A sad Christmas in Sinai
In Taba Heights, the area of the luxury hotels, the atmosphere is bleak, the Three Corners has shut down, and the other hotels might follow in its footsteps.
"Should you sit upon a cloud you would not see the boundary line between one country and another." Never in the past had this inscription stood out so clearly. The words of poet Khalil Gibran never seemed so apt. They are engraved on a wooden sign at the Tobya Boutique Hotel, ("Little Taba" in Arabic ). Now, it appears someone wants to send a message here. To cry out: "We are still here. Alive and kicking, determined to survive."
A flock of white birds settles on the treetops at the entrance to the complex. They quack like ducks. They too are still here. As is the gardener, who continues to water the foliage. The colorful bougainvillea, the yellow bellflowers, the date palms and the many cacti. This little paradise does not need to suffer from political upheavals and the caprices of human beings. The routine ostensibly continues. Someone is sweeping the paths, someone else is cleaning the windows and a third is arranging the dining tables. They are all playing let's pretend.
"Not even a dead dog passes through here," the surprised security man at the entrance to the Israeli terminal at the border said a day earlier. The desolation is evident: Fifteen minutes later I was already being greeted with "Welcome to Egypt."
In Taba Heights, the area of the luxury hotels, the atmosphere is bleak. The Three Corners has shut down. The other hotels might follow in its footsteps. Their occupancy stands at 8 to 10 percent. The lean-to sites have long been padlocked.
There has never been such a sad Christmas here. A Christmas tree in the lobby of the Tobya glitters with a wealth of lights. Holiday decorations are everywhere. But instead of celebrating the New Year, everything here bespeaks a lamentation for the lost year. The dozens of rooms are spread over 90,000 square meters and I am here alone. In the dining room, beneath the Food Market sign that in the past knew an abundance of dishes, there is not even a single bowl of food. The billiards table is covered, the ping-pong table is folded up and the nargilahs are standing in a line, gathering dust. Most of the staff has been sent home, to Cairo.
The authorities are threatening to cut off the electricity but Nadia Shalaby, the proprietress - a small, smiling and energetic woman - is not ready to give up. She vacationed in the area in the 1990s and fell in love with it. All she wanted was to build a "retirement" home for herself, but the authorities demanded investment in a tourism project. Thus the Tobya Boutique Hotel was born, designed by her artist husband Sadek. He has combined impossible kitsch with unique charm and has created a very sweet and warm familial atmosphere.
Shalaby, who in the past worked for the Halliburton oil company, "alongside Dick Cheney," is not accustomed to failures. She is trying to remain optimistic and promises to "raise the place to new heights."
The Muslim Brotherhood? "They won't dare to harm tourism, which is providing millions with a living, among them members of the Brotherhood itself."
The Salafis? "They would be delighted to convert the hotels into religious madrasahs. However, the hostility between them and the Brotherhood cannot be bridged and without a coalition they will never come into power."
The Bedouin's involvement in terror? "The ones in northern Sinai are different from their brethren along the coast, who are in desperate need of Israeli tourism."
Democracy? "Even if it takes time, in the end it will be established in Egypt."
Shalaby's optimism is sincere: She recently brought in a truckload of sea sand and has put up new showers and facilities for children: another slide, more swings and more pergolas. I shut my eyes, trying to imagine children's shouts. Nothing. Sinai silence, the likes of which we have never known: The whisper of the waves sounds like a noisy bustle, a far-off conversation like a nearby commotion, as does the muezzin of distant Aqaba.
How sharp the transition is back to the noisy reality on the other side of the border. I learn from the headlines of recent days: "The Air Force has attacked a cell that planned an attack on the Egypt-Israel border," "A suspect has been arrested in the Sinai gas pipe arson," "The Muslim Brotherhood and the Salafis continued to gain strength in the elections," "The Brotherhood is leading in the tourism areas - Luxor, Aswan and the Red Sea," "They will continue to see Israel as an 'enemy' and the Salafis will oppose any normalization with it."
Oh, if only we were sitting upon a cloud.