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The Neama experience
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 24 - 04 - 2008

Sharm El-Sheikh fan Jailan Halawi mulls over the rapid transformation of the city into a top tier coastal destination and the inevitable price it has paid for becoming a tourist boomtown
Brimming with anticipation, I had been counting the days till my trip to the Red Sea resort of Sharm El-Sheikh was to begin earlier this month. As far back as I can recall, I had always spent the best times of my life in beautiful Sharm -- engraved in my memory were the golden days of losing myself in the beauty and charm of a resort area that guaranteed ultimate relaxation and serenity. At first glance, it seemed that not much had changed there since the last time I vacationed in 2001. It was still the familiar place that I knew well and I easily relaxed into enjoyment mode as soon as I arrived, planning to take in every part of the city.
I had travelled to Sharm El-Sheikh in 2005 to report on the aftermath of the devastating bombings that hit the peaceful resort. At that time, there were few, if any, signs of the lifestyle changes that have come to rule the world of Sharm and its inhabitants.
Even as I arrived at my favourite resort destination this time, I still had the initial feeling that little had changed in the city three years after its plight. When I shared my observations with my friends who live and work there, they advised me to re-explore the area, but warned me to keep an open mind and a cautious attitude.
Now my curiosity was definitely piqued, and I was more determined than ever to quickly get out and walk around the city centre to do my own investigating.
Neama Bay beach promenade is the cosmopolitan capital of the Sinai Peninsula, with pubs, clubs, bars, discos and restaurants to suit every taste. Most of these venues are attached to the luxurious resort hotels lying in close proximity and where extravagant nightly entertainment includes spectacular floorshows, casinos and hip clubs, such as Le Pacha, Little Buddha, the Camel Bar and the Hard Rock Café.
Before hitting Neama in search of a great spot to get the pulse of the city's night scene, I was having dinner with an old friend who refused to join me, but advised me to consider where I was going and urged me to be careful. Being the Sharm veteran I thought I was, I did not feel I needed directions, but he insisted on giving me a full explanation of how to find my way to Neama.
"For security reasons," he explained, "the only way to access Neama is on foot. You need to park your car," and he pointed to the parking lot I should use so as not to be ripped off on parking fees.
I headed off and was surprised to find that many of the old routes I knew had been changed. I followed my friend's instructions and finally arrived. Sadly, the moment I set foot on the promenade, I felt estranged. This was no longer the boulevard of my dreams. Buzzing with the usual crowds, the area had an uncomfortable air to it that, for some obscure reason, sent unquestionably negative vibes straight through me.
Still not discouraged, after a short rest at the Layalina café situated in front of the Camel Bar, I met with another friend of mine who works in the tourism industry and who offered to escort me to Little Buddha.
Designed like the Buddha Bar international chain, Little Buddha, located right next to the Neama Bay Hotel in the heart of Neama Bay, is classified as one of the hippest places in Sharm. During the high season, getting in could be problematic, as the management takes tight measures to allow entry only to a specified clientele.
As soon as you walk through the huge doorway and past the entrance's gigantic bouncers, you are thrust into a totally different world. Everyone seemed to be having loads of fun, drinking and dancing non-stop. I caught my friend giggling. We both knew that our days of wild partying were over. Even the music was alien to us. The venue had an undoubtedly Asian charm, modelled after a temple ruled by a giant golden Buddha placed in the middle of the sushi bar in the club's first floor. Yet, I could not wait to find my way out. I felt uncomfortable with the profuse expression of physical intimacy before my eyes, let alone the near-naked females dancing seductively as if in a strip bar.
When, at some point, one female customer made a pass at one of our female friends, we realised we had seen enough for the day and took off.
As the bay only comes alive after midnight, the night was still young at 2am, so we decided to hang out at one of the many Bedouin-like tents Neama is well-known for, where we opted for mint tea.
Like all Bedouin-style cafés in the area, loud Arabic music streamed from giant speakers and the waiters belly-danced to attract the tourists to join in.
Musing at how belly-dancing has become one of the obvious features of Neama, we settled into our seats at the Aladdin café and ordered tea and shisha. Soon enough, another round of what we saw at the Little Buddha seemed to be unfolding before our eyes, yet in a more repulsive manner.
Flabbergasted at what I saw, it struck me that Neama has been wretchedly transformed into a large semi-brothel.
I could hardly believe my eyes when I saw a couple making out in plain view of everyone in the café, paying no respect to other customers who might find their act devoid of decency.
We immediately ordered our check and almost had a fight with the café owner on our way out. He apologetically explained that in order to keep the tourists flowing, they are forced into turning a blind eye to whatever kind of behaviour their customers chose to indulge in.
I was devastated and I had had it with Neama Bay, of which I was no longer a fan.
For the remainder of my vacation, I stayed outside Neama, where we still enjoyed our nights, felt wild and danced the night away with more style.
At the newly inaugurated Il Mercato shopping and entertainment gateway at Hadabit Um Al-Sid, one can enjoy a relaxed night walking around or chilling out at any of its various cafés. The setting reminded me of London's Covent Garden in a way and, although yet to be discovered, the sheer magnitude of investment in the venue gives an impression that more activities are expected to flourish there in the near future. The place, however, is quite expensive, catering to the crème de la crème of clientele, which becomes abundantly clear after a tour of the top end brand name shops it hosts.
Thankfully, Sharm El-Sheikh still seems to have a little something for everyone, whether those who are more reserved and seek serenity and relaxation or those who are looking for non-stop action and wild party fun.


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