Assalah town, north Dahab. All photos by author.
What does it mean to feel “at home” somewhere, and how do you know when you’re there?
There are nine goats lounging in the shade of a pebbly grey wall, staring at my dog. Eighteen bulging, cross-slit eyes, expressionless. My dog is staring at the camel standing haughty across the street. The camel is staring at the man sitting outside the café: white galabaya, purple headscarf, smoke from his cigarette rising through the dust-dry air. He is staring at me. Caught in an inter-species Mexican stand-off, I try not to stare anywhere.
The dog is called Nesma. She’s not really my dog. I’m looking after a friend’s flat in Dahab for a while, and Nesma came with the flat. Her name means “breeze”, the sort of fresh, life-giving breeze that in an ideal world would presage the coming of Spring. She’s fascinated by camels.
She’s also fascinated by children. As we turn off the street and duck down a narrow alleyway between two houses to reach the beach she starts straining at her leash. Some kids are fooling around, pulling somersaults and backflips off the top of an upturned boat, landing perfect tens in the sand each time. They see her, shout “Nessssmaaaa!” I let her go. It’s playtime.
Mountains of the Sinai, Egypt.
Running-chasing-ducking-diving; giggles and yelps swirling with the breeze. One boy, butt-naked save for leggings of wet sand, dives to the ground. Nesma rushes and leaps right over him, executes a doggie-style handbrake turn, and then bundles straight into him.
Content to be ignored, I gaze northwards along the sweeping arc of the coastline. Here the jagged granite mountains of the Sinai almost reach the sea. They glow pinky orange, but there’s nothing soft about them: they look stark and unforgiving. Across the Gulf of Aqaba, the mountains guarding Saudi Arabia’s interior are wreathed in a heat haze, the shimmering borders of an almost mythical kingdom.
We wander south along the beach towards town. I’m grinning. At Nesma chasing the birds, at the feel of coarse sand between my toes, at being outside. Living in Cairo had been suffocating me: the weight of her crowds, her traffic, her pollution and her noise finally getting me down. Always somewhere to go or someone to see. Not allowing myself any downtime. More than dog-and-flat sitting, I’ve come to Dahab to unwind and recharge.
The sea seems somehow regal today. Skirts of mottled blue-grey and light green, a fluffy white ruff 100 metres out where the waves are breaking, then a cloak of deepest indigo. I breathe in the sounds: the lap and suck of the water against the shore, the whisper of the wind through the palm fronds, the swish of the sand as Nesma rushes past me and careers straight towards a man praying on the beach…
Nesma the wonder-dog with the author.
“Shit. Nesma. NESma! Come here!” He can’t not have noticed the streak of tiger-striped fur hurtling towards him, but carries on regardless. There’s a tension in his back as he bends forward, touches his head to the ground.
“COME. HERE!” Nesma wheels round at the last minute, races back to me.
“Good dog. Gooood, dog.” It’s time to put her back on the leash.
We’ve reached the tourist strip, and a yellow and purple brick path runs alongside the beach for the next few kilometres. But there’s little beach left, much of it swallowed by the glut of cafes and restaurants. “Al Capone.” “Ali Baba.” “Same Same But Different.” Same same but not different. A procession of dive centres, hotels, camps and bars. Rinse and repeat. Crappy bazaars full of the same tat that’s for sale in any tourist town in Egypt. T-shirts emblazoned with a nudge and a wink: “Divers Do It Deeper”.
Part of the Dahab tourist strip.
It’s a familiar scene, and I flash back to life as a tour leader. Strutting the strip with a gaggle of tourists in tow. Greeting restaurant owners, bantering with touts. Group dinners with extra-attentive service, seafood platters decorated with tin foil topiary and candles placed inside hollowed out peppers.
These days, Nesma is more famous than I am. I like that. She’s in her element, tail wagging as she greets all her human and doggie friends. I do still have mates here, but many of them still think I’m a tour leader. I have to explain that no, I’m living here now. Looking after a dog and a flat.
It feels good saying that, “I’m living here.” But I’ve been out in the sun too long today, and it’s lulled me mellow. I’m going to feel it tomorrow. I stop for a coffee, rest my eyes on the sea. Think back over four years in Egypt: tour leading, teaching, writing; travelling the country; carving myself a pleasurable but exhausting rut in Cairo. Now Dahab.
Yes, I am living here. For at least six weeks, probably longer. Does that make it my home? I’m not sure. But I feel grounded here, content. That’s enough for now.
I watch a group of divers enter the sea, awkward at first with the weight of the tanks on their shoulders. But then the water takes the strain, unburdens them. They sink beneath the waves to explore a new world.
Nesma snaps me out of my reverie. She’s stalking the café owner’s cat! I grab her collar just in time. She looks at me as if to say, “But I’m a dog; I’m meant to chase cats.”
I’m glad she always knows where home is.
How do you know when you are at “home”? Is it where you are comfortable? Where you are exactly who you are? Wherever you happen to be living? Share your thoughts below.
For more inspiration, check out our Photo Essay: Coming Home With The Matador Community.