“Just please please please don’t do anything stupid, I know what you three girls are like, too curious for your own good. Don’t go anywhere that looks at all dodgy, okay?”
I knew my sister meant well, but as I sat with a celebratory holiday drink in Gatwick airport, flanked by two of my best-friends, her words of warning were holding little weight compared to the overall excitement and jubilation I was feeling for my upcoming trip. My sister was still feeling distressed by a recent viewing of Taken – a film in which two young girls are kidnapped whilst travelling in Paris – and my pre-holiday-leaving-on-a-jet-plane telephone call served as the perfect opportunity for her to serve the whole ‘protective big sis’ role by telling me about the dangers of foreign lands.
“I’ll be fine, Beth – the three of us are seasoned travelers and we know how to deal with these things, don’t believe everything you see in the movies!”
Three days later, and the Jordan&Egypt holiday is going great. In just 72 hours, we’ve floated in the Dead Sea, ascended Mount Nebo, been chased by crazy taxi drivers in night-time Amman and explored the ancient city of Petra on the back of a donkey. It is now the morning of Friday 2nd September and the sunrise across the desert campsite we are staying in has woken us up early – a good thing, too – as today we are heading across the gulf of Aqaba to Egypt!
A jeep drives us away from the campsite and onto the main-road where the taxi which will take us to the port of Aqaba is patiently waiting. Chloe realises she has left her rucksack behind at the campsite. “Aowwwwww no! I’ve left ma rucksack behind an’ its got all ma ‘Gyppo money in it!!” She heads back to the campsite in the jeep whilst Han and I try to keep our taxi driver – who is at this point drumming his fingers impatiently against the steering wheel – sweet. “Where your friend gone!?” he eventually snaps in awkward sounding English, itching for answers. “She erm, her bag…” we answer back, just as awkwardly. Chloe eventually returns and we start upon a 4-hour journey through sandy mountains towards the crystal blue waters of the Aqaba port. Our taxi driver seems to have forgiven us for our early-morning tardiness and kindly helps us purchase our ferry tickets before explaining where we need to wait to catch our ferry to Egypt. It is hot and humid and we are being stared at by clusters of Egyptian women who are sat on the floor fanning themselves and gasping in the heat. They will be on our boat too – hundreds of them. There will be around two other tourists – a Japanese pair – on our boat too, but that’s it. The three of us, with our bright white skin, are sticking out like sore thumbs – and being looked at like ones too.
Waiting around in the heat with a large suitcase and a number of heavy bags takes its toll. By the time we can board the ferry we are already drenched in sweat and worn out. To make matters worse, the passenger-boarding process is hardly a structured or stress-free one. The concept of single-file does not exist at all as far as ferries in Aqaba go. The vast majority of people around us are plump Egyptian and Jordanian ladies who bumble hurriedly up the stairs in a race for a seat. They are pushing and shoving and shouting at each other. One lady collapses at a mid-way point up the stairs and has to sit and fan herself for a few minutes – there’ll be little chance left of her having a seat, then. Hannah, Chloe and I try our best to maintain a sense of British decorum but find ourselves stuck in a roving rapid of fat old ladies who Chloe muses “all smell of sour-milk and dough”. There is certainly a strange smell on this ferry, and it’s far from a pleasant one. The ladies are yelling at each other in arabic and we notice one briskly slap another’s face in some kind of dual over seats. The three of us secretly abandon hope that we will spend the duration of the crossing resting on anything besides the floor.
The hope returns swiftly when beyond our belief we notice some space on a large, round sofa-seat in the middle of the room. It was as though we had just struck oil – this ferry is crowded with about 10 people to every seat, how the hell have we managed to find one that can accommodate all three of our British bums? On the opposite side of the sofa sits an important looking Saudi man who is wearing the traditional white robes and red gingham head-dress. He is flanked by an accomplice in similar white robes but without the head attire. There is a definite sense of superiority about these men. They have managed to commandeer an entire sofa to themselves on a ferry so busy that women around them are pushing and shoving amongst each other just to be able to sit down, yet – they are surprisingly okay with us being there. The Saudi gives the faintest hint of a smile and motions at us to sit down – the seat is ours, apparently.
For most of the crossing the three of us entertain ourselves with chatter and gossip. Han points out that I need to re-adjust my scarf. “You can see your boobs a bit” -an absolute no-no in any arabic land – particularly when you are sat opposite some kind of sheikh who only needs to raise his arm slightly to get the gaggling group of Egyptian and Jordanian women to desist from their bickering and return to silence. The sheikh is listening to music without headphones – “I LIKE TO MOVE IT MOVE IT!!!” reverberates around the whole boat and the three of us burst into hysterics at this somewhat surprising choice of song. The invisible boundaries between ourselves and the arab men begin to soften. “I dare you to make conversation with them,” Chloe proposes to Han. Han is up for the challenge and within minutes the sheikh’s accomplice is teaching her some key arabic words for use within our holiday. Gradually, we begin to find out more about our seat companions, with the accomplice serving as a go-between for any conversation between ourselves and the sheikh. We establish that the men are both from Saudi Arabia, which incidentally is now in view out of the window to our left. They are heading to Egypt today to have a break in their holiday home in the town of Taba, just along the coast from Nuweiba, the destination of our ferry. We, on the other hand, still aren’t quite sure what we’re doing when we get to the other side, and naively explain this to the accomplice. “We want to head to Cairo, but don’t know how or when” The two men exchange messages and the accomplice returns to us with an offer. “Please, we would like to invite you to our holiday home. You can stay a night or two there. We will give you food and a bed. It would be our pleasure.” The three of us consider the option with intrepid excitement – the (probably) mega-rich saudi sheikh is inviting us to his home!! I bet there’ll be marble floors, a pool, everything! We can head to Cairo tomorrow instead, let’s have an adventure!
The manner in which our new friends enable us to alight the chaotically busy ferry seems to only consolidate our decision. Shortly before the ferry doors open, an army officer comes to collect the sheikh in order to give him priority at exit. The sheikh whispers to the officer, who looks at us and nods, before the sheikh motions for us to join them. We stalk proudly through the burgeoning crowd of fat old ladies – the same ones who had pushed us up the stairs whilst boarding the boat – and look forward to a hassle-free exit compared to the inevitable scrum that will ensue once all passengers are allowed to get off. Welcome to Egypt!
We’re able to whisk through customs and baggage control. Whoever this sheikh is, he’s obviously a hell of a character who has the ability to command respect from everybody we encounter. We reach a set of cars where what appear to be his chaperones are waiting. The men all seem so friendly and welcoming, we’re loving Egypt already and just can’t wait to see what kind of palace we’re staying in tonight.
We drive on for a bit and then…Oh dear. The car wheels cradle the gravel as we slowly turn into the driveway of our accommodation.
Oh dear oh dear.
A collection of bushes with hot-pink flowers obscure our vision slightly, but still – something about this place isn’t feeling quite right to us. It’s a campsite – a small campsite, with just a few wooden huts scattered about – and certainly not the palace we were envisaging. A handful of other arabs – each in white robes – are there waiting for our sheikh to arrive. Old friends they must be – as soon as the sheikh steps out from the car, there are pats on the back and hand-sheikhs (geddit?) all round. Our welcome is similarly as warm, although we have no real idea of where we are or to whom we are speaking. At the first opportunity, the three of us go to sit down at a nearby table where somebody brings us a bottle of water and three glasses. The three of us look at each other with expressions of bemusement – just what IS all of this?
Our confusion escalates when two young white ladies, our age or possibly younger, come into view. One of the arabs introduces them. They’re both Italian women, and they seem very, very peculiar. Both on the slightly plump side of things, they are dressed in designer clothes, have designer handbags and wear bold red lipstick. One – in fact no, two – things, are abundantly clear. One – these ladies have access to a lot of money, and two – they don’t like us being there. Faint half-smiles at the point of introduction turn into glares which then turn into ignoring us altogether any time we ask a question. They are far less icy towards the arab men – accepting hugs, patting bums and exchanging salacious winks. There is a strong sense that they regard the three of us as evil intruders who have arrived to spoil their fun in the sun by stealing their men, when in fact, all we were really hoping for was a bit of nice food to end our long day with, and perhaps a pool to swim in. Chloe tries to make polite conversation by asking one of the girls how long she’s lived at the camp. She receives a blank-stare and a few solemnly muttered words in response: “I no speaka English”.
Chloe and Hannah seemed to ‘clock-on’ to what was going on way before I did. Sure the Italian girls seem a bit strange, but maybe it’s just like the girl said – she no speaka English, and it’s hard to chitter chatter away with somebody who doesn’t.
I look out over the Red Sea and notice the flag of Saudi Arabia hanging between two palm trees at the foot of the campsite, where the sea meets with the sand. Chloe and Hannah are looking at each other with faces of concern before Clo asks for my camera so that she can see a photo of my cat, Nutmeg. It’s a coping mechanism to remain calm in an anxious environment. One of us ‘needs the loo’ and one of the Italian girls, who ‘can’t speak English’, seems to understand this and takes us to one of the wooden huts in which we can use the toilet. The condition of said hut further dismays us. The toilet bowl is caked in blood and faeces. There appears to be no running water. The hand-soap is covered in hair. The lights aren’t working properly and there is a prevalence of bugs. At this point, even I’ve clocked on to what’s really going on here:
They are trying to recruit us into some kind of sexual harem.
It would explain everything. We have read about this in the past. Forbidden from behaving this way in Saudi Arabia, they cross the Red Sea to Egypt where they hide-out anonymously in holiday camps having sex with whomever they please. And what do these girls get in return? Designer clothes, designer bags, expensive phones and a free place to live along the sunny Egyptian coast. The Italian girls are prostitutes and the three of us are in extreme danger right now – in a foreign country, where we don’t speak the language, have no access to a vehicle, no maps and no idea how the hell we can get out of this.
We have to get out of here FAST, we all agree, yet there is little in the way of visible panic. If we’re going to get out of this situation unharmed, then calmness is going to be key. Once they sense any fear in us, or any sense that we ‘know’ what they’re doing, then who knows what action they’ll take. Maybe they’ll get violent. Maybe they’ll pin us to the ground. Maybe they’ll intoxicate us into a state of oblivion. The safest bet is to continue portraying ourselves as innocent little British girls who think we’re staying the night there to eat baclava and drink peppermint tea whilst watching the sun set over the Red Sea.
We head out of the wooden hut and down towards the seafront where the Italian girls sit amongst the men. One of them has a grey kitten on her lap. “Poor little kitty” I think to myself, “it has absolutely no idea of what’s really happening here”. The men are still playing the part of welcoming hosts by offering us tea and trying to find out more about us. “What is your plan in Egypt? Where are you heading to? Sharm-el-Sheikh? I know a nice place down there… I will take you…” The conversation is strictly limited owing to language barriers. We notice that the Italian girls, who apparently don’t speak English, are confidently translating anything we say for the men. Our sheikh from the ferry appears to be the commander here, and light relief comes when we spot him running around on the beach to some music whilst grinding with a broomstick.
Han has a plan, and chronically fiddles with her phone, transmitting the illusion that she is in contact with somebody ‘on the outside’. She turns to the sheikh’s accomplice. “Ah, my friend in Cairo… he wants the three of us to head there tonight. I don’t think we can stay here in your camp. I’m sorry. We really need to leave, and quite soon.” The conversation seems to take a lifetime, much of which consists of the Italians – who can’t speak English – translating our words into Arabic. The accomplice starts to appear somewhat dismayed and urges us to stay. “No more buses to Cairo tonight” he lied, “bus finished for day. You must stay here”. Han turns to one of the Italian girls who expressionlessly swipes her hand across her neck in a threatening manner. What the hell does that mean? It’s a clear warning that to stay here would be a bad idea, but is that because the Italian girls don’t like us, or are they covertly trying to help us by convincing us we need to leave?
This is all very, very odd. Nonetheless, this cup of tea is nice.
…I hope there aren’t any narcotics floating around at the bottom of the cup in the guise of tea-leaves.
The conversation between Han and the sheikh’s accomplice continues – an ongoing rally of slow and simplified English which is becoming painful to listen to when you’re being haunted by chilling premonitions of your body being violated later in the night by a stranger who is so happy to be defying his society and religion. A man who is probably so highly respected back in Saudi but who is abusing that trust across the sea. And nobody will know.
The men are adamant that we must stay. They promise to look after us. They will provide us with food and drink. We can all go for a swim. Hannah sticks to the story: “WE – MUST – LEAVE,” she tries to emphasize to the accomplice.
The problem is that whilst we’re desperate to leave these guys, we also need their help. They are the only ones who can explain to us where we are and how we can reach Cairo at this time of night. The only other sign of life we’ve seen in Taba was way back at the port, and that was a long walk away the route of which our three heads alone wouldn’t be able to recall. It becomes clear that the only way these men will let us go is if we promise to come back.
“We’ll only be in Cairo for one day”, begins Han, “we could come back tomorrow night and see you all. Maybe we might even stay two nights. We can stop by here on our journey from Cairo to Sharm el Sheikh”. The accomplice’s concerned facial expression begins to soften. He too has realised something. He knows that enforcing us to stay against our will would only reduce the chances of us ever giving them what they want. Both sides are operating through an ulterior motive which they feel the other will be blind towards. The Saudis have learnt that if they want us to come back, they need to let us go first.
The accomplice asks us to gather our belongings. He will drive us back to the port and arrange for a friend to drive us to Cairo. We will leave now, and we will be back in Taba tomorrow night. The Italian girls will be there to greet us with a glass of water and a plate of grilled sardines. Everything will be perfect. Everyone will be happy.
Only Hannah, Chloe and I know that once we leave that campsite, we will never, ever be returning.
“See you tomorrow” we assure the sheikh, who is still enjoying grinding with his broomstick. He is sad to see us leave, but looks forward to seeing us again tomorrow. He gives us a wry smile as we gather into the car. Once again the car-wheels are cradling the gravel, only this time we are escaping. See ya later, Camp! All the way to the port, the accomplice is talking about how well we’ll be treated upon our return to Taba and the Sex Camp. He is still unaware that his plan has been foiled. He is still unaware that we have absolutely zero plans to return.
We finally reach the port. The accomplice seems to know all of the men in Taba. We drive up to a cluster of houses in which he arranges for one of the men to be our taxi for the night. We agree on a price and get into the new vehicle and speed away into the red skies of the Sinai desert at night. We have escaped. Cairo here we come.
“I told you so!” says my sister.
Escaping underneath the blood-red night sky of the Sinai desert
It’s an episode the three of us can all look back on and laugh about now, particularly the sight of the sheikh grinding with a broomstick, but I still feel anxious about it sometimes. Who exactly was the sheikh? Does he still take holidays in Taba? And what about those Italian girls? Are they still there? Do their families know where they are?
We came back to the UK and read up on all of this stuff. There’s not much information out there, it’s a very secretive system, but the little information that does exist proves that our experience in the Gulf of Aqaba was by no means unheard of. European women – their heads turned by the promise of riches – come to these countries knowing that all they need to do is keep their legs open and they can have everything they want. It’s a summer holiday they needn’t pay a penny for, and half the time, their families have no idea where they are. For all we know, the Italian girls may be reported as missing in their own country. We don’t know and we’ll never know.
And in a way, we’re glad about that.