I DIDN’T recognise the Sharm el-Sheikh we landed in three weeks ago. We were aware that tourism in Egypt had been gradually in decline since the Arab spring began, but the shisha cafés where we used to drink mint tea until the sun came up had become sad shadows of themselves.
A surplus of staff dressed in traditional galabeyas were competing for trade with synchronised Western dance routines and trying to attract the scarce visitors still here for autumn sun by calling out “cheap as chips” and naming their shops “Cheaper than Asda”.
And then the plane came down, a fireball which killed 224 Russians, an unimaginable tragedy which will again change everything about life in Sharm.
More than 150 of us had travelled to this beautiful diving destination to celebrate my sister Soraya’s big fat Egyptian wedding.
But hours before the ceremony in the exquisite Coptic Orthodox Heavenly Cathedral the terrible news spread across our hotel. For the most part, we tried to put this out of our minds as we carried on preparing for the wedding, but such an event cannot – and should not – easily be forgotten. The most nervous checked the dodgy internet connection for the latest news on what may have been the cause of the crash.
The wedding was incredible, the hotel staff amazing and I made it through my speech. The bride and many of the guests ended up in the pool at the end of the night.
And over the next few days, most of the party returned home safe and sound. But then, as new suspicions emerged, the British government decided to ground planes. That left around 20 relatives, friends and our family priest, who had flown out to conduct the ceremony, stuck in Sharm.
Those who had made their flights had passed through the airport quite speedily, but told us how international reporters had gathered. Travellers were asked to stand closer together for pictures, they said, to create an image of greater chaos. They were pressed to say they would never return to Sharm. They refused.
Back at the resort, those whose flights were delayed indefinitely found their airlines covered hotel costs and reasonable expenses, keeping them updated. Hotel guests were overheard saying things like “Stranded? Are you joking? I’m having the time of my life” or “There are a million worse places to be stranded”.
The beauty of the cliffside lounge cafe Farsha...
...and the horror of the wrecked Russian jet
Two of my younger cousins were quite content. The weather was fantastic, the diving unforgettable, and they made the most of their extended stay.
This is not to play down the later chaos, or panic experienced by those who wanted to leave. By the time my sister and her new husband were able to fly out (she was allowed to carry her wedding dress – it was either that or wear it for the five-hour flight), Russia had moved to evacuate thousands of its citizens.
The tiny Sharm airport was not made for this. Coupled with more stringent security checks, this made for a hellish, four-hour, elbow-raised crush to the gates.
There was one surreal moment when the remaining friends and family held a late-night summit debating whether it was safer to take a plane home, a bus through the desert to Cairo or, as one ambitious cousin began making inquiries, to charter a private jet. There were jokes about borrowing helicopters but, once the sensible heads kicked in the next day, it was back to the beach and the pool to wait it out.
Throughout the wedding and then the uncertainty, staff at our hotel, Le Royal, were unbelievably helpful and respectful. Staff generally come from across Egypt, many from the countryside, work a few weeks or months without a day off then return home for a week or two. But as the hotels are increasingly becoming like five-star ghost towns, the restaurants almost empty, they now do not know if they will have jobs to come back to.
One family friend in Cairo, who supplies Sharm hotels with toiletries and other products, rang up the other day in despair. The hotels have cancelled orders and he has been left with a mountain of stock. “What should I do? Drink the butter?” he asked. He is one of many thousands who rely on the tourist industry.
Sharm used to be the place where we, as teenagers, were given a little bit of freedom. Just enough for our parents to let us roam the two main streets, explore the stunning Red Sea, go clubbing in Bus Stop (now Pacha) and return for a morning swim. But this time it looked sad, the hotels still impeccable, but with a dearth of visitors.
On one of our last days we discovered the magical Farsha Mountain Louge. Overlooking a sprawling reef teeming with multi-coloured fish, the café is built into the cliff on different levels. It has old wooden doors, lanterns, stained glass and colourful kilims.
It is a secret gem none of our Egyptian friends had ever mentioned and we wished we had more time to explore.
We still don’t yet know for certain what caused the air crash. If it has caused Egypt and the world to wake up and increase security checks then at least that’s something. But, if this was an act of terrorism, should Sharm suffer and die because of outside influences? And should we allow these acts to stop us living?
I work at Oxford Circus and generally expect it to be as much, if not more, of a target as Sharm. So I, and I expect others in my family, will not be deterred from returning to this beautiful, chaotic land. Sharm airport security will now be better than ever before and we need to return to Farsha – if it is still there. Egyptians are resourceful people and find ways to spin a living out of thin air and Sharm needs a little faith right now.