A stranger in Sahel
A look at why holiday homes on Egypt’s North Coast used to seem like the most natural thing, and what's changed my mind about that
 
 
 
Sahel - Photograph: Osman El Sharnoubi
 

It’s my first time back here in three years. But everything feels instantly familiar: the bright white, shrubby sand, the electric blue shallows hugging the shore, the endless chalets lining the coast.

Years back, my parents owned a small chalet right on the seafront. Our little holiday house was located near Marsa Matrouh, a coastal town 250 km west of Alexandria, and far removed from the construction boom that was taking off on the coastal area to Marsa Matrouh’s east, closer to Alexandria, in the early 1990s. This boom transformed the coastline with the countless summer compounds that have overtaken it since.

In 1995, my parents sold our chalet, transforming me into a leech in the area — I could only enjoy the North Coast’s sublime sand and clear waters at the invitation of relatives or friends who owned properties, or when my parents decided to rent out a place for a week or so, which rarely ever happened.

I also became a sort of stranger to the coast. I was not a very effective leech and did not travel there often, and so on the rare occasion that I did, I was surprised by the monumental changes that had taken place in my long periods of absence.

In the years after the Marsa Matrouh chalet was sold, my most regular stint at the North Coast was in my mid-teens. Everything about Sahel seemed natural, and for an obvious reason: We had a great time there.

In the mornings, I’d wake up early, despite going to bed late, in a room flooded with sunlight, caressed by a gentle sea breeze. I’d excitedly chat with whichever friend or family member was sharing the room with me until someone called us down for breakfast, then we and anyone else who wasn’t cooking that morning would file out of our rooms and sit around the table to eat, amid a general air of excitement about the day ahead.

The kids — us — would goof around the nicely decorated chalet, adorned with summery pinewood and bamboo wicker furniture, ceramic art, windchimes and a plush grass yard. Back then, grass was a rarity in our Cairo homes and so it felt extra nice squishing under our feet.

My memories of these days are still vivid. Chasing small crabs washed up by the sea, splashing along the shoreline with the sun burning on our backs, and, at night, playing games in the chalet or riding bikes through the dozen streets of the compound and hanging out on the beach’s stone dyke. We were sheltered. And it’s no wonder it seemed natural, this happy place: Sahel — the Arabic for “coast” and the word that came to describe the area emerging in the late 1980s and 1990s.

But these memories, although vivid, are by no means plentiful. As I said, I am a Sahel stranger. This feeling of estrangement was deepened this summer when I heard the term “New Sahel” being casually thrown around. An entire Sahel had apparently sprung up when I wasn’t paying attention, with dozens of compounds built sometime during the last 10 or 15 years past the town of Sidi Abdel Rahman, which lies about 140 km west of Alexandria, and which previously marked the end point of Sahel, when there was only one Sahel that people referred to.

These many changes didn’t, however, take away from the continuities I experienced each time I returned, up until this moment.

For one, while you can change the littoral landscape in a variety of ways — you can dig lagoons and pick from endless designs for your chalets and villas — it’s not in the power of any number of real estate developers to single-handedly take away the refreshing sea breeze that I can’t help but mention every day I spend on the coast, much to the irritation of my friends.

The sand, sea and breeze — in my mind — were the main attraction for holidaymakers across Egypt. For decades they have offered a welcome escape from the stifling temperatures of landlocked towns and cities during the summer.

But is it as simple as that? Is it just a matter of people building holiday homes to enjoy a beautiful beach in the summertime?

To begin with, how did over 200 km of prime beach get sliced up and sold off to private bidders over the past 30 or 40 years? And how is it that compounds occupying these slices of the coast swiftly lose their allure, seemingly overnight, with newer ones taking over all of a sudden?

And if I wasn’t fortunate enough to know the people I knew, would I have had the access that I had in my youth, and still have, to Sahel?

Mulling over these questions on my most recent trip across Sahel this summer, I become certain something is amiss.

Here in Sahel, tastes change and social capital is acquired simply by the virtue of someone owning a chalet or villa in a certain compound, or partying at a certain nightclub. This is the playground of holidaymakers searching for privacy, supplied by big developers creating a desire for exclusivity, readily purchased by wealthy men and women looking for distinction. Here, opportunities for real economic development have been squandered. And, in the process, the tireless construction of chalets and villas marches on.

Map of the North Coast

***

“First, we had a cabin in Rushdi, then it got too crowded, so we went to Sidi Bishr, which was the ‘in’ place back then, but Sidi Bishr 1 and 2 were already full, so we went to Sidi Bishr 3, before moving into our cabin in Montaza,” my uncle recalls, wryly suggesting that the drive to find a more exclusive holiday destination is ingrained in those of Egypt’s social strata that can afford it.

If you switch the names of these Alexandrian beaches with the names of Sahel compounds today, this comment about the coast in the 1950s and 60s, could be used verbatim in any number of conversations about the North Coast from the past decade.

In fact, one of Sahel’s landmark compounds, Marina, spawned Marina 2 and then Marina 3, now numbering all the way up to Marina 7. Hacienda, another of the flagship compounds on the coast, now boasts Hacienda White and Hacienda West. But where Alexandria’s Sidi Bishr 1 and 2 beaches were only tens of meters away from each other, the Haciendas are up to tens of kilometers apart. This blowing up of scale has extended into the compounds themselves, with cabins becoming chalets, and chalets becoming villas.

Agami - Photograph: Osman El Sharnoubi

When I was a teenager, there used to be a certain lore about the community of holidaymakers in Agami, a little town on the outskirts of Alexandria to its west, where many people had built chalets and villas.

Agami was where it was happening circa 1975, and, even in the 1990s when Sahel was taking over, people still drove to Agami to go out in clubs like Summermoon, Tijuana and Christina, as these were the only night clubs close to Sahel back then. These Agami regulars were called “Agamistas.”

The villa-laden part of Agami is a ghost town now.

It felt natural for me to go there first, since it was just outside of Alexandria proper, and was where the summer exodus began, decades ago. Driving through its deserted tree-lined streets feels positively eerie.

The rest of the town, more of an informal settlement now, has experienced a huge expansion since its days as an upper-class holiday getaway. Its cohort, who had originally left Alexandria for the city for its less-congested seaside neighbor, exited Agami in the last 20 years for emptier, more private beaches in Sahel, which, by the mid-1990s, was already in full throttle, with dozens of compounds already built.

Today, tall, cluttered buildings, often with unadorned red-brick facades — the face of Egyptian self-built housing — dwarf the old chalets and villas which sit quietly in their gardens. It is clear to any onlooker that Agami was left by the government to seamlessly merge with the impending unplanned housing that was growing on the outskirts of Alexandria. A 2017 government statistic put Agami at the forefront in terms of the number of unauthorized buildings in the Alexandria Governorate. The town has become a haven for contractors who, looking for profit, flout building regulations, often buying old villas and building on the land, in the absence of – or in collusion with – local government.

Agami - Photograph: Osman El Sharnoubi

The desertion of Agami, due to the increased exclusivity offered in Sahel to the west coupled with Agami’s own urban social transformation, had left its beaches — public and private — resembling those of Alexandria.

As I sit on a plastic chair, my umbrella thrust into the darker sands of a public Agami beach, there’s not a bikini in sight. Street vendors selling plastic buckets, shovels and floaties roam back and forth adjacent to the line of beach goers, who, I can tell, are not well-to-do Egyptians and would probably not have access to the whiter sands of Sahel.

Here, everyone’s minding their own business, carrying out the same activities you’d see in any beach in the world. To my right, a 20-something sips beer, staring out at the greenish water while he listens to music in his headphones. Children yell out in joy as they play on the shore ahead of me, while families socialize under clusters of umbrellas, occasionally calling out to mussel or soda sellers, who glide down the beach among the other vendors.

Agami - Photograph: Osman El Sharnoubi

I get lost on my way to the next beach. Despite attempting to just drive north to the sea, the zigzagging maze that Agami had become stops me short of accomplishing what had seemed a straightforward task. I end up giving a lift to a resident, Amm Hamdoun, who, in return for the favor, guides me.

Amm Hamdoun, wearing a worn-out galabeya and carrying a jumble of fat plastic bags, asks me to drop him off at his home — a dilapidated three-story building not far from the sea — and promises to drop off his bags and show me the way.

As we cruise the deserted streets in the villa district of Agami, Amm Hamdoun points at enormous villas where movie stars like Adel Imam, Hussein Fahmy and Faten Hamama used to spend their summers.

I am skeptical at first, feeling that the man, who made no secret of his love for Agami, is just basking in the lost glory of the summer town. I am also skeptical of his claims to own several villas. My passenger insists many of the villa owners still frequent Agami a result of emotional attachment.

Whether these claims — about the villas belonging to movie stars and the return of the Agamistas — are true or false, Amm Hamdoun’s talk only deepens the feeling of desolation that permeates those narrow streets.

When I reach the beach, a private one this time, which costs less than LE 20 (about US$1) to enter, I can’t spot a single beachgoer who seems to be staying in these villas.

***

Today, Marina, the once-hip Sahel haunt about 100 km to the west Alexandria, is also in a state of decline. Fifteen years ago, La Plage was the spot. Hordes of young beach-goers would queue up outside the Marina private beach, anxious about being turned away at the door.

Today, there are a handful of private beaches standing in La Plage’s place, none of which you would find listed on any “Sahel top 10” articles. I go to one of them. For a LE250 ticket — change compared to tickets costing LE800 in Sahel clubs that require a ticket for entry — I enter a virtually empty beach. Flags of corporate sponsors surround what seemed to be a dancing area, flapping at no one.

Marina - Photograph: Osman El Sharnoubi

Three of the club’s staff set up my umbrella, which I take as a sign of a surplus of employees in relation to the number of clients. I order food, speaking loudly over the blaring speakers, and as I wait, looking out at a sea tamed by two breakwaters flanking the beach, I think that I might have just been late for the party. It is, after all, September. A further testament to my ignorance of many things Sahel.

I find the club’s Facebook page to search for evidence of any activity of the past month, and, for the first time in my life, I’m relieved to receive confirmation that I’m at a dated venue.

A few images and videos showing a low number of beach goers were posted to the page during a peak season — the Eid holiday, just a few weeks before. These contrast with the photos from the newer Sahel clubs, which boasted swarms of revelers and received a lot more social media engagement.  

The sinking popularity of Marina’s private beaches is echoed in its real estate prices.

Surfing real estate websites, saw ads for five-bedroom villas being sold in Marina for over LE15 million, which was surprising, as you can get a villa in one of the desirable compounds further west for less, and be able to pay in installments that span five to eight years.

Would anyone pay all that money in cash, for a villa in a compound that’s become relatively undesirable?

Marina - Photograph: Osman El Sharnoubi

Youssef, a Marina veteran who recently sold his villa in Marina, laughs when I mention these prices, saying there’s no way someone will pay for them. I’m too embarrassed to ask him for his selling price. Luckily another friend, Aly, gives me an illuminating example.

His aunt and uncle wanted to sell their seafront, five-bedroom villa in Marina 2 for LE8 million, a price that clearly reflects a decline in value, as that villa could have easily been sold for several million 15 years ago. If property value had not declined in the area over the past few years, that villa should have sold for at least LE15 million today, accounting for inflation.

Even at the cheaper price of LE8 million, they didn’t find any buyers, and decided not to sell — it would be a big loss for them to sell cheaper, and they can’t afford to buy a replacement in newer Sahel resorts.

Marina is not alone in its decline. There are dozens of obscure compounds on the stretch between Marina and Agami, all lacking in infrastructure and basic services.

If you compare many of these old compounds to the new Sahel resorts further west, the poor maintenance and lack of upkeep stand out. For instance, many of the old compounds formally ban bathing in the sea, an astounding demand for a seaside resort, and informally communicate that, if you insist on swimming, it’s at your own risk. This is probably because they don’t have the funds, or managerial will, to invest in breakwaters or hire a capable team of lifeguards, both of which are abundant in the newer Sahel.

“Warning: Bathing in the sea is prohibited due to an absence of lifeguards. Starting from September 10, bathing is at your own risk.” Gameat al-Dowal compound - Photograph: Osman El Sharnoubi

This is the case in the compound I visit after Agami. Gameat al-Dowal, located about 20 kilometres before Marina, is a proverbial “old Sahel compound,” built by a professional association, the Arab League, as much of old Sahel was. Its landscaping is basic. Shabby grass yards surround the mostly one-floor, clay-tiled roof chalets. The compound staff is limited, and the absence of commercial activity is palpable.

Compounds like this feel like monuments to a bygone era, where middle-class Egyptians — through associations of teachers, engineers, public employees, teachers, etc. before the big real estate companies took over of development in Sahel — were able to get a hold of a Sahel home at affordable prices.

In Gameat al-Dowal, a makeshift beach cafe is the only commercial establishment by the sea. It mainly provides umbrellas, chairs and refreshments for customers at the beach. A mini-market and another cafe sit at the back of the compound, near the entrance. The cafe has a TV perched atop a plastic patio table, somewhat crookedly, and a pool table.

While the compound was built for diplomats, I can tell most of them have left for greener pastures to the west, selling or renting their chalets to less well-to-do holiday-makers.

Again, I feel that sense of abandonment settle over my surroundings, but in a different way than it had in Agami.

Agami and its adjacent beaches were overtaken by a different class of holidaymakers altogether, but they still included public beaches. In Agami and its adjacent Abu Talat, I parked my car metres away from the beach and in a few minutes I was either strolling down the beach, or sitting under an umbrella.

Here, in the old Sahel, it’s still private. There are no public beaches, which automatically means that only a minuscule sliver of the population can enjoy one of the Mediterranean’s most beautiful coasts, and for just two to three months of the year.

Old Sahel compound - Photograph: Osman El Sharnoubi

***

There is little published material available to the public about Sahel. Maybe the most famous text is a chapter on holiday making by economist and writer the late Galal Amin, published in his 1998 commentary on social change in Egypt from the 1950s to the 1990s, titled Whatever Happened to the Egyptians.

In his book, Amin gives a scathing commentary on how throughout Egypt’s history, from the era of royal reign to after the 1952 revolution, and from the 1970s to the 1990s, Alexandrian beaches and the coast west of the city were appropriated by a minority of Egyptians in a wasteful and undeserved manner.

Marassi Bay - Courtesy: Marassi

So much advertising about Sahel properties drones on about the crystal clear, azure waters and pristine beaches; a paradise on the Mediterranean. It makes one wonder, why was it never developed for international tourism, or given protectorate status? Why aren’t there beautiful towns — real beach-side towns — to match the beautiful environment, instead of the generally ugly stacks of summer homes?

The dearth of serious commentary about Sahel had given me the impression that there’s a widespread consensus that it’s just there, like some fact of Egyptian life, or a divinely ordained reality. And so, upon further research, it strikes me as surprising that the actual “plan” for Sahel was quite different from how it actually developed.

This plan was outlined by economist and urban planner David Sims, in a section in his 2013 book Egypt’s Desert Dreams. In it, he gives a more detailed and researched narrative of the development.

In the 1970s, the Ministry of Housing had commissioned a Dutch consulting firm and an Egyptian design consultant to draw up a plan for the development of the Northwest Coast, the technical term for the area known today as Sahel, because the North Coast also includes the Delta and the Sinai’s Mediterranean coastline.

This plan included moving some 750,000 to the coast by the year 2000, following its economic development. Five hundred thousand of those were set to reside in New Burj al-Arab City, lying south of the highway near the beginning of Sahel. Burj al-Arab is home to only 150,000 now.

Before leaving for Sahel, I visited David in his cozy office at his Zamalek home. Peering into his laptop screen, he was partially illuminated by a small desk lamp — the only light in the room — which seemed to enhance the expressions of glee and disbelief mingling on his face as he scrolled through what he told me is his favorite program: Google Earth.

“More, more, more … ” he marveled at the amount of compound-style beach homes built along the Sahel coast.

The beach of the north coast was originally planned to be dedicated to resort tourism, which, as David reminded me, had become an economic holy grail in the 1970s, while the inland areas were to be developed for agriculture, industry and housing.

According to Egypt’s Desert Dreams, “The main strategy was that the coast should be carefully planned at low densities with wide natural reserves to enhance the attraction for international tourists. Summer holiday homes were definitely not to be encouraged, since these generated almost no permanent employment or spin-off industries and, thus, would not contribute to the region’s development farther inland.”

The vision in this plan is astonishingly different from what actually ensued. The Housing Ministry, under the guidance of Hassaballah al-Kafrawy (minister from 1977 to 1993), who could be seen as a kind of godfather of today’s Sahel, spearheaded the creation of two of the oldest Sahel compounds, Marakia and Marabella.

The ministry had originally planned for them to have a low population density and contain hotels that met international standards. This, however, did not materialize when the ministry realized that the real demand was for holiday homes for Egyptians, and that a profit could be made out of meeting this, which spurred a feverish era of chalet construction.

The Housing Ministry’s General Authority for North Coast Reconstruction, created in 1980 during Kafrawy’s term, became the sole arbiter of the strip of land that started 34 km west of Alexandria and stretched all the way to Marsa Matrouh, some 300 km away.

Several factors contributed to the abandonment of the original plan, as Donald P. Cole and Soraya Altorki noted in their anthropological research on the Northwest Coast in the 1990s, namely: the rising incomes of middle-class Egyptians who traveled to the Gulf in the 1970s, the fortunes of a rising elite associated with President Anwar Sadat’s open door economic policies and the expansion of capital markets through newly available investments from neighboring Arab countries.

Satellite view of North Coast on Google Maps

Combined, these funds found a good return on investment for developments in the area that were to be sold at much higher prices than they cost, as land was being bought relatively cheap from the Bedouin de-facto occupiers of the land, and the state. Ties to the government were key to getting in on the Northwestern Coast development action.

And so, the construction of holiday homes on the coast hasn’t stopped since, and neither has the slow crawl of the affluent to the west.

Yet this history makes it feel like brick and concrete can tell the entire story. Sure, viewing the sea from a pool sunk in a garden that surrounds a 12-bedroom palace spread over a 2,000-meter-squared plot of land can tell you something about a place’s evolution. But the backstory of Sahel isn’t only about the villas and chalets, it’s also about how people came to occupy them.

***

As a stranger in Sahel, it isn’t surprising that I am curious to experience the beach bars and nightlife in the newer part of the coast, which I have been told has completely transformed in the past decade. This time, I actually am too late to the party, in more sense than one. A conversation with my friend Aida, who is pretty familiar with Sahel nightlife, is telling.

I ask her if she knows whether Lemon Tree will be open this weekend. When she replies asking me which one, I think to myself that surely it’s obvious — I mean the Sahel one. But when I laugh and tell her this, she asks do I mean the one in Telal or Marassi. It seems there are now two Lemon Trees on the North Coast.

Trying to conceal my ignorance, I casually tell Aida that either will do. She explains to me that while she will ask around about both, they are two very different places, and suggests that the Marassi one may be closed anyway as it is a club and people are back in Cairo.

“So one is a restaurant and the other is a club? Ahhh. OK,” I say, giving up on my charade, having failed completely to hide my ignorance.

It turns out both are closed, as are all the trendy places now scattered across the newer Sahel compounds, because it is the end of the season. To anyone who frequents these newer parts, among them Hacienda, Marassi, Bianchi and Telal, all located well past Marina, I would have sounded like a recluse. Certainly not someone you’d like to have at your table at Sachi by the Sea, one of the hotspots for the past few years. I have been told that to reserve a table at Sachi, you have to call in before the summer even begins.

“When we were younger, I remember the coolest thing in Sahel was to show your friends that awesome bike your dad got you. Now, it’s surprising your friends with a table at Sachi,” Youssef, 26, tells me. All his life he spent his summers in Marina, until recently, when he sold his villa there. Now he is a regular at the new Sahel.

Youssef believes that what drives Sahel now is a recent spike in commercial activity. Before Marina, holidaying was simpler, with barely any commercial outlets in sight, but now people are increasingly demanding services on the beach and a nightlife.

In stark contrast to the lonely mini-markets and beachside cafeterias that are a staple across most of old Sahel, on my first and only visit to one of the new Sahel compounds, La Vista Bay, I’m surprised to see a strip of some of the most popular Cairo food chains, like Mince burgers, TBS Bakery and Mori Sushi. The supermarket at La Vista Bay could put some of Cairo’s largest chain supermarket to shame, and an American-style ice cream truck cruises gently along the compound’s seamlessly paved road, playing signature ice cream truck melodies.

Supermarket in La Vista Bay - Photograph: Osman El Sharnoubi

This commercial bustle started in Marina about 10 or 15 years ago. As David had told me before I left, Marina was a game-changer when it came to pioneering the idea of lagoons inside compounds, to give more people — those with chalets a few rows back from the beach — the illusion of a sea-front view. But it was also a key in kicking off night life in Sahel, and attracting famous restaurants and cafes to the coast.

A market report by Invest-Gate, a real estate market research firm, put cafes and restaurants at the top of home buyers preferences in terms of activities in Sahel, with 70 percent of surveyed buyers preferring them over other activities. Nightlife comes in at third, following water activities which was cited as the second most popular activity.

***

Tabla nightclub - Photograph: Osman El Sharnoubi

But the allure of new Sahel compounds lies not only in the availability of certain activities and facilities, like high-class dining and nightlife. It’s also about what a place represents   what it means to own a property at a particular compound or be seen at a particular club.

Amr, a relative of mine, and Omar, a friend, tell me about their identical plans: to move westward to new resorts. They intend to leave the Diplomatic compounds, which were previously highly regarded but that have not fallen completely from grace yet. When I express incredulity at this shuffling of chalets, they respond by saying, in the most natural way possible, as if this were a matter of common sense, “That’s where everyone else is.”

Amr sold his house in Diplo 3, which is located at Sidi Abdel-Rahman, at the beginning of new Sahel, and now has acquired a place in the newer Marassi, close by, while Omar is still trying to sell his place in Diplo 1, which is less in demand since it is is located at the edge of old Sahel, far away from all the action.

Youssef, who spent his youth in Marina, explains to me the feeling of having the people around you in a compound change. “All of a sudden, people didn’t have the same mentality as you. There was more judgment, and people would be in each other’s business. It wasn’t like it used to be, where you knew everyone and you could go to the beach with a big smile and say hello to people,” he says.

I can’t help but notice what feels like a class-related subtext in his comment. To wit: you can’t walk around with your drink or wear a bikini without feeling you’re being judged by a more conservative social milieu that permeated Marina, after the more liberal upper class abandoned it.

In short, it seems people wanted to reproduce what they feel they had when they were exclusively surrounded by their own clique, and developers have caught onto that demand.

The sales and marketing strategy for these places is not just centered on anyone with the money to pay. The question is related to who should be allowed to buy. Class — not merely income level — is a core constituent of the high-end real estate market in Egypt, where most new Sahel developments are situated.

“You create a certain party scene, with certain people, and that creates more demand for your properties,” says Karim*, whose family has been involved in major real estate ventures in Sahel. He gives another example of how party-organizer, the famous Ahmed Ganzouri, whose byGanz Extraordinaire entertainment company was long revered as a guarantee for party quality in Egypt, organized parties in Marassi, forming a buzz around the compound. He adds that Hacienda Bay’s 6ix Degrees nightclub did the same thing in an attempt to boost its reputation.

6ix Degrees nightclub

Sherif* is a real estate salesperson who works for one of the top companies in the field. He spent a summer in Sahel selling chalets and villas, and explains to me how, to get a place in many Sahel compounds, you have to be of a certain disposition, a specific “caliber” that would keep the character of the compound in line with the image it wants to create for itself.

“One of the instructions we get is, literally, all things considered: Be classist,” he tells me. When a potential client walks in their offices, it’s very important to notice how they’re dressed, how they speak and carry themselves, whether they speak a second language, and speak it well. If something is off about the shoes or shirt they’re wearing. Subtle things that could give away that they are not of the “caliber” desired by the developer must be noted.

“If a man comes in who want to buy, and he is a decent person, but his clothes are … Unseemly … ,” he says, “We’ll shake him off.”

Sales staff are themselves also expected to meet the standards applied to clients.

When Sherif was sent to Sahel for a few weeks last summer, he knew that his employer wouldn’t give him a uniform because they were aware their staff would all wear trendy beachwear to meet their clients, due to their class background.

Other than how well you dress, whether you are hired is dependent on how perfect your English is, the way you speak, who your parents are and who you go out with, and where. This isn’t figurative, Sherif stresses to me — he was actually asked where he goes out in his interview for the job.  

Some compounds even encourage owners to become brokers to get their friends to buy properties there, for a handsome commission.

On Cairo’s Mehwar, the thoroughfare most Caireans take out of the capital on their way to Sahel, a white-looking, freckled surfer straddles his board on a billboard, the words “Now Launching, Playa,” emblazoned above him in English. It is an advertisement for a new compound built by New Giza, a property developer.

Billboards for such properties are almost exclusively written in English, which is a clear class-marker.

Class permeates a lot of things about Sahel, from the language used to communicate all things Sahel, to who is allowed to enter new Sahel’s restaurants and bars. Frequenters of the trendiest spots tell me it’s not just about getting an early call in to reserve that coveted table so many are seeking. In some beach bars, it’s about who you know, who you are, and what you’re wearing.

Aida, my friend who is now embarrassingly aware that I’m a total Sahel novice, tells me, “It’s almost impossible to get a reservation in all these places.”

The obstacles are numerous. First off, in the most popular places, you must either be a regular or have a “contact” to get a reservation, and even if you do, you could easily be turned away at the door if the “door selector” — a neologism to me, “bouncer” being the conventional one used in Cairo clubs — doesn’t approve of your appearance.

I am told by another friend about particular hierarchies: priority goes to the owners’ friends and acquaintances, then come the VIPs — actors, singers, public personalities, etc. — and finally the rest, but only after being screened via links to social media accounts where mutual friends are often a determinant.

There is agreement that an air of exclusivity presides in many of these hangouts, which are subsequently an index of the exclusivity of their hosting compounds. As such, the pursuit of being seemingly unattainable hounds developers, while the possibility of being left behind haunts veteran compounds.

***

I’m going to go ahead and assume that when two of three urban planners and architects of different backgrounds and intellectual temperaments use the word “disaster” to describe Sahel, it’s not an arbitrary coincidence.

The first is architect and designer Mahmoud Riad, founder of RiadArchitecture. I sit with Mahmoud in Cairo at an outdoor cafe. It’s mid-September and I have recently returned from Sahel, and although I miss its weather, I can finally feel the evening breeze in Cairo.

“Open Google Maps and look at Sahel, then mentally remove the walls between all the compounds … you’d find there’s no connection, there’s no urban fabric, no street system or other types of interconnectivity along the coast, and that is a major concern,” Mahmoud tells me.

North Coast compounds on Google Maps

Mahmoud comes from a long line of architects, and has worked as an interior designer in Sahel on a number of occasions. He’s soft-spoken and wears an expression that conveys critical reflection, and is keen to communicate that he only goes to Sahel for work.

His concern is that the urban design of Sahel is non-existent, meaning that it consists of pockets of completely isolated, gated communities that preclude any chance of having sustainable, livable resort cities such as Mykonos in Greece, or Bodrum in Turkey.

Galal Amin, in his 1998 book, shrewdly observed that a minority of Egyptians had built in the North Coast “village [Egyptians call Sahel compounds villages] after village, and in reality, it is the farthest thing from a village, as it is not productive, nor is it green; it isn’t even inhabited.”

Speaking about a trip to Siwa in October, after the Sahel season had come to a close, urban planner David Sims recalls noticing how the billboards along the Sahel highway had been stripped back to a dull gray. Empty billboard after empty billboard. “Who would want to pay for ads that no one will see?” he says.

Several of the people I interview aren’t happy with what they view as Sahel’s lost potential, and cite different Mediterranean rivieras, in colder climates, that are home to towns which are inhabited and active all year round, and where national holiday makers and tourists flock during the summer months.

Karim alludes to the Côte d’Azur in the south of France, where towns like Antibes, Marseilles, Juan les-Pen, Sainte-Maxime and others are linked in a way that Sahel, with its disconnected compounds dotting the edge of a sea-side highway, isn’t. There, the sea and beach are lined with hotels and other commercial activity, he says, explaining,“One street runs along the beach on the entire stretch, it’s all the same along it, and the highway is far behind.”

The sentiment that Sahel’s potential to mirror European beach towns has been squandered was present as early as 1998. In Egypt’s Desert Dreams, David quoted a business magazine from that year commenting on the issue: “The white sandy beaches and trademark azure blue waters of the Mediterranean could have made the NWC [North West Coast] a major tourist destination to rival, for example, the French Riviera, Spain’s Costa Del Sol, and the Turkish Antalia. Instead, most of the NWC has been, in most areas, transformed into a barren monument to bad taste and bad design.”

The irony isn’t lost on me that many Sahel compounds adopted Euro-Mediterranean names and place names: Marina, Marabella, Nice, Marseilia (Arabic for Marseille), Mallorca and so on.

Urban planning researcher, Ahmed Zaazaa, co-founder of 10 Tooba, which carries out applied research on the built environment in Egypt, also speaks of the absence of planning in Sahel.

Zaazaa is passionate about urban planning, and is usually incensed, in a disbelieving kind of way, about how Egyptian government planners plan, or don’t.

Ahmed, like Mahmoud, is not a fan of Sahel, and hasn’t been there for pleasure in 10 years or so, he tells me. Again, I didn’t know — with the exception of David Sims — what the opinions of these urban planners and architects would be ahead of our interviews, so I am struck by the repulsion they seem to share for that urban space.

Ahmed thinks that if there was any planning, it was limited to ensuring that developers that wanted to build were offered land in areas that didn’t belong to the Ministry of Petroleum or that the military needed, and otherwise giving the green light for all to build holiday homes. He believes this breaches the three pillars of sustainability.

“This type of development is neither environmentally, socially or economically sustainable, there’s virtually no economic activity nine months of the year. It caters to a small class of society, and the incredible amount of concrete used cannot be good for the environment or ecosystems in the North Coast,” he stresses.

Ahmed doesn’t immediately resort to the European example, save for a brief mention of Marseille. Instead, he refers to other holiday destinations inside of Egypt; areas along the Red Sea, he contends, offer a better alternative, where there are large stretches of beach protected as natural reserves, open to the public, and where eco-lodges are popular. Ahmed also references some parts of Sinai, like Nuweiba, where small, family-run camps operate.

While some of these camps and lodges breach the protectorate law, and are operating at the mercy of the government, he still thinks they’re a far cry from the Sahel example.

I’m inclined to challenge him though, as some of the people I’ve talked with claimed that if Sahel were left to public planners, it would just become another Agami. Ahmed contends, as does Mahmoud, that any real planning and implementation by the government should have prevented informality taking over at Agami’s beaches.

They both rattle off a series of measures that they believe should have been implemented, as though these were obvious. They assert that the government should have distributed smaller plots of land, not to be cordoned off, and provided specific regulations about plot size, height, use, separation distances and so on. These, within a long-term planning context, would have allowed for a more accessible, economically viable urban space that could have, in Ahmed’s words, lasted for centuries.

In government literature though, it seems that, just like in the 1970s, sustainable development is still always on the agenda.

Just last year, a presentation by the Planning Ministry’s General Organization for Physical Planning (GOPP), following directives by Egypt’s president to prepare a strategy for the development of the Northwestern Coast, included the following as challenges for the desired development: a shortage in human resources due to a limited number of inhabitants and the population’s dispersal, as well as the fragility of the region’s economic foundation.

Now, you would think that the fact that a Housing Ministry body, the General Authority for North Coast Reconstruction, was created over 20 years ago, back in 1980, and that even before that consultants were hired to draw up a development plan to attract the population to the region, would mean that the fruits of North Coast planning should, by now, be ripe for the picking. But apparently not.

The GOPPs presentation — in its evaluation of the current state of the region — is silent on any obstacle posed by the predominance of holiday homes on its coast.

It doesn’t seem that the present construction rate, and the building on land farther and farther to the west, with compounds now skimming the edge of Sidi Heneish, 140 km from Alamein, where Marina is located, and just 50 km short of Marsa Matrouh, have been considered problematic by the authorities.

***

Sun setting on Sahel - Photograph: Osman El Sharnoubi

I am in Sahel just as the season is ending, and so I get to experience for myself the start of the nine-month stretch in which the region is deserted. I imagine the emptiness that  is soon to follow. I visualize waves crashing against jetties and breakwaters, billowing winds chipping away at fresh paint and rattling window frames, rhythmically replacing the sound of summer chatter.

I picture long lines waiting for the buses that will transport the Delta-bound seasonal laborers back home, or to other service work in warmer resorts. I can see the packing up of shiny metallic kitchen equipment into large, Cairo-bound trucks.

Can you imagine a different Sahel in 2052? A Sahel where government plans to transform it into a developed, productive region, active from January to December have come to fruition, with permanent employment for many, and beautiful beaches for all?

There’s a kind of permanence to brick and concrete. I can partly obscure it when I’m knee-deep in the water, feet burrowed in the soft sand, my back facing the beach. But, traveling back toward Cairo on the Sahel highway, as the enduring line of chalets flickers on my left, between me and the sea, I am forced out of my fantasy.

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Osman El Sharnoubi