuba’s 19th century struggles for independence disrupted exports. US military intervention to ‘free’ the country from Spanish rule introduced new refining methods and saw the industry’s focus shift from Trinidad. More fundamentally, sugar profits were effectively siphoned off-shore by a swathe of centralised, US-owned sugar mills. After Castro’s revolution production was nationalised and Cuba’s addiction to a sugar continued, fed by a ready market in the USSR, a sweet tooth that ceased overnight in December 1991 with the dissolution of the Soviet superstate.
Back in Havana I loll over a pleasantly cold beer in Hotel Sevilla’s open and airy lobby bar. The walls are hung with black and white photographs of another age, Hollywood stars of the silver screen, indolent socialites, gamblers, and ne’er-do-well mobsters such as Lucky Luciano and Al Capone. Graham Greene too stayed here while penning absurdist tales of Cuban beauties, Catholic guilt and vacuum cleaners in Our Man in Havana.
How times changed. The US embargo on Cuba endures, now in its 54th year, despite no such qualms regarding trade with many more unsavoury regimes. Indeed in the aftermath of the Soviet collapse restrictions were tightened, some in Congress perhaps swayed by domestic political interests sensing an opportunity. In the face of what was interpreted as vindictive bullying, Cubans’ spirit of national unity was strengthened. Combined with innovative programmes of austerity and a lifeline of Venezuelan oil cast by the late Hugo Chavez, Havana’s lights stayed defiantly on. Degrees of economic liberalisation have followed, and as the generation of the revolution dwindles and the Castros themselves bow out, Cuba is set to become a very different place, but not quite yet…
Today, streets nearby Hotel Sevilla are still populated by ill lit over staffed shops, arrays of pointless wares spread thinly under glass. Global brands are conspicuous by their absence. At a corner grocery store livelier than most I peer inside. It sells mostly biscuits and rum. I need neither but enter anyway.
‘My friend, what are you looking for, what do you want?’ asks one of several loitering youths. ‘I’m not sure,’ I reply honestly, unnerved by his zeal. ‘Look, here.’ He points at shelves filled by bottles of Havana Club. ‘Very typical. Very, very typical but, ha, not very good.’ ‘Is this your shop?’ I enquire. ‘No my friend… this is the shop of Fidel.’
European colonial occupation, domination by the US and uneasy existence as a Soviet client state, Cuba’s Fidelist regime has outlasted all its erstwhile Socialist allies. It’s not a free country but by some measures Cuba is now more independent than ever.
Right now it seems there’s so much bad news from Libya that the networks are tired of carrying it. Even my most optimistic contacts in Benghazi report that security has deteriorated. However, against the chaos of kidnappings and assassinations it’s easy to forget that Libya under Gaddafi wasn’t exactly a bed of roses either. The piece below was published last summer in The Middle East magazine, and was based on trip I made in March 2013.
Benghazi – the day after…
At Benghazi’s Café Tikka bearded baristas serve a steady stream of clients, eager for their morning dose of industrial strength Turkish coffee. On the nicotine-stained walls a gallery of black and white photographs re – cord an unfamiliar city of well-kept squares, neatly trimmed hedges and ordered streets sparsely filled by traffic of curvy 1950s saloons.
Idris, first and last king of Libya, deposed by the ‘Free Officers’ of Gaddafi’s 1969 coup, has equal billing with a stylised image of elderly anti-colonialist fighter Omar Mukhtar, from whom the well-worn Italianate boulevard outside takes its name. I order a coffee ‘ mazboot ’ – medium sugar, it’s pointless asking for decaf here, grab a small bottle of water and take a seat.
Compared with the heady days of the 2011 revolution the café’s atmosphere carries an understandably lower charge, people no longer sustained by nervous energy, overcome by an almost clinical predisposition to unload, but they are still happy to talk. “At the BBC , I used to listen on summer evenings. It was very clear. Here Gaddafi controlled information, and everything else. The daily news was maybe two hours, just about him, who he was meeting, what he was doing, telling us nothing.” Fwouzi Ariby worked for Libyan Arab Airlines as a dispatcher and was not sorry to see the back of the old regime. “Before, security was everywhere, pictures of Gaddafi everywhere. It was oppressive. I was locked up for four months just because I supported Benghazi’s Al Ahly football team,” Fwouzi sits back in his chair incredulous at his own recollection.
There is a tap on my shoulder and someone offers me a cigarette, despite having given up years ago, for a moment I consider taking it – already there’s so much smoke in Café Tikka it would make little difference. “This man,” says Fwouzi indicating his neighbour, “has a boat and used to take guns to Misrata when it was under siege. Everybody in this café has a story.” Fwouzi picks up a small bottle of water, “42 years like this,” he says, shaking the bottle and pointing to the top, “and now like this,” taking the top off and pouring the contents into his glass. “It’s not perfect. The French Revolution took more than 10 years. Look at the traffic, it’s crazy. Some people who drive they cross a red signal saying ‘Libya is free’… but we will get there, step by step.”
I ask about the continued presence of militias, and Omar, a professor from the city’s university, leans over to join the conversation. “The government is very weak. To move from Benghazi to Tripoli, it was really stupid. It was the lure of the capital,” he rolls his eyes, “They were building strong relationships here and then they cut them. They have forces to deal with these militias but don’t use them. They need to demonstrate their authority and earn the respect of the people. Before the people knew only fear of authority not respect.”
I mention that I’d travelled some 200km from Benghazi to the extensive Greco-Roman site at Cyrene, only a small part of Libya’s remarkable archaeological wealth. However, further east towards Derna, check-points manned by hard-line Ansar Al Sharia militia had made continued progress unwise. “Yes, I have friends in Derna,” says Omar. “They tell me militia graffiti says ‘Mali – we are coming’. If that’s the case we are
happy. We will pay for their tickets. These extremists are illiterate but well armed and well trained. They suffered a lot under Gaddafi, the Internal Security used to tie them to chairs and set their beards alight. You can understand why they don’t want central authority – police, army or government, just militia commanders as in Kandahar. But I don’t think they will succeed, we’re all Sunni here, no divisions like Syria or Iraq, and whatever happens next it can’t be worse than Gaddafi.”
It’s time to take some fresh air. Together with a headache, the accumulated assault of caffeine and second-hand smoke has destroyed my ability to string a sentence together. I make my apologies to Fwouzi and Omar and leave without being able to pay my bill – Libyan hospitality is genuine and second to none.
Outside I wave my right hand as though bouncing a basketball, the recognised signal to the variously beaten up vehicles characterising Benghazi traffic, that I intend crossing the road. At a kiosk set amidst a grassy, litter-strewn square I sit down on a dubious white plastic chair in the shade of an insubstantial wooden gazebo and order a shawarma, Benghazi’s ubiquitous street food. Leaning back and looking around, I can see upper storey windows still scorched by fire. High up in one building curtains billow from glassless windows and gusts of wind slam doors at irregular intervals. Across the street, once bedecked by giant banners, the NTC’s former media centre where I’d been part of an international press pack mingling with techno-savvy revolutionary Libyan youth, is locked and silent. It seems like the party is over. Despite the fumes of sclerotic traffic, fresh air rolling in from the nearby Mediterranean soon clears my head.
Beyond the square’s dry and dusty fountains, a former government building seems surprisingly open. I’m curious and walk over, poking my head uninvited through a door and interrupting a meeting of 20 or so men of differing ages seated around a long table. Anwar Abdul Salam, Director of the Libyan Political Prisoners Society kindly invites me in, taking me to a side room where we chat without disturbing the others. “I wasn’t even in an anti-government organisation, I only knew some people involved. A friend told me about a dream where he’d seen Gaddafi dead, and that was enough to put me in Abu Salim jail for 12 years.” Gaddafi’s notorious prison witnessed a massacre of an estimated 1,270 inmates over two days in 1996, precise details are still being established. “We heard the gun shots and asked the guards what had happened. They said ‘Shut up and keep quiet!’ We heard whispers… but what could we do? I still don’t know why we survived. Our families knew we were there, perhaps this is why. And, Al Hamdulillah, we lived to the revolution and we saw Gadaffi killed.” How many people do you represent I ask? “Oh, around 1,600 here in Benghazi, men, women even children – Gaddafi didn’t differentiate, and maybe 3,000 across Libya. We had two or three meetings with the Transitional Council and they said they wanted to help, but since they transferred to Tripoli it’s more difficult. These prisoners, they faced Gaddafi, they dared to say ‘No’ and the Libyan people know what it meant to say ‘No’. It’s a must for us now to help them.” What about the future I ask? He looks thoughtful, “Some bad things happen now. 42 years will not change just like that,” he clicks his fingers, finally defining Libya’s revolution and others past and present: “But at least now we have freedom. We can talk. In the end we won our country back. It was lost.”
For those who weren’t tuned to the BBC World Service, 2nd April at 19:50 GMT, here’s a link to my latest From Our Own Correspondent piece – http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p01w7k0t I butt in around 4′ 30″.
If you’d rather read the copy, as delivered from a rather too-snug wardrobe at BBC Newcastle, I’ve pasted it in below the following brief intro paragraph…
Bangladesh – Chittagong Hill Tracts
Independent since 1971, Bangladesh’s 154m citizens share one of the world’s youngest states.
To most the country is universally Islamic, overpopulated and flood-prone. If it’s not a cyclone or a ferry capsize it’s an horrific factory fire or even a plague of rats. Bangladesh is simply a disaster waiting to happen…
A headache-inducing three-wheeler ride from Chittagong airport, and a further two hours’ drive to the town of Bandarban; beyond military checkpoints, Bangladesh gets complicated.
The Chittagong Hill Tracts are sparsely populated, home to the country’s few 1,000 metre peaks. Unlike the Bengali lowlands, indigenous tribal peoples account for the majority here. Most are Buddhist, many Christian. Shining temples and modest wooden churches are surprising sights in Bangladesh.
Beyond the colourful maelstrom of Bandarban, a tribal village of the Bawm people is a quiet place. Simple wooden and bamboo houses, a tea-shop and a Presbyterian church, sit by a leafy green track ascending the hillside. It’s the dry season but it’s raining. Water drips from tin roofs fast forming muddy puddles. Chickens peck speculatively. I take shelter in the tea-shop.
Climbing a few rickety steps, it’s a rudimentary affair, open sides, three rustic tables, a scattering of listless men. Faces are more oriental than south Asian. A colourfully dressed woman sitting on the floor is in charge, her orbit of children distributing steaming glasses of sweet, milky cha tea. I ask where I can find the karbari, the village leader. It turns out he’s ensconced at one of the tables. An unassuming older man, dressed in shorts and greying t-shirt, he invites me to join him.
‘We came here from the Burma border because of better amenities, schools and clinics,’ he says. ‘Everything is fine, only the religion is different. We’re not told what to do by the government.’
‘Why is the army here?’ I ask. ‘The army came to look after us when there was fighting.’ The karbari’s words are too carefully chosen and I ask my guide to offer reassurance by disclosing his own unmistakably Hindu minority name.
As he does, a younger man, Lal Ram Bawm, earnestly interrupts. ‘The army would say they’re here to protect the country, to defend the border,’ he says. ‘But we don’t need so many soldiers now.’
The deployment is a hangover from the twenty-year Shanti Bahini insurgency, a reaction to Dhaka’s newly independent government riding roughshod over indigenous land rights, even promoting land grabs.
An agreement ending the violence was signed in 1997, but much remains to be implemented. Tribal people complain they’re marginalised, at worst persecuted, and that the army is complicit. The army argues its continued presence is vital for security.
‘All land is occupied by the army,’ says Lal Ram. ‘We need permission from the army to move. 16km from here they pushed all indigenous people out, nearly 1,500 from the Mru tribe, and then built a training camp.’ ‘Didn’t they know it was tribal land?’ I ask. ‘Oh, they knew. They just did it anyway,’ he replies, to the murmured agreement of others.
The rain intensifies. More young men group around to listen. I order cha for our table.
‘Everywhere there is a good place for tourism they put an army camp,’ says Lal Ram. ‘They make a good business. Restaurants run by Dhaka people. Not a penny for us.’
It’s estimated some 400 temporary military camps remain in the CHT despite government promises of their removal.
Another man pitches in, ‘At Keokara Dong, near the Burma border they built a tourist place on common land. No consultation with local people,’ he says. ‘This is my motherland but if I want to build a house I have to ask permission from Bengali people. Why?’
‘How about relations with civilians?’ I enquire.
‘We have some problems with local Bengali men and their attitude to Bawm women, and other indigenous women,’ say Lal Ram ‘Some harassment, rapes, even murders. You see our lifestyle is quite free for women and girls. Bengali youths don’t understand this.’
We reach a hiatus. The tea glasses are empty.
‘We feel something like animals in a zoo,’ says Lal Ram. ‘We are captured by the army and local people too.’
Asked about his hopes for the future Lal Ram looks at me squarely, his face relaxed. ‘Firstly, the army should leave. Next we want Bengali people to leave. Then we want to look after ourselves.’
It’s said that those who forget their history are condemned to repeat it, and collective memory can be surprisingly short. Last week former Field Marshal Abdul Fattah al-Sisi slipped into something more comfortable than his usual freshly pressed military dress uniform, determined to look his best civilian self for next month’s Presidential elections.
It’s perhaps worth reprising the last days of President Mohamed Morsi, Egypt’s first ever freely elected head of state. In March 2013 amidst increasingly erratic policy changes, amateurish gerrymandering, a perceived conservative Islamic agenda and political naivety, for Morsi the writings were not only on the city’s walls, but typed on glowing screens and sprayed on white bed sheets, once more held aloft in the protest camps of Tahrir Square. The tenure of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood government was coming to an end. It was no longer a matter of ‘if’, only when and how. Both these questions were addressed by the July military coup, the deaths of an estimated 1,000 Egyptians and detention of almost 16,000 others.
Returning from Libya, I spent a few days in downtown Cairo collecting the thoughts of those I encountered. The piece I wrote was overtaken by July’s events, but at this juncture it might have regained some retrospective value. Churchill once said, ‘No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time…’ What happens in May determines the political course of the Arab world’s most populous state for four years… However, the staying power of previous former military men suggests Egyptians may have rather longer than four years to privately ponder on the wisdom of Churchill’s words.
Cafe Critics – Cairo – March 2013.
Five minutes from Tahrir Square, amongst grand 19th century French facades, Café Riche has seen revolutions come and go. In 1919 an assassin hurled two bombs from its doorway, attempting to kill British-backed Prime Minister Youssef Wahba Pasha – he failed. In 1952, nationalist hero, Gamal Abdel Nasser shared tables with the ‘Free Officers’ whilst plotting the demise of another Riche regular, the widely reviled King Farouk.
More recently novelist, Naguib Mahfouz, to date the Arab world’s only literary Nobel Laureate, critic of ruling regimes from Nassar to Mubarak and the Muslim Brotherhood, based his book, Karnak Café, on the microcosm of Café Riche. Today the café’s basement bar still has a hidden door leading to a secret escape tunnel, a succinct exit for those whose outspoken views attracted uninvited attention. In 2011 revolution was again on the menu at Café Riche, activists seeking the council of café elders who’d lived through previous struggles, wooden tables and bespoke chairs cleared away, its floor space ready to treat those injured in Tahrir Square.
Historically Café Riche’s vantage point at the heart of Cairo has offered a clear view as high-minded ideals deferred to realpolitik or were ignored by those who never held them anyway. ‘I’ve been coming here for half a century but now the atmosphere is not the same because the income of the people is not the same. The intellectuals, the creatives, the artists, they’re still all here,’ And so it appears are Cairo’s grumpy old men many of whom have little time for Egypt’s current leaders. ‘Which government? Here we have a government? It’s something new for me.’ My elderly interviewee’s sagging features transcend idealism. To him the suggestion that governments might improve the Egyptian people’s lot seems farcical, his dismissive expression lacking even the merest hint of a smile confers impermanence on the current incumbents. ‘Look, no names. I don’t make speeches,’ he says, wearily but definitely. ‘I tell you the truth not dreams,’ this last word appearing to carry a bitter taste, ‘This is a country with no programme. You don’t know what is to be done day-to-day, you don’t even know what is to be done for the rest of the day. A very strange country.’
Egypt’s new democracy seems at odds with Café Riche, which may account for the attitude of its clientele. The Muslim Brotherhood’s finest minds are unlikely to be found huddled around a Riche table, sinking a cold bottle of Stella or savouring a glass of Omar Khayyam over a plate of deep-fried calamari any time soon… The serious old men in suits occupy their regular seats and talk for hours, sharing their private jokes,but the politics of Egypt has spilled out into the open air.
Down an unpromising alley just along the street the plastic chairs and rickety tables of the Al Bustan describe another café society. ‘Café Riche? It’s for the rich,’ says Ahmed drawing on his cigarette, ‘The revolution is here, all these people. That man there,’ he points, ‘His son died. I myself saw blood in Tahrir Square. I don’t forget this.’ However, despite the change in venue political perspectives appear remarkably coincident. ‘Morsi was in Tahrir for one hour. I was there for four days. There are 95 million people in Egypt, Morsi’s support comes from just a section of five million. Where are the people of the revolution? Not in the government.’ I ask why more did not vote for the other presidential candidate, former Prime Minister, Ahmed Shafik? ‘When the election came it was a choice between the fire and the frying pan, and the people did not want another Mubarak.’ Ahmed lights another cigarette, ‘Morsi has no programme. Many of his people were in gaol during the Mubarak time. They were all chained up and in the dark. They need psychological counselling not to be put in power. Morsi’s president now, maybe for tomorrow, maybe for two more years, maybe four but not more. The people will not choose another from the Muslim Brotherhood.’
Overlooking the new tented protests pitched across Tahrir Square, tea drinkers at Café Wadi Nil have their own views. ‘These people don’t represent Egypt,’ says Mohammed, casting a glance across the square, ‘They want to go backwards not forwards. Morsi is not a bad man but he’s not experienced in leading a country.’ I ask about Egypt’s chronic levels of youth unemployment. ‘There is work in Cairo,’ replies Mohammed, ‘But it’s not well paid. If people take a job and keep working they’ll earn more in the end but they don’t have the patience. Instead they stay at home or come here.’
Walking across the square a smiling small boy approaches, boldly telling me, ‘Fuck you!’, immediately taking a precautionary step back. I pretend not to understand. A young man follows behind, ‘So what about you? Why are you here? Are you with us?’ he demands. I tell him that the future of Egypt is best determined by Egyptians. He wanders off thoughtfully, satisfied or mystified, I’ll never know.
Sitting on the concrete surround of a Cairo metro ventilation shaft I’m offered tea by kindly, open-faced woman. A crowd of the curious and the bored gather to watch me drink. Two well dressed young women from Upper Egypt in turn ask to have their photograph taken with me – I smile. My tea drained, the small boy still lingers, racking his infant brain for more profanity but before finding the words he’s shooed away by a tall youth. ‘Hi, I’m Imed, Imed the Iraqi, everybody here knows me. Shall we walk around?’ Grateful to exit the limelight I join Imed. Beyond the tents the grass is brown, pavements scorched by fires, once shady trees chopped for firewood, the scorched windows and burnt out shell of the National Democratic Party’s headquarters looms large in the background. ‘There are real protesters here, but also many just looking to cause trouble,’ says Imed. ‘I’ve watched while children throw stones at police. They have nothing, so nothing to lose.’ Walking across Qasr Al-Nil bridge the view of Cairo is expansive as ever. We stand in the sunshine for a moment, looking down at a moored and empty flotilla of tourist cruisers, watching the powerful Nile current.
For many in Cairo the outcome of the Egyptian revolution remains uncertain. Freedom was a unifying goal. Blood was spilt and a dictator overthrown. Across the city’s cafes and squares there’s freedom to talk but the question now for many Cairenes is whether anyone is listening? (Cairo. March 2013)