Originally barred from publication in his native Egypt in 2010 by the local authorities, Ahmad Hosni‘s latest project, Go Down Moses, has been newly released online. A collection of essays by both Hosni and numerous other writers, the project documents the transformation of the region of South Sinai from a pilgrimage site and inhospitable ‘wasteland’ to a tourist enclave, and is embellished with Hosni’s own photographs of the region.
I recently got the chance to talk to Ahmad about his project, as well as the region in general, and its local inhabitants – particularly the Bedouin.
Q: What prompted you to decide to publish a book about tourism in Sinai?
Sinai has a very interesting spatial history, and this is something that has hardly been researched, especially in comparison to Sinai’s cultural and religious history. You would be surprised to know how little written material there is out there regarding contemporary Sinai. Beyond travel sorties on one end, and Biblical studies on the other, there is virtually nothing in the fields of social sciences and the humanities, which is a shame. However, it is also understandable, because for a long time, Sinai was a difficult place to penetrate, partly due to logistical difficulties, and partly due to Sinai’s troubled histories. Researchers could not just do fieldwork there the way they would in Cairo. Areas are not easily accessed – physically and otherwise – beyond the sphere of the touristic. It is still hard to access, in many ways, and in many zones, particularly in the hinterland; or perhaps there’s just a lack of interest – I’m not sure. It’s probably a mix of both. It was for a long time, and still is, a forgotten land.
On the other hand, I have always been interested in the question of place: how does it come into being, and how is it represented? I wanted to do something related to the place I knew the most. I wanted to engage my personal encounter with the place using photography. Photography is a congenial medium for that phenomenological approach to things: to start from the experiential, and see how things appear to you, and how you correlate to them, and to engage this relatedness between myself (as a tourist, resident, and researcher) and the place.
Q: How would you say tourism has affected South Sinai in recent years? What effect has this had on the local populace, as well as the ‘atmosphere’ of the land as a whole?
Tourism constitutes the main bulk of the economy in South Sinai, with numbers reaching up to 90% of the local economy, according to some reports. It’s the main source of income for the majority of the local population. However, that’s not all – it’s not just a matter of GDPs; tourism was the main ‘shaper’ of South Sinai.
Tourism is embroiled in the condition of modernity of the region that started to operate by the end of the 1960s. The advent of tourism heralded a new social and economic formation. It introduced a new condition of capital, and hence a whole new relation to the land. It was the time of a transition from the nomadic (or semi-nomadic) life to a sedentary one. Land became property.
True – tourism became the most lucrative source of income, although this new condition – this new social formation and social ecology – should not simply be reduced to the economic perverseness of that mode of production. We are talking about two generations (since the end of the 1960s) that grew to see their lives and their environment in terms of tourism as practice. There was also a gradually developing cultural perverseness of tourism – or a hegemony of it, rather. That is a totality that bestows cogency on something, and that dictates roles and assigns identities. Tourism is the main factor shaping and modulating that space in which all sorts of social interactions take place – a horizon of possibilities.
Everybody in Sinai would work in tourism, or grow to see tourism as the normal course of life. All that developed rapidly, starting from the beginning of the nineties. Now, the region is a tourist enclave. One cannot think of South Sinai without considering the conditions of tourism. As a matter of fact, the term ‘south’ in South Sinai, in contrast to the North, is a complete product of the social formation of tourism. There was simply no South Sinai before, as distinct from a ‘North Sinai’ prior to that. The South is where tourism reigns, and striates that space. Tourism put South Sinai on the map.
Q: How do the benefits brought about by tourism and the transformation of the region into a major tourist destination for outsiders and Egyptians alike weigh against its more negative impacts?
Tourism is not necessarily negative. The book is a critique of tourism, yet it does not decry tourism as a negative thing, per se. What is problematic, is when you take tourism to be the modality for development. This, unfortunately was – and still is – the authorities’ approach to local development in the region. Their thinking is as such: if we build more five-star hotels, we will bring more tourists, and make more money and hire more people, and everybody will be happy.
This is, of course, faulty logic. Firstly, it ignores the fact that a region such as South Sinai, with such an ecologically fragile condition, cannot sustain mass tourism. Secondly – and more relevant to our discussion – tourism creates inequitable conditions of labour. The whole development strategy that projects the Gulf of Aqaba coast as a ‘Rivera’, apart from being unattainable, creates and augments inequitable distributions of income. Large sweeps of land along the coast were bought for cheap prices from local Bedouins to build major tourist complexes.
However, the thing is that they don’t really benefit from that. ‘I will never here a Bedouin’, a landowner would confess. I’ve heard that so many times. This can’t be reduced to bigotry so much as a response to a market logic of professionalism. The thing that most Bedouins don’t have access to – education and training – are the things that hamper their employment opportunities in the future, even in the field of tourism. The Government paid little attention to things like education and medical service when they discussed employment. They just thought of room capacity and better roads.
As a result, Bedouins are gradually left with no option but to move deeper and deeper into the hinterland. The space of South Sinai is striated into two spaces: one along the coast, and the other in the hinterland, separated by an asphalt road – a border that separates the two spaces along economic, as well as ethnic lines. The coast is run, owned, and inhabited by expatriates and Egyptians from the Nile Valley, and expatriates from all over the world. The hinterland, on the other hand, is exclusively Bedouin – a land with few water resources and medical facilities, and absolutely no job opportunities except in dwindling safari businesses, poppy plantations, drugs, arms, and human trafficking. It’s not a great place to be – although our romantic imaginations would tell us otherwise.
Things were not always like that, though. The original model of tourism (up until the mid-nineties) was the shoe-string camp, usually run by a local Bedouin. It was a very humbled, limited luxury (with of course very limited capacity), but it was a livelihood for many. It was very different from the current model that fosters the transformation of spaces into enclaves.
Q: In his 1959 travelogue, Arabian Sands, the renowned British explorer Wilfred Thesiger lamented the decline of the Bedouin way of life in the Empty Quarter, and shuddered at the thought of the adverse effects of modernity on them. More than 50 years after Thesiger’s book was published, would you say he had due cause to ‘mourn’? What is the state of the Bedouin in the tourist enclave that South Sinai has become?
I am not aware of Wilfred Thesiger’s book, I have to admit. My project is different from his, however. My focus is not the traditions of the Bedouin, or their way of life; the book does not feature any essays on that subject. It is, of course, the predicament of this social group that comes as the result of those forces of production in South Sinai that is worthy of investigation, and I allude to this in my essay, Faulkner in Sinai. I am interested in the place, and how it came into being. What ideologies and forces that produced the palimpsest of space called South Sinai?
Your reference is significant nonetheless, as I realised that whenever a body of photographs features images of ‘different’ people (e.g. a veiled woman, a man in ‘exotic’ attire, etc.), there would always be the tendency to recoil to a discourse of the ‘other’. There are aesthetics that modulate our expectations of what is legible, and what can be said.