Belly dancing and a JOINT STATEMENT
Sanjay Kapoor Sharm-El-Sheikh
We know what happened in Sharm-El-Sheikh this scorching summer.
Despite Egyptian obsession with security, this all-weather sea resort provided a picture postcard backdrop to India and Pakistan to smoke the peace pipe. Hence, the air was thick with expectations.
As the flight lowers its under-carriage you try to get a sense of where you have landed. Last rays of a fading sun are washing the distant red mountains and the lights of airport are compensating for the day that has gone by. As part of the media team you step out from the rear door of the aircraft that has brought Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to take part in this non-aligned summit. The airport has a fresh paint of white colour.
The air is warm, about 31 degrees Celsius - 11 degrees more than Paris from where this aircraft took off a few hours ago. The red carpet meant for the PM looks heavily used. Quite evidently, scores of heads of state had marked their presence on it. As we slip into the airport lounge we see the PM take his customary guard of honour. We are ready to move, but run into chaos. This is just the beginning. Obsessed with security, it is possible to sense personnel of the security agencies practically every where - plainclothes men hopelessly outnumbering those in uniform. We are rushed to waiting vans and asked to proceed to our hotel.
The security seems to be in a tizzy as the next head of state from some African country is expected shortly. Their hands move in jarring, exaggerated symphony: they tell our drivers to move and clear the road. The driver is in no hurry and answers in leisurely Arabic drawl something that suggests that he will go when the road clears.
We are on the highway to the city. Dusk has finally settled down and bright lit signs indicate direction and the government's promises.
"We will go green" one such hoarding suggests as we zip through a dark and treeless landscape. As we chuckle at the grandiosity of this vision in a parched and cheerless milieu, we are confronted by flat constructions on other side of the road. We are told by our Egyptian handler that these buildings are resorts that line the sea. A dark nothingness stares at us from other side of the road.
He tells us about Sharm-El-Sheikh's turbulent past. Located at the tip of the Sinai peninsula, Sharm was a sleepy fishing village of 100 inhabitants when the Israelis took over. Due to its strategic location, Israelis began to develop it as a naval base as well as a tourist destination. In 1982, Sharm-El-Sheikh was returned to Egypt, which continued to develop it as a diving and conference resort. Now it has 35,000 hotel rooms. In 2005, Sharm-El-Sheikh faced series of terror attacks allegedly by radicalised Bedouins who live at the periphery of the resort town.
The journey to the hotel is strange in a way. We speed on a particular road and then we take a U-turn and go through a police check. We go at a blazing speed and again we take another U-turn. Are we going in circles like an aircraft not getting permission to land? A short while later, we finally enter a tree-lined resort. So some part of Sharm has indeed gone green!
There is a furious engagement between the driver and the security guards manning the gates of Maritim resort. We do not know whether we are going forward or back. Our liaison officer punches some numbers on his phone and yells out "Pyramisa". The driver, too, ecstatically repeats Pryamisa and reverses his car.
Again, we hit the long road and go through its maniacal U-turns. It is difficult to ascertain the plan of the town that can only be negotiated through U and L-turns. We expect clear daylight to clear our confusion about the U-turns, but did it help?
Access to Pyramisa Resort witnesses similar engagement with the security. Finally, we reach the hotel. Mercifully, there are no sniffer dogs, the kinds that are parked in Cairo Hotel and that insist on smelling you everywhere. We have only to contend with security personnel in plain clothes who insist on going through handbags without caring to remove their cigarettes from their hands. There are couple of more security staff in claustrophobic suits furiously smoking.
The lobby of the resort is noisy and seems to have been taken over by people in scanty clothes. The levity of the lobby is in direct contrast to the humourless faces of security that we encountered all around. We infer that residents at this resort are largely Russians who seem to be getting quality sun at a discount. A notice: there's going to be a 'White Russian Nite' in the disco. Perceptibly, there is sharp cultural asymmetry between the hedonism displayed by the Russians and the conservative Muslim staff of the hotel.
The rooms that have been given to the media team are a rip-off. It seems Egyptian NAM organisers worked out "special" rates for a captive media delegation like ours that seem far more than what the Russians were paying.
The sleeping mattresses in the room seem to have been robustly used by its earlier occupants. The general manager of the hotel laughed with a guffaw when the miserable state of the mattress is shared with him. He gets them changed. Media centre is in the basement and there is a steady supply of wine and Egyptian version of Black Label whisky.
In the middle of the night, we are woken up for a short briefing by the amiable foreign ministry spokesman, Vishnu Prakash, who shows up in his night suit. We are groggy, but still absorb the content of the briefing - the talks between Foreign Secretary Shiv Shankar Menon and his Pakistani counterpart Salman Basheer are going on well. There is promise of a breakthrough next day.
Morning sun breaks through our rooms at 6 in the morning and melts the tackiness and grubbiness of the resort. The glorious view of the red sea and the distant mountains is picture perfect. The beach is 150 steps away. A walk through Pyramisa's villas and well-tended flower beds takes us to a sight for which we were unprepared. The water is of a sparklingly deep turquoise shade and it is so clear that we can see the coral and fish in different shades swimming. We are bewildered by this large aquarium of sea life and wonder whether it is real.
The NAM media convention centre is out of bounds as we don't have the right passes. So we commandeer a vehicle for a quick dekko of the old Sharm-El-Sheikh market. The market revs up in the night, but some shops selling souvenir and curios are still open.
We return to the media centre after many U-turns. We are also told about the briefing by Menon in the evening and 'Egyptian entertainment' and dinner at the hotel's Italian restaurant. Till that happens, there is plenty to watch around in the hotel lobby.
Briefing by Menon is on the PM's engagements with NAM leaders. He also speaks, with a touch of arrogance, about India's stated policy towards Pakistan in the wake of Mumbai terror attack. It seemed then that the meeting between the PM and Yousuf Raza Gilani will not yield any result. July 16 proved how the MEA was not on the same page as the PM on Pakistan.
Night arrives as inevitably as predictable India-Pak twilight zones. In the hotel, this was not really 'traditional' Egyptian entertainment as we had been promised, but belly dancing by some Russian girls. The food was good, even if the dance was not too hot.
Since morning buses from the media centre are being ferried to Maritime Hotel where bilateral talks between India and Pakistan are meant to take place. Maritime, we learn, is the real convention centre and all the major conferences have taken place here. It has a spacious lobby. The PM's living area and meeting room are on the first floor. We can see the SPG mount a metal detector. TV and print journalists know they are readying themselves for the big moment.
To kill time, many are smoking in the lobby. Indians are mingling with Pakistanis to find out "what is happening inside". On hindsight, Pakistanis seemed to have greater understanding. They talk about Indian interference in Balochistan and resumption of composite dialogue. After four hours, the PM's Media Advisor, Harish Khare, and Vishnu Prakash, slip out with copies of the joint statement. They come close to getting lynched.
Gilani, too, comes close to getting smothered by cameramen and reporters as he steps out after meeting Singh. We all rush to file our reports about the breakthrough in talks, the uncanny mention of Balochistan and other issues. We are told to return after an hour for the PM's press conference.
After the joint statement we have one story that radically changes after the PM fields the first question. One can sense damage control underway in the Indian camp.
Few hours later, we are flying away from Sharm-El-Sheikh to Delhi fully aware that the name of this quiet and sunny all-weather Egyptian sea resort will resonate in diplomatic circles for months to come.