It was once so busy here, it was impossible for tribesmen to find a place to stay. Photo: Bethan Staton
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"Sinai is safe": the Bedouin tribespeople fighting a devastating tourism decline in the Egyptian peninsula

Tourists, central to the livelihood of tribesmen in the Sinai desert, have stopped travelling to the area due to unrest and terror.

Several miles from the nearest town, in the heart of south Sinai, a group of tourists are resting around a fire. Around their garden campsite, the distorted, terracotta mountains are silent. These travellers count among a tiny handful to have visited this part of the Egyptian peninsula in recent years.

“Not long ago if you came here, you wouldn't be able to find a place to stay,” local guide Naser Mansour says, rolling a cigarette in the red light. “All the gardens were full – I’d sometimes have to walk two hours in the wadi with my camels to find a place to sleep.”

From the Jabaliyya tribe and the mountain hub town of St Katherine, Mansour is one of many south Sinai Bedouin who have built a livelihood on tourism, guiding hundreds of hikers a year through the area’s rugged mountains.

Lately, however, the tourists haven’t been coming. After years of unrest and a rash of deadly terror attacks in the north and at the border with Israel, most foreign governments now warn against non-essential travel to all of the Sinai except Sharm-el-Sheikh, and tourists are taking heed.

“When there were a lot of tourists in the mountain, I thought it would be like that forever,” Mansour continues. “Back then, it was me and four others working all the time on the mountain. Now it's just me.”

Since Egypt's 2011 revolution, locals estimate, the number of tourists visiting the area around St Katherine has dropped from up to 5,000 to a few hundred annually. The decline has been economically devastating: many locals have sold their camels or shifted focus to small-scale agriculture; others have migrated to Cairo.

But some are fighting the decline. This spring, Mansour and a collective of local guides and activists organised Sinai is Safe – a weekend of hiking in the mountains around St Katherine. Nearly 70 people travelled to the event, hoping to challenge the perception of the Sinai as a danger zone.

“The narrative about the Sinai is framed by journalism and government travel advice. And unfortunately that takes away that ability of the local people to represent their own land,” Ben Hoffler, an organiser based in Sinai for six years, says. “With Sinai is Safe, we’re introducing Bedouin voices into this debate, because they know the Sinai better than anybody.”

Hoffler has chartered miles of trails in the south Sinai mountains which, while intimately understood by locals are largely unknown to outsiders. It’s the tight relationship between tribe and territory, he says, that guarantees relative security in the area: the Bedouin know every rock of the desert and don’t tolerate strangers in the areas they control.

“We have seven tribes around the Sinai,” Mansour says. “Every tribe protects one place, where he knows every wadi and every individual. If I'm walking in the mountain and I see anyone I don't know, I talk with him. He's not allowed in this place if I don't know who he is.”

Musallam Faraj, another organiser, says the attacks taking place in north Sinai are naturally a concern, but believes a strong governmental response and tribal protection will prevent troubles spreading to the south. “We’re working with tourism, so we feel responsible for everyone that comes to this area, and we try our best to protect them,” he says.

Among those hikers that travel to St Katherine, many say actually visiting was all that was needed to transform Sinai from a place of fear to one of peace. Awe for the untouched green wadis, moonlike caves, and warm mountains that peak jaggedly toward the horizon mean most pledge to return.

“For people that don’t know it's difficult to understand. They see this big unknown mountain, and think it carries lots of bad people. But that’s not right. It’s just the people from here,” Mansour, gesturing toward the hikers and guides eating and playing music around the fire, says. “Look what's happening on the mountain; fun, laughing, friends. It's different to what the people think.”

Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko
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Ruin porn: the art world’s awkward obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture

Deserted fairgrounds, disused factories and forgotten military bases may look cool, but are we fetishising the remnants of such a cruel history?

Armenia, where one side of my family is from, was one of the first members of the USSR, annexed by Russia in 1922. A few years ago, when I visited this little country that perches precariously in the south of the Caucasus, I was struck most by its Soviet architecture.

Although its landscape is a hotchpotch of medieval Orthodox churches, a smattering of Persian-era domes, and brutalist concrete, it was the latter that particularly stuck out. From unfelled statues of Stalin to giant tower blocks spelling out the letters “CCCP” from a bird’s-eye view (well, half spelt-out – construction stopped partway through, with the fall of the Soviet Union), I’ve never forgotten it.

Perhaps it was so compelling because such stark physical symbols make recent history all the more tangible. A history still profoundly affecting the country of my ancestors (and all post-Soviet and communist states). But also, it just looked really cool.


Mixed air corps, Mongolia. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Eric Losito

It’s a bit passé now to mock the hipster obsession with reclaimed industrial detritus, exposed pipes and bare concrete. An aesthetic – that of a post-industrial wasteland, but a chic one – which has gripped western cities for years, and crept worldwide.

But it could be this tendency to find disused stuff visually intriguing, and a morbid fascination with cruel regimes, which has led to the art world’s obsession with abandoned Soviet architecture. A whole wave of artists and photographers have been poking around the eastern bloc’s architectural graveyard in recent years.

Late last year, we saw the hugely popular disused Soviet bus stop series by photographer Christopher Herwig, echoing photographer Sergey Novikov’s equally absorbing collection of abandoned Soviet cinemas from 2013.

Following Russian filmmaker and photographer Maria Morina’s “Atomic Cities” project four years ago, London-based artist Nadav Kander explored the “aesthetics of destruction” in his exhibition, Dust, in 2014, snapping “radioactive ruins” of secret cities on the border between Kazakhstan and Russia. The same year, Moscow photographers Sasha Mademuaselle and Sergey Kostromin travelled to the disputed region of Abkhazia, capturing fragments of its deserted infrastructure.


Fighter aviation regiment, Mongolia. Photo: Eric Losito
 

And photojournalist Anton Petrus’ now iconic pictures of Chernobyl’s abandoned amusement park have long been an internet favourite, as have numerous haunting images of Pripyet – the city famous for lying deserted following the nuclear disaster.

Jamie Rann, a lecturer in Russian at Oxford University, has written that the quality and technical accomplishment of most of this photography make the style more “ruin erotica” than “ruin porn” (the tag being used by some critics), but argues: “The enormous online popularity of this genre . . . combined with their voyeuristic, almost exploitative feel, certainly has something porny about it.”

The latest exploration of Soviet society’s skeletons can be found at the Power & Architecture season at London’s Calvert 22 Foundation. In an exhibition called Dead Space and Ruins, we see abandoned military bases and formerly mighty monuments, forgotten space ports freezing in the tundra, the ghost of an entire unused, unfinished city in Armenia lying derelict.



The unfinished "ghost city" built in Armenia to house earthquake survivors (water added by artist). Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Vahram Aghasyan

The works are beautiful, but do they feed in to this zeitgeisty lust for Soviet ruins?

One of its curators, Will Strong, laments this trend. “I was keen that this didn’t become like a kind of ‘ruin lust’, ‘ruin porn’ thing; this slightly buzzwordy term that there is at the moment, this kind of fetishisation of dead space,” he tells me.

“This history is incredibly loaded, and it did not end in 1991. To sort of fetishise it in the very bourgeois western way of, ‘oh yeah, look at all this wonderful Soviet architecture, isn’t it fantastic?’ Obviously a lot of people who lived in that time hated it . . . a lot of people were very miserable under these regimes, so it’s important not to forget that.”


Gym at the Independent Radar Centre of Early Detection, Latvia. Photo: Eric Losito

He adds: “It’s more a point of reflection on how buildings were designed, what their legacy is, what their narrative is, and who the people are who live with that story. This show looks at the aftermaths of when utopia hasn’t been delivered.”

This view is echoed by the Moscow artist, Danila Tkachenko, whose work is featured in the exhibition. “It is rather a metaphor for the future, not the past,” he says. “It represents an image of a possible future. When there is a visualisation of this issue [utopia], it evokes a response in people; they see this utopia in their lives . . . There is disappointment in all utopias.”


The world's largest diesel submarine, in Russia's Samara region. Photo: Calvert 22/Courtesy of the artist, Danila Tkachenko

His Restricted Areas series explores great behemoths of European communism left to lie forgotten in the tundra of remote regions in and around Russia and Kazakhstan: the world’s largest diesel submarine, like a beached whale in the snow; a giant satellite, thatched with antennae, built to communicate with Soviet bases on other planets some day; the deserted flying saucer-like communist headquarters in a region of Bulgaria. The structures hover in blank, white space, making the photos appear black-and-white.


Deserted observatory, Kazakhstan's Almaty region. Photo: Danila Tkachenko
 

Anton Ginzburg is an artist who grew up in St Petersburg in the Eighties as the Soviet Union was disintegrating. He believes studies like his film, Turo, of disused modernist constructions in the post-Soviet bloc, appeal to people’s connection to history. After all, picking through the architectural carcasses of former societies isn’t exactly a new thing:

“Russian culture is still haunted by its Communist past, and constructivist architecture is a decaying shell for its ghosts. It is an active reminder of the recent history,” he reflects. “Perhaps [its appeal] is a mixture of memento mori, with its thrill of beauty and destruction, along with a Romantic tradition of contemplation of Greek and Roman ruins.”

(Anton Ginzburg Turo teaser from Visionaireworld on Vimeo.)

The Power & Architecture season is on at the Calvert 22 Foundation, London, from 10 June-9 October 2016. Entry is free.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.