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Wednesday, 25 November 2020

After the Urban Sprawl: Memories of Alexandria's Agami beach

The residents of Agami outside Alexandria, once Egypt’s most-famous summer getaway, still have many stories to tell and memories to share

Farah El-Akkad, Tuesday 1 Sep 2020
Bianchi
Bianchi beach (July 2020)
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“No one will tell you a story like its heroes. No one will arrange the scattered papers like them, so take off your shoes and know that this time you are on the threshold of a different paradise where you are free to eat from the fig trees.”

These tantalising words introduced a recent documentary on Agami on Egypt’s North Coast some 20km west of Alexandria, once one of the country’s most-famous and most-beautiful summer resorts. The documentary, entitled After the Urban Sprawl, recounts memories from Agami’s heyday, with the resort now barely recognisable as a result of its deterioration over the years.

However, despite its decline, it remains a treasured place of happy memories for many. The documentary encourages viewers to explore the exquisite beauty of Agami in summer, saying “so approach it, you and whoever else wishes to, and eat its ambrosia and recite hymns of memories on its broad sands and chant prayers of passion across waves that are not to be feared.

“Do like the ancestors, starting with Sheikh Mohamed bin Agami who came from Morocco with his students and ending with the stories of its modern residents — famous artists, politicians, and writers who never lost their way. But like a full moon that once it’s full starts to shrink, Agami’s moon is now behind a black cloud, and it is one of the most environmentally polluted places in Egypt.”

Not to be put off by such warnings, the present writer decided to take a trip to Agami, setting out one warm Friday afternoon in August and arriving at the resort after a 25-minute drive from Alexandria’s Borg Al-Arab Airport. I parked my car in one of Agami’s most prominent neighbourhoods, Al-Bitash, and made my way to the resort’s oldest street, “the heart of Agami,” as its residents call it.

This reporter met Kholoud Hassan for a tour of her grandparents’ villa, bought in the early 1970s as a weekend getaway on Al-Asal Street (Honeymoon Street) near ​Al-Hanafiya Street (Tap Street), the longest street in Agami cutting through the Al-Bitash and Hanoville districts. Even though many villas h​ave been demolished to make way for the construction of new buildings, Hassan’s house still remains. “We used to be able to see the beach from our balcony,” Hassan said. “Now it is nowhere to be seen.”

Bitash in the early 1970s
Bitash in the early 1970s


Al-Hanafiya Street remains home to some of Agami’s oldest architectural gems, however, even if the ground floors have often been redecorated by shop owners without the slightest heed for the architectural design of the buildings. The street once had a mains water tap that supplied all the Agami neighbourhoods with water — hence the name.

Back in the day, Agami was an open area and not yet divided, but later it became known for two main districts, one of which was Bianchi​ named after Italian British national Vivian Bianchi​, one of the oldest residents of the area in the 1920s. The district consisted of developments of six-villa lots, with these being mostly rented to foreigners, British officers, and their families, and sometimes also local Bedouin.

The other area was Hanoville, named after ​Madame Hanno​, the originally Lebanese owner of the first hotel by the beach in the area. Both areas had originally been inhabited by Bedouin, and for years they lived off growing figs and selling them to their new neighbours using labour from Upper Egypt.

When Egypt’s elite began avoiding Alexandria, considering it too crowded, they started to move to Agami during the summer, making it the place to be for the higher society. The elite melded into the unspoiled environment and fell in love with this undiscovered paradise. Who could not adore such a setting?

Even so, the Bedouin atmosphere of the district could still sometimes be felt, and many of the area’s new residents did not mind the lack of services or modern facilities in the summer.

Bedouin festivals continued to be held, the most popular being an annual ceremony held in honour of Sheikh Mohamed bin Agami, the moulid Sidi Agami.

Bianchi in the early 1950s
Bianchi in the early 1950s


ORIGINS

Sheikh Mohamed bin Agami​ was a colleague of the famous 13th-century Alexandrian Muslim scholar Morsi Abul-Abbas​, who originally came to Egypt from Morocco and resided with his students on a small island across from Agami, which is said to be named after him.  

“The origin of names is a complicated matter in Alexandria, but what we are sure of is that Sheikh Agami is buried on the island, and people still pay visits to his shrine today, even sometimes by boat because water levels can be high, particularly in winter,” commented ​Islam Assem, a professor of history at the Higher Institute of Tourism at Abu Qir in Alexandria. ​

 “Historically, Agami is also the first spot Napoleon Bonaparte saw when he invaded Egypt at the head of French troops in July 1798. The French fleet, headed by the ship L’Orient​, landed at Agami, and then Bonaparte’s troops made their way to the ​Serapeum and Pompey’s Pillar in the Karmouz district to attack the city of Alexandria,” he added.

The high point of Agami as a resort for Egypt’s elite was in the 1950s and 1960s, when many remember summer mornings by the beach, with sand almost as white as flour, and children building sand castles. Local fishermen would wear the local serwal (loose pants) and hold out big baskets of snacks from the oven and delicious freshly picked figs. There would be a warm summer breeze settling in by sunset, romantic evenings, dancing and singing the night away, pretty ladies in flowery dresses, and little boys sneaking around to watch.

The ambassadors of Argentina, France, Italy and Romania were all residents in the summer months, as were singers and film stars like Abdel-Halim Hafez, Faten Hamama, and Samir Sabri. Agami became a unique melting pot of ambassadors, actors, holiday families and Bedouin all in one place, masters mingled with servants and sharing the same facilities.

In the 1970s and 1980s, ​Bianchi ​flourished as the most popular summer getaway in Agami. Magdi Sabagh, originally from Alexandria, still has a summer house there today, and he shared his childhood memories with Al-Ahram Weekly.

The family would wake up at 10 every morning and head to the beach before 12pm until sunset. “On the beach you would see all kinds of people, the owners of the most luxurious villas sitting with the owners of apartments, and those who drove a Mercedes sitting with those who drove a 128 Fiat. No one really cared about such differences, as we were all residents of Bianchi,” he said.

    “There were the vendors who mostly came from Upper Egypt and knew us by heart. Their faces didn’t change for years and years, as they would come by selling snacks. Our friends from Cairo also joined us during the weekends. The beach life in Bianchi was very harmonious despite the different kinds of people.”

Things began to change in the 1990s, when new summer activities were introduced, including croquet and tennis. The tennis courts are still there today, though in a fairly dilapidated state. Sabagh also describes Bianchi’s nightlife “for children. It was mostly about inviting our friends to come to play in the garden or the other way around. Children freely moved between villas in Bianchi without their parents’ supervision, without them worrying at all, because of the safe and friendly atmosphere. We also used to go around the streets barefoot.”

The winds of change brought cyber-cafés in the 1990s, and many children “would spend their time after the beach playing online games such as Counterstrike”.

The Agami Palace Hotel, a four-storey building, was one of the most popular in the area from the 1950s to 1970s. It had its own electricity generators, and many Egyptian and foreign bands played there, including Titan’s Groan​ in the 1960s. Roger Sciachettano, a band member, recalls that “if the sea was warm we swam with our friends all the way to the reef some two km away from the shore.”

Other famous Egyptian cover bands playing at the hotel included The Dreamers, the Aristocrats and Les Petits Chats. The ballrooms were beautifully arranged with flowers on every table, and the waiters wore brown galabiyas embroidered with gold thread or tuxedos. Later the Four M, a band including singers Ezzat Abu Auf, Amr Diab, and Hisham Abbas, partied there in the 1990s.

Bianchi today
Bianchi today (courtesy of Hazem El-Attar)


MEMORIES 

An Italian-Greek resident of Agami recounts the good old days at the resort.

“We had a house in Agami from the 1940s to the 1960s. It had no mod cons, but we had a generator and an icebox. The Bedouin would grow figs and tomatoes and bring us fruit every morning,” she said.

“We would stay there for a week or two and hardly see a soul except at weekends. My brother and I would slide down the sides of the troughs the tomatoes were grown in, and the Bedouin would furiously chase us out. There were early morning swims, long walks along the beach collecting seashells, and sometimes there were a lot of jellyfish washed up on the shore. By noon they were just puddles of water. Life was simple: this is how we knew it and how we remember it, but today Agami is an entirely different place.”

The Steak House, Leonardo Da Vinci’s, and Michael’s​ were some of the restaurants mainly owned and managed by Greeks, Italians, Lebanese and native Alexandrians. Other more casual restaurants included ​the Wimpy and Andrea’s. Each spot had its own style: some were formal, semi-formal, or completely casual.

“It was quite spectacular, people gathering on the beach and then at night in a restaurant or bar wearing a different outfit and in a different mood. I loved how people of different backgrounds and social classes came together to enjoy the summer,” Sabagh said.

A number of villas also opened their doors to vacationers, hiring a chef and a bartender for the night and throwing casual parties for anyone who wished to join. They included the Villa Christina, the Beachhouse, and O’bar.

From 2000 onwards there were many changes, especially after the original residents sold their villas. “Agami still had it,” Omar Mansour, a lawyer and hotel owner and the son of one of the oldest Bedouin residents of Agami, said of that time. It kept its old glory at least until 2011, he said.

But then chaos took over, with more and more people from across Egypt seeking a better life in Agami and building new constructions without taking any notice of building codes. “This once-shimmering golden mirage” became a sprawling quarter with unpaved narrow alleys reeking of sewage. “It was one of the biggest slums in Egypt,” Mansour said, adding that even before the violations that took place after 2011 the government did not pay attention to the western side of Alexandria, Agami, and Dekheila in particular.

“The government was focused on expanding the North Coast, making way for tourist villages such as the Marina in the early 1990s, and soon enough the road to Agami became too much of a hassle to bother with, so people started looking for alternatives,” he said. Only those who loved Agami deeply did not have the urge to leave. Mansour is one of them, who in spite of everything still sees himself as an Agamista.

Bianchi
Bianchi today (courtesy of Hazem El-Attar)


Even so, in the exhibition “Treasures of the Municipality: Pages from the History of Alexandria” that ran in Alexandria until July, there was an old 1957 issue of ​the magazine Al-Musawar asking “will Alexandria become obsolete?” The 60-year-old article says that Agami​ is an exclusive summer destination that might act as a threat to Alexandria, Egypt’s main summer attraction at the time with its renowned beaches visited by Egypt’s elite such as at Montazah, Gleem, San Stefano, and Stanley Bey.

Agami was beginning to prosper at that time, with more well-known people spending their summers there and the elite turning their eyes towards this undiscovered getaway. Agami then was somewhere where people could coexist with fewer social restrictions, sharing an easygoing style of life. In later years, and even more so today, social differences became sharper, and the upper classes preferred their own private, sheltered communities behind the gates of compounds.

In a recent tweet, Zaki Fateen Abdel-Wahab, the son of late actress and singer Laila Murad, expressed his dislike of some vacationers in the area today. “I am 64 years old, and I come from a famous family. We spent our summers in Montazah or Bianchi in Agami, and the servants used to swim with us in the afternoons. I do not understand the snobbery I witness on the beaches nowadays.” In Agami, he said, there were no airs, and everyone seemed to live peacefully together.

“Because change is inevitable, the only constant in life, the Bedouin, have adapted or just given up because the winds of change are too strong. Say what you like, but surely there is no change without pain,” he added.

 As someone who also spent childhood summers there in the 1990s, for me Agami is a blast from the past. I can experience the memories and nostalgia the place brings like no other. Sadly, too, many of the voices that should have been heard are no longer with us. They have either departed Agami or the world itself. What we have today are merely echoes of the past.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 3 September, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly 

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