Monthly Archives: May 2010

The Burning Path

Notes on The Burning Path and El Gouna residency

a fata morgana in the Arabian Desert - a lake mirage below the Red Sea Mountains

During my time as Writer-in-Residence at El Gouna I have been working on my desert-based novel, The Burning Path – part of my 5-book cross-genre series, The Windsmith Elegy, which I began in 2002. I wrote the first draft in of this, the fourth volume, in 2008 and here expanded and edited it into a second. I worked on a chapter a day (there’s 23 in total), writing an extra 20,000 words (along with 7 new poems – to date – and this blog). To live in a desert country while working on this has made all the difference – those grains of sand have become grit in the oyster. It has been an intense and sometimes challenging experience – ideal for my novel. It has enabled me to be completely in the ‘zone’, inhabiting a similar space (physical/mental/emotional) to my characters.  I find this form of ‘method writing’ most effective, although it might not make me easy to be around. Finding myself staying in an artificial and often stifling cocoon (enforced socialising & unnecessary opulence; when I yearned for solitude & minimalism) I have forged a ‘desert environment’ through an experiment in estrangement – an intentional distancing of myself from those I ‘should’ connect with, to feel ‘other’, to experience the perspective of the outsider, like the boy in the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes. I strived to keep the doors of perception fully open (as William Blake declared: ‘When the doors of perception are cleansed, man will see things as they truly are, infinite,’). Antoine de St Exupery in Wind, Sand and Stars talks of stratascopos, the bird’s eye view he experienced as a pioneering pilot. Only through an intentional disjuncture was this possible (an extreme method for a land of extremes) – life at the edge of the circle, for the littoral is always a creatively fertile place, like the banks of the Nile here in Egypt: a country divided in the Red and Black Lands (as their flag symbolises)

the flag of Egypt

– the red is the ‘barren’ desert (which protects and offers hidden treasures); the black, the fertile soil of the Nile Valley. Life is like this – good and bad mixed together, the bitter and the sweet, light and shadow. Contrast is healthy, essential. In Italian painting its called chiaroscuro. If my time here had been absolutely perfect I wouldn’t have found the necessary edge for my writing. No pain, no gain. And so everything that has happened to me here has been just right. It has enabled me to walk the Burning Path and bring my novel alive. I have worn the mark of Cain and been cast out into the wilderness. Yet despite being in a social desert there have been occasional oases and these have kept me sane and made my stay here far more enjoyable – to all the wonderful people I have met (Egyptians, Gounies, tourists) thank you.

I set off from England with a quote from Helen Keller in the back of my mind: ‘No pessimist ever discovered the secret of the stars, or sailed to an uncharted land, or opened a new doorway for the human spirit.’

I feel my ‘optimism’ has paid off – travel allows for creative possibilities, pushes us out of our comfort zone, expand our world-view, and makes us embrace the other – and find we are brothers. As I wrote in the sample chapter I read out at the final event:

The desert is the last place you expect to encounter the kindness of strangers but it is the place where you need it the most. The more isolated we become, the more hostile the environment, and the more is revealed the cosmic terror behind the frail fabric of reality, the more we need each other.

To write a book about strangers meeting in the desert in a place where … strangers meet in the desert couldn’t have been more perfect. El Gouna is a wonderful international zone where the kindness of strangers can be encountered daily:

Love ye therefore the stranger: for ye were strangers in the land of Egypt (10:19)

The Burning Path plot summary: Three strangers meet in a nameless desert and must come to terms with their past before they can escape it: a First World War airman; an American aviatrix of the Thirties; and a French poet of the skies from the Second World War. They are the lost of history and must go into the desert to find themselves. To find peace they must walk the burning path. Each is forced to confront the question: What are you prepared to sacrifice for the one you love?

Email to Anthony: Anyway, it’s been a really productive time – just got to the end of the 2nd Draft of The Burning Path, and I can’t wait for people to read it. I think its my best yet – but you have to believe that, don’t you! The style is alot more stripped back. I wrote it the year my Dad died and maybe the austere aesthetic reflects that, but there’s is real beauty in the desert vistas and cultures, as I’ve discovered. Ultimately it’s an affirmation of the desert, its ecology and ethos, its abundant ‘nothingness’ – the opposite of Western consumer culture! It cries out Less is More.

Main Characters

Isambard Kerne: Edwardian antiquarian, observer of the Royal Flying Corps, accidental adventurer, windsmith. Born 1869 of Irish and Welsh ancestry. Missing in action at the Battle of Mons, August 1914.

Amelia Earhart: American 30s aviatrix, record-breaking ‘queen of the skies’; Kerne’s ‘angel’ & companion. First woman to fly solo across the Atlantic. In 1937 went missing over the Pacific on an attempt to circumnavigate the globe.

Antoine de St-Exupery: French aviator and author of The Little Prince; Wind, Sand and Stars; Southern Mail & Night Flight. Crashed crossing Egypt, attempting the Paris-Saigon record, in the Libyan desert in 1936. Saved by a group of Bedouin. In 1944 went missing on a reconnaissance flight over the Mediterranean.

Leo Africanus, aka Giovanni Leone: famous Moorish explorer and scholar from 15th Century Andulusia. Born El-hassan ben Muhammed el-Wazzan-ez-Zayyati, in Granada 1458. His family emigrated to Fes, where he studied, proving himself a gifted pupil. Became a young official and diplomat. Kidnapped by corsairs, sold to the Pope. Given his freedom. Became renowned scholar. Wrote an important early account of Africa, and a tri-lingual (Arabic/Hebrew/Italian) dictionary. The circumstances of his death are uncertain, but one theory is he disappeared attempting to return to North Africa.

Alexandrine/Alexine Tinne, aka Fraulein Tinne: 19th Century Dutchwoman explorer and early photographer. Born 1835 in The Hague, when her father died at the age of ten, she became the richest heiress in the Netherlands. First European woman to attempt to cross the Sahara. In 1869, while attempting to reach the Upper Nile in caravan, had her arm hacked off and left for dead in the Libyan desert by her Tuareg escorts.

The Blue Man – blind Tuareg holy man. Becomes the guide of Earhart and Kerne.

FFI: www.windsmithelegy.com

Lacuna in El Gouna – final week

24-29 May

Zeytouna Jetty (460 m. long)

My last week in El Gouna, (I think of weeks running Mon-Sun; here the calendars are Fri-Thurs) it has been a busy, productive and enjoyable time.

My writing has really flowed – on the ‘home straight’ of my novel’s second draft, I found a new burst of inspiration and fresh ideas emerged, directly as a result of my experience in El Gouna. The combination of the heat, the howling wind, dust-storms and a full moon all contributed to an intensely elemental and emotional week: perfect for my book!

dust-storm in El Gouna

On Monday had an excellent night at the Smugglers – bumping into Emad and his gregarious friend from Cairo, the excellent Mr Asser, who was attending a course on hotel management at Steigenberger along with a bunch of other Egyptian hoteliers. He was an old school pal of Pierre, whom I had met earlier in the Spa, having a good chat about books. Kerry, a blonde bombshell from Yorkshire was behind the bar (the Smugglers has the loveliest barmaids in El Gouna – or even the only ones, as I’ve seen no other female waitresses/bar staff). There was a guy from London there; Bill; and a knowledgable Turkish chap called Ahmed, who I got onto the subject of Tuareg when the subject of my book came up. It was good to have a ‘right old chinwag’ and ‘set the world to rights’ in such a fine establishment – my favourite haunt in Gounie-town. Although its ostensibly a British bar, it is not only frequented by Brits, ex-pat or otherwise. It was an international mix – like a microcosm of El Gouna’s egalitarian blend – and because its so small, you are kind of forced to talk and conversations are often group discussions. I wish I had a pub like the Smugglers back home – where you feel you could talk to anyone without being considered some kind of nutter. It’s like being in an episode of ‘Cheers’ – the regulars have their place at the bar, all distinctive characters whose quirks are not only tolerated but appreciated.

Tuesday night began my Dine Around tour of the week at the Sheraton. Wednesday it was the Movenpick, with its lovely courtyard area, and Thursday, Sultan Bey – which I grabbed something at before going along the beach to the Club House, where the divers meet up. As I looked at the bonfire, where folk roasted kebabs and kids burnt marshmallows, I got chatting with a German lady – there was a party there celebrating a birthday (someone’s son) and I was handed a beer and offered food (once again, I was touched by the innate friendliness of Gounies international community). I caught up with Georgina, Dave and Sue and other members of the Tropical Gangsters, over a couple of beers, before getting a tuk tuk to Moods – where I was told it was ‘the place to be’ on Thursday. In a lovely location at the end of one end of Abu Tig marina, it was a bit subdued when I arrived – the dance floor was empty – but I discovered this was still early (10.30ish) and things didn’t warm up for a while yet. I was considering leaving when Asser turned up with his hoteliers – all in swanky suits looking like the cast of Reservoir Dogs or a gangster flick. Emad appeared as well – and suddenly the party was back on. By now folk were dancing and I had a little bop before walking along the beach to greet the full moon and savour the sea at night.

Friday was the big day – the final reading at the library. We met the panel at last at a lovely brunch in a billionaire’s villa, hosted by the lovely ‘Midge’. The hospitality was splendid – I discovered it is an Egyptian tradition to offer your guests the very best; host/esses pull out the stops when they have guests round to eat. We had lots of photo opportunities by the pool.

Then we were taken via the embassy back to the hotel, where I crashed for all too brief while before having to get ready for the evening event where the 5 Writers-in-Residence gave readings from their work. There was a good audience and the event seemed to be a success, going by the responses afterwards. It was great hearing all the different kinds of work – seeing the fruits of the residency. Everybody shone. We thanked Orascom, the Panel and various members of staff with a statement of gratitude read out by Elmaz. Tears flowed, perhaps not surprisingly – the event was the culmination of alot of hard work and good will.

With relief I went back to flop – before ‘resurrecting’ myself a couple of hours later to go to Papas to rock out with the Misfitz. The letting down of hair was essential – the culmination of a month’s work. I had a great night with my new mates (all thanks to Georgina’s gaze) – moshing along with the crowd.

When I made it back it was about 2am – and I fancied a moonlight dip, so I stripped off and jumped in the lagoon, swimming in the delicious silver-lined waves. Security guards called me back, but I ignored them.

snorkelling off Zeytouna jetty - a good way to 'test the waters'

The following day I made sure I took it easy. Bunking off from a brunch invite to try out some snorkelling – I was dying to swim in the sea properly after a month in the lagoon. I made my way to Zeytouna Island, which wasn’t easy – and after negotiating my entrance, I grabbed some flippers, mask and snorkel and headed along the fabulous wooden jetty, my feet making a regular beat like a 460m glockenspeil. I togged up and went in – and experienced a taste of the Red Sea’s ‘buried treasure’ – the spectacular coral. Even along the ridge it was still vibrant in places – bright orange and pink, with swarms of psychedelic fish just below me. Wonderful. Yet it was clearly dying in places. I had heard from both the Northampton divers, who had been coming for six years, and from Pierre, who is a coral/fish enthusiast that both the species and the habitat are in decline – taking a battering from the tourism. It is such a delicate ecosystem and needs protecting – and yet the tourism is essential for the local economy. Humans and the natural world both need to survive.

And after a hard week I really savoured being out there, at the end of the jetty – sitting on the dock of the bay, wasting time.

Stopped off at Samy’s  beach shop for a karkade – I had talked to him on my arrival on the tiny island and he had invited me in for one on the way back – a local beverage ideal for offsetting the effects of all that seawater inhalation! I bought a packet. I might need some tomorrow as I booked a full day out on Dive Trek.

Coptic Christian tattoo

Afterwards, took a river taxi Downtown and stocked up on some goodies. I liked Joseph at Ambiente, his no hassle policy – and the way everything priced (an exception in El Gouna – even the supermarket doesn’t price anything). Made by his family. He had a neat tattoo on his wrist, showing he was a Coptic Christian (as apparently are alot of El Gouna staff – although it is a supremely tolerant place and I saw a couple of staff today clearly doing their prayers discreetly, which was good to see. Wanting some Pharaonic bling, I visited a jewellery shop – where another great salesman, ‘Michael’, gave me an ‘offer I couldn’t refuse’! He was charismatic and confident and didn’t make it seem like life or death that you had to buy something from his shop. He clearly was pleased with his final sale of the day – apparently it brings the shopkeeper luck to end with a good one. No rocket science, but charming. M explained how the ankh meant not only the ‘key of life’ but also the key of the Nile, to see it in the glittering waters was a good sign, and as I sat by the lagoon, sipping a Sakara, I think I caught a glimpse.

spotting the key of life in the glittering waters of the Red Sea

Feeling a bit ‘crispy duck’ after my day in the sun (without suntan lotion, which I thought I had packed…) I went to the spa afterwards for some much needed cooling off. As I walked through the Dali-esque golf course I savoured the lovely early evening light – visually, my favourite time of day in El Gouna. It really brings the colours out. I thought how beautiful it is here. Bumped into my spa buddy Pierre. Worshipped in the ‘temple of the naiads’. As I left I watched the fading light over the lagoon, a nimbus of gold over the deepening blues.  What a place to live, work and rest!

Viva El Gouna!

A Day in the City of the Dead

Luxor

Sunday 23rd May

Colossi of Memnon

Today I went on a day trip to Luxor (in fact 3 main sites: the town itself; Karnak and the Theban necropolis) which was as awe-inspiring as its reputation suggests. It was an early start – 4am wake up call, and pick up from outside reception at 5am. There was four passengers including myself – and our driver, Samil. We took our ‘breakfast packs’ which looked like they had enough in for lunch as well – though a meal in a restaurant was included. We were lucky to have a private car with plenty of room – rather than be crammed in like sardines in a coach – for it was going to be a long hot drive.

We whizzed away in the dark before dawn, filling up at a surreal petrol station that looked like an art installation – neon wrapped around palm trees. Perhaps it was the hour, the setting, being half asleep – but it was all quite dreamlike. The wind howled around me as I popped to the forecourt shop to get some spoons for our yoghurts.

Driving on, we passed the countless unfinished buildings of Egypt – as though modern Egyptians were trying to emulate the ruins of the Pharoahs. The red orb of the sun emerged quietly to our left, like the red face of a baby emerging from between the legs of night. Ra reborn.

After heading south on the coast road for sometime, we turned inland, passing through a serious- looking checkpoint (guys with automatic rifles, metal barriers on wheels for shoot-outs) – one of many that lined the route. Heading east, we drove through the mountains – a dramatic road which cuts through the Red Sea range into the interior.

At a pitstop we grabbed a coffee and took in the spectacle – locals trying to make a buck. A couple of Bedouin women had a donkey with a goat on the back. Although ‘cute’ it was a sad symbol of what people have to do to earn a few (what are to us) pennies. Coach-loads of tourists pulled up, on their way to Luxor. The woman at the toilet asked for one (Egpytian pound) or one (US) dollar (a substantial difference!). Spending a penny has clearly gone up in price. It’s all about supply and demand – when you’re bursting they shove a hand in your face. These were clearly not polite Steigenberger staff and you had to be firm with them: ‘La shukran!’ became the phrase of the day.

On to Luxor – arriving there about four and half hours after setting off. We were met for our guide, Maria, a local.

Our first destination was the Colossi of Memmon, two huge statues of Amenophis, who once guarded his now vanished mortuary temple (although a German excavation is digging its site). Now 19.5 metres high they once sported crowns and were even higher. An earthquake in 27 BC shattered them, but they were repaired and there current state makes them look like cubist sculpture. Apparently the one on the right used to emit a musical note and dawn, which attracted some famous tourists including Hadrian in 130 AD. Today, they both stand in silent sentinel. At the feet of the left one his wife and mother can be seen – dwarfed – but there is a statue of Amenophis’ wife which is of equal size to him in Cairo, a rarity, showing an early equality between this couple at least. It was thrilling to see the petroglyphs carved into the sides of the statues – my first. A local man came over, grabbed me and wanted his photo taken next to me. Then he asked for money: ‘Baksheesh’ (share the wealth). Since he had practically forced me to do this, I refused. If you want to take a photo of someone, that’s different – ask first, then pay after.

We passed, all too fleetingly, the Ramesseum with its very phallic columns. Here Shelley came upon the ruins of Rameses II and penned his immortal poem, ‘Ozymandias’: ‘I met a traveller from an antique land who said: in the desert two vast and trunkless legs of stone now stand…’ The ironic inscription the Romantic poet imagines there has become the epitaph of all grandiose schemes: ‘Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!’ Basically, everything crumbles to dust in the end. Modern pharaohs take note.

Hatsheput's mortuary temple

Fortunately some survive when others tried there very best to wipe them from the face of the Earth. Such is the case dramatically illustrated by our next port of call – something we were all looking forward to – the mortuary temple of Hatshepsut, the only female pharaoh. Her stepson, Tuthmosis III, when he finally came to the throne after her death, spitefully defaced her effigies in an attempt to remove her from history (there’s a story of dysfunctional families). He managed a pretty good job – all but one of her images remain, but ironically she has remained famous, while he is confined to the shadows. All we know him for now is his pettiness. Seeing the scratched out faces on the walls of the terraces (exquisite murals, where I saw my first vibrantly-coloured hieroglyphs) reminded me of a sad photo album where all the faces of one of the partners are scribbled or cut out. Our guide brought the story alive – pointing out the details depicted in the heiroglyphs. It was thrilling to see images of Osiris, Anubis, Horus and Hathor – the latter being worshipped at the temple. The Goddess of life, of motherhood, of fecundity and music appropriate for a Queen. In one mural she is depicted suckling the teats of Hathor, and I pointed it was like the icon of Romulus and Remus, the twins who were said to have founded Rome, suckled by the she-wolf (there’s a statue of this near my home city, sculpted by an Italian POW to thank his captors).

Because we only had a short time,I wanted to just experience the place, rather than have everything explained – its good to have some information but not so much that it stops you from actually just fully ‘seeing’ the place. I tried to savour the sheer majesty of the place and tried to imagine it back in Hatshepsut’s time – no doubt it would have been equally busy with pilgrims at festive times, bringing offerings. No doubt there would have been many wanting to offer the goods they needed on the way also. An echo of this perhaps remained – we had to run the gauntlet of the bazaar on the way back to the lift – but I avoided eye contact and marched on. The last thing I wanted to do after standing in the withering heat, being overwhelmed by a mind-blowing place, is buy bits of tourist tat, but I guess they have to make their sheckles somehow.

Hatshepsut takes milk from Hathor

Next we went onto Valley of the Kings. By now it was midday and the white gorge created an oven effect. We boarded the tourist train – being careful not to have any cameras on us, as photography is now banned (only a year). We visited 3 temples. I marvelled at the colours of the heiroglyphs – looking as though they had been painted a hundred years ago, not thousands. White is made from limestone; black from charcoal, green from turquoise, blue from expensive lapis lazuli, red from iron oxide – and the pigments are bound to the wall by egg-whites. The extreme aridity, coolness and low light has helped preserve them so perfectly. Even below ground the heat was intense, indeed it was even more stifling with no fresh air. Lord knows how the guards cope. They stood at the entrance, or actually inside like guardians of the dead – rangey Anubis types. In the first temple one shoved a torch into my hand – I thought everyone was given one, but it was just another tourist con. The beam was barely strong enough to reach the far wall, but it served to point out some details Maria had mentioned to us (she didn’t come in with us – outside guides are not allowed). I handed the torch back on the way out and gave him 5 LE, which made him give me a bad-toothed (sometimes you give baksheesh and they don’t even seem pleased). Locals descended from the mountain side wanting to sell us postcards (a sign read: Climbing the Mountains is not Allowed).

A real highlight was the third tomb we visited – the Tomb of the Harpist. I felt at home here. It was exciting to finally spot it in one of the ante-chambers (as no interpretation boards gave away its location). Sure enough, he looked like he was playing a full-sized harp. Clearly Pharaohs needed entertaining in the afterlife, and so musical instruments were included in the tomb, along with food, treasures, servants, furniture, etc. It was a relief to emerge into the light. I was starting to feel the effects of the sun (in the 40s) and needed cooling off.

ferries on the Nile

Maria had managed to arranged a ferry (ours was called Omar Shariff) to take us across the Nile – this seemed a better option than getting back in the minibus. Four hundred metres wide, eight metres deep, 4151 miles long, discharging 300 million cubic metres per day, it is the longest river in the world, flowing through nine countries and providing the water of life for millions. Maria talked passionately about how countries upriver want to build more dams, reducing its flow. It is such a vital resource and a point of tension. Once again men want to control what flows freely – what Africa gives so generously.

A felucca on the Nile

We had a nice lunch at the St George’s Hotel – watching the obese sunbathers baking below (like a Grosz painting).

George & the Dragon - in the hotel lobby

Our driver picked us up and we headed off for the grand finale – Karnak – which we had the rest of the afternoon to explore. This was needed as its so huge, covering hundreds of acres. Land around it is being cleared, as at one time houses clustered right up against it. Now there’s a wide terrace leading towards it, allowing you to get a sense of its scale, creating a sense of drama, restoring its sanctity (as at Stonehenge, where they are removing the roads that runs by it, cutting the site in two). However, it is terrible that local people were forced to move out, have their homes demolished, and there were not sufficiently compensated. More houses have been demolished to reveal the Avenue of the Sphinxes, which links the major sites. It has only just been revealed and will be open to the public next year. I like the way the sites have a ‘conversation’ with each other. Hatshepsut’s faces Amun Ra’s on the opposite side of the Nile – like the sun and moon facing each other across the sky.

the awesome hypostyle hall at Karnak

Finally I came to the place I had seen in photoes and footage and was really looking forward to. It did not disappoint: the Hypostyle hall in the Temple of Amun. It was truly awe-inspiring to walk among those huge decorated columns. I wandered off from the group to savour this incredible place, walking amongst the forest of pillars. It is meant to symbolise the rushes of the riverbank where Horus was born. It took a long time and alot of effort to build, so it only seems right to ‘stand and stare’.

at Karnak - the largest obelisk behind

Beyond was the largest obelisk in Egypt – an incredible 29.5 m (one single piece of rock). Other wonders awaited. A Sacred Lake, where the priests ritually bathed every day before breaking open the sealed temple where offerings were given to the Gods. Next to this is a gigantic scarab dedicated to the rising sun. Our guide told us it was considered lucky to walk around this 7 times (other guides said 3 or 9) anti-clockwise, making a wish. So I did. Doing this in the midday sun felt like being one of those unfortunate bugs who schoolboys like to torment by tieing to a nail, watching it walk around and around. As at Mmemon there were ‘temple dogs’ – looking for the others, I found one lying in a small side chapel. It looked like it was expiring. I found some water and offered it. The dog weakly lifted its head, then started to drink, lapping from the plastic cup. Immediately it seemed to revive – uncurling like a Rose of Jericho, sitting up, a light returning to its eyes.

Sometimes a cup of kindness from a passing stranger is all it takes.

temple dogs

With relief we returned to the car, where ice cold water and air conditioning was waiting. Others are not so fortunate. We said farewell to Maria, thanking her for her excellent job, and headed off, out of the chaos of Luxor, and away from the Nile Valley, towards the golden mountains, illuminated by the setting sun. It was a full day, and by the time we got back around nine the back of my shirt was slick with sweat. Exhausted, I thanked Samil and said good night to the others. I retired to my room for a shower and an early night, my mind blazing with the incredible sights of the day.

Hog Heaven

20-22 May

A rack of hogs outside the Steigenberger reception

Thurs: The chapter I worked on today was called ‘The Sand Sweepers of Assekrem’ (I had chosen the title over two years ago when working on the first draft of my desert novel, but it seemed strangely appropriate here – the people referred to in the chapter seemed akin to the guys here who rake the sand every day like some kind of Zen meditation, or exercise in futility). The wind continued to howl and my bowels continued to flow (sorry – too much information – but it aint called the blogroll for nothing).

Yet there’s a positive side to most things. My condition-imposed fast, which had made me weak and light-headed after 3 days without successfully eating anything (I’d put food in my mouth but it only had a passing acquaintance with my stomach), resulted in me having an inspirational experience in the lagoon – the result: a new poem (under ‘Poems’). Talk about suffering for your art!

The Art of Emptiness - nothing can be fulfilling

Friday’s chapter was The Ash Eaters – which was about all I could eat. We met at midday to arrange our reading and Tizzy gave me some horse pills, but they didn’t seem to do the trick.

Hog Heaven - El Gouna

As I walked to the reception to rendezvous with the others I couldn’t believe my eyes – there were a dozen or so hogs racked up in front, Harley Davidsons looking like they’d just been delivered from the showroom. I managed to talk to one of the bikers at breakfast the next morning – there’s 18 of them, on a rideout from Cairo. Their middle-aged Sunday riders – but, boy, would be good to ride that straight coast road with them. Sometimes they go down to Hurghada as well for a couple more days R&R. Hog heaven.

Friday evening we had our ‘meet the authors’ event at the Embassy of Knowledge, aka library, aka ‘el mamoutka’ (it took some time to establish this with the taxi driver as we hurtled towards ‘it’ – although as with all Egyptians I wasn’t entirely sure if he was being disingenuous or not. Sometimes they like to pretend not to understand just to wind you up, but when you’re talked to in a patronising tone by the tourists, can you blame them? Not many laughs in the desert – get ’em where you can). The library is a branch of the Alexandrian Library, Biblioteca Alexandria – the first week, when I went passed it at night the sign wasn’t working properly and it read Biblioteca Ale: the Library of Beer! We arrived and met up with Emad’s staff, including Catherine from Switzerland who made sure we had everything we needed. Our man himself arrived and sorted us out for drinks.

Chatted to some nice Gounies, but shame there weren’t more present. Considering the dearth of cultural activity in the resort, this was disappointing. Maybe we’ll see everyone at the reading.

I had reserved a table at the Moroccan restaurant but was too unwell to take it up, so I wandered back thru Downtown, stocking up on pills and water on the way. Crashed for a bit, dragged myself to Fairways to try eating, then caught the psychedelic love bus down to Abu Tig – nothing happening at Papas, (everyone up at Mangroovy Beach for the kite-surfing fest) so checked out the trendy Peanuts bar, (occasionally frequented by celebrities, apparently). Ate some peanuts, threw the shells on the floor. Drank a beer. Looked at the yachts. Walked to end of the quay and sat gazing out at the night sea, enjoying the soothing lap of waves, the borderless darkness illuminated by the lonely lights of ships in the distance. I felt a bit like St Exupery’s aviator, flying across the desert, seeing lights far below: ‘We felt ourselves lost then in interplanetary space, among a hundred inaccessible planets, searching for the one true planet that was our own, the only one with landscapes we knew, houses we loved, all that we treasured.’

one of the amazing towel sculptures by the talented Mahmoud

Elmaz sent a message saying she had a new towel sculpture on her bed so popped around (it’s only next door) to see the amazing work of art made by Mahmoud, our talented cleaner. He provides an excellent service, but like many of the staff here is brighter than his job. So much unfulfilled potential, it’s heart-breaking – they just don’t get the opportunities Westerners take for granted (a good education, a chance to travel, a freedom to choose and follow your star). Seeing these, the Neglected of El Gouna (who diligently keep the place running) makes me feel like we’re in a movie where all the bit parts are played by ‘A’ list stars and the main roles by unknowns, or the hammiest of actors. The tourists take to the main stage every day – the pool-side, the restaurant – while the real talent remains beyond the limelight.

Saturday started to feel better as the new medicine took effect. I could eat again! And having more energy went for a workout – my German spa pal, Thomas, was on hand to show me how to optimise my gym experience. Crossing back on the ferry in the evening light, feeling ‘wellness’, I thought how lucky I am to be here.

view from my room

Dancing on the Beach

Dancing on the Beach

20th May

Last night I was invited to the Divers Beach Party at the Club House by the lovely Georgina, the golden goddess from Guildford. Every week their dive group, the Tropical Gangsters, meet there, but that night it was their first anniversary. And then I heard that 30 people from Dive Northampton (an appropriate name for my old home town) were there – they have been coming to El Gouna for 6 years. This was their last night and should have been in party mood, but the winds all week had sapped their energy. After I got a Sakara from the bar, Georgina introduced me to one of their group leaders, Steve, who was friendly – but it turns out he wasn’t originally from Northampton. The true Northamptonians were typically sullen and suspicious when I approached. The coincidence of being from the same place, while on another continent, didn’t seem to impress them (but nothing impresses Northamptonians much. They have made an art form of cynicism). Still, it was a lovely atmosphere and nothing could dampen my good spirits – despite being still a bit spaced out from earlier and my lack of sustenance I was pleased to be out of my room. It’s been intense lately – I probably have some kind of luxury resort psychosis … admittedly, as psychoses go, it’s not a bad one. But as Jack Nicholson types over and over again in The Shining (while staying at an enormous hotel…): all work and no play makes Jack a dull boy. I thought I’d better go for a night off with a different crowd before I started chanting ‘red rum’ and chasing people around with an axe ;0)

Although the wind was too lively to light a fire, it was still a beautiful evening, with the half-moon shining down upon the soft sands, the lagoon lapping on the shore. A DJ spun some predictable but fun tunes and folk started dancing. I kicked off my desert boots and cut some … sand. I was introduced to a fellow writer, a resident from Oz called Diana. She was a fellow Leo, but we hit it off straight away. Sue and Dave were there from the other night – they greeted me warmly. It was nice to be made to feel welcome. Pierre, the Egyptian-Armenian, was also there – a silent sentinel on the edge of the circle. It was nice that even ‘outsiders’ were accepted. You didn’t have to join in, but could if you wanted to. An Egyptian guy called Hussain showed off his moves – he was quite a dancer, the John Travolta of El Gouna. He took turns dirty dancing with the ladies, but it was all ‘good clean fun’. The owners were there – a Dutch diving couple. Cytze, the husband, was a jolly host. At one point he whipped off his t-shirt and did a back flip into the pool. Then Sue and Dave went in. It looked a bit too fresh – the constant wind had cooled the water considerably. The dancing continued in fits and starts. Three versions of My Way were played, and other choice selections from the disco smorgasbord, but they also played some Stones and some great Arabic music, which gave all of us a chance to shake bums and shimmy boobs.

It was a fun party – the Club House is definitely the place to be on a Thursday night. I felt like I’d had a taste of El Gouna’s magic: friendly locals and strangers, Gounies and blow-ins, hanging out, enjoying the blessings of the night.

Oasis Dinner

Oasis Dinner

The ostrich man

Last night we went on the ‘oasis dinner’, which happens every Wednesday – a different hotel takes care of the catering. Tonight is was Sultan Bey. We were picked up by minibus and driven ten minutes to the ‘oasis’ – which is just on the other side of the main road from El Gouna, really just a camel’s spit away. Yes, there were palm trees, dromedaries, guys in galabas, water – but it was all rather artificial, like a toy farm. Nevertheless, it had a certain Trumpton charm. Maybe it was the light – we arrived at dusk, the sun slipping behind the raw peaks; maybe it was the setting – the place was overshadowed by the very unartificial mountains. There was a wonderful ‘dove-cote’ tower there – looking like something out of Mordor.

the Devil's dovecote, El Gouna oasis

Yet this starkness was offset by the tourist tinsel – visitors were taken on a camel ride, all the way around the main well and back (a brief circle, taking a couple of minutes). I wasn’t tempted to take part in the charade, so I found a table at the back of the ‘tent’ – a large covered, carpeted space. On the outside it looked like the walls were made of scrap cardboard, but it turns out these were just ‘shutters’, to keep out the wind. Later, they were taken down, to reveal the stars standing proud against the deep velvet of the night sky. The maiden moon smiled down, alluring but unobtainable.

Emad, our affable guide, met us there and got a round of drinks in. The buffet was ‘opened’ and people queued up. My stomach was still feeling delicate – and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to eat anything. But I was so weak by that point – a couple of days on virtually nothing; an intense steam room experience before I came which had wiped me out completely – that I had to try and eat something. So I went and got a plate of salad and nervously picked, waiting to see what my body decided to do. It let me keep it, so I boldly went for a plate of rice and aubergine dish. I joked with Elmaz about the way Americans call them ‘egg plants’ – maybe it’s a Trans-Atlantic thing, but at least share a similar sense of humour, and enjoy winding each other up.

I retired to the fire where Bedouin offered a relaxing draw upon shisha pipes. One was lit for me and I took a tentative inhalation – it was pleasant and soothing, a smooth smoke (of apple tobacco). I was offered some lovely Bedouin tea. There was just a simple camaraderie, sharing the fire, the smoke, the tea, the odd word or gesture. I felt in common with these Bedouin – some kind of universal brotherhood.

Brotherhood of the Shisha - smoking with the Bedouin

The young man who served me turned out to be the grandson of the chief. One day this village would be his, inshallah. I tried to explain my Bedouin trip the previous Wednesday – when I mimed the shape of the mountain (like a camel’s saddle) they recognised it straight away. Tizzy came and joined me and was offered, jokingly, an ‘expresso’. The Bedouin had a nice sense of humour. What was in the pipe? Hashish, they laughed.

Entertainment began – the usual minstrels of El Gouna – but in this context, reclining on cushions, pulling on a bubbling pipe, it was more agreeable. Unfortunately, they used modern Arabic music – one track sounded like Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’. The generator gave up the ghost now again – perhaps on grounds of taste. The insipid ‘dancey’ troupe; were followed by a livelier routine where a couple of women vigorously rejected the male dancers, pushing them to the floor – Arabic girl power! At one point a kind of pantomime horse popped up – excitingly reminiscent of the Obby Oss of Padstow. It even frolicked friskily with the women in the audience.

Oss, oss, wee oss!

A half-decent belly dancer came on. Then the ‘twirly guy’ (Tanoura) minced on. At first it was good to see him up close – I liked the way he remained the centre of his spinning world. The gaudy, noisy world raced by, but it did not wobble him. Unfortunately, he switched his ‘Blackpool illuminations’ on and it quickly became like a Bruno routine. Still, it’s an impressive feat of dizziness denial.

The Tanoura dancer

There might have been a final act – but by now I was on my second beer and, though not drunk, I was doing my best to ‘switch off’. As soon as they left the stage, we were told we had 5 minutes to leave! The lights went up – it could’ve been chucking out time in a British pub: I expected to hear: ‘Don’t you have a home to go to?’

We were piled back into the minibus and whisked away into the night like hostages – back to captivity.

My Day

My Day

I wake up every day as the light of the sun diffuses my room (I sleep with the curtains drawn back). I am in a clean, neat, tastefully-decorated room. I make myself a cup of tea and step out onto the balcony to greet the day – looking out over a perfectly manicured desert landscape. It is always sunny. The phone rings, it’s my morning call (I always awake before it, in the same way I wake up before the alarm clock rings back home). I maybe flick on the news (CNN seems the only one available in English), or read some. Most days I go for a dip in the lagoon, but today I’m feeling a bit weak after being unable to hold anything down for 24 hours. I shower and venture to the restaurant, hoping I can manage something. I bump into the guy who cleans the room and he greets me in a friendly fashion. I try to tell him my room needs cleaning while I’m out, but he always wants to come around when I’m in (the first time, when he arrived I was in the middle of writing. I opened the door and the wind-tunnel effect whipped away papers from my desk. He clattered about in the bathroom and his mobile phone went off twice with a trendy ring tone – leading to long conversations in lively Arabic, echoing into my room from the corridor. I took to hanging the Do Not Disturb sign on my door – but he would ring up, asking if I want my room cleaned). I walk along the well-designed colonnades to the main restaurant. As I pass through the security dolmen I greet the guards with ‘Sabah el Kheir’. I cause a bleep. At Fairways I find a discreet table for two then go to help myself to the buffet – which offers me several kinds of bread, jam, pastries, salad, fruit, eggs, cheese, cold meats, waffles, pancakes, and smoothies. A nice man brings me over a whole silver cafetiere of coffee, which I never finish. The hotel newsletter wishes me a nice day again and reports that the weather remains sunny. It’s ‘editorial’ is an article on Egypt being divided into Red Lands and Black Lands – the latter being the fertile areas bordering the Nile, made black with silt. This is repeated from a fortnight ago. I read something edifying over breakfast – limbering up my brain for the day. I say hello to my fellow writers, but don’t sit with them, since I’m struggling to hold down my breakfast and find eating, let alone conversation, difficult. One notices my green man t-shirt – ‘well, I’m green around the gills’, I joke. I return to my room and begin work. A chapter a day. Occasionally I step out onto the balcony to clear my head and feel a bit of sunlight and wind on my skin. It overlooks the pool, where lean tanned bodies sun themselves. Some of the women are topless – despite the polite notices – and I feel a little uncomfortable, as all I want to do is catch the light, but where do I look? (it’s all a matter of context – I’m no prude and like burlesque but when you’re just trying to catch some photons…). I don’t want them to think I’m a voyeur, so I go back into the shady coolness of my room. The air conditioner is on its lowest setting – sixteen degrees – but still it’s stuffy. At lunch I take a walk to the water and eat a handful of pretzels and an apple. The old security guy waves and comes over to shake my hand. He talks in an animated fashion in his own tongue. I smile and nod but can’t understand him. I apologise – but he probably doesn’t understand me. I return to my room and carry on my work. I have been marking OU papers in the afternoon – preserving the mornings for my own writing. I write my blog. Around five I like to go for an hour’s swimming and sunbathing by on the lagoon beach, then catch the ferry boat across to the Wellness and Health Club (I’m still not sure about the difference) to do a gym circuit if I’m feeling fat, or to soak in the sauna and steam rooms if feeling languid.  I lose  In the evening I usually go for a meal in the restaurant, or sometimes use the Dine Around scheme. Today I look longingly at the 5 Star buffet and hope I can imbibe some essential vitamins and minerals through just browsing, because nothing would stay in my stomach. Cuts down on the calories. I ask for a beer and get the same brand every time – Luxor. The other night I shared a meal with an attractive German lady – refreshingly brunette in a resort of blondes – just arrived from Munich. She is spending the week diving. She’s in Human Resources for a trucking company. I didn’t catch her name. I never see her again and wonder if she was a hallucination. The German guests here seem pleasant, decent folk, and I wish I could speak their language more. I like their directness, diet, orderliness and green sensibilities. I walk back to my room, enjoying the pleasant temperature and light breeze. I switch on the TV, fail to find anything worth watching, squish mosquitoes, read a bit, and fall asleep.

I wake up every day as the light of the sun diffuses my room (I sleep with the curtains drawn back). I am in a clean, neat, tastefully-decorated room…