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Shalateen: The hunt for truths in a far-off town

The air was thick inside the small apartment as a rusty ceiling fan revolved sluggishly. We were at our hosts’ residence. They were three men in their 30s who moved to Shalateen for work several years ago. At first it seemed that they were reluctant to open up to the two strangers they just met and previously had contact with only through the phone.

The first several minutes were spent chit-chatting about the weather. The scorching heat of Shalateen’s summer is unbearable, said one of them with a polite smile, as a Hollywood flick played on the small TV in the background. Another seemed torn between watching the movie and humoring our lazy conversation. However, with every new round of sugar-filled tea, they all seemed to relax and their talk started breathing life into this small town.

Our first queries were about how quiet the town was. It was a Monday afternoon when we arrived and our first exploratory cruise took place in silence. We had driven into Shalateen slowly and rolled down the car windows to enjoy the light breeze that greeted us. We did a full tour of the town, trying to take everything in, mentally recording every detail since the threat of being “driven out” anytime by over-protective security was always lurking in the back of our minds.

Shalateen had all the markings of a young town with its nearly identical one- or two-story buildings on either side of a paved asphalt road that slithered all the way from the checkpoint to the beach. We noted all the government offices we passed along the way, and it was ironic that we found a meteorological agency there, but not much information about weather conditions before arrival. We later discovered upon flicking between channels 1 and 2, the only two available terrestrial channels there, that Egyptian TV’s weather forecast includes Halayeb and Shalateen.

Shalateen, or at least the urban part of it, has two main parallel roads and a number of small streets that connect them. The rest is desert, and at the northeastern end of it, there’s a small village: Qaryet al-Sayadeen or The Fishermen’s Village. The town, home to around 3000 people, has at least four big mosques and a number of government services, including a National Democratic Party office, a social solidarity office, a bank, a police station, a youth club, a city council, a research center, a post office and even a small branch of Al-Azhar.

But still, at first sight, it seemed like a ghost town. On the two sides of the road, a few men in Bedouin clothes sat under trees, waiting to solicit a free ride. Women were no where to be seen. Most of the shops were bolted shut and there were few souls on the street.

“Where is everyone?” one of us asked our hosts, perhaps looking a bit too concerned, as we sipped on the extra-sweet black tea we’d been served. One of them laughed and explained: “People in this town are lazy. They sleep until the afternoon and work in the evening.”

He went on to say that Shalateen residents have most of what they need anyway, so there was no motivation to work too hard for anything. Most of the tribes living permanently there (and not in the mountains around) work in trade. In addition to the camel market, the town had a thriving commercial quarter where everything from rugs and spices to home ware and electronics are available. Caravans carry a variety of goods regularly from Cairo and Sudan, meeting in Shalateen. “There’s a lot of money going around here,” said one of the men. “Some traders here are well-off. However, a few years back it was even more prosperous.”

Our new friend explained to us that there were rumors that the main market would be moved to Halayeb, 300km south. “This had made some traders reluctant to invest in the market here,” he added. With each mention Halayeb seemed more complex than we had initially thought. Eager to get inside the triangle, we started questioning them about the area, especially the parts we knew were cordoned off to foreigners and non-residents.

Like Shalateen, we were told Halayeb was a small town harboring tribesmen from the Bishariyya (or Beja) and the Ababda tribes, “all with Egyptian identification cards” but also with roots and relations in Sudan. We knew from our research that a third tribe lived in the triangle, the Rashayda, who are seen as more isolated and more aggressive than the rest.

When we asked about the Rashayda, our hosts grimaced, brushing them as “Arab Bedouins who have no roots anywhere.” The Rashayda, we were told, were banished from the Arabian Peninsula and have settled in the mountain areas in both Egypt and Sudan but bear neither country’s nationality. One of them said that the Rashyda are armed and involved in facilitating cross-border smuggling and human trafficking. The locals claimed that illegal African migrants who try to clandestinely sneak into Israel through Egypt’s borders are smuggled through the rugged mountainous range in Halayeb, which Rashayda tribe members know too well.

At that point, the conversation has become a bit tense and to lighten the mood, we started asking about the best seafood places available. We were sure we would find many, given the town’s proximity to the sea and the number of fishermen. To our dismay, we were told there were none. The traders from Cairo come and take all the fish at high prices, and so the only fish left in town is the kind no one wants. The best quality food was chicken, they told us.

We went to check in at the hotel before venturing out for food. Hotel Barghout, whose name translates to “flea”, was ironically the cleanest place to stay in town. It was half built, with the second floor still in exposed bricks and concrete and lacking a roof in some parts. There were about ten rooms in total and only one other room was occupied. Almost everything in the hotel was mediocre, just good enough to be functional. While it was possible to work around all the plumbing issues in the bathroom, the constant water cuts were annoying. The owner had decided not to invest in a good water pump, and so it kept burning out every now and then. If we wanted the luxury of running water in the bathroom, we had to take a trip downstairs to the lobby and we had to make sure the water pump was plugged in.

A three-minute walk from the hotel was Basmit El-Ganoub (The Smile of the South) restaurant, the most reasonable option for food. It occupies a three story building that is also still under construction. The menu is simple: grilled beef or chicken. The meat is slowly grilled over a mild coal fire which keeps it tender and juicy. Sides include rice, green salad, and a lime. We ditched the knives and forks and ate our grilled chicken Bedouin style–with our fingers.

Everyone in Shalateen knows everyone else, and with our Western-style clothes, we were obvious strangers as we walked through the market.

The searching eyes of plain-clothed policemen immediately caught on to us. We were shadowed throughout the rest of our stay by a chatty undercover police officer who, after introducing himself, showed us his gun and started showering us with questions. We evaded some, turned others into jokes and eventually started our own questioning. It was something not unlike a forced friendship between three people who don’t belong. We exchanged telephone numbers, he took photocopies of our national IDs for his record. We had jokingly only agreed to hand over our IDs if he promised the government was going to pay for the photocopies. The encounter was not threatening but we could already feel the tension in town.

Our next move was to try to secure the permits for Elba mountain. Despite their discouragement, we kept nagging our hosts and pushing to meet the security official in charge. They explained to us that he had given them a call telling them he would not give any entry permission into the mountain. Our timing was not good, he said. “There are events going on that are not for public knowledge that prevents them from entry,” they said they were told. Not wanting our long drive to have been wasted, we insisted to meet him in person. Eventually, we did.

It was not easy to convince the official that we deserved permits to enter the Halayeb triangle, but we were determined to not let our long drive be wasted. Finally, we were given permission for a one-day excursion into the mountains north of Shalateen, to sight-see and attend a wedding, which turned out to be one of the most memorable events of the trip.

The day wasn’t over yet, though. The moment we stepped out of the office, the phone rang and we were summoned to the police station. It seemed like we were destined to have a tour of the executive offices in town. The police chief turned out to be a pleasant and friendly man, a bit too desperate to meet people who, in his words, are “like him.” He did most of the talking, explaining how surprised he was that anyone would want to visit a place that others are sent to as a punishment. He complained about the services available and how life in Shalateen was boring. “There’s absolutely nothing here to do or see,” he said.

It was a refreshing conversation but it was already getting late, and we planned to wake up early the next morning, so we excused ourselves after exchanging numbers.

The amazing thing about fear is that it is all in your head. Your mind is capable of transforming the simplest of situations into a scene from a horror movie. This is what happened when we left the police station. We were in the pick-up truck of two people we had just met, in an area where everyone is suspicious of everyone else. We had just been to security chiefs in town, to be grilled on our intentions. We were more than a thousand kilometers from home, in a town where we knew no one and did not know our way around. We had been told we are going back to our hotel, but we were driving on an empty road at night, flanked on both sides by the seemingly endless dark desert, when suddenly the truck takes a sharp right turn into the sand. Naturally we started asking, where are we going now?

The answer was nonchalant, as if it was unusual that we were asking. “We are going to meet your guide now to arrange tomorrow,” one of the drivers said. We were suspicious. Why are we meeting the guide in the middle of the desert? SMS messages with license plate numbers and our hosts’ names were discretely sent back to Cairo. Tweets with geotagging followed. At least we should leave clues if we are going to disappear, we thought. But we arrived at the guide’s home safely. He was living in what seemed to be a large room made of cardboard. We met, agreed on time and place of meeting for the next day, and were soon on our way back.

Despite being very tired, it was difficult to sleep. The excitement of being in Shalateen and of the next day’s excursion into the mountains kept us up. The adrenaline that lingered in our blood streams did not help either.

The next morning we overslept until 7AM. We got ready as soon as we were able to get the running water back in our bathrooms, and made a quick move. We were 15 minutes late, but in Shalateen time has very little value. Our guide was waiting for us as we had agreed.

Just when everything seemed to be going smoothly, we were on our way when a local started honking his truck’s horn to grab our attention. It seemed that something was wrong. There was.

Shalateen and Back Again travel series continues every Wednesday. Next week, Amr El Beleidy and Pakinam Amer tell of their exploration of a deserted goldmine and attending a Beja wedding far into the mountains.

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