A Travellerspoint blog

Ice Cold In Luton

In the two weeks I've been home, the temperature has rarely and barely risen above freezing. A constant wind howls in from the north east with a flavour of Siberia and weather reports barely mention the fact that Spring is here (apparently).

So, thank God for the movie heaven that is Ice Cold In Alex. For those of you that haven't seen this fine example of British stiff upper lipism, I suggest you get a copy immediately. The plot is simple - a British military ambulance called Katy and it's crew, finds itself one step ahead of Rommel's troops in the Western Desert as the Afrika Korps advance on Cairo.

Ambulance and crew, skippered by John Mills, in a rather bizarre blonde dye job, along with nurse Sylvia Sims, RSM Harry Andrews and the mysterious Captain Van der Poel, played by Anthony Quayle, have to make it back to Alexandria before they are either captured or shot by the Germans. Although the story is set in 1942, it soon becomes obvious this is more than a simple war story, but more a tale of what one of the characters calls the fight 'against the common enemy - the desert.'

Although made in balck and white, it is possible, especially on a cold day, to sit in front of the screen and feel the heat of the Sahara radiaiting through your fingertips and out the top of your head!!

There are only two beings worth listening to on the desert. One is Biscuit, who, being a dog, keeps his opinions to himself, the second is TE Lawrence. I'm struggling throough Seven Pillars of Wisdom at the moment and found this passage. It's unique (so far) in that it contains nothing defamatory about the Ottoman Turks and is comprehensible.

''Men have looked upon the desert as barren land, the freeholding of whoever chose; but in fact each hill and valley in it had a man who was its acknowledged owner and would quickly assert the right of his family or clan to it, against aggressiom. Even the wells and trees had their masters, who allowed men to make firewood of the one and drink freely of the other, as much as was required for their need, but who would instantly ckeck anyone trying to turn the property to account and to exploit it ot its products among others for private benefit.

The desert was held in crazed communism by which Nature and the elements were for the free use of every known friendly person for his own purposes and no more.''

Posted by johnward 09:49 Archived in England Comments (0)

The Littlecote Vortex Conundrum

Dahab, Sinai
Final day and all is packed away and I simply need to fill a few hours until my lift arrives to take me to the airport. A wander down through Asalah to the German Bakery (one of at least three in Dahab) for a coffee and a sandwich. I'd agreed to meet Les, who is also leaving today, heading to Cairo and then to Delhi and then points north. Look for a future blog entitled Les: AWOL in the Himalaya.

For the past week or so, I've been popping into Scoops, Dahab's premier ice cream and waffle outlet, owned and run by Natalie, a refugee from Welwyn Garden City (or as I've since found out WGC, thus joining the ranks of places simply known by their initials - NY, KL (Kuala Lumpur), MK (Milton Keynes), AY (Aylesbury) - and I haven't made those last two up!

Natalie has been struggling with a new recipe for caramel ice cream - it is stubbornly refusing to set and therefore makes an excellent, albeit fluid, topping for a breakfast waffle. Scoops is also the place where I first heard about the poaching pouch, a signifigant technological advancement in the poaching of eggs in Sinai and perhaps the wider Middle East. The region that poaches together will surely live in peace.

Luton, Bedfordshire
Afetr an interminable 5 hour flight the plane touched down in the middle of fog and misery. I've always hated arriving after dark in Luton as the airport never has enough staff on to process passengers. No change tonight but imagine my delight when I saw that, for the first time in two years, the all singing, all dancing, flashing lights, bells and whistles, bio metric, scan your iris, Mission Impossibly passport control thing was working. Through in seconds - this is what it must be like to be a STAR!

Having to pay £20 for a cab was less fun.

Littlecote, BucksI popped over to see my sister Lisa. She has a dog called Ty, a cross between a Staffie (I think), a Great White and a Honey Badger. I had to sit in the car, whilst this beast was allowwed to roam around, padding silently, gazing malevonently and snorting derisorly. Only once he was happy could I then get out of the car and enter the house. Imagine my surprise when Lisa offered me a poached egg for lunch. She has come to poaching late in life (first time only two weeks ago) and after reading 'Poaching - Dahab Style' and it's 10 step approach to the perfect poached egg, she felt inadequate to poach again. However, she is nothing if not determined, so sans vinegar and a refusal to have anything to do with a 'gently swirling whirlpool' or without a poaching pouch in sight, she produced in the (slightly altered) words of FBI agent, Dale Cooper (Twin Peaks for young people or ignoramiuses), 'Damn fine poached eggs'.

Posted by johnward 02:21 Archived in England Comments (0)

Dahab - Where everything is possible.

Today I turn 53 on the 5.3, the only time in my life that my age will the same as the date, unless I used the American method when it would have applied when I was 35 - as I'm not American it doesn't matter.

Dahab is the sort of place where coincidence becomes cosmic fact.If you listen carefully, above the sound of the surf, you can hear the tumblers click into place and the planets align: Stalin died March 5 1953 and apart from cultivating a jovial uncle persona, he was also responsible for millions of deaths in the Great Purges. Last night I had a Great Purge of my own following a fish supper. Coincidence? I think not.

Rex Harrison was born on March 5 and his son, Noel is responsible for the dirge 'Windmills of My Mind', the sort of dippy hippy stuff you can hear in Dahab. All sorts of things become possible in Dahab - James Blunt will be considered a major recording influence and his lyrics will give rise to a world religion; Luton will defeat Barca to become European champions and Gallifrey will finally be free!

So, to all the people I have broken bread with over the years from the borders of Afghanistan to the Atlantic coast of Achill

May the roads rise to meet you
May the wind be always at your back
May the sun shine warm upon your face
The rains fall soft on your fields
And until we meet again
May God hold you in the hollow of
His hand

Remind me to tell you of the time I convinced someone I served in the Foreign Legion and fought in Somalia - as I said, all is possible in Dahab.

Posted by johnward 01:10 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

Dahab - Biscuit & the Last Chance Saloon

Who would have thought that barely a week ago, Biscuit, The Most Famous Dog In Sinai (hereafter BTMFDIS), had the world at his paws. A FB star, a steady stream of advertisers beating a path to his door, a top London barrister on the team...how quickly things change! He no longer returns calls, been spotted promenading with a bevy of honey's, surrounding himself with more hangers on than a Premiership footballer. He wasn't seen at Claire's diving triumph...and there's a rumour he's been spotted at Rush wearing a cravat.

If he's not careful, the work (and the adulation will dry up and he'll be just another cutie with floppy ears who lost it all. Think Lindsay Lohan)

It's not too late, but he needs to knuckle down and do the hard yards - a White Canyon Safari at least every other day. Before Robert Redford made it big, he was being considered for a role and a casting director said he could go to the local beach, throw a stick and hit a hundred Redfords. I took a walk around town this morning and I saw a dozen dogs on the pooch version of Skid Row - a heartbreaking sight. As you can see, there's always another dog - smaller, more vulnerable - ready to become, well top dog!



Posted by johnward 04:46 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

Sinai and the Emergence of Metrosexual Man. Inshallah!

Sinai, known as Sin to the ancient Egyptians was a place feared as the home of desert tribes, demons and bandits. Whilst the demons may be a thing of the past, what remains a constant in Sinai is the sun, the desert and the sea and all three play havoc with the skin. I've been looking for a business opportunity in Dahab and I think I've found it. - Men's Grooming Products.

Looking after your skin is like getting a good pension scheme - you can never start early enough. I doubt that all those outdoorsy types who flock to Dahab give more than a passing thought to the damage this environment can do to their skin (I also doubt that they've thought about a pension). It pays for the discerning diving/surfing/trekking dude to think about the type of shaving product, sunscreen ans moisturising product you use. It's a Cosmetic Fact that men's skin is 20% thicker than women's, this means any products used need to be specially composed to deal with the skin thickness and men's skin pores are larger than women's, accruing more dirt and grime during the day. This makes all female products on male skin counter productive. I can almost hear the collective gasp across Dahab when people read this!

Times have changed and many men are more comfortable and confident using products that enhance their skin, but with such an abundance of products, choosing one can be quite confusing. I fear that long term residents of Dahab have yet to embrace their inner metrosexuality; but it's not too late (although you might as well forget the pension). It's time to Moisturise with Confidence!

Posted by johnward 06:02 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

Poaching Dahab Style!

Moving abroad and starting your own business is a daunting prospect, particularly in post revolutionary Egypt and especially in Sinai with so much uncertainty concerning the position of ex pats and their properties. So, at the risk of sounding overly patronising, kudos to all those who have attempted and succeeded.

Any business success is predicated on identifying a niche and in basic terms, exploiting it. In 1976, Bruce Springsteen was described thus:

I have seen the future of rock and roll and his name is Bruce Springsteen.

Well, I have seen the future of cooking in Dahab and it's name is poaching, or more specifically, poaching pouches.

Before we get into the whys and wherefores of the poaching pouch, let us consider the poached egg itself. Poaching eggs is a healthy way to prepare eggs, since you don't need butter or oil to cook with. Poached eggs can be eaten as they are, on salads or bread or made into eggs Benedict. The perfect poached egg will have a smooth, unbroken yolk surrounded by a shiny opaque oval of egg white that sits evenly around the egg. While you may feel a little intimidated at the thought of creating such perfection, it's actually very straightforward, even without the use of a poacher. Follow these instructions to produce a poached egg able to impress any breakfast or brunch guest you're serving!

Eggs (as many as you wish to serve)
White vinegar (optional)

Get everything ready before you start cooking poached eggs. Timing is everything when it comes to good poached eggs.

All the different parts of the meal, such as toast, meats and hash browns, should be finished at the same time.
If cooking for a few people, it may be necessary to keep the other parts of the meal warm in the oven, a sunny window or a container on top of a pan of hot water. This is fine, but always do the eggs last. You will be amazed at how quickly three minutes goes by. While you are messing around pouring your juice, the perfectly poached egg becomes a hard-boiled egg in the blink of an eye.

Using a pan to poach eggs

1. Select a suitable pan for poaching. The pan must be shallow and wide, as the trick to poaching well without an egg poacher is to gently slip the egg into a wide, shallow pan filled with simmering water. The pan should be able to take about 1.5 litres (2 3/4 pints) of water, or 10cm (4") depth of water.

2. Add the water. Fill the pan about two-thirds or a bit more with water and bring to a gentle boil. (Milk can be used in place of water if you're seeking a richer taste).

3. If you'd like to help the eggs to set, add 5-10ml (1-2 teaspoons) of white vinegar to the water. It's not essential but it improves the egg's appearance because the vinegar coagulates the egg white. (Other vinegars (balsamic, red wine vinegar, apple cider vinegar) are fine, and sometimes taste great when poaching eggs, but will possibly affect the final colouration).

Larousse Gastronomique recommends 1 tablespoon of vinegar to be added per 1 liter (1 3/4 pints, 4 1/3 cups) of water. On the other hand, chef Michael Romano recommends adding one teaspoon of vinegar per litre (1 3/4 pints).

Lemon juice can also help set the egg but its flavour will also come through. Some people advise to add salt but it can hinder coagulation so it's best not used.

If vinegar is used, the eggs will have a vinegary taste. Chef Michael Romano advises that in commercial restaurants, poached eggs are usually plunged into another pan of hot water which is salted but vinegar free and that this both seasons them and removes the vinegary taste.

4. Select the eggs. The fresher an egg is, the better it will poach because its white is thicker. Use eggs that are as fresh as possible; an egg straight from the chicken will poach without any need for vinegar as it will coagulate immediately.

5. Poach at an easy pace. For the best results, only poach one egg at a time. More than one egg risks merging into other eggs when cooking. If you need to poach more than one at once, stop at four because any more will throw out the timing and merging mess is inevitable. The instructions following deal with both a single egg and up to four eggs at a time.

6. Crack an egg into a ramekin, small bowl or soup ladle. Do this gently so as not to harm the appearance of the egg. Alternatively, crack the egg onto a small, flat plate as this makes sliding the egg into the pan of water easier. Don't break the yolk when cracking the egg.

Given the possibility of breaking the egg when moving it from a bowl or plate to the pan, some people prefer to skip this step and break the egg straight into the water. If you do this, be careful and only add one at a time. And note that by cracking the eggs separately into a cup and not straight into the water, the cracked eggs have the chance to set back up into their little "protein cocoon". You might like to experiment to work out what works best for you.

7. Turn down the gently boiling water to a simmer. The water should be barely simmering and the temperature about 160-180 °F (71-82 °C).

Make sure that you do not drop the egg into boiling water (100 °C/212 °F), as this will toughen the eggs and make them unpalatable.

8. Spin the simmering water to cool down the water before you drop in the single egg.

9. Carefully lower or drop the egg into the centre of the barely simmering whirlpool. To help maintain the shape of the egg, swirl around it in a circular motion.

Chef Michael Romano recommends using a basting method to envelop the yolk with the white, shaping it like this for about 20 seconds or until the white sets.

10. Wait 3-5 minutes until cooked. You will know that the egg is cooked when the whites are set and the yolks begin to thicken.

And there, in excruciatingly technical and boring detail is why perhaps Egyptians are poor poachers. Also any recipe that involves dropping something into a barely simmering whirlpool is pretentious bollocks that should be confined to dickheads on Masterchef.

Enter the poaching pouch and to lift some advertising blurb -

Perfect eggs, poached in water without adding vinegar or swirling the water, and no messy pan… Sound too good to be true? A customer favourite, Poachets keep eggs contained while they cook for reliable results every time.

Beautifully cooked eggs.
Easy to use.
20 tea bag-like paper pouches.
Allow proper poaching in water but keep egg contained.
No oil or vinegar.
No messy egg in the pan.
If you like your eggs poached in water but find your efforts are unpredictable, then give Poachets a go. A brilliantly simple invention from the UK, they’re made from tea bag-like paper and keep the egg white contained, so you don’t get all the stringy bits, but allow contact with water for proper poaching.

Place the pouch open in a cup and crack in an egg; lift out, pulling the top together, hold for a second in a pan of water that’s at a rolling boil, then place it in... The pouch magically closes, and after 6 minutes, your egg will be cooked to perfection.

No fuss, no mess, no oiling or adding vinegar, eggs simply slide out onto your toast. The samples were all snapped up after Catalogue Production were shown them in use, and our customers tell us they’re set to change the way they poach eggs forever!

20 single-use, recyclable pouches.

Now, how much simpler is that! I predict a poaching revolution in the southern Sinai and I know for a fact that one of the premier dining establishments in Dahab is ahead of the game with orders into poaching pouch manufacturers across the UK and has lawyers already looking into the possibility of wrapping up the poaching pouch concession for this part of Egypt.

I would also add that multi use pouches are available.

Since Biscuit went viral, he has stopped taking my calls. Word to the wise Biscuit, you are not the only cutie in Dahab. Natalie at Scoops and I are in early stage talks on what we can do for her beast. We're thinking barkovers...

Posted by johnward 07:10 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

Dahab, Drones, Gordon Brown & Me

You'll have to stick with me on this one, but I promise I am making a point.

I was up and about this morning about 7.30, chugged along the beach until I came to a place to eat some breakfast.

In that one sentence you have the upside and downside of Dahab. It is a place where you can paddle in the Red Sea just after dawn, have something nice to eat and have a chat. It can also, if you're not careful, turn your brain to mush.

With that in mind, I had one of those increasingly necessary reflective moments and who should pop into my head but Gordon Brown. I met Gordon once (we spoke, so I feel comfortable on first name terms) on a flight from Glasgow to London. I'd just electrified a trade union conference with my wit and erudition and Gordon was off to London to smite his enemies. This was 1990/91, so Gordon's enemies were still primarily the Tory Party and Tony Blair was barely a pimple on Beelezebub's arse. I've always thought of Brown as the Conan the Barbarian of British politics where his aim is to

[/quote]To crush your enemies, to see them driven before you, and to hear the lamentations of their women.

You have to remember that the Gordon Brown of this period was in all likelihood the next leader but one of the Labour Party and possibly the next Labour PM. He achieved his ambition and we all know how that ended. This in turn started me thinking about Jim Murphy, journeyman politico and current Shadow Secretary of Defence. He was a member of the government that launched the UK into a decade long war in both Iraq and Afghanistan and has admitted publicly for the first time that a "primitive understanding" of the Islamic world caused some of the problems faced by the west in both those countries.

He said about Afghanistan that

An almost primitive understanding of the Afghan population, culture and geography prior to Nato's intervention severely undermined international attempts to work with proxies, and our political strategy was in its conception insufficiently representative.

He also conceded that it

[quote]took too long for us to see the training of the Afghan National Army and Afghan National Police as a strategic priority.[/quote


In Iraq, he said,

[quote]there was a serious deficit in Western comprehension of the Sunni-Shia or intra-Shia dynamics. We know that de-Baathification left a lethal vacuum.

So there you have it. Politicians too stupid, arrogant, hubristic to pick up a newspaper, read Islam For Dummies or talk to an expert on the Muslim world. My dad will tell you that I've always said there are too many lawyers in government and not enough historians. As an aside to Jim on the Sunni - Shia or intra Shia dynamics - they hate each other and people always end up dead!

Finally, I've arrived with what started me along this track in the first place. Last night over my chicken pizza and coffee thickshake, I read a newspaper article by Steve Breyman, an American academic. The piece was entitled 'Why The War on Terror Continues.' Part of it deals on the money being made by civilian contractors, the shift of decision making powers from legislative to the executive, the vast expansion of intelligence gathering networks and empires and the continued assault on civil liberties.

He quoted a report from something called the Institute of Economics and Peace, an organisation that thinks peace is good for business and prosperity - a claim ably undermined by the aforementioned War on Terror.


The report is the snappily titled 2012 Global Terrorism Index: Capturing the impact of Terrorism 2002 - 2011. This was begat from the Global Terrorism Database, whose information was gathered by the US National Consortium for The Study of Terrorism and the Responses to Terrorism, thankfully hereafter known as START. Fortunately for the US, it only counts the use of terror tactics by what they term 'non state actors' (who would have guessed this stuff is the bastard love child of US academics and those who love euphemisms), so illegal drone attacks by the US military and sanctioned by Obama do not figure here.

The interesting thing is that the two countries that saw the sharpest decline in terror attacks over the decade were Algeria, whose government killed anyone who asked for an increase in the bread allowance and the US, who simply killed everyone against them. In the US today, the greatest threat to the state comes from domestic terrorists in the guise of white supremacists and militias, anti abortion militants and teenagers who say [quote]Like, you know[quote] and [quote]Awesome![quote]

I'm awaiting the moment when Obama authorises a drone attack on a militia holed up in the mountains of Montana or a group of redneck racists in Mississippi. I think it's fair to say it won't happen. The point I'm trying to make is that we, the public, the electorate, entrust politicians to take decisions on our behalf; decisions that deserve more apparent consideration and thought before the green light is given and innocent people die.

Politicians live in a bubble, away from any sort of reality as most of us would understand the term - The Dahab Phenomenon - It's almost as if they came here for a weekend, lost all cognitive reasoning, set up their Situation Room in the Churchill Bar and proceeded to send us tumbling into years of war. But that's the sort of place Dahab is - even Biscuit now has 'people' I have to talk to before I can stroke his floppy Spaniel ears!!

PS - if you're careful, this won't happen to you!

Posted by johnward 02:36 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

Dahab - The Land of Two Nations

Thousands of years ago, Egypt was know as Kemet, the Land of Two Nations, a reference to what was Upper and Lower Egypt, The Delta and Nubia, The Black Desert and the Red Desert. And this weekend they entertained Scotland and Ireland in the Six Nations Rugby, courtesy of the BBC via Al Jazeera Sport.

The result will show that Scotland won 12-8. But that's only a part of the story. The last time one side enjoyed so much possession of territory, firepower and the confidence of spectators and lost, was 1941 when Hitler invaded Russia. Like the Russians, the Scots seemed to draw the Irish XV into the desolated scorched earth of their 22, where they floundered and dissolved.

Whilst the Irish huffed and puffed up front, they simply wore themselves out against the behemoths that made up the Scottish pack and seemed to run out of imagination. And the Scots, like the Red Army counterattacked and took the few chances they created. So, in the words of Shakespeare, ''Fuck it!''

On a brighter note, Biscuit is enjoying his new found celebrity, going so far as getting an agent and he is now available for advertising work and is preparing a public barking tour. I have created a monster!

Posted by johnward 08:06 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

Dahab - Biscuit goes on Safari and Tourists are Punked!

Blondes and the desert rarely mix. The one exception that springs to mind is Lawrence of Arabia, both in real life and as played by Peter O'Toole in the movie. But that ended badly, in so many ways. Now there is a new blonde on the block. Known to locals simply as Biscuit he is young, strong, fearless but most importantly, his decisions are based on an appraisal of the ground in front of him - essential when travelling through the desert.

He leads from the front, but like all leaders he takes into account the pace of the slowest and he seems to be a constant ball of motion, leading by example. This was his first outing leading a tour through the White Canyon, the smaller Coloured Canyon and Mushroom Rock. He came through with flying colours. It was also his first experience with Bedouin children. That got off to a bumpy start, with nerves and caution on both sides. By the end, there seemed to be a little more mutual understanding, but only time will tell whether bridges have been built.

The English have always had an affinity with deserts, especially in this part of the world and it seems as if Biscuit could, sometime in the future take his place in the pantheon of Lawrence, Thesiger and Philby. As he gets older and matures, the puppylike enthusiasm will be replaced by a maturer, harder demenor as he gains more experience and understanding of this harsh environment, Biscuit will be an essential member of _CSC1599.jpgany expedition into the southern Sinai.


Mahmoud a.k.a. Barracuda, local Bedouin from the St Katherine area of Sinai, is a desert guide, climbing guide and diving guide and is a tourist punker extrordinaire. I don't want to spoil the surprise if you come to Sinai and walk the White Canyon with Barracuda; suffice to say your initial reaction will be ''WTF! This guy is crazy'', followed quickly, dependent on how switched on you are, by ''how did I fall for this??''


Posted by johnward 00:14 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

Dahab - Seek and Ye Shall Find

Nine hours by bus from Cairo, and only 80km north of Sharm el Sheikh (or Sharm el Shit as it's rather endearingly referred to here) in southern Sinai is Dahab. It's one of those places that people come to for a short break and fifty one weeks later, they are still here; they have quit their jobs at home, learnt how to dive, gone trekking, climbing and quad biking the length and breadth of the peninsular, made good friends with the local Bedu, fallen in love, out of love or are somewhere in between. There is something very alluring about Dahab.

I've lost count of the friends I've had the conversation with. The one that always starts with 'I wish I could go travelling for (insert time span). But I've got too many commitments / children, I haven't got the time / money, the mortgage is too big, my bank balance is too small....' and so on and so forth. And I am sympathetic to the argument 'I'm an adult and I need to behave like an adult, so I can't go swanning off when I like.' That at least is honest.

If you're 18 and thinking about a GAP Year (or as it used to be called Taking A Year Off) it is straightforward. When you are in your 30's and 40's and you want to travel, you have to make some decisions about what's important to you. And some of those decisions are hard, but once you've made them, the rest as they say, is all gravy. When you're in your 50's, it seems a lot simpler than it has any right to be.

When people think about travelling for any length of time, I'm convinced one of the things they think they are looking for is a simplicity of life they don't have back home. I suppose it's the loss of freedom of choice that is part of the package that comes with family, job and mortgage. And one of the places they are looking for, even if they don't know it's name, is somewhere like Dahab. Over the years there have been many places like Dahab; the old Hippie Trail took in places like Kabul and Peshawar, long out of favour for obvious reason. But Kathmandu, Varanassi, Pushkar and points east still attract millions of visitors, most transitory, some more permanent. And there is always the latest place to 'discover'.

Life here, on the surface at least is certainly a lot simpler. Sometimes the hardest decision of the day is where to have breakfast and how long to sit looking at the sea (I've been at it almost four hours now). But if the money starts running a bit low, you may have to move somewhere cheaper and find some work (not easy in an economy that has seen the tourist industry crash). Suddenly life isn't so simple and all the frustrations you'd thought you'd left at home are back.

This is what has worked for me: every trip I've taken and the places I've seen have been the result of reading a book and being excited enough to say I want to see that for myself. Simplifying my life has been a welcome by product of that and not an end in itself. Sometimes, setting out to simplify your life is too hard. Read a book and see whet happens.

Posted by johnward 01:57 Comments (0)

Cairo - Tahrir Sq, January 25, 2014

The protesters will have been gathering for days in Tahrir, mourning another lost and wasted year of political infighting, where the only victim is the ordinary Egyptian.

There will have already been clashes between protesters and security forces, probably in Cairo, Alexandria and Port Said as the main flashpoints; people will lose their lives and families will wonder what has happened to loved ones when they haven't returned home.

The opposition will have been saying that the Muslim Brotherhood are simply a front for hard line , shadowy Islamic extremists and have called people back onto the streets to protest. The Muslim Brotherhood is only following an Islamist agenda and son't care about ordinary Egyptians.

The Brotherhood will say that the opposition are undermining the government and therefore the state, for purely selfish political ends. And they don't care about the ordinary Egyptian.

Midday prayers in Tahrir will be followed by an increase in tensions; stone throwers will antagonise the police who will fire tear gas and baton charge the crowd, who will disperse in panic.

I really cannot see any other scenario at the moment. Go and sit in Tahrir and people will talk to you about revolution and democracy and frustration and betrayal and how they want the life that other people have. If I tell them democracy is something that develops over time, many years rather than many months, they look at me as if I'm crazed.

It's almost as if saying, that if I'm right, what was all the sacrifice for? Why did all these people have to die for Mubarak to go and to be replaced by what?

The easy part of the revolution was forcing Mubarak to leave, now democracy has to be built from the ground up. There is no history of what most of us would define as a democratic tradition in Egypt. Just l;ook back over the past 100 years; before the MB came to power Egypt was ruled by a military council, three virtual dictators (Mubarak, Sadat & Nasser) and two kings (Farouk & Faud). Hardly the best start. And that is why I can see years of upheaval ahead for Egypt. And the ordinary Egyptians.

Posted by johnward 00:50 Comments (0)

Jinns & Tonic in Siwa

Following in the psychotic sandals of Alexander the Great

Siwa is a place on the edge. It is on the edge of Egypt, it is on the edge of the desert and it is on the edge of change.

If you find yourself in Siwa you must really want to be here; it's in the Western Desert, nearly 600 km west of Cairo, 300 km south of Marsa Matruh and some 50 km from the border with Libya. And if you are arriving from Cairo on the 9 hour overnight bus, the journey is almost 900km as you detour to Marsa beforehand. I should also add that the last few hours of the overnight trip from Cairo are ball numbingly cold. My advice is hat, gloves, thermal socks, sleeping bag, possibly a valet with a small stove, failing that a small child to sleep across your feet. Two Germans sitting across from me, before settling down for the trip, got a load of kit ready that would not have shamed an Antarctic expedition. You could have heard my smug aside in Hamburg, but they were the ones smiling at 08.40 next morning!

Forget any image you have (usually inspired by the front of date boxes at Christmas) of a handful of camels and their riders hunkered down by a pool in the desert, looking for shade beneath a solitary palm tree. Siwa is an oasis pumped full of steroids - it's the Lance Armstrong of oases, extending some 80 km in length and 20 km in width, with millions of palms and olive trees and a population of probably 30,000 or so. But despite this scale, Siwa remains one of the most isolated communities in Egypt and of course it is that isolation and the oasis' link to Alexander the Great, that proves so attractive and irresistible to foreign travellers. (For Foreign Travellers read me). And by the bye, Siwa claims to produce the best dates in Egypt, if not the world! (They do a rather splendid date stuffed with almond).

About 20 years ago I read a book by a chap called Robin Lane Fox, a classicist who had written about Alexander and the bloody swathe he cut across most of the known world in the 330's BC. Digressing slightly, I know two 'interesting' facts about RLF. One that he is the father (I think) to Martha LF, one of the founders of lastminute.com and a government tsar in charge of something or other, and secondly, and much more fun, is that he allegedly appeared in the Oliver Stone biopic of Alexander, with the blondely coiffed Colin Farrell, as part of a cavalry charge. And thinking on it, thirdly, he is, directly. responsible for me being here. I read the book, loved it and was intrigued by Siwa, the place where Alexander, after consulting with the Oracle of Amun, became convinced he was the son of the God, and generally speaking these things end badly. That was the case for the tens of thousands of strangers Alexander's soldiers slaughtered, the friends he personally filleted and he himself exited stage left, gibbering in Babylon (and if that is not the title of a future blog, I shall go to the foot of my stairs).

Siwa itself, the town is minute, little more than a square with shops, some restaurants a couple of hotels. It is overlooked by by the Shali, (a Siwan word for town), which until 1926 was the heart of Siwa. That is until a terrible thunderstorm meant that the Shali literally melted back into the landscape - something to do with the high salt content contained in the building clay. Beneath the Shali are several dozen traditional style Siwan houses, a couple of mosques, a small bus station, a bakers and a tourist office. Oh, and a police station, it's size out of all proportion to any other building in town and inhabited by a senior officer with no joie de vivre. It is only from the Shali you can get an appreciation of the size of the oasis, and how much bigger it was before buildings were erected in the palm gardens.

I think it's fair to say that if cornered and his or her life depended on the answer, a Siwan would admit to living in Egypt, but that is probably as far as it would go. I'm fairly sure they would insist that they are Siwan rather than Egyptian. Whenever I talked to shop owners about business (and they don't have much good to say about their oppos in Cairo), they always lumped Egyptians in with other foreign tourists.

Siwans are Berber, so have a lot more in common with peoples across the rest of North Africa and the Maghreb. Many Siwans live across the border in Libya and Siwans ties further west into Algeria. The first thing I noticed when I arrived was the architecture. Anyone who has visited the High Atlas region of Morocco will immediately recognise what I mean. Siwan's have their own language, culture and traditions, more conservative that many parts of Egypt and their geographical isolation meant that it was only in the mid 19th century that Cairo really began to play a role in Siwan life.

Sit for any length of time, especially with one of the shopkeepers, drinking tea and you will be approached by Mr Mohammad. He's a tall, shambling, unkempt figure, who asks for alms or a cigarette. He looks constantly tired and I've been told that his mind was affected after spending the night in a palm garden, where the jinns, the supernatural beings of Arabian folklore, visit and play.

When I talk about Siwa being on the edge of Egypt, this is what I mean. Siwa is not quite Egyptian, not quite African, not quite Arabic; it's just not quite. But being on the edge doesn't mean that Siwa is safe from the vagaries of life in the rest of the country. And in Egypt this means only one thing - the Revolution. Since 2011 tourism has dropped away dramatically and Siwa has seen that impact like everywhere else. The vast majority of visitors to Siwa are Egyptian day trippers from Marsa or Alexandria. Or Italians.

During the summer Marsa is a holiday destination for Egyptians and Siwa is an easy three hour drive or so; but they don't spend any money. They turn up, do a quick tour of the Shali, visit the cultural centre, perhaps have a pre arranged and paid for meal in one of the resort hotels outside the immediate town and head back to Marsa.

The governor of Marsa has played a canny game here, and I have to be careful with what I say as, I am reliably informed, that he takes more than a passing interest in my scribblings. But I am told that he has made Marsa a summer resort of choice for cash strapped Italians. For 400 euros they can have a week all in in Marsa, which includes tanning on Rommel Beach with a day trip to Siwa thrown in for an extra 35 euros. Once again, as everything is all in, they spend no money in the town.

Having said that, a group of Italians have provided me with the funniest 10 minutes of the past two months. I was sitting having coffee when approaching me came, what appeared to be a platoon of the Italian army, all appropriately suited and booted for an invasion of any country with a desert you care to mention (probably safe to exclude the USA).

All that was missing from the ensemble were sidearms, assault rifles and the inevitable pack of playing cards that armies carry around to throw on the bullet riddled corpses of their enemies. They were a mixed group, men and women perfectly co - ordinated, looking cooly Italian behind their reflector shades. But alas, it wasn't Italy's finest on an exchange visit with their colleagues in the Egyptian military, but a group of tourists on a desert safari and this get up is apparently, de rigeur.

Siwa is on the edge of the Sahara. In fact, walk through the square and the desert is underfoot. Everything is either built on or grown in the sands. From the Shali, you can see the dunes on the edge of the oasis. Drive in any direction for ten minutes and you've left the town far behind. Most people,including me, become captivated by the desert, hypnotised by the endless rolling dunes. All that is fine as long as you are sitting on a cushion, sipping tea and gazing wistfully into the middle distance, wondering vaguely what lies beyond the ridge of sand before you. The answer, is inevitably, another ridge, probably higher and with deeper sand. It's also easy to get carried away when you are tear arseing across the desert in the front seat of a 4x4 with a driver who knows what he's doing. It's not so much fun if you are stuck, injured (My Moroccan Blister Story springs to mind here), or being pursued by a war band of Tuareg, bent on liberating your head from your shoulders. If you want to find out more about the last point you should read Michael Asher's 'Sands of Death', an appallingly titled and poorly written book. But it does tell the story of benighted French attempts to scout the land for a trans Saharan railway between Algiers and Timbukto, in the 1880's and beyond. Even Asher's appalling style cannot ruin the story.

Siwa and Siwans are also, it seems to me, on the edge of some more fundamental changes. Putting Alexander and his marauding Macedonians to one side, mass tourism is a recent phenomenon in Siwa. There are some really good local restaurants that cater to western tastes, there are some really good budget hotel options with plenty of hot water; there are some high end options that cater for wealthy Egyptians. And Italians.

Lots of Siwans speak good English as a third language after Siwi and Arabic and almost every hotel or restaurant will offer you a desert experience with a local operator. Ali, a local musician who performs as part of a trio, laments the influence of TV on his sisters. He fears that they will want something different for themselves in the future - at the moment, as tradition demands, his mother and sisters stay at home, looking after the house and perhaps making handicrafts for sale in the market. Siwan women, when they are on the street, dress very conservatively, in a black chador style garment and usually wearing gloves. Ali remembers when his grandmother found out he was moving to Siwa from their small village, it was if he were moving to New York. Whilst this belief in tradition is up to a point commendable, it often doesn't extend to men's own behaviour. Many of the young Siwan's I met don't need foreigners to teach them how to smoke and drink and dance the hoochey coo (to paraphrase Elvis).

The main social lubricant in Siwa is hash, smuggled in over the Libyan border, via Morocca and probably origination in Afghanistan. It's cheap, plentiful and easily available. My one piece of advice, waht you smoke in Siwa, stays in Siwa - probably not a good idea to take it on the bus when you leave.

The more tourists there are and the more exposure to outside influences that Siwans are subject to, the likelihood is that the changes will be greater. It's how that change is managed is the trick. Added to this is the growing influx of foreigners, both Egyptian and European, who are either buying houses or land and inevitably pushing the prices up for locals. Most foreigners are warmly welcomed and soon become part of the town's comings and goings, but I wonder how fat that bonhomie will continue to stretch. One local shop owner told me that he has not made any money for the past four years and is living and working off his savings. Foreigners are not responsible for that, but it does show that there are problems.

I don't fear for the future of Siwa particularly. If I come back here in 20 years, I'm sure there will have been changes. More people, less garden, higher prices, better standard of living, more foreigners (or less as those who were there have moved on to the next undiscovered place), better schools, satellite dishes. I suppose sustainable/ethical tourism are a couple of the buzzwords flying around, and perhaps controlled, balanced growth is the way forward. But these concepts of growth are our ideas of how things should develop and I wonder how the Siwans feel about it?

Posted by johnward 01:18 Comments (0)

Cairo - Phoneless In Giza (with apologies to A. Huxley)

A decidedly cultural day - Memphis (sans Elvis), Saqqara and finishing off in Giza.

Started in Memphis with my guide for the day, Mawra, who seems to know all there is to know about pyramids, both ancient and older, statues, erect, recumbent and bone idle, and what it all means. First stop Memphis, an ancient capital of Egypt. In fairness, time has not been kind to Memphis although excavations are still being carried out. There is though, a sizeable statue of Ramses II, still lying where he was discovered, minus his lower legs unfortunately. (I suppose it's possible he never had lowere legs in the first place?). The resultant museum was actually built around him, rather than him be shifted. Ramses was a man who knew the value of effective PR. Although he centred his empire at Luxor, he commanded that epic statues of his likeness be erected across the Two Kingdoms, in order that his people would know him. He reigned for 67 years, so I assume that his people probably got sick and tired of him.

Next on to Saqqara, site of the oldest surviving stone built complex in the world - including the first pyramid, designed by Imhotep (shades of The Mummy 1 -2) for the King Djoser, the best part of five millennia ago. It's a six step pyramid (keep up now), not one of those smooth faced jobbies we all know. Apparently the reason it is six storeys high is that Imhotep wanted the hoi polloi to be able to see it over the high wall built to protect the great and the good from their prying eyes. Wikipedia can neither confirm or deny this.

Finally on to Giza, home of the Pyramids of a million postcards and snaps - the image that personifies Egypt. Once a separate and defined area, the Giza Plateau has been subsumed into the suburb of Giza and by extension, Cairo itself. A quick glance will simply confirm how close people are now living the Pyramids and assorted tombery. But the real point I want to make about Memphis, Saqqara and Giza is the factor that's common to all three and most of Egypt - the dearth of tourists. I was in Cairo in December 2011, a month or so before the Revolution and like most people I went to the Giza Plateau. Whilst you could barely move for official guides, touts, camels and horses and stall holders selling all sort of tat, there were also hundreds of tourists. I had to queue to pay for my ticket; this time, there were more people selling tickets than there were to buy.

The Revolution has put the Egyptian tourist industry on it's arse and until some sort of stability is established, I can't see people returning for quite some time.

I also lost my phone at Giza, hence the clever title for this blog.

Posted by johnward 08:54 Comments (0)

Cairo - And by the way, Mr Morsi, my drains are blocked!

An Unfinished Revolution

The omens were not good.

Since I've been in Cairo, I have yet to meet one person who voted for, or will admit voting for, Morsi and the Muslim Brotherhood. They are will o' the wisps, elusive as mercury. But they must exist, as he was voted into office. Since then, the government have not covered themselves in glory - they are poor media performers, their foreign policy is under attack, they are accused of being too slow to introduce vital economic, political and social reforms, and quick to take offence when criticised by the media.

And all the goodwill and credibility, both domestically and internationally Morsi established following his involvement in the Israeli - Gazan ceasefire talks, vanished immediately with his cack - handed handling of the constitutional referendum vote and his attempt constitutional coup.

So he and the Brotherhood were already bruised and battered, weeks before the anniversary of the revolution on 25 January. Basically the charge facing them, was that they had betrayed the revolution and the people who died for its ideals across Egypt, but particularly in Tahrir Square.

This year there was a perfect storm of events that probably added to Morsi's discomfort. The 24th January was the Prophet's birthday, an official holiday in Egypt, the 25th fell on a Friday, a day that over the past two years in the Middle East has seen some of the most violent clashes between protesters and security forces and the 26th was the day when the verdicts on the Port Said football deaths is due to be delivered. And less than a week before the 25th, Mubarak's sentence was overturned so he will face a retrial.

In February 2012 a game between Al Almy from Cairo and Port Said ended in tragedy with the death of over 70 Al Almy supporters. I was in Egypt at the time and remember watching it unfold on TV. The people I was with simply looked at each other, unsure what to say. Since then, the Egyptian League has been suspended, but is due to be restarted in the next few weeks. All this is important, because the hard core fans of the Cairo clubs, the Ultras, were at the forefront of the protests against Mubarak, organising and directing events in Tahrir. On 22nd January, thousands of Ultras gathered in Tahrir, erecting a shrine to their dead friends and demanding justice for them. This is not a group of people any government would want to unnecessarily antagonise.

And just to add an extra frisson, there were two devastating train crashes that claimed the lives of dozens of schoolchildren and police conscripts and injured hundreds. The government is held responsible for the lack of investment in Egypt's creaking rail infrastructure; and a speech Morsi gave three years ago as a leading member of the Brotherhood attacking Israel in racist terms has just resurfaced. The guy is either extremely unlucky, in political terms, or as incompetent and divisive as his opponents claim.

The Thursday night was very lively with Twitter postings - detailing what was happening in Tahrir, where protesters had gathered. I live at one end of Talaat Harb St, Tahrir Sq is at the other end - a 20 minute walk. Not Thursday night. The streets were packed with people, shops have closed up. It seems as if the expected reaction to two years of frustration have come a few hours earlier than I expected. Hundreds of people simply stand around, not knowing what to do; dozens more are on mobiles trying to find out what's going on and parents are dragging kids home. One constant, is the rumble of sound that seems to cascade up from Tahrir, the length of the street. It's people chanting and shouting and running. Street vendors are packing away their bits and bobs, and as you walk down the street, your feet are walking over broken glass and bits of paving slabs.

One youngster stood out - dressed in a white t shirt. He seems overly excited - he broke loose of the people around him, scattering bystanders and launches a bottle into the air. It crashes down and shatters about 50m away, but this encourages his friends, who follow suit. The guy in the t shirt is surrounded by older men who seem to be trying to calm him. The last I see of him is at the centre of a knot of yougsters, screaming into their faces.

The small fruit & veg market I use, only a couple of hundred metres from my hotel is guarded by the stall owners, holding thick wooden staves or metal pipes. I walked a little further down the street, to my regular newspaper man. He comes from Sudan, so he does not need any more shit in his life. He sells papers and books and speaks good English. He's philosophical but outraged at the same time, that people ran over his books. 'They have no respect.' he tells me.

Whilst the street seems in chaos, life seems to go on - a bread seller makes his way up Talaat Harb, still looking for business, boyfriend and girlfriend still walk hand in hand, grabbing a late night snack; three girls walk past giggling. The ordinary carries on.

Earlier in the week I read a piece in a newspaper, quoting Mohammad Ibrahim, the Interior Minister, who said there would be little or no security personnel in Tahrir on the 25th. I'm sceptical. Government in Egypt is run by men with very thin skins when it comes to criticism or challenge - and Thursday, I think it's fair to say, was a challenge to that government.

Whilst the opposition will join the celebrations of the 25th, the government have tried for the moral high ground by saying they will be working on behalf of the electorate providing medical assistance and clean drinking water to villages. They've called this a service campaign under the banner 'Mother Egypt - Your Children Matter'. Nobody is taken in by this.

The 25th was a day of two distinct halves. The morning before the midday prayer was relaxed, an almost social family affair in Tahrir. Food and drink were on sale, there were places to sit and relax in the sun and take in the sights. Someone even said to me 'Have a nice day' and it wasn't ironic. The afternoon was about protesters marching, stones being thrown and tear gas being fired. The police did stay outside the square but fired the tear gas over the walls and barriers into the midst of the protesters. Who run as there is nothing left to do when tear gas lands in a crowd. People double over retching, eyes streaming, choking on the fumes. There is a nice sideline being done selling surgical masks for a couple of Egyptian pounds. People are led to waiting ambulances with breathing difficulties and bloodied heads; the Blood Transfusion Service has mobile units on standby.

The tension is racked up a few more levels when the decision comes down from the court in Port Said - 21 people guilty of murder and sentenced to death. That means 74 died on the day in February 2012, a further 21 are destined to join them and 31 were killed in the resultant, almost inevitable violence, that followed the verdict in Port Said.

My lasting image of the day is of two youngsters standing atop a wall simply defying the police to target them.

The 25th became the 26th with more of the same. The 27th saw the police ratchet their response up several notches. They blocked of Tahrir Bridge with officers dressed in full riot gear and vehicles. This time they didn't wait for the stone throwing to get too close, they immediately reacted with a cannonade of tear gas and a charge. People panicked and ran in all directions, trying to escape the gas and batons.

This was the pattern of the day - taunt, tear gas, charge.

On the 28th I was heading back down to Tahrir when I stopped in Cafe Riche, about 100 metres south of Tahrir for a coffee. I left Riche and turned for the square and then changed my mind and headed uptown. It was only a few hours later that I found out that the police were now using live rounds and somebody, a bystander, had been shot dead.

Morsi and the Brotherhood are in power, via a decidedly flawed and suspect electoral process. But it was a process most of us would recognise as democratic. Egyptians, whoever they may be, have endured two years of frustration where nothing of importance has been achieved and they live in a country that is under the shadow of religious extremists. Police corruption still appears to be endemic, the traffic in Cairo refuses to move, trains crash with devastating consequences and it's possible that Mubarak may be released for prison.

The government's first reaction when faced with criticism in the media is to go to the courts to either close the paper down or imprison the reporter. The opposition are useless - fighting amongst themselves, positioning themselves for the top jobs and when a crisis hits, they call people onto the streets.

Democracy is hard and that is something the country is yet to grasp. It's about compromise, getting some of the things you want done, but not others; its about a free and vibrant and protected free press. And while I'm at it, the drains are continually blocked at the top of my street, Mr Morsi...


I take back what I said in the first sentence and I refer you to the entry entitled Mohammad's Depression!

Posted by johnward 03:08 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

Cairo - 'I still haven't seen the Pyramids...'

Last night I talked, but mainly listened to Muraf, a man whose family has deep, abiding and until now, unshiftable roots in the northern Syrian city of Aleppo. Muraf is an archaeologist by training and after his children, antiquities are his love, his passion. He proudly tells me of the 68 days he camped at St Simeon, one of Syria's most important historical sites, when he was a student. Today, St. Simeon is a military camp and Muraf and his 68 year old father are refugees in the Saiyida Zeinab quarter of Cairo.

For almost two years, Aleppo has sustained some of the heaviest damage of the Syrian civil war; Last September, a fire raged for three days through Aleppo's souk, one of the best preserved in the entire Middle East. Now 1500 shops in the heart of the old city have been destroyed, Saladin's Citadel, beneath which I drank cup after cup of coffee two years ago, has sustained heavy damage and Baron St., home of the legendary Baron's Hotel is now at the centre of some of the city's fiercest fighting..

Muraf has a wife and two children and extended family in the city and further south in the capital, Damascus. He decided to leave when the violence reached such a level that he considered each day was likely to be his and his family's last. He talks of the Syrian air force bombing his neighbourhood and how he simply sat there with his children waiting for the explosion that would kill them all. He describes how snipers, using laptops and infra red sensors to target people, narrowly missed him on two occasions. Like many Syrians, he completed his two year military service but he said in all that time he barely saw a tank, now he can describe the detonation pattern of bombs and artillery shells and he can probably take a fair guess at the shell's calibre.

He talks, still with a sense of disbelief, about the regime's deliberate targeting of the city's economic infrastructure where a brand new industrial centre on the outskirts of Aleppo, was levelled by the air force. Many of the factories in and around Aleppo have been stripped and the contents sold on the black market.

His children haven't been to school for a year, he has been unable to earn a living for almost two years, so he needed to do something. He has been in Cairo for 35 days, joining his father who arrived a month earlier. In that time they have rented a house to live in, rented business premises, employed upward of a dozen people, including Egyptians and fellow Syrian refugees and have set about making a temporary life for themselves. All this is preparation for getting Muraf's wife and children out of the country.

He decided that the easiest and quickest way of earning money was to open a shop selling Syrian food. Syrians in general and Aleppans in particular, are very knowledgeable and proud of their culinary heritage, and as a rule prefer their cuisine above all others. There are a growing number of Syrian refugees in Cairo, so there is a ready made customer base, but perhaps the real surprise is how the local Egyptians flock to his shop to taste the Syrian style falafels made with huumus and spices. From the day he officially opened the shop less than two weeks ago, it has gone from strength to strength. The shop is well lit, clean and welcoming - Muraf is particularly proud that all the staff wear starched white uniforms with hats, to stand out from the crowd of restaurants.

He talks about how he has been made welcome by Egypt and the Egyptians. Next week, it will be two years since Egypt's own revolution, much shorter and less bloodier that Syria's, but something that binds the two communities together. Muraf's neighbours found him the carpenters, plumbers and electricians needed to get the shop ready, and one of then lent him a car for a few days so he could move the heavier items he needed. Even the falafel seller directly opposite has been won over by Muraf, so much so that he now eats at the Damascus Cafe.

Whilst all this is good news, there is at the heart of of it all, an emptiness that can't be filled until his family are with him in Cairo. At the moment he has no TV, no computer or internet, no washing machine. He works from 7.30 in the morning until 10.30, when an Egyptian friend meets him and they go to a gym to work out and wind down. He has a mobile that he uses to speak to his wife and children every day. It's expensive, but it is his only means of contact.

In a couple of weeks he heads back to Aleppo to organise his family's departure. Arranging this is difficult, expensive and dangerous, but it is a risk they are willing to take. Muraf has already organised school places for the children and he is expecting another family member any day now, so that means he will no longer have to work 16 hour days. It also means he will be able to take his wife and kids to see the Pyramids, something Muraf hasn't been able to himself since he's been in Cairo. There's been no time.

He appears incredibly stoic, which at risk of falling into racial cliche, is an attribute of many Arabs, especially when the world they know is crashing about them. But Muraf's stoicism does not extend to living in a refugee camp in Lebanon or Jordan. He needs to rebuild his and his family's life and if that means making falafel, so be it.

Posted by johnward 09:40 Archived in Egypt Comments (0)

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