Abdo Gobair is taking it easy. He can afford to: he has already corrected one set of proofs of his new novel, and is waiting for the next, hopefully final set to be ready. “The Other Lake" represents a departure for him: it is the first fiction he has written that is set in his adoptive village of Tunis in the Fayoum.
Tunis is well-known as the preferred home-away-from-home of Cairo’s intellectual and artistic elite. Ever since the Swiss ceramicist Evelyne Porret and her then-husband poet Abdel Moeti Hegazi settled here in the early 1970s, the number of part- and full-time residents in flight from the noise and pollution of the big city has grown continuously. Today, their presence is all too visible — both in the rows of palatial, and generally tasteful villas which line the roads leading out of the village, and in the more functional, but equally solid houses which many of the villagers have been able to build themselves thanks to the stimulus the out-of-towners have given the local economy. Indeed, the number of new houses actively under construction in late February suggests that this alliance with the Cairene intelligentsia may also provide some degree of shelter from the global financial crisis.
Gobair’s new novel, however, has another take to offer on the economy of Tunis. The book describes a community in which everyone, from the humblest peasant to the richest pasha, is consumed by their obsession with the treasure of Qaroun. Folk tradition, based on texts from both the Quran and the Bible, holds that the great salt lake that dominates the northern edge of the depression was named after Moses’ cousin, Qaroun, who refused to thank God for the great wealth he amassed during his time in exile. To punish his ingratitude, God caused him to be swallowed up by the ground, along with all his riches. Archaeologists and historians deny that there is any connection between this story and the Fayoum (the name of the lake is more likely a phonetic corruption of an Arabic phrase meaning “horned crown", than a trace of the passage of a semi-legendary Jewish notable). But the passion for easy money is stronger than the thirst for truth – a point reinforced by the recent, apparently quite serious proposal in the Egyptian parliament to drain the lake and recover Qaroun’s treasure for the nation.
In Gobair’s novel, the characters may not have the machinery of the state at their service, but their own greed and stubbornness can still prove highly damaging, as their lives are consumed by fruitless excavations, and those who were already rich gaily dilapidate their fortunes to finance their futile search.
The reality of life in Tunis may be more mundane, but Gobair believes people’s problems are still driven by flaws in their imaginations. “The ordinary people here are ruled by stereotypes," he opines. “It is the fault of the Egyptian bourgeoisie, which has pushed them to want a house built of concrete, to want a particular kind of furniture – this kind of fridge, this kind of TV. They’re not doing this for the good of the people, but because it makes them much more money. If you want a house made of concrete, then you have to buy cement, and steel, and you have to transport them all here." Men who don’t conform to the stereotypes suffer society’s ultimate sanction – they can’t find women to marry them.
“People here don’t have that kind of money, so they go and borrow from the banks," Gobair explains. “Every farmer here owes the bank more money then he is ever likely to see."
This might seem like a depressing conclusion. But Gobair hasn’t let it discourage him. He has had a house in Tunis for 20 years, and 8 years ago he gave up his job as a journalist to move there full time. Today, in addition to rising at 5 every morning to work on his writing, he also runs the ecolodge Zad el-Mosafer (a pun on the name of well-known race of Arabian horse, and the literal meaning of the phrase, “The Traveller’s Luggage").
Opened in 2004, the guest house is built from local materials, by local people, and it continues to provide employment for many villagers, thus contributing to the energisation of the Tunis economy. Before Zad el-Mosafer opened, there was not only nowhere to stay in the area, but there was nowhere for the village’s newer, more cosmopolitan residents to get together in the evening and share a drink.
“My main goal was to be part of this place", Gobair insists. “I spent a lot of time explaining the idea of an ecolodge to the workers. At first, they wanted to build everything with straight lines. Eventually, I was able to make them realise that they are not just workers – they are artists! Because I believe that every person has an artist inside them."
The evidence of his success is there in the mural decorations that adorn the adobe structures around the central courtyard. One of Gohair’s workers who had never drawn or painted in his life carved the naïve mural which covers one whole wall of the main house. Another spent two days collecting pebbles from the shore of the lake to create a mosaic of a colossal fish.
“Now, when they go to the other villages to build something, they tell the people: ‘We’re not just workers, we’re artists!’"
Gobair smiles. Every new artist is another soul saved from the ghost of Qaroun.
Zad el-Mosafer is around two hours’ drive from central Cairo in good traffic. The journey is hardly feasible by public transport, but a microbus seating around 15 people can be chartered for LE 250, and a yellow cab for 2 or 3 should cost LE150.
The ecolodge has 20 rooms sleeping up to 52 people. The nicest are the larger chalets, with en suite shower and toilet. While the aesthetics of the vernacular eco-architecture are instantly appealing, opinions are divided on the underlying quality of the accommodation – one person’s ‘simple and charming’ is another’s ‘grubby and uncomfortable’. The clientèle is mainly foreign residents, and many of them are regular visitors. Sound isolation is almost non-existent, and the after-hours talk and laughter of other guests may combine with the noise from the road to keep you awake at night. (Indeed, there are parts of Cairo which seem peaceful in comparison). However, with an average cost of LE 40 per person per night, it would be difficult to demand perfection.
Food is a little more expensive – main courses range around LE 25 to 50. However, the cooking is very good, verging on excellent, and represents real value for money, and drinks include copious quantities of Stella. Meals are served in the pleasant courtyard, or the beautiful dining room, depending on the hour, the weather, and your wishes. On Friday nights, a group of excellent musicians from the village entertain during dinner.
There are sixteen trips that can be arranged into the surrounding desert, from afternoon excursions to three-night safaris on horseback, by camel or in a 4×4. Horse riding lessons are available more-or-less on site, and the pottery showrooms of Tunis are just a short stroll away up the hill. The ecolodge has views across Lake Qaroun, and is conveniently located for Wadi Rian and the Valley of the Whales. However, the immediate surroundings are not the most verdant or picturesque part of the Fayoum, so for those who are not activity-oriented and are looking for somewhere to just chill out, a large part of your pleasure in being there will depend on the quality of your companions, and of the books you bring to read.