Friday August 17th
After waking up rather late and devouring a much needed local breakfast of eggs and fuul, we headed off to the big Marassi beach bash. Marassi is the name given to Emaar’s new development on the bay of Sidi Abdel Rahman. The breathtaking bay was taken over by Emaar to develop a complete resort with hotels, villas and entertainment facilities. As it stands right now, the old Hotel El Alamein looms on the bay with its faded 50s glory, a place where royalty and movie stars once vacationed. It’s a shame that this once charming hotel will be demolished to make way for something much bigger and with less charm, but with nobody to take on its cause it will meet the fate of many similar properties around the area. However, it is rumored that the first hotel to be built will be no less than Giorgio Armani’s signature Armani Hotel, his second property after his forthcoming hotel in Dubai. The return of the Italians to El Alamein is a delicious historic irony (more on that later) that has not gone unnoticed.
As we entered the grounds leading to the beach party, following in movie star Youssra’s wake as she held up pedestrian traffic, we completely skipped the Emaar/Marassi sales booths and headed to the cool blue waters. A Brazilian band complete with colorfully dressed samba dancers were onstage, whipping the crowds into a sun-drenched frenzy, followed by Hanine e Son Cubano (right) with their sultry mix of Arabic tunes and Cuban rhythms.
According to unofficial estimates, around 8,000 people attended this event and fortunately there was lots of space for everyone to move around comfortably without feeling crowded. The open bars and buffets coupled with the beautiful weather also lent an air of exceptional festivity and fun to the event.
I should mention here that in the week leading up to the big event, Egypt was abuzz with rumors of Tom Cruise flying in to attend the event as the “face of the new project. The rumors even accelerated to include David and Victoria Beckham, apparently oblivious to Beckham’s busy football schedule with LA Galaxy.
Superstar pop princess Nancy Ajram finally takes the stage, but I can’t help feeling that the sun has taken its toll on the revelers as many seemed tired while others headed for the exits. She put on a good show as expected but I couldn’t stay much longer so I went home to shower for another house party and another night at Andrea’s, again packed with the great and the good. Being a few steps from the house made all the difference.
The most charming (some would say annoying) thing about Andrea is the fact that it crosses the age divide like no other club I know. It is not uncommon to see 70-year-olds partying with their grandchildren, with said grandchildren struggling to maintain a distance from the other side of the club lest their “cool factor be taken down a few notches. Set across a steppe formation with lush vegetation in between, there are certain levels that harbor mostly teenagers, others with built in tables and seating for the older crowd, and a central bar area for everything in between. As we were placed firmly in the 35+ category, we were staring at both groups a little perplexed. At one point an 18-year-old with big bright eyes appeared at our periphery, having descended from her teenage hilltop. We simply dubbed her Frodo.
The music too had to cross the age divide, often shifting between R&B, House, Arabic pop and re-mixed Um Kulthoum. This place was age agnostic, music agnostic, and as a result entirely incoherent in a charming and unique way, although I wondered why some of the continuously yawning older folks didn’t just call it a night and go home.
By now my hosts have dubbed me Superguest, but Superguest was dead tired and not en pleine forme after a long day partying on the beach, and so I collapsed at 2 am.
Saturday August 18th
I decided to take in a bit of history and culture, and headed to the Italian War Memorial at El Alamein, a rather somber yet elegant structure right on the water. More than 3,000 Italian cadets were killed on the shores of El Alamein in a decisive battle with Allied Forces, and they are now entombed in stark white Carrara marble rows all along the interior. I had the place to myself as I walked along the walls in complete silence, and contemplated the return of Italian investors and tourists to the very same grounds that many of their forebears had met their deaths. On my way out, I encountered a group of Italian women who proceeded to bombard me with questions in Italian under the assumption that only an Italian would be interested in visiting the war memorial. My blank stare failed to stem the flow of incomprehensible gibberish heading my way, so I just shrugged my shoulders, smiled and walked away.
I was due for lunch at Diplo, which has its own simple charm, radically different to that of Haciendas. Diplo felt more American in style, and I even felt I was somewhere on the Gulf of Mexico; in Florida perhaps. The compound was made up of shabby-chic single storey houses that led onto a very lively yet laid back beach. I found the atmosphere to be less rarefied than the scene at Haciendas and consequently more active and fun. The beach was full of people out to enjoy themselves with nary a poseur in sight!
Diplo is also the summer resort of choice for a slightly more “intellectual segment of Egypt’s affluent class, with many evenings animated by lively lectures and discussions given by some of its illustrious residents, such as former – and current – ministers, ambassadors and directors of the World Bank and so on.
I went for a stroll on the beach came across a beach volleyball game between two teams of kids; one from Diplo and the other from Haciendas. “Keep it in the family I thought… no games with kids from the wrong side of the tracks!
That evening we were invited to a house party at Haciendas hosted by one of Cairo’s young glamour couples, and we just walked a few steps over there to join the fun. It was a heady affair full of good music, great food and interesting people. A house party at Hacienda is usually quite fashionable; this one had a tarot card reader on the side (who, I noticed with great concern, did not move from her seat!), a volunteer bartender from Ecuador, and more lethal cocktails than a stag party. Designer wear is rife, albeit perfectly tailored for the beachside atmosphere; women in satiny shorts or boho-chic dresses, men in cool linens. Yes, my earlier Hamptons analogy was fulfilling itself.
Sunday August 19th
I arrived at Alexandria airport to take my flight back to Kuwait only to find that my flight was delayed for an unpredictable amount of time, and that it hadn’t even left Kuwait airport.
The thought of spending hours in that cramped excuse for a terminal was more than I could handle. Fortunately, I had a friend in Alexandria who immediately came to my rescue and took me to spend the day in the city, which I had not visited since I was 12 years old.
First we kicked off with a fantastic seafood lunch on the corniche, followed by a visit to the spectacular Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a stunning piece of modern architecture and a very worthy successor to the ancient library of Alexandria.
We spent the rest of the day driving around aimlessly and stuffing our faces with assorted local delicacies until it was time to head back to the airport for the flight home.
The north coast is a place of stark natural beauty with the potential of becoming a major tourist magnet in the next few years. I sincerely hope it retains some of its simple charm and does not get overwhelmed by huge monstrous resorts and real estate projects. It was difficult to comprehend the billboards heralding all the current and future high-end resorts and yet not see a single hospital or emergency medical center in any of the master plans. There are a few watered down clinics around the coast, but they do not seem sufficient to cater to the population or the fact that it this is an
area with a notoriously high number of road injuries and accidents. The infrastructure on the coast is dangerous and poorly lit, and something must be done about the treacherous roads connecting the various villages.
A few days after I returned from Sahel, a big private party was in full swing at Andrea’s when one of the guests, a lovely young girl, was killed in a tragic and senseless car accident on her way home. She was alive when she walked into the medical clinic, but doctors and equipment were not sophisticated enough to detect the internal bleeding that later killed her. By all accounts, every summer sees the death of many young people on the dangerous and poorly lit highway in this way, compounded by the lack of decent emergency medical services.
While I certainly enjoyed myself at Haciendas during that long weekend, and would go back in a heartbeat, I cannot help but think of the incredibly high risk of a car accident ruining or even ending my break, and it seemed a tragedy that every summer should be closed out by a funeral rather than a wonderful gathering of people.
Egyptians have every right to be excited about the blossoming of their gorgeous coastline, as it is a dramatic alternative to its equivalents around the Mediterranean, but they should not allow it to prosper at the expense of their lives and safety. Certainly, with the clientele at the coast being an educated, worldly and affluent one, I hope that they will use their influence to bolster up the coastline with the facilities and amenities needed to stay safe as well as have an unforgettable summer.
Once they do, well, the place could have the ingredients of a first class summer destination, with plenty to do and see, a diverse and interesting crowd, all against a backdrop of jaw-dropping natural beauty.
Dedication: Travel writing has always been something I ve dreamed about, and a few weeks after my visit to Sahel, I had a chat with travel writer Hassib Haas Mroue in Beirut, and told him how much I enjoyed Sahel, and he encouraged me to give it a shot. I promised to send him the finished article but I never did.
Haas died suddenly of a heart attack on Saturday Oct 6 in Beirut. While I didn’t know him that well, his words of encouragement will stay with me forever and hopefully inspire me to write more articles.
May he rest in peace
Ziad Al-Duaijis a freelance writer living and working in Kuwait. His ramblings can also be found on his blog Kuwait Unplugged (www.kuwait-unplugged.com)