Welcome to Sharm El SheikhPosted: January 20, 2012
“Welcome to Sharm El Sheikh.”
A man dressed in a black dish-dash and wrapped in a keffiyeh gestured me to sit with his friends at the coffee stall.
“What you want my friend? Beer? Hasheesh?” the waiter asked.
“No, a tea and a sheesha.”
The waiter lapsed into Arabic but I guessed he was asking my flavour preference. I paused, trying to remember the word.
“Yes, yes my friend no problem.”
Scanning the room for food options I saw a man with a plate.
“And a sandwich?”
“Yes, yes, sandwich. Sandwich meat, sandwich chicken?”
I had arrived in Sharm a couple hours earlier from London. I was tired, but there was some issue with my room which meant I couldn’t go to sleep immediately. I was told to leave my bags in another room for an hour or so. The man at the desk said something about my friend from San Francisco which I hadn’t understood. I thought about showering but the sight of the shower gel that had oozed through my toilet bag put me off; that could wait for tomorrow to clean up. Dinner seemed like an easier choice, but when I asked about places to eat I was told it was too early. For want of something else to do I was at the coffee stall.
The men I sat with starting joking with me.
“Him Israeli,” one said pointing to his friend.
“Him Osama Bin Laden,” he replied.
“Him salafi, but him smoke and fuck too much,” one said of the man who had invited me to sit.
They all laughed and the man grabbed his crotch and thrusted by way of reply, grinning at me.
“American, English?” he asked.
“No New Zealand.”
I withdrew from the conversation by pretending to become immersed in the action movie blasting across the cafe and waited for my food.
“Where you go now?” the man in the keffiyeh asked me before I had finished eating.
“To bed. Sleep.”
“Where your hotel? I drive you.”
“No thank you, it’s very close.”
“No, it’s ok, no money my friend,” he said smiling at me.
“No, it’s ok, I want to use the internet first,” I said pointing at a nearby internet cafe.
“My friend I take you cheaper internet, close here. Then your hotel. My friend.”
I didn’t really see the advantage but he continued pressing until I agreed to let him take me to the cheaper internet cafe for no money. I was tired. I didn’t want to be rude in the face of his friendly insistence.
As we soared off down the road it became apparent that the internet cafe wasn’t close.
“I good driver,” Mohammed began after introducing himself. “Many bad driver say 300-400 pound. I good driver. Little money, little money.”
What happened to no money? Three hundred pounds is around $50USD. I should have got out then.
After a 10 minute drive we arrived at a rundown internet cafe with dusty computers, overflowing ashtrays and filthy keyboards. The men inside stopped to stare at me as we entered.
Mohammed showed me to a computer and sat next to me, his leg touching mine while he stared intently at the screen. It appeared he could read some English because he was soon pointing out words he recognised.
“Mother? Family?” he asked.
I barely nodded my assent. I wanted to use Facebook but had become self-conscious. I didn’t want to offer him any fodder for his fantasy of loose western women which he had described to me in the car.
“Yalla,” I said when barely 15 minutes had passed.
Mohammed leapt to his feet and rushed to the counter.
“I pay, I pay.”
“No, no, no, I don’t want you too,” I said but it was too late, Mohammed had already thrown a folded small denomination note on the counter and shuffled me out the door. I knew instinctively what was coming next.
“Internet very expensive in Sharm,” he began. “Two hundred pounds, more.”
I looked at him with what I hoped was an accusing stare and he immediately changed the subject.
“I have friend in New Zealand.”
Do you expect me to swallow this bullshit? I thought, but said nothing. As we got into the car I was wondering how I could best manage the impending conflict that would occur when Mohammed finally rendered his bill for the ‘little money’ he expected for his helpful services to me.
The car wouldn’t start.
I watched his movements carefully, unsure if this was also part of the unfolding scam. He turned the whining starter movement over for a long time and then started banging around aimlessly under the hood. Then he called a friend. My chest felt tight and I kept thinking that I could have been home already without Mohammed’s ‘help’.
He got back into the car smiling sheepishly but I didn’t smile back.
“You are tired?”
I decided to get out.
“I’m leaving, walking back.”
“No you cannot. It is very far, maybe one hour more.”
He was right but I wanted to get away from him.
“No I am going.”
Immediately he switched from friendly to demanding.
“Now you give me money for internet, 150 pounds.”
“But my brother, the internet didn’t cost 150 pounds.”
“Yes. Internet Sharm expensive.”
“Are you crazy? Do you think I’m stupid?”
My chest constricted further and I heard my pitch rise as my temper snapped.
“You call me stupid?” he asked, not understanding me but responding to my anger.
“No I didn’t youignoranttowelhead, I said there’s no way 15 minutes of internet costs 150 pounds. Is this how you treat a guest in your country?” I asked, trying to shame him.
He tried maintaining the fiction that the money was for the internet but dropped the price to 100.
“But you just told me it cost 150, you’re lying. I’m not paying that.”
Then the price was 50. I still refused. Finally he settled on 47.5, probably hoping an odd number would lend him credibility.
“Do you think I’m stupid!”
We were both shouting now, both working ourselves into indignant furies; me at his bare-faced lying, him at my questioning his honour and the genuineness of his hospitality. Finally I took 50 pounds from my wallet and threw it at him.
“You’re a liar,” I spat.
“What this?” he asked rhetorically as he counted the money. “You pay for taxi more!”
I got out and slammed the door. I walked off, telling myself I would punch him if he followed me but praying he wouldn’t. He didn’t, but continued yelling long after I had stormed away. A tight fist of impotent rage clenched and unclenched inside me, adrenaline making my limbs shaky. I didn’t know where I was. I just wanted to be back at the hostel.
I tried to let go of my self-righteous anger, tried to reason it away, tell myself that I had lost little. It was nothing, the price of a beer, nothing more. But it was more, it was feeling like this, tired, lost, walking on the side of a dusty road with honking cars speeding past in the night with their headlights out. L’espirit d’escalier, the feeling that I could have found something better to say, overwhelmed me. I replayed the scenario in my mind imagining myself remaining calm and in control. First I threw a few notes in his face and left unruffled. But this fantasy wasn’t enough and it escalated until I punched him in the face and left him sitting in the driver’s seat clutching his face with blood streaming out his broken nose. Finally I expelled my frustration into the night in a stream of profanity. To my shame most of what came out concerned the character of the Egyptian people in general.
After walking for 20 minutes I recognised a building. I was heading in the right direction but it would be a long walk back. An hour later I arrived at the hostel determined to let lie what had happened.
I had just drifted off to sleep when a banging at the door awoke me. I ignored it but it continued. I opened the door and the manager bustled someone into the spare bed in the room – my friend from San Francisco. I suddenly understood the situation regarding the room from earlier; I hadn’t realised I was only paying for the bed, not the room. I was beyond arguing.
“Sorry to wake you dude.”
“It’s ok mate.”
And it was ok, although he probably got more than he bargained for when he asked me midway through brushing his teeth how my day was. He listening patiently with his toothbrush hanging out of his mouth for me to finish before walking outside to spit over the railing.
Afterwards I couldn’t sleep and it all started to go round again in my head. It went beyond the situation with the driver to being in Egypt, to life in general. What was I doing? Why was I here? I had left the west to come to this? Back to dishonest taxi drivers and scams and cultural chasms. Back in uncomfortable beds with grubby blankets, strange roommates and tinny cellphone music coming through paper thin walls. Back to the smell of stale cigarettes on the curtains and cockroaches scuttling across concrete floors. Waking up scratching, bugs in the bed, getting fungal infections from grotty communal showers. Wearing the same clothes in the morning as the day before, laundry in sinks, a scarf for a towel. What was the point of any of this? On it went in my head…
Eventually I fell asleep and suddenly it was 12 hours later. I stepped out the door into a purified midday light. The sun felt good on my face as I pushed my bent sunglasss up the bridge of my nose. I felt better and was determined to do better today.