Last night we went on the ‘oasis dinner’, which happens every Wednesday – a different hotel takes care of the catering. Tonight is was Sultan Bey. We were picked up by minibus and driven ten minutes to the ‘oasis’ – which is just on the other side of the main road from El Gouna, really just a camel’s spit away. Yes, there were palm trees, dromedaries, guys in galabas, water – but it was all rather artificial, like a toy farm. Nevertheless, it had a certain Trumpton charm. Maybe it was the light – we arrived at dusk, the sun slipping behind the raw peaks; maybe it was the setting – the place was overshadowed by the very unartificial mountains. There was a wonderful ‘dove-cote’ tower there – looking like something out of Mordor.
Yet this starkness was offset by the tourist tinsel – visitors were taken on a camel ride, all the way around the main well and back (a brief circle, taking a couple of minutes). I wasn’t tempted to take part in the charade, so I found a table at the back of the ‘tent’ – a large covered, carpeted space. On the outside it looked like the walls were made of scrap cardboard, but it turns out these were just ‘shutters’, to keep out the wind. Later, they were taken down, to reveal the stars standing proud against the deep velvet of the night sky. The maiden moon smiled down, alluring but unobtainable.
Emad, our affable guide, met us there and got a round of drinks in. The buffet was ‘opened’ and people queued up. My stomach was still feeling delicate – and I wasn’t sure if I was going to be able to eat anything. But I was so weak by that point – a couple of days on virtually nothing; an intense steam room experience before I came which had wiped me out completely – that I had to try and eat something. So I went and got a plate of salad and nervously picked, waiting to see what my body decided to do. It let me keep it, so I boldly went for a plate of rice and aubergine dish. I joked with Elmaz about the way Americans call them ‘egg plants’ – maybe it’s a Trans-Atlantic thing, but at least share a similar sense of humour, and enjoy winding each other up.
I retired to the fire where Bedouin offered a relaxing draw upon shisha pipes. One was lit for me and I took a tentative inhalation – it was pleasant and soothing, a smooth smoke (of apple tobacco). I was offered some lovely Bedouin tea. There was just a simple camaraderie, sharing the fire, the smoke, the tea, the odd word or gesture. I felt in common with these Bedouin – some kind of universal brotherhood.
The young man who served me turned out to be the grandson of the chief. One day this village would be his, inshallah. I tried to explain my Bedouin trip the previous Wednesday – when I mimed the shape of the mountain (like a camel’s saddle) they recognised it straight away. Tizzy came and joined me and was offered, jokingly, an ‘expresso’. The Bedouin had a nice sense of humour. What was in the pipe? Hashish, they laughed.
Entertainment began – the usual minstrels of El Gouna – but in this context, reclining on cushions, pulling on a bubbling pipe, it was more agreeable. Unfortunately, they used modern Arabic music – one track sounded like Michael Jackson’s ‘Bad’. The generator gave up the ghost now again – perhaps on grounds of taste. The insipid ‘dancey’ troupe; were followed by a livelier routine where a couple of women vigorously rejected the male dancers, pushing them to the floor – Arabic girl power! At one point a kind of pantomime horse popped up – excitingly reminiscent of the Obby Oss of Padstow. It even frolicked friskily with the women in the audience.
A half-decent belly dancer came on. Then the ‘twirly guy’ (Tanoura) minced on. At first it was good to see him up close – I liked the way he remained the centre of his spinning world. The gaudy, noisy world raced by, but it did not wobble him. Unfortunately, he switched his ‘Blackpool illuminations’ on and it quickly became like a Bruno routine. Still, it’s an impressive feat of dizziness denial.
There might have been a final act – but by now I was on my second beer and, though not drunk, I was doing my best to ‘switch off’. As soon as they left the stage, we were told we had 5 minutes to leave! The lights went up – it could’ve been chucking out time in a British pub: I expected to hear: ‘Don’t you have a home to go to?’
We were piled back into the minibus and whisked away into the night like hostages – back to captivity.