You Walk Like an Egyptian
On the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt, Dahab was a town purpose-built for shoestring travellers. They spent their days lounging in waterfront restaurants and feasting for a few dollars, and their nights dancing to Shakira in the boat-shaped bar or melting into cushions in their campsite bungalows.
It was a bad season for tourists, I was told. Sinai was taking a long time to recover from the bombs planted in its three hotspots a few years earlier, the bombs that mostly killed Egyptians on holiday. When this happened, the tourism industry was still rebuilding after terrorists opened fire at the Valley of the Kings in 1997, massacring some sixty people.
Terrorism was a word I would hear very often in the Middle East – hurled at me, not as a threat but an accusation. ‘You think we are terrorists!’ they said. ‘We are not terrorists!’
The cheapest flights I could find were in and out of Cairo. The ten-hour bus ride through the desert to Sinai was slow and arduous, with police checks and random searches every hour – directed not at tourists but at the locals.
‘What are they looking for?’ I asked the Egyptian beside me.
‘Bearded men, veiled women, people who look too Muslim,’ he said.
Dahab was anything but too Muslim. Along the main strip, the shops cast their wares onto the street, rows of handicrafts, souvenirs, trinkets, I went to Egypt t-shirts, camel toys, camel bags, camel hats, sandals, pashminas with labels stamped Made in India and clothes Made in China.
The vendors sat in front of their shops on chairs or stools, grouped together, smoking or having their communal breakfast. This one brought eggs, that one beans, another cheese or baba ghanough (aubergine) or hummus (chick peas) and they tore apart bread, passed the pieces around the circle and dipped them into each bowl. My new friend Ali told me if he didn’t have someone to eat with, he just wouldn’t eat.
Ali worked in a clothes store selling imported designer wear, overpriced for Egypt but ‘All real! All real!’ he promised, just because the brand names were spelt correctly (Diesel and not the Diessel that was sold in all the street markets).
‘Who buys them? Who buys these thigh-high boots and miniskirts in a place like this?’ I asked.
‘Russians,’ he said and smiled. ‘Russian women.’
Ali gently moved the Koran to one side of his desk next to the computer and searched for an American rap song to listen to. ‘Everyone knows Russian girls are easiest,’ he said, matter-of-factly.
The call to prayer from the single mosque was lost behind the Bob Marley blasting from his shop speakers. Everybody here worked in tourism: in the campsites, in the bars, in the diving clubs, restaurants, Bedouin desert safaris. All Bedouins were tour guides because they knew the desert and now they had jeeps too.
There were quad bike tours, horse rides, and diving trips. In the month of Ramadan, nobody fasted. The restaurants were always open, the music from the bar was always in earshot. Boys came from all over Egypt to work in Sinai, the job was easy and, at a hundred dollars a month, the pay was relatively good. The eighteen-year-old boy who served me in Tota Bar told me he didn’t drink because it was forbidden in Islam. He said this even as he popped open my beer and handed me my change.
And Sinai had an abundance of what was unattainable in the rest of Egypt: women.
There was a severe dearth of Egyptian women in Dahab, apart from a few wives or those from the Bedouin village outside the town. But there were so many tourist girls: coming and going, some staying but never for more than a few weeks or months as they took their diving courses or spent their summers, some returning to visit that man they’d met.
Sex was what Ali and his friends talked about most of the time, and they were unashamed to lay bare the intimate details of their sex lives. Sex was what they searched for every night at the bar, sipping beer or playing pool or smoking waterpipes in the garden. It didn’t matter how shy or ugly you were, sooner or later everyone in Sinai got laid.
Some of these boys eventually married Egyptian girls – like Mohamed who had a different girl every week then settled down with an eighteen-year-old from his hometown. Some married foreign girls and left – like Ayoub from the spice shop, who told me that ‘Egyptian men are best sex’, but also that Egyptian men who had sex were bad, bad Muslims. It was a conundrum.
Most had only negative experiences with Egyptian girls whose families didn’t approve because they couldn’t afford to buy a house and car and pay for the wedding. ‘Money, they only care about money and do what their family says,’ they complained.
Some left Dahab – like Ali, despite the pay and the sex and the boat-shaped bar. Most left Dahab eventually, one way or another. When I met Ali, he said he was bored. So was Mohamed, so was Ayoub, all bored of the nights at the bar and the days sitting in empty shops.
The streets were mostly empty too in those days. ‘Problems in Gaza,’ they said. The Gaza Strip had just been closed off and the Israelis were afraid to come.
I was sitting outside the spice shop, rather imaginatively called Mr Spice, except the S had fallen off so it became Mr Pice. Mr Pice himself, Ayoub’s boss, was shouting out to the straggle of tourists passing by. He was desperate. He hadn't sold a single thing all day and it was 11pm, the other shops were starting to close.
‘Hello, good evening, would you like to come see my mother’s shop?’ was Mr Pice's usual line. He thought the reference to his mother was good for business, but it rarely seemed to work. The tourists ignored him. All down the street Egyptians called out to the tourists, invited them to tea, to look at their shop.
‘You walk like an Egyptian!’ they said to the girls and there was a note of weariness to the routine. ‘Excuse me, I said you walk like an Egyptian!’
‘Hey, you dropped something,’ a man called out and, as I turned around to see what it was, he smiled, ‘My heart on the floor!’ So I stopped turning around.
The tourists passed silently as though Mr Pice wasn’t there at all, and Ayoub’s boss turned to where I was sitting and said, ‘You’ve travelled yes? You see a lot of things? How nice for you to travel! You know where I been? Nowhere. Know where I’m going? Nowhere too.’
And he asked, ‘Why when I say good evening they don’t say good evening back? Why when they come to my shop, ask “How much is this?” and I say “Forty guineas” and they say “No, twenty,” I say “Thirty-five” and they say “Twenty-five”. Why, why? It’s ten guineas! It’s nothing for them!’
I’d seen tourists argue for less. I’d seen me argue for less. I wanted to explain about how tiring it was to say good evening to everyone who said it to you – but I didn’t because I felt bad about drinking Mr Pice’s tea while he struggled to earn a living and I had enough in savings to not even have a job at the moment.
Sometimes they assured me that they knew I wasn’t rich like the tourists, and I used to tell myself the same. No one gave me money, I saved it up and then I spent as little of it as possible. But I was just starting to realise that the fact I could travel instead of working already made me rich – and that if I wanted more money, all I ever had to do was get on a plane back to England and find a job. The Egyptians never had that luxury. And they still offered me tea and breakfast.
So I tried to help Ali in his clothing shop. I told the Brazilian woman the pink sparkly top looked fabulous and would impress the pants off her Egyptian ex-boyfriend who was thirty years younger than her and had a new Russian girlfriend. All the while I had a niggling feeling that I was only doing it to assuage my guilt.
An English girl came into the store. She was nineteen years old and had been married for two months to an Egyptian guy who she met while working in a hotel in Sharm El-Sheikh. Her older sister, who was twenty, also married an Egyptian. She had grown up in a strict Christian household and had known her husband for three months before marrying him. After she dragged him into the store to look for new clothes, Hubby bought some pants and a t-shirt.
‘What are you looking for?’ I asked the girl.
‘Something long,’ her husband said quickly. ‘Long and loose.’ She had her head and arms covered. It was a jacket she was interested in, but the husband vetoed it with a simple ‘no’.
‘Please darling, please habibi,’ she begged him. ‘Please let me have just this one jacket.’ Her habibi said no, it would shrink in the wash.
‘Habibi,’ I said, ‘do you ever do the washing?’ He scoffed. ‘Then how do you know it will shrink?’ I asked.
Finally, Habibi said to his wife, ‘Fine, you can have it – if you really want it.’
She shook her head. ‘No,’ she said, ‘that's okay. I don’t want it.’
And he turned to me and said, ‘You see?’
What I saw was Habibi later in Tota Bar, seated by his young wife who was sipping orange juice. He asked me what there was to drink.
‘Soft drink?’ I said, assuming he wouldn’t partake in the consumption of alcohol.
‘Beer,’ he answered, ‘I want beer.’
The Urfi marriage, a religious loophole, was ubiquitous in Dahab. The Sinai Muslims were an odd bunch. They saw all these foreign girls and they wanted to sleep with them, but they had this lingering guilt that if they did, they would be straying from their faith. They could easily overlook the abstinence from alcohol, the prayer, fasting and alms-giving criteria but that bit about pre-marital sex, well it gave them something to think about.
That’s where the Urfi marriage came in: an agreement on paper, signed by both parties, that could be drawn up within a few minutes and had no other record. It wasn’t legally recognised outside of Egypt or even inside the rest of Egypt. All you had to do was sign the contract, call the woman your wife and when you were done, tear it up and you were divorced. Some men drew up such marriages every week with a new tourist.
Mohamed, before marrying the teenage Egyptian girl, served me tea in his office SUNNY QUAD BIKE TOURS! and took out a photo of his German Urfi wife.
‘She’s fat!’ he exclaimed, and Ali giggled next to me.
‘In the photo you don’t see Mohamed, just the fat girl!’
‘In the bed, she squash me!’ Mohamed laughed, then said seriously, ‘We know in their country they don’t like the fat girls. But we like fat girls. We like any girls.’
Things didn't end well between Mohamed and his Urfi wife.
‘Everybody knows the story of Mohamed, ja! Her parents lived here too, and they ask me, “You wanna go into business,” right? Sure, so we run a business. Eight months we are working and one day I look at the accounts book and I notice all the amounts we are taking have Tippex covering them. So I scratch the Tippex off and I see that they were bigger amounts written underneath and they changed it to a smaller number every time, right? And they take the rest! This girl is like my wife, I trusted her. They fucked me over, I'm a poor guy, right?’
‘What did you do?’ I asked.
‘I go to her dad, he tells me to get out of the office, but the business is in my name. That same day, I change the locks on the office door and I take him to court. They said that I stole money and I raped their daughter, ja? And I say, “What, raped her for a year?” For four months, I see them outside the office and we are in court. But they lost and I won, I said, “Okay I'll give you back the beach buggies that are yours and now fuck off,” and they sold me the buggies and they left. They come to Egypt and they fuck the Egyptian guy!’
‘Hey,’ Mohamed pulled out his wallet and extracted a long string of miniature photos of himself. ‘Give these to your friends,’ he said and handed me a thick pile of business cards.
‘Leave it to me,” I said.
‘But no Germans!’ Mohamed called after me.
Still sitting in Ali’s clothes shop, some friends of his came in laughing and talking excitedly. Giggling along with them, Ali then turned to me, ‘Come and see Hany’s girlfriend, it’s really funny.’
We headed to Hany’s jewellery shop, newly opened, where his English sixty-something girl (woman?) friend was perched on a stool surrounded by the shining silver stock she’d paid for. Hany and his friends were joking around her in Arabic, which she didn't understand.
‘Isn’t she old?’ Hany was laughing, ‘Look how old she is.’
Egypt was full of these kind of relationships: young local men paired with older foreign women. One Czech lady in her seventies complained loudly to me that her twenty-something boyfriend refused to have sex with her. He said it was because of Ramadan, she grumbled, but she was pretty sure Ramadan had ended months ago.
At night, armed with Mohamed’s business cards and photos, we hit the bar, where we were served beer by an English girl with the dreadlocks (Urfi wife), and smoked hash in the beer garden, splayed out on cushions. Recently, an Egyptian guy had overdosed on heroin in the toilets here.
Ali dragged me away from where I was talking to a middle-aged Israeli woman, her flesh tumbling down the sides of her short body, her mouth stretched into a gappy, toothless grin. She sat in her usual corner of the bar, cradling her beer, her eyes pinned to the American sitcom flickering mute on a TV screen in the corner.
Ali said in a low voice, ‘She is Mossad.’
‘What? What’s that?’
‘Israeli spy. She work for Israel secret police. It’s true, she’s here for years and she doesn’t have job, what she doing here? But when the bombs go off, she isn’t here. She go back to Israel!’ he whispered excitedly. ‘She back to here again after some months, why?’
I looked back at the woman huddled over her bottle chuckling at the images on the screen, ‘And,’ Ali added, ‘she make sex with all the taxi drivers. She pays them.’
In the beer garden, we watched a group of English men running around with no clothes on, shouting, ‘NAKED NAKED YEAH YEAH YEAH!’
I turned to Ali, open mouthed, ‘Doesn't this horrify you?’
He shrugged, ‘This is their culture,’ he said.
‘No, it’s not our culture!’ I shouted, but this was all Ali had seen of Westerners so why should he believe me?
I stumbled back to the campsite as the sun was rising and drifted off to sleep.
There was another Mohamed working at the front desk of the campsite where I rented a bungalow for a couple of dollars a night. He was new to Dahab, you could tell just by looking at him: the way his hair was parted neatly from the side, the shirt buttoned and carefully tucked into his trousers, his nervous manner of tapping my door to ask for the day’s payment hoping no one would see him talking to a girl and get the wrong idea about us. He had just moved from his Bedouin village; his English was poor, and he confided in me that he had never been with a woman. He was looking for a wife.
Some months later when I returned to Dahab, I didn't recognise this man. He swaggered toward me, his hair long and curled, sporting a goatee and surf brand clothes, his conversation peppered with 'fucks' and 'motherfuckers'. He had no trouble talking to girls, but he liked Russian women best.
Two months after that, when I came back to Dahab again he introduced me to his Urfi wife who was Dutch. Swinging his legs over the arm of the chair, he complained that she wanted too much sex. His English was much better, and he even spoke a little Dutch.
As I left Dahab to take the long bus ride through the bare Sinai desert back to Cairo, I taxied through the planned streets, with trees planted in neat rows and not a scrap of rubbish in sight, with the billboards warning Egyptians to be nice to tourists: THEY ARE OUR BUSINESS.
On the bus, an Egyptian asked me, ‘Why do they come here to do this? They could go anywhere in their countries. They have Europe and America to do this, why must they do this in Egypt?’ He was wearing a beard and he wouldn’t shake my hand because it was sinful to touch a woman.
I’d been in Dahab for only a few weeks, and I was already starting to wonder the same. But it was also a difficult place to leave – mostly because that required mustering up enough energy to pull yourself out of the cushions. It was a town custom-designed for relaxation, after all.
Another man on the bus sighed, ‘If only all Egypt was like Sinai. So clean, so organised. This is what I wish.’
About the Author: Claire J. Harris is an award-winning film producer and writer of fiction and screenplays, who has spent the last decade travelling, working and writing around the world. Her short stories and creative non-fiction have been published in Australia and abroad, including for Matador Network, Subtle Fiction, Digital Americana, and The Big Smoke, as well as a regular travel column in Litro Magazine. Her first feature film Zelos was released in 2017 – which she wrote and produced. She holds a Masters in Writing, and a Graduate Certificate in Screenwriting. Claire is currently based in Melbourne where she works as a copywriter. Learn more about Claire here.