Eid al-Atrash never thought he could fly.
As a young Bedouin boy growing up in South Sinai, Atrash was intrigued by the concept of flight. He would watch with a sense of wonder hundreds of migrant birds soaring through the vast blue sky every autumn in Ras Sudr.
But some years ago, Atrash realized that he too could fly. All it took was a kite, a board and a wicked suspension system, a combination that has come to be known as kite surfing — and is now the world’s fastest growing sport.
According to Atrash, Ras Sudr and kite surfing are entirely in harmony. But to understand why, Atrash recommends that we take a quick trip through the archive of memories he has accumulated growing up in the area.
Nestled in the western coast of Sinai, south of the Suez Canal, the region known as Ras Sudr spreads across 95 kilometers along the Gulf of Suez. For most of his life, Atrash knew Ras Sudr as a quiet Bedouin village mainly inhabited by his fellow Tarabeen tribe members.
He remembers Ras Sudr as vast and void of any structural developments — the land was clean and healthy. When he talks about Ras Sudr, he is referring to an area that encompasses Ras Masalla, South Ayoon Mosa, Ras Dehaisah, and stretching to Ras Matarma, Nakhila, and Ras Mala’ab.
“It was all about the nature,” he says nostalgically.
As a child, he would travel by camel with his father across the desert, seeking trade and tourism work. They would meander from town to town, bartering goods found in Ras Sudr — using cheese, fish, rock salt and olives as currency, all cultivated by Bedouins.
Now, at the age of 40, Atrash has spent a lifetime by the sea between the Gulf of Aqaba and the Gulf of Suez.
The British built the main city of Ras Sudr during the late 1940s when they were drilling for oil in the region. After the 1952 revolution and the subsequent nationalization of the Suez Canal, the area was left to fall by the wayside.
In 1994, the Ministry of Tourism released a new land development program allowing for the discounted sale of the Ras Sudr coastline in the hope of boosting tourism in the region. At the time, Atrash explains, there was buzz around the project, mostly because there were expectations that an airport would be built in the city to draw in Western tourists.
“Unfortunately, the airport was never built, and the project soon failed. It was probably due to the terrorist attacks happening in the country in the early 1990s,”says Atrash.
“Also, the unfinished developments caused a fair amount of damage to the environment and the coastline. They almost ruined one of the oases, and others have dried up because of the disruption to the ecosystem.”
Echoing the scriptures, Atrash says there are 12 Ayoon Moussa (Moses Springs) throughout Ras Sudr. According to scripture, after Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and into Sinai by parting the Red Sea, Moses found the divinity of nature yet again when he struck a rock. The rock split into 12 wells scattered throughout the surrounding area, to provide for each of the 12 Israelite tribes.
Atrash remembers that when he was a child, visitors used to travel from across the world would visit two of Ras Sudr’s major therapeutic spots: The hot springs of Ayoon Moussa, and a little further south, Hamman Pharaon (Pharaoh’s Bath).
With a combination of sulfur springs, and naturally occurring mountain-side saunas, Hammam Pharaon is known to have healing energies and elements that are particularly helpful in dealing with rheumatism, kidney disease, lung inflammation and skin disease.
“While it would be good for business to have had the Ras Sudr airport built, it would have probably devastated the natural environment even more,” Atrash says.
“Now you see all these little Bedouin style camps and kite surfing sites all up and down the coastline, rather than massive Sheratons or developments. In fact, this is what’s working these days — these small camps and hotels, that’s what fits with the environment.”
Atrash says that a property called Dagashland was the first Egyptian-owned campsite catering to a local audience looking to dip a toe into the Bedouin experience living within and from the surrounding nature. The project decayed over the years, however, until recently when a group of young Cairene entrepreneurs teamed up with the Dagash family to revamp and renovate the site to create a small boutique lodge at the foot of the sea.
Now operating under the name of Matarma Bay Hotel, the intimate hotel ground, which opened in May, has become a weekend beachside playground for young adults and families looking to escape the stresses of Cairo life without having to drive too far.
But mostly, the hotel is a haven for local kite surfers and the burgeoning subculture sport. The rooms are minimal, with twin beds, air-conditioning, and cleaner bathrooms than most Cairo apartments, and the atmosphere evokes a sense of belonging, jovial community and serenity.
The four founders — Sherif Samra, Ismail Farid, Aly Awadi and Zena Sallam — have turned their back on Cairo life, choosing instead a life by the sea.
“I’ve always been interested in living by the sea,” says Farid. “I’ve been diving for years, and when I grew older and more aware of my surroundings, I fell more into the idea of a life by the sea.”
“The concept we have here is very much based on working with the local community to provide an alternative lifestyle,” he explains, “while also hoping to promote the development of Ras Sudr and the sport of kite surfing.”
In the past year, Farid says, the sport in Egypt has nearly doubled, with new adventurous souls taking to the kite and board as means of sanity, refuge and natural distraction from the chaos of Cairo.
Ras Sudr is a haven for both local and foreign kite surfers, he adds, as it is significantly cheaper than other local destinations like Gouna or Sharm el-Sheikh. At the same time, Ras Sudr also has a massive stretch of sea, so the kite surfers have more than enough room to maneuver freely, trying out tricks without fear of crossing each other’s lines as happens in the Gulf of Aqaba.
For Zena Sallam, another of the founders, Ras Sudr is the perfect destination for those in need of the Sinai feeling, but who don’t have the time to travel all the way to Ras Shatan or Nuweiba.
“When I imagine Sinai, I want to be where I have the least amount of technology, the least amount of buildings, noise, and I want to be outside as much as possible — so that’s what we wanted to do here,” she says.
“It really comes down to the need to reconnect with nature. And that’s how the Bedouins influence us, it’s this idea of you, nature, your hut or room, and the people next to you.”
Atrash says there is plenty of potential because of the harmony between the kite surfers, the Bedouins and nature. He predicts that small, environmentally friendly, Egyptian-owned kiting establishments like Matarma, Fly Kite Center and Kiteloop are the future of Ras Sudr.
“Already you are seeing a small merger between the Bedouins and the kite surfing subculture,” says Atrash. “Many of these kids are working at kite centers or hotels, and eventually get to trying the sport.
He is positive about his hometown’s future.
“I think little by little, we can all learn from each other — the Cairo people and the Bedouins,” Atrash says. “The ones that come out here to kite surf, well, they understand us — our need to preserve the environment and to love the elements of nature.”