Exploring El Tur
Katie Williams, a student studying Arabic and keen windsurfer heads to El Tur with the rest of the Cambridge Uni WIndsurfing Club:
Waking up to a grey and miserable England upon return from an exhilirating week’s windsurfing in the sunny Sinai Peninsular of Egypt, i decided a homemade fruit cocktail would help put some colour back into things. After peeling, slicing, chopping, washing, cutting and segmenting oranges, bananas, lemons, kiwis, oranges, and strawberries and finally completing the uniquely arduous and sticky task that is stoning and fleshing out a mango, i ground them all through the tantalising process of mastication. Finally I set my lips on the delicious elixir it yields of the fruit; two gulps and its gone in thirty seconds.
All that i was left with was an empty glass, a messy heap of compost material, and a mush of pulp basking in a tupperware pot. As i contemplated how much i apparently had to put in to get so litte out, my mind was struck by the discipline demanded by two seemingly disparate passions of mine; windsurfing and the Arabic language. The latter, with its highly complex grammatical structures and forever contingent vocabulary, is considered the hardest language in the world for a native speaker of English to learn. Having begun studying Arabic in 2006, I had a convincing command of the colloquial language by the time we went on the trip; the Egyptian guys working at Oceansource were determined I was Lebanese when i spoke with them. Well, that was until they met me on the beach after my first day’s windsurfing. On the verge of using a bruised and battered arm to smash my kit to pieces, i took a deep breath and gave up for that day. My hope for the holiday was to conquer the planing carve gybe and surpass that broad, ambiguous category of ‘the improver’ once and for all. Hobbling up the beach, i welcomed Ahmed’s smiley face, who had come to help carry my kit. He proceeded to assail me – sail in hand – with a stream of sounds that made no sense to my ears. Despite various attempts previously to convey the concept of windsurfing to Arabs who had barely even known what swimming was, vocabulary in this field was not my strong point. Lost for words, i was reminded of the vast amount of more specific areas where my Arabic was still lacking, despite four years of hard graft. Simultaneously, the fact dawned on me that this category of the ‘advanced’ was not merely a question of plane sailing, if you excuse the pun. I was not about to enter some blissful state of windsurfing; like Arabic, this sport implies a never ending thrill of elements to master. The real question is how far you can push the limits.
Located just 56miles/91km from the more reknowned, hippy windsurfing Mecca that is Dahab, and 625miles/1000km from the real Saudi Arabian Mecca itself, Oceansource finds itself in el Tur; the capital of South Sinai, and a perfectly isolated windsurfers’ paradise. Literally meaning ‘the mountain’ in Arabic, ‘ElTur’ refers specifically in the Quran to Mount Sinai, where it is believed Moses received the ten commandments. Thousands flock to the mountain everyday to experience the sunrise from its summit. The stunning scenery around the windsurf centre offers a constant reminder of why the region is held so sacred in the hearts of the majority of the world’s population; the consistent and powerful wind with which it is graced of its place in the hearts of perhaps a smaller minority of people, visiting to show a very different kind of gratitude to mother nature and on a very different kind of quest.
This minority comes in all shapes and sizes, and only a sport like windsurfing could bring together in such harmony the eclectic group that made the week. Midwives, astronomers, students of English literature, born and bred Essex boys, Foreign Office employees, Egyptians, Brits, Lithuanians, Germans, Belgians, vetenarians, vegetarians and engineers all joined forces in the Egyptian sunshine. My status amongst this lot? Well, as a fourth year student of Arabic at Cambridge University, I guessed that the holiday carried more significance for me than most. Having spent 12 months from 2008-09 living as a lone, blonde Western woman in the depths of Middle Eastern Arab society, this would be my first return to the region since going through a long and troublesome process of reintegration into the British style of life. Chained to my desk in the darkness in my dingy little room in Cambridge, the dream of the freedom ahead had kept me going as i slogged through the inhumane workload that is fourth year; flying along the open water of the Red Sea on a perfect broad reach, the wind in my hair and the sun on my skin. Despite this, i couldn’t shake off an underlying feeling of apprehension i had at the thought of how this freedom might be afflicted by an uncomfortable confrontation of the various aspects of my identity that had formed over the past few years.
Some of us spent the first night of the trip in rather primitive, exposed little beach huts. How lovely to be woken up not by the brassy sound of church bells and drunken debauchery i had become so used to living in the centre of Cambridge, but to a howling wind which thrashed the thin, mdf-like walls throughout the night. Any apprehension was soon whipped into an eager anticipation for the day of windsurfing ahead. Stepping out of the shack in the morning we were met by a blinding equatorial sun and sparkling emerald green water filling the bay; a sight framed by the distant mountains that all around jut their jagged peaks into the clear blue sky. The week was a success; with 25 knots or above most days, all that could be asked was for was a little less wind for those of us who do not carry so much weight. Whenever it was too strong to go out, time was enjoyably passed clinging onto a questionable watch tower and feeling inspired by the experts; it wouldn’t have been a proper windsurf trip without the awesome freestyle and classic wipe-outs witnessed from this vantage point. The centre was well equipped for all conditions. On the apparently rare instance of a calm, still and wind-free bay, one morning some of the guys and I found a new and exciting way of having fun on the water that came in the form of paddleboards. I played for hours on the flat water; it was morning time and the tranquility gave the air a timeless feel. As i floated around on the flat water i felt almost like some kind of ancient tribal warrior, landing on undiscovered territory. I was not alone in this feeling; moored in a colourful boat across the bay, i floated by a bunch of Egyptian fishermen. They were somewhat bemused, to say the least, at the approach of a bikini-clad blonde seemingly standing on water, brandishing only a large paddle and shouting early morning greetings across to them in a native dialect of Arabic.
All due respect should be paid to the instructors, who were always on hand to help with kit after an exhausting session’s sailing. They seemed to be coping well with living as outsiders in an Arab community. I know how hard this can be, especially in one that does not offer the cultural comforts to be found in more touristic places such as Dahab, and I was impressed to hear the Arabic they had learnt. Danielle, our only female instructor, could always be made out on her miniature 3.3, holding her own in the strongest of winds amongst some intimidating 5s. When firing towards you on the water, i for one can testify that these guys can seem like missiles coming to blow your head off. The Essex boys sung music to my ears when they said this was by far the largest group of windsurfing girls they had ever encountered, so it was inspiring to have Danielle representing us on the more advanced side of things.
I always find it more gratifying to speak to Arabs less exposed to tourism, which can carry with it enough contradiction and misunderstanding as to spoil the effervescent curiosity i have found to be inherent to these people. From teaching female students in Northern Syria who had never set eyes on a foreigner before - and whose eyes i could not see for the black veil covering them, to living with a bedouin tribe in the middle of the desert, i thought i had experienced all in the Middle East. It turned out that i was wrong.
Free of the pressures inherent to solitary survival in such a foreign culture, the group provided a safety net and my windsurfing mission a unique context from which to explore those conflicting aspects of my identity i mentioned before. Drinking alcohol was one custom i had never felt the desire to pick up again on return to the West, but as i saw some kind of bonding experience in the drinking games everyone was playing in the evenings, i felt inclined to try and join in. So, I went to get a beer from the bar where the Egyptian barman briefly caught me in the political conversation I had been trying to avoid all week. As an Arabic speaker, politics – for obvious reasons – tend to come up a lot. Never, though, had i experienced such a conversation in the midst of a drinking game. On the rare ocassions that i had drunk alcohol when i was living in the Middle East, conservative Muslims could make drinking a bottle of wine feel like taking a shot of heroin, so it was extremely refreshing to be able to indulge in the two in this way.
As the barman accompanied me back to the group to try and join in with our games, the whooping nonsense involved in one of them surpasses all linguistic barriers, and he had no trouble pretending to be a chicken and ‘getting a headset on’. I was amused, however, to wonder if his observant smile would hold so fast if he had understood what the infamous ‘never have i ever’ really involved; forcing each other to down drinks by exposing the most outrageous and thus usually sexual endeavours undertaken by members of the group, this drinking game epitomizes just about everything Arab culture is not.
Looking through photos from the trip in the departures lounge at Sharm El-Sheikh airport, one in particular really caught my attention. One of the guys on a lone plane in the bay perfectly aligned with the minaret of the mosque opposite, from where the melodic call to prayer had echoed as a charming accompaniment to our sailing sessions. Gritted teeth, i thought, a token spray of antiseptic and a roll of gaffa tape are only convenient seconds to the perserverance and dedication required to defy the various limits we continuously encounter in a sport like windsurfing; two key elements in the pushing of cultural boundaries. It is passion, however, that stands above all.
I felt really alive as the shot of natural sugar from the cocktail buzzed through my veins, and the real fruits of my efforts in making it became clear. To quote from ‘The Windsurfing Movie’, which i won on the trip, the sport is ‘like a bug, it gets inside of you and you just can’t get rid of it’. As i re-lived in my mind that one, glorious planing carve gybe i had achieved on the trip, i had already begun planning how to save up for the next one.
Written by Katie Williams