THE BLOG

My Heart Belongs to Egypt

09/11/2015 11:16 GMT | Updated 07/11/2016 10:12 GMT

I've just returned from my fifth holiday in Dahab - a small town about an hour's drive from Sharm El Sheikh on the Sinai peninsula, within the 'protected' Egyptian governorate of Southern Sinai.

Over course of the last four visits I've made friends for life - they are locals but not all are Egyptian. Some of the women I know have married Egyptian men and are running business there with their husbands, some are from Cairo (mainly guys) and work in the tourism industry. What unites them all is their wonderful friendliness and hospitality towards me. I have to admit, I'm slightly addicted to it.

Actually, it's more than that. I've realised that if you can fall in love with a place, this is 'the one' for me. Dahab has a magical, spiritual feel - harking back to its '70s beginnings as a hippy hangout by the sea - and I feel truly happy there. I've come to love the sounds of Dahab more than anything - the call to prayer, the barks of the street dogs, the kids playing in the street, and the glorious silence of the mountains. It's so quiet you can actually hear the silence.

I started out feeling scared - of the foreboding mountainous landscape and the dark drive from the airport through it; of the inevitable street hassle one gets as a European walking past Egyptian shops. On my first trip I even had a panic attack because a guy offered me tea in the back of the shop and I suddenly had visions of him bundling me off in to the desert.

I refused to get in a cab because a) I didn't know it was a cab (they're all flatbed trucks) and b) because there were two men in it (one was the driver). They looked so shocked when I danced about on the pavement umming and ahhing about getting in. Again, I thought they'd drive me into the desert. They just smiled and took me into town. Oh the lolz.

Now I laugh with my friends when I retell this story. They are absolutely bewildered that I was remotely scared of walking around the town at night on my own, or that I needed to keep locking things up in the safe in my accommodation. No one's even thinking of assaulting me or taking anything. It was all in my mind. I've stopped thinking, "won't someone nick all the shoes?" every time I pass a mosque.

Anyway, I've got over all that now, and I walk about happily around the streets of Dahab, ignoring the shopkeeper hassle, and just saying hello to those who sit outside their shops quietly. I give them my business partly to prove a point that hassle is bad for it. I think they're realising that, as various shops are now actually called No Hassle, because they know Europeans are more likely to go in there.

I've talked endlessly with my Egyptian friends about the downturn in tourism over the years since 2006. First there were two bombs in Dahab, then just when they were recovering from those, the Revolution happened in 2011. Four years later, the Metrojet disaster is a potential end to their livelihoods, because tourists were already scared of the ISIS threat from Northern Sinai and whatever the black box outcome of investigations, Egypt will once again struggle to mitigate fears of flying into their air space. It is desperately, desperately sad.

And yet my friends are still doing that trademark gesture of shrugging their shoulders and saying, 'what can you do?' They've withstood so many blows to their lives that they're somehow inured to them. This is just the next thing that they have to deal with and they will meet it head on. Their faith is something that really does see them through these difficult times.

We have an 'in-joke' where we say 'poor you!' to each other when something trivial goes wrong. My phone got covered in mango juice on the last trip, but given what happened days later, it kind of put my 'loss' in perspective a tad. A definite 'poor me!' moment. Poor me, and the loss of my gold iPhone 5 and the prospect of a new 6s.

My heart goes out to the families of the Metrojet flight. How they must've waved their loved ones off and seen their happy photographs on social media, only to find they never returned. My heart also goes out to the millions of Egyptians whose lives are going to be affected by this tragic event. They've done nothing except work hard, and now they've been horribly let down by lax security management and the threat of people who are operating under the name of an Islam they don't recognise.

Poor, poor them. And I mean it this time.

Read my daily Dahab blog posts from last month here: http://becauseicanblog.com