GROWING UP ASSALA
Kevin To is a street and documentary photographer who has documented the small town of Dahab, Egypt, and its people. Influenced by the photojournalists and humanists of the past, his aim is to create images that are reminiscent of the golden days of street and photojournalism but with modern subject matter. His images mainly focus on the relationship between certain groups of people and their immediate environments, how they interact with the physical world and the invisible social/political forces currently at play.
Kevin shares his photo essay "Growing up Assala" with us.
Photographs and text by Kevin To
Perched along the coast of the Sinai Peninsula is the small diving town of Dahab with a population of approximately 15,000. Originally a small Bedouin fishing village and hippie hideaway, it is now become a popular destination for free divers, rock climbers, windsurfers, and people searching for a place to ride out the pandemic.
Dahab began attracting travelers in the 60’s during the hippie movement, people traveling and searching for simpler ways of life outside the western world. Due to Sinai’s religious significance it has been ground zero for much conflict throughout its existence. Tourism came to a halt during the Six-Day War in 1963 when Israel invaded Sinai and took over the region. And then again during the Yom Kippur war in 1973 where Egypt and Syrian forces joined together to regain control over the peninsula.
Following that came the Egyptian Revolution and the Arab Spring of 2011, and then a bombing of a Ukrainian charter flight leaving from Sharm El Sheikh. And most recently the Covid-19 pandemic.
Dahab is home to the Bedouins belonging to the Muzeina Tribe who arrived from the Saudi Peninsula approximately eight-hundred years ago. The Bedouins main form of agriculture includes herding goats, fishing, raising camels and the date palms that are dotted all around the land. Even though tourism has changed the town dramatically since its inception these practices can still be seen on a daily basis.
Bedouins were also quick to adopt tourism as more and more tourists arrived into town. It is prohibited for anyone to enter into the Sinai desert without a Bedouin guide. Their knowledge of star navigation, herbal remedies, and wildlife are essential to surviving in the desert. Thus providing tours and safaris into the desert have become their main source of income.
I arrived into town in late November. During the previous month I had been volunteering at a beachfront camp in Nuweibaa, a port town just an hour north of Dahab. As my time there came to a close I decided to check out Dahab next.
As soon as I got into town I was struck by its chaotic and frenetic energy. Watching the kids run after swerving 4x4’s to hitch a ride down the block, the herds of goats roaming the streets, and the overall unfamiliarity of the sights and sounds. I had been away from a city for so long that this little diving town shocked me back into reality.
I eventually moved into the northern neighborhood of El Assala, where many foreigners reside alongside native bedouins and Egyptian transplants. From dusk till dawn I heard the sounds of janky bicycles drifting up and down the street, people shouting at each other in a language I didn’t understand. I began wandering the neighborhood everyday in the evening, befriending the locals and familiarizing myself with the kids; kicking round the football with them and teaching them how to play Red Hands. What stood out for me most was how the people interacted with the physical space. In the west we have rules about which side of the road you should drive on and at what speed, and how private property should be treated. I began to see how differently humans here interacted with technology, architecture and animals.
Unfortunately there is a huge income difference here in Dahab. Even just inside the Bedouin community there is a surprisingly large income gap. Many of the Egyptians who have moved here to open restaurants and other businesses catering to tourists also have had a hard time with the unstable tourism industry here. But since the pandemic and the easing of restrictions, domestic tourism to Dahab has increased, which has kept the city going.
Egypt and Saudi Arabia have agreed to link their two countries through the construction of a causeway, connecting Tabuk to Sharm El Sheikh, another popular resort town in Sinai. The bridge is meant to increase tourism to the Sinai region as well as Saudi Arabia. As more hip and trendy cafes begin to pop up and foreigners invest in property, one day Dahab won’t be recognizable to those who grew up here. The biggest fear people who live in and frequent Dahab is that as Egyptians and Saudis invest more money in the area the city will lose its soul and spirit. They fear that the small hippie town will be turned into a metropolitan tourism hub just like its sister city Sharm El Sheikh.
Caught between its origins as a small village tucked away on the shores of the Red Sea and its future as another concrete tourist city, "Growing Up Assala" is a snapshot of a beloved seaside town.
All photos © Kevin To
You can also read an interview with Kevin HERE on the mag.