A ride to a dream (part two)

RT continues the story of young Egyptian men and their dubious affairs with aging tourists.

In a love-triangle, the third party is usually the lawyer. “It is fine, even beautiful, when a couple agrees and is clear on what they want from a relationship…a woman falls in love and the boy cares about her, she helps him to open his own business and they may run it together, and stay together. There is nothing wrong with that.” says Eid Al-Darby, a lawyer, after we talked for four hours about the Urfi marriage issue, his personal life, Israel and Sinai, and then about the way of life of the local Bedouin, and then back to Urfi marriages. We agreed that maybe these relations are a bizarre reflection on what we expect from a usual relationship, yet if everybody is happy, then let it be. Al-Darby has 13 years of experience in the law and he has been working in Dahab since 2001.


A marriage in Egypt is legal if it is a civil ceremony performed at a local marriage court. An Urfi, or customary marriage, is a controversial issue and is still unrecognized by most of Egyptian society. The Egyptian government did not recognize Urfi marriage until the new personal status law passed in 2000. Now the document can be only used in family courts to prove the relationship and grant a divorce for a woman, without alimony or child support. Unofficial Urfi marriage is when the couple, two witnesses and a lawyer sign a document.

In Cairo, the reputation of Urfi marriages is that they are nearly the same as legalized prostitution. Stories abound of summer romances between filthy rich Gulf Arab boys buying poor virgin peasant girls for a fling. Urfi marriages are also considered a safety valve for frustration over spiraling marriage costs and an outlet for university couples' first discreet sexual experiences. In Dahab, where there is a beach and a surplus of underemployed men, it suits everyone.

An Urfi marriage document can be bought for $36. According to Al-Darby most of the local boys, acting with dirty intentions, would bring their foreign wives-to-be (25-55 years) and two witness friends (or strangers paid $10 each) to witness the ceremony. Three signatures from the lawyer and witnesses, then the couple’s names filled in the blanks, a few hand shakes – and the marriage is done, followed by an overnight honeymoon at the spouse's room. The police will not trouble the couple. Then he makes sure she signs over property and business to his name.

“Around 90% of Urfi marriages in here have a sad ending,” says Al-Darby. Legally a lawyer can not refund the “spoils” if a woman registers property in her young husband's name. “A South African woman was physically and verbally abused by her husband, she bought him a car and a house, she was asking me to help her reconcile with her husband so he would stop mistreating her. I tried to open her eyes to the truth but she was blind. He calls her up now and then, tells her few good words, spends a night with her, and she is back in love with him. He did not want to divorce her. But eventually they divorced and she left back to her home country.”

Al-Darby believes the problem is in the foreign women, “Do not tell me that a 50 year-old who was previously married and divorced is naïve, and does not understand what is happening! Come on.” Whenever there is a significant age gap it is always for two reasons – either sex and money, or only money, Al-Darby says. “The boys tell me, 'I give her the best of my young years, and I have a right to get something in return,' and he has a point in a way.” This is an odd definition of fairness that in Dahab's context makes sense.

Al-Darby does an expensive and more complicated Urfi registered marriage for $179 or more, depending on the paper work. He sends the marriage documents to be registered at the Egyptian Ministry of Justice for Foreign Affairs. In this case, Al – Darby says, it is all legal.

The long arm of the law

Photos by John Perkins
My meetings took place mostly during the night, perhaps because I was meddling with the night's affair. It's 2 a.m and the night is still young. Drunken tourists, loud and disoriented, stagger around. Local men hang around in baggy-trousers and tight t-shirts. Some Egyptian families are mingling by the beach. The dark Red Sea is in the background but you cannot see it, only listen to the waves. On the horizon, in the east, is Saudi Arabia, dark and quiet.

“You have got quite a view over here, unlike in Cairo!” I told Wael Al-Sakr as we sit to talk. He is another character in Dahab's love saga. The tourist police in Dahab are aware of Urfi marriages between local men and foreign women. Al-Sakr agrees that restricting these relations would decrease tourism. However, no official statistics on the subject are available, moreover, it is hardly a priority.

Mohammed Eraqi, professor of Tourism Studies at Helwan University in Egypt, gave a snapshot of statistics which reflect Egypt's tourism: “Tourism is considered as a way for sustainable economic development in Egypt. It is the main source yielding foreign currency, creating more jobs for people around the country and it can be seen as a tool for fair income distribution. For example its contribution to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is 15.0% in 2009.” He also added, “The contribution of tourism in Egypt to employment is 12.6% of total employment in 2009. Export earnings from international visitors and tourism goods generate 23.4% of total exports of $14.4 billion in 2009.”

“We need to keep the balance. I want a tourist to have fun not to restrict her. However keeping it all within a respectable frame, that's tough,” says Wael Al-Sakr. So the semi-marriage documents are bought to assuage the boys’ conscience, and to maintain the police duty to keep the balance. “The Urfi [marriage] is illegal but here it is OK, you just need a couple of witnesses and a lawyer and the issue is sorted, but if anything happened it is not our matter, we did what we could.”

In the global media, the authorities of Third World countries where sex tourism is common are occasionally called “international pimps” or accused of “turning blind eye to the issue”. If Al-Sakr and anyone else directly “living and eating bread and butter” from Dahab's tourism would have his own way, they would maintain the balance and keep the income coming in.

At Momo's

Here is a woman old enough to be my mother frolicking and pushing the air out the big rubber ring with me, and giggling like a ten year old. The woman says she caught pneumonia in Nepal and passed out in the mountains. She came to Sinai for the first time when it was undiscovered by mass tourism in the 1980s. She was a taxi driver in her home-country for five years, and those years bring a smile to her face. She loved, and then hated Egypt and the Egyptians when she contracted Hepatitis A, and now she loves them again after meeting Angel. Here she is giggling on my rubber floater.

“And this is my wife,” says Ahmed, 34 years old, also known as Angel, pointing at Monique, 47 years old, also known as Momo, at the restaurant where he used to work. Later the same day, we were at their house with their roommates and friends under a thick cloud of pot smoke.

Angel, who used to sell angel dust narcotics as a teenager back in the US, is half Egyptian and half Mexican- American. He has two beautiful children and a divorce behind him, “they [the kids] are the best thing came out of my ex-wife, literally,” he says. Momo used to live with an Egyptian man in the same house for a year, but then she threw him out because he used to come back drunk and insult her. “I used to believe these men's sweet talking before until I hated them, it is hard to be a single woman in Dahab,” she says.

The two “soul mates”, as they see each other, were joined by Urfi marriage (the $36 type, both believe that too much paper work kills the romance) a month and a half ago in Dahab. Angel had only known Momo two weeks. It was a hazy bohemian celebration, their Bedouin friend from Al-Arish, Deib (who later would share with me the finer points of border smuggling), was their Muslim clerk. With the complex love formulas found in Dahab, their union is a beautiful break from the usual.

I visited Momo and Angel now and then. I learned to play Poker and about the Bakbook (a Bedouin hand-made bong fashioned from a Nescafe jar). I went to hunt eels and had long debates with the inhabitants of the house about reality, unreality and psychedelic-drugs. Dahab is known for easy drug access, thanks to the Bedouin. There are Opium fields by the foothills of the mountain where some traditions say God gave the Ten Commandments to Moses, as well as drugs smuggled from Israel.

Photos by John Perkins
There is Nasser, 25, squatting at Momo's, who has a daughter back in Cairo but will not leave Dahab. Nasser is good with fire Poi, psychedelic-drugs and conversing in a spiritual lexicon. Nasser knows Bedouin who are married to foreigners (I know only one, nicknamed Fish, who had a two year old half Irish girl yet hunts for partners on Friday night) but the Bedouin remain a closed community.

One evening I met Salem, a Bedouin from El-Mezina, at Momo's. I asked him whether it is true that the Egyptian government chose sheikhs from their tribe to control “troublesome” Sinai Bedouins (according to the book by John R. Bradley, Inside Egypt, 2008), “No, never.” Salem answered. Salem talked on the phone with some friends who had fished out some foreign girls. My stereotypical perceptions were intrigued (the Bedouin have much stricter traditions than the Egyptians, but both live in the same country, though the borders have no meaning for the nomadic Bedouin). Here are some questions I asked him:

– Do you Bedouin not have a strict tradition about sexual relations with outsiders?

– No not really, it was an old generation, now times are changing, now it is all OK.

– So if you want to marry a blonde Khawaga (foreigner in Arabic), that's fine?

– Yes, if I loved her.

– And you would travel and leave the tribe?

– Yes, why not. We have relatives in Switzerland.

– And your father knows what his son is up to this very night?

– Nah, he thinks his son is working (laughing)

Deib is an interesting young man with a life more fit for a gangster movie than for a typical 23 year old. He used to be with Sofie from Finland but she broke up with him. Deib plans to emigrate to Spain to play football. He even stopped smoking his beloved Bakbook – in preparation for his sports career. Deib had to leave to Dahab, a year and half ago, after the Egyptian secret services caught him smuggling – a “profession” he has followed since his teenage years. While the south Bedouins enjoy the spoils of tourism, the Northern (Al-Arish) Bedouin are known for smuggling across borders which were drawn by the British in 1882 between Egypt and Palestine. Deib told me how superior Bedouin men are to other men when it comes to satisfying a woman in bed, “all women who try it say say that, because for us is a matter of masculinity!” He also said how beautiful the Russian women are who are being smuggled into Israel for prostitution.

I am floating on the surface of the Red Sea waters that the Bible says were parted by Moses. Bubbles come up from another group of scuba divers, tickling me. I look at the land, this sinner's land, this happy land, and the broken hearts look back at me. It is too complicated to pin down who is the devil and who is the saint. The resort is growing. More language schools are opening where the children of mixed marriages are sent. And there are more marriages. Too many people are involved to manage the sex/love/courtship/tourism in a small resort – lawyers with marriage documents, a sheikh, police who are friends and enemies to the lovers, all at the same time. You are just happy for the ones who are happy.

Read "A ride to a dream (part one)"

Mona Abouissa for RT