This photo was taken in May 1986. Both women on it look happy. The name of the blond woman is Anna Fahlén, she is Swedish. The other, the shorter one is me. Anna could have been 35 at the time. The moment is idyllic: sun, summer, Red Sea, we are in Sharm el Sheikh at the tip of the Sinai penisula and we are just about to go diving or maybe, we just have come back from it. I do not remember exactly.
Funny that baby feeder around my neck. Probably quite a curiosity , sort of historical diving gear, so ancient compared with the nowadays widely used, modern life jackets. It is a piece of diving antiquity, indeed. However , for me at the time it was like a sensation. I had borrowed it from the owner of the divecentre in Egypt. When , some 8-9 years before, I used to do diving, we had not had such a thing, it had not existed. Nothing like this had existed then. We had navigated ourselves just with the help of our own bodies.
Well, back to the story.
May 1986 was my first time in Israel, backpacking, a kind of drifting way of travelling, you know. At Eilat somebody asked me if I felt like keeping an eye on his yacht in the marina for a week or so while he was away. In exchange, he offered me a modest accomodations in one of the boat’s cabins.Of course, I accepted this nice offer! It was after a few days that the Swedish girl appeared, she was looking for the owner of the yacht. She told me she was working in a divecentre in Sharm as a divemaster and that she had come over to Israel in order to see her dentist. She also explained that the owner of the yacht was her friend and he, as a routine, always let her sleep on the boat whenever she had decided to make a short trip to Israel. If I allowed her to do the same now. It was a matter of a few days.
We made friends quickly. I thought she was a smart, interesting person. I was very impressed by her lifestyle. As a very well qualified intensive care nurse, she would normally work for 2-3 years in different countries of the third world, mostly at international hospitals, she made good money, she spent little, so she managed to spare enough to spend the next 2-3 years just travelling, but that not like a regular tourist. She would settle down temporarily here and there for a while and she would work for a community as a photographer or divemaster or environment protector, well, things that suited her nature and inclinations. I very soon had the impression that this woman, whatever she might be involved with, does her job with complete, deep dedication and full engagement. I thought she was a professional rover, who, at the same time, was making a difference in the world. She could have a very safe Swedish life, a volvo, maybe, she could have family and kids, also a nice apartment somewhere in Stockholm, and she could obviously work at a spotlessly clean Swedish hospital. That is what I thought. But no, she had decided to live differently.
I believe it was something quite special back in the eighties. At least for me it was.
When she was finished with her dental treatment, she asked me if I felt like going back with her to Sharm. I would have the chance to see the Egyptian side of the Sinai and we could also do a bit of diving together. That is what she suggested doing. As, in the meantime, the owner of the yacht had returned and so I was free, we quickly bought a visa at the border for me, got on a shaky Egyptian bus and we were off to Sharm. I had no idea, actually, what kind of place it was, I had never heard of it, in fact. I remember I felt kind of frustrated. Egypt , even in those years, was a fragile place, quite dangerous, especially Sinai, which had been given over by Izrael to Egypt just a few years before as an act of compromise.
Sharm itself was a sleepy, dusty little village with some houses and scattered summer cottages owned by locals. You could almost bite the heat. And there was something else, too. You could almost bite the smell. Sharm was stinking, in fact. We were told that in the previous 2-3 days there had not been any water around because something had gone wrong with the sewer system and it had not been fixed yet. That is what they said. Human bodies, toilets, unwashed dishes, everything was just stinking.
Anna’s boss, the manager of the divecentre had a battered cottage in the village, which he called summer villa. He was from Cairo, by the way just spending his summers here. This man let us spread our sleeping bags on his kitchen floor for the night.
But it is not yet night, just late evening, and, in the suffocating heat we are sitting outside his front door, chatting. The sand, the dust is whirling around us. All of a sudden, just out of nothingness, a large herd of wild desert dogs would appear, a herd of at least 3-4oo yellowish beasts racing and snorting like mad in front of our eyes leaving an enormous cloud of dust behind.
I felt petrified. I thought I suddenly had got into he world of the Bible. And the age of the Bible. Including the stink, the heat, the vast emptiness of the desert.
And, at this moment, a neighbour of our host approaches us, an Arab man. His nails are black and too long , his skin oily and dark, his shorts and T-shirt very dirty. He does not smell good either. He would sit beside me on a small plastic chair and asks me where I am from. When I say I am Hungarian, a big happy smile appears on his face. How long he has wished to meet somebody Hungarian! And he excitedly asks me right away: What is your opinion about the great Hungarian philosopher, György Lukács? What do you think about his basic work: AESTHETICS ? I feel kind of shocked to hear this question. Amazed, I excuse myself saying I have never read it. I add: – I am sure I would not be able to understand something so abstract, I do not think I have the brain for things like this. The man looks pretty disappointed. Then he turns to me and gives the conversation another try: Do you know the films by István Szabó? Relieved, I nod, of course I have seen all the films of that famous, Oscar- winner Hungarian director. I think to myself: at least my shame is not that big in this Arabic night in the desert.
He continues: Well,because if we compare his Mephisto and his latest film, Colonel Redl, we can surely say……
So we went on chatting quietly under the stars. This man, as it turned out, was a lecturer, a professor at the most prestigious university in Cairo, a philosopher himself.
Since then , with a very few exceptions, I have never let appearance deceive me. This is what I learnt for a lifetime in that biblical night, decades ago.
I have never seen Anna Fahlén again, however, we were exchanging letters for at least ten years after that. Letters, I mean, handwritten pages in envelopes, there was no electronic mail at the time. Sometimes she would write me from Jedda where she worked at an American hospital, sometimes from Micronesia where she was engaged with saving sea mammals, sometimes from the Philippine Islands. She never gave up her lifestyle. Then, gradually, I do not know how, she disappeared from my world and life.
At the time of the cunami, after 2004, when around 4000 Swedish tourists died or were lost in the region, knowing that she loved that part of the world and had chosen to live and work there at some point of her life, I was trying to find her name on different casualty lists on the net, that in the hope of not finding it. In fact, I happened to spot a certain Anna Fahlen but I was and still am not sure they are identical. I only hope that she is alive. I am sure she is. She might be 64 now.
Where once the herd of wild desert dogs used to race, where dust used to be whirling in the emptiness, today there is a row of luxury hotels along the promenade. This promenade, they say, is illuminated during the night along with the neatly and orderly planted palm trees. Toursits and divers keep flooding into popular Sharm, there are casinos, loads of divecentres, restaurants and all that. They say so but I – and you perhaps, understand it now – would never have the desire to step on that utterly civilized promenade and walk along it.