This past weekend I headed to small city of Marina (El Alamein), located an hour’s drive outside Alexandria with some friends.
Marina is a coastal resort city that caters to the super wealthy and elite in Egypt…most houses cost (far) over a million Egyptian pounds and are typically occupied for a few months. Access to Marina is prohibited to the public and one must be a resident or a guest of a resident in order to enter the city. According to our host, Marina is composed of some 20 islands all connected by bridges. Apparently the Bin Laden family owns one of the islands in Marina. In order to purchase a house on said island you must submit a resume and have interviews with one of the Bin Laden’s. It’s apparently a very serious process.
Dr. El Komi’s good friend (our host), Dr. Zain owns a chalet close to the ocean and was kind enough to rent it to 9 of us for a small price. He was amazingly kind throughout the entire trip.
When I arrived, I was struck by how how deserted it was. There was hardly anyone around besides us…the reason being that this time is considered “off season” and “too cold”. However, by our American standards of weather, we could not be happier with +70 degree weather and ocean breeze.
We spent our days lazing on the beach, swimming in the frigid waters, and visiting the near by mall/hotel, Porto Marina, fully equipped with an in-built Venetian-styled canal (with gondolas, of course) and an especially decadent Chili’s restaurant. The last night we went to the beach and lit a small fire all while gazing at the million stars above. We became ancients guessing constellations and tracing our own pictures across the black horizon.
The breathtaking beauty of the Mediterranean and Marina is only enhanced by the desolate and barren land surrounding the city. Gated communities are an amazing thing; this phenomenon seems to have no borders and is a common global characteristic among the rich and elite. One must contemplate the desire to physically segregate living-space from “others” (i.e. a high wall and a guarded gate) based on class differences. It is profound how much a sense of physical distance between one and another can create a sense of security and hetero-distinctiveness.
To me, class lines in Egypt are very distinct and recognized openly. In our Arabic classes we have learned over 12 titles for people based upon what class they appear to belong. For example, we are to address a man with glabiyya (long traditional gown) in one way, while a man wearing western clothes or a suit is to be addressed in another way…and yet another way for a person that has completed the Hajj. The distinctions continue based on the person’s occupation, age, gender etc etc.
Note that I am not suggesting that somehow Egypt’s class distinctions are completely unique or that such things to do not exist in the U.S…we have our own distinct way of denoting class and we inherit social attitudes towards people of different social standings.
The segregated experience in Marina conflicts with another experience I had when Egypt played a soccer match against Algeria (about one month ago). In this instance, sport tied in with nationalism created a sight of unlike anything I had seen before in my life. When Egypt beat Algeria the streets of Cairo were literally on fire. People from all walks of life celebrated the night away in absolute bliss. I ran through the streets in my tweed suit (this celebration was right after I attended the Egyptian Opera) with my doorman (and now friend) Taamir.
The crowd of celebrators grew thusly: first a group of people would start waving flags and chanting certain slogans, then more strangers would come (with percussion instruments like tablas) and continue the chant. Typically after about 20 to 30 people have gathered several people would take aerosol cans and lighters to make home-made flame throwers. At this point traffic would cease as the celebration spilled onto the main streets. In the mean time groups of other celebrators would come and join thus growing the crowd at an exponential rate. Then all of us (several hundred by this point) would run on of the bridges over the Nile in order to join the nucleus of Cairo’s celebration. Literally thousands of people had descended upon one city square, all of them in absolute bliss.
As I observed random people hugging each other (some wearing thobes and others with western clothes etc.), it seemed as though nationalism outweighed many of the class differences that night. However, this nationalism was spurred on by competition against “the other” (in this case Algeria). The tenuous rivalry between Algeria and Egypt goes far beyond sport. The attitudes of Egyptians towards Algerians as a people is highlighted with negative comments referring to their “overly-French” pride and brutish tendencies towards violence. Furthermore, Egyptian nationalism is directly tied in with Islam! There is no real conflict between “church and state” as there is in the U.S.; Islam and the state can coexist quite nicely (but this subject can be reserved for another day).
I will upload some photos later.