A refuge from crowds and strict dress codes in Egypt

Posted in Africa | 15-Aug-07 | Author: Daniel Williams| Source: International Herald Tribune

Miami, a beach in Alexandria, Egypt, has become overwhelmed by crowds.

EL GOUNA, Egypt: For years, Lamia Khalifa trudged across the sands under Egypt's scorching sun searching for a better life - a better life on the beach, that is.

In her quest for a summer vacation away from other Egyptians, she has gone from the crowded shores of her hometown, Alexandria, to a Mediterranean village ultimately overwhelmed by urban sprawl. Her next refuge was a gated nouveau-riche enclave. Now Khalifa, a retail fashion buyer, has come to El Gouna, a new Red Sea resort with no hordes, no clutter and no hostility toward women who bathe in something less than a full-length robe.

Khalifa's quest reflects the global urge of the well-heeled to set themselves apart from common folk who increasingly have the means to enjoy once-exclusive pleasures. It's an especially intense preoccupation in Egypt, where beaches reflect the country's clash of political, social and religious cultures.

"In Egypt, you are where you swim," says Muhammad Awad, a historian and the director of the Alexandria and Mediterranean Research Center at the Alexandria Library. "To find an exclusive beach is one of the few ways to escape the masses. The problem is, the crowds keep coming."

Before World War II, Egypt was an aristocratic, feudal nation. Alexandria's beaches, the traditional summer refuge of the rich, were private, and their names - Miami, Stanley - reflected the country's European orientation.

In 1952, nationalist army officers overthrew King Farouk, the British-supported monarch, turning Egypt into a socialist, nominally egalitarian, Arab-centric state. They liberated the beaches and built new villa neighborhoods - mainly for themselves - with names like Cleopatra and Saladin.

Soon, people who once would have rented hotel rooms "were just camping out all night," recalls Awad, 57, another Alexandria native.

In the 1960s, the well-heeled fled a few minutes' drive west to Agami, which they called Egypt's St. Tropez. In villas set among fig groves, Agamistas could flaunt their jewelry and skimpy bathing gear, away from the prying eyes of "revolutionary" Egypt.

By the 1980s, boxy high-rises completely surrounded the enclave. Villa owners put up high walls to keep out thieves and gawkers. The fig groves disappeared.

Residents say it also became increasingly risky for women to stroll beyond their gardens in bathing suits, as burgeoning Islamic piety led to cover-up dress codes.

"I feel like a prisoner," says Shahira Idriss, 47, an interior designer whose family has owned a villa in Agami for 30 years. Once, she could "buy groceries in a bikini," she says. "Now, I would be insulted or worse."

Part of Agami's beach - called Paradise - is cordoned off for the skimpy swimsuits. Beyond is full-length wear only. "I'm selling," Idriss says. "St. Tropez this is not."

From the mid-80s on, new Mediterranean communities sprang up. Under Anwar el-Sadat, the president who made peace with Israel, Egypt became a wildly capitalistic, officially pro-Western place with widening class distinctions. Exotic beach names returned: Marina, Hacienda.

In his book "Whatever Happened to the Egyptians?" Galal Amin described these as havens for a fresh class of rich who cashed in on the post-socialist business rush, more interested in "profitable investment than holiday-making."

For some elite beachgoers, this was new reason to flee. "People in Marina and Hacienda go to see and be seen," says Khalifa, 36, whose family once owned a house in Agami. "It's showy, and it's business."

For her, El Gouna avoids Mediterranean pitfalls by keeping Egypt at arm's length. The nearest town, Hurghada, is 50 kilometers away, or 30 miles; Cairo lies 400 kilometers to the north.

A project of Orascom Hotels & Development, El Gouna sits on 3,800 hectares, or 9,400 acres, "as big as central London," its Web site boasts. It is named for its artificial lagoons: El Gouna is an Arabic transcription of "laguna."

So far, developers have left plenty of wide-open spaces for the 2,000 villas and apartments, which top out at $3,000 a square meter, or $280 a square foot, and start at one-third of that, says Dorothee Picht, 38, a public-relations executive for Orascom. Public signs are in English. Restaurants go by names like La Scala and Le Deauville.

El Gouna has its own trash collection, a hospital and international school, a marine-science branch of the American University in Cairo, 14 hotels and a water-recycling plant to irrigate the lawns and golf course. To avoid being overwhelmed by any particular nationality, El Gouna informally tries to engineer a mix.

"When home sales to one group, say British or Egyptian, get too heavy, we market to someone else," says Picht. "I would describe El Gouna's character as multi-international."

A kind of skin-exposure middle ground is also enforced, a subtle indication that neither excess hedonism nor sanctity is welcome.

"No topless, no head-to-toe Islamic bathing suits," says Hoda Mansour, 32, proprietor of the Clubhouse, a restaurant and pool at El Gouna, and once a devotee of the northern beaches. "We try to keep anyone from feeling uncomfortable. Besides the crowds, we want to keep the culture clash out, too."