A few weeks ago, Adham, his good friend Amr, and I spent a few days at a villa in a town called Fayid (or Fayed) on the Great Bitter Lake. The Great Bitter Lake, besides having a fantastic name, is a little spot of tranquility just under one hour outside of Cairo. It is a saltwater lake, hence the moniker ‘Bitter’, formed by the Suez Canal and it serves as a waiting area for tankers and ships as they travel along one of the most incredible achievements of the nineteenth century. Fayed is a small town on the lake, and in the photo below it is on the southwestern side of the lake. The body of water at the top of the photo is the Mediterranean Sea, and the water at the bottom of the photo is the Gulf of Suez, which leads into the Red Sea.
(you can click on any of the photos I took to see them in higher resolution)
Fayid is close to number of military barracks, and when the town was first built the military offered veterans excellent deals on housing. Many Cairenes, if they can afford to, take a flat in Cairo and a flat somewhere near the water, mainly along the North Coast or the Gulf of Suez, which is used to escape the oppressive summer heat in the city. In the 1970s and 1980s Fayid was a very popular day excursion or weekend destination for Cairenes, but today, due to increased building and marketing in other vacation spots, Fayid is not as popular as it once was.
Amr has a friend whose family owns a villa on the lake. When this friend was young the villa was in regular use, but since then the villa has been left in the hands of caretakers. The pool was drained, and much of the furniture removed. Nevertheless, as you will see, it is still an amazing complex!
We left Cairo on a Tuesday afternoon, and as you can see from the photo below we were definitely heading in the right direction. The traffic in and around Cairo from 2pm until 6pm comes to a standstil in many places.
Once you leave Cairo and the surrounding environs, the forests of buildings quickly turn to vast expanses of desert. It is in these areas that developers are starting to build suburban-style complexes, business mega-centers, schools, and factories. The Egyptian government owns most of the land, and you will often see military facilities as well. The new campus for the American University in Cairo is located in an area like this, named New Cairo, nearly an hour outside of downtown Cairo. As these areas often have limited public transport accessibility, it can create great difficulties and exacerbate the difference between elite Egyptians who have easy access to cars and benzene, and poorer Cairenes who rely on the bus and metro.
The Mugama, one of my favorite and one of the most convoluted (architecturally and bureaucratically) buildings in downtown Cairo, will eventually move to the outskirts of Cairo as well. The Mugama houses the bulk of the Ministry of Interior’s departments, and truly deserves a full post of its own (forthcoming). Most Egyptians and foreigners I have met have had business at the Mugama, and on any given day between the hours of 8am and 2pm there is a constant stream of Egyptians, bewildered tourists extending visas, and foreign residents and refugees applying for or renewing residency visas. I cannot imagine that taking this fundamental institution out of the center of Cairo (and away from the metro that runs practically beneath it) will be anything but a major fiasco. Many people simply cannot afford the taxi fare to reach the outskirts of Cairo, especially when one typically has to return to the Mugama two or three (or ten) times to complete a single process.
Even the outskirts give way eventually to the desert, which covers 96 percent (yes 96) of Egypt. I love the desert here because it give me the same sense of peace that I feel when looking out across the Pacific Ocean. Tranquility. Quiet. Clean air. Vast expanses of monotony. The biggest sky you’ve ever seen in your live. The most fantastic sunsets and sunrises you’ve ever seen in your life. The way something that never changes can look so different from day to day.
Amr’s friend was kind enough to drive us (plus Marley, Adham’s rottweiler) out to the villa where he was going to spend the day and then return to Cairo. Marley did not enjoy the ride very much, as the car was compact and the temperature outside in the mid-30s. I think in this photo he is reproaching me for pulling him away from the air conditioner, but a big dog drooling on the driver is not exactly an ideal driving scenario.
This photo was actually taken as we were leaving the villa, but it shows the street in front. The tall building after the stone wall was our home for three relaxing days. Fayid is a small town that caters to both the surrounding military and vacationers, and as you drive down the main road there are numerous food and dry-good shops with brightly colored water toys and flip-flops (ship-ship in Arabic) strung about.