Jul 31 2005

My vacation in Sharm e-Sheikh

Published by at 12:00 am under Articles

There we were in Sharm e-Sheikh over the July 23 weekend for our annual family vacation. Asleep in our hotel room, we were awoken by a boom. Although I knew differently, I told my wife it was probably some jet breaking the sound barrier. Then the phone started ringing. Relatives and hotel staff wanted to know if we were all right. As the details of the blasts that struck the nearby Ghazala Gardens Hotel, a coffee house and a mall near the old market came to light, the tranquility of our vacation was shattered.

It was surrealistic. As morning broke on a beautiful day and the family was enjoying the pool, the phones kept ringing. Had it not been for the phones and TV news reports, ours would have been a perfectly normal vacation.

Despite the bombings, we decided to stay. As I told whoever asked me, there was no sense in cutting our vacation short; Sharm e-Sheikh had probably become the safest place on earth.

There was an eerie sense about the hotel and surrounding areas. No one wanted to talk about what happened, but it was clearly on everyone’s mind. The signs would come in various ways. A person on the phone talking to a hospital. An makeshift sign saying “no to terrorism” in English; another in Arabic saying that the brave people of Sharm will not be deterred by terrorism.

Later, when we went to the market, we saw a man with his head bandaged and heard the Egyptian owner of a juice bar talking about four of his best friends having been killed.

We spent all day Saturday by the pool. When we did head out towards the beach which had been bustling the night before, there were only a small group of vacationers to be seen.

One of the main topics of discussion was why the attack netted so many Egyptian casualties.

Reportedly, relatively few foreigners were among the dead. A theory was postulated by a Bir Zeit University professor who was staying at our hotel.

Returning to the hotel just minutes before the explosions, he had been stopped at a checkpoint and recalled that the security people looked very worried, examining everyone in the face as if they were looking for someone.

So perhaps Egyptian security had received a tip minutes before the blast, which explains why they fortified protection outside the main hotels frequented by foreigners. The bomber reportedly drove past one of these checkpoints and detonated his device near the old market, killing many Egyptians.

Another theory which is given credence is that the attack was connected to angry Sinai Beduin. They had it good during the years when Israel controlled the peninsula, so the theory went, and once Egypt regained sovereignty most of the best hotel and resorts jobs went to mainland Egyptians, leaving only menial work for the Bedouins.

Also, following the October 7 attacks that left 34 people dead at Taba, Egyptian security rounded up thousands of Bedouin for questioning. Many innocent Beduin felt embittered by the heavy-handedness of the security forces. In fact, when we arrived at Sharm, precisely six hours before the attack, our Bedouin taxi driver from the airport was vocal in his criticism of Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak.

He bluntly said that many people were hoping Mubarak would not rule Egypt much longer, that he has behaved badly toward the Bedouin.

That issue was also a major topic on TV talk shows after Taba. In the wake of the latest attack, and perhaps in response to the earlier criticism, few Beduin were arrested and those who were were held only briefly as material witnesses.

After staying near the hotel on the first day after the bombing, we spent our second day on a boat sailing along shores of the Red Sea and snorkeling in some of the world’s best reefs.

We ate fresh fish almost every day and on the final day bought fish to take back to Amman with us.

All in all it was a pleasant and enjoyable trip – save for those damn phone calls, SMS messages and the people on television talking about bombings at the very resort we had come to in order to enjoy some quality family time.

Our vacation aside, the events in Sharm generated a strong consensus against the senselessness of terrorism that has not previously been felt.

Talking to everyday Egyptians, I got the feeling that everyone felt this global scourge has to end.

It was also exciting to see the various impromptu acts of protests. The presence of some of the Arab world’s finest artists in Sharm also showed that the entire society was unified against this evil.

Egyptian cinema director Yousef Shahin and a host of other Egyptian artists visited the bombed sites and Sharm e-Sheikh Hospital. Actor Hussein Fahmy told an Arab newspaper that it was high time Muslims changed their religious narrative so as to make sure that these killers no longer considered themselves heroes or martyrs for killing innocent civilians. A female artist, Layla Allawi, reportedly fainted when she saw the damage to the Ghazaleh Hotel.

It was also encouraging to see the unprecedented level of openness in the Egyptian media. Democracy and governmental accountability are important factors in creating an environment that would make such ugly acts a thing of the past.

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