Tuesday, December 11, 2012

A very different Sharm

I had been in Sharm El Shaikh for a few days.  It had not given me what I wanted.

I had organised a trip to Egypt because I wanted to reconnect with the Middle East and instead I had been confronted by a tacky and touristy resort town.  I had made a clear mistake in my choice of location.

Drastic measures were needed and so I hired a driver and a guide, which was something I very rarely do.  I generally prefer to explore by myself, but this hadn't worked out.  When they arrived, they were shocked at my request.  I asked them to take me to the real Sharm El Shaikh.  I asked them to take me to where they lived, to the places that they frequented.

They seemed happy enough to oblige.

Unsurprisingly, they immediately took me to the central mosque.  It was the main place of worship for the Egyptian workers in Sharm and also a centre for their social life. 
It was beautiful.  A modern mosque built in a traditional style, this was the first time I had be close to an Egyptian style mosque.  The guide explained to me that as the mosque was built in the Egyptian tradition, it had very high minarets.  I had arrived after the mosque had closed, but wandering the grounds was still peaceful and a very welcome escape from the noise of the main strip of Sharm.
Our next stop was the local Coptic Christian cathedral.
This was something I had not expected at all.

The outside of the cathedral reminded me of some of those that I had seen when I was in Goa.  The inside of the cathedral was adorned with a level of detail and colour that I hadn't seen since I was in Europe.  There were brightly coloured frescoes and enormous images of scenes from the bible were enormous in their proportions.  What made this all the more impressive was the fact that this was truly a working church.  This wasn't just a monument to fading beliefs and lost passions as is the case for most of the large churches in Europe, this was still the everyday congregation point for the local Coptic Christians in the area.  Outside, there were large groups of families enjoying their evening.  There was even a communal dining area and kitchen for shared meals and special occasions.
As I wandered around the grounds of the Church, I asked my guide what the relationship between the Muslim and Christian communities was like in Sharm.  It probably wasn't the most tactful question to ask, but I was curious.  He smiled and said that it was fine.  He then laughed when he told me about how many Coptic Christian friends he had and how during Ramadan, the very church we were standing in would organise fast breaking dinners for them!  It's amazing how distant the realities can be from what we so often see portrayed in the media.  Undoubtedly there are tensions in some areas, but for the most part these people were neighbours and friends.

The talk of food made me hungry.

My guide suggested a local restaurant and I was more than happy with this.

Sitting down outside of what was clearly a locals only food strip, I started feeling good about my trip again.  My guide made some gestures and we soon had two large and steaming bowls of kushori in front of us.  I had a lot about this amalgam of Egyptian and Italian cultures, but it was still surprising to see it front of me.  The hot macaroni, chick peas and rice were deliciously offset by the fried onions and tomato sauce.  However, it was clear that this was a dish that had its origins in poverty stricken times.  I could see this carbohydrate rich meal being the sole source of energy for workers during some harder times (or even in more contemporary times).  It didn't make it any less tasty though and I soon finished my bowl.
After dinner, the guide took us over to a local cafe.

My love of sitting and contemplating life in cafes wasn't something I had discussed with the guide, so he was either mind reader or a man after my own heart.

This cafe was exactly what I had been looking for when I dreamed of being in the Middle East again.  Surrounded by trees and bathed in the light of the flickering electric light bulbs, it reminded me of my days drinking mint tea in Aqaba.
Like all the true Middle Eastern cafes, it was a men only affair.  Gathered at tables, old men drank mint tea, smoked shisha and played backgammon.  The air was filled with smoke and in the background the radio played an old arabic song.
I sank into my chair and began to feel comfortable.  A backgammon set was brought out and a glass of sweet mint tea.

I finally felt like I was back in the Middle East.

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