08 July 2012

Which Hurqhada? --on 'period' research.

I have been doing a edit of Deirdre, the Adventurer, essentially a content edit on a text that was ‘more or less’ done in 2008 (I had got involved with SCS by then and devoted effort to ‘new’ paperback editions of Wanderer, Vol. 1, and Oyster’s Pearl, Vol 2).  It needs a bit of fleshing-out as well as some clarification (and elimination!) of details and so I have been revisiting some of the particulars of the story, especially as it progresses through Greece, Egypt and India.

At this point of Vol. 3, Deirdre hitchhikes south along the Suez road and winds up in Hurqhada on the Red Sea shore.  This episode takes place in October-November 2000.  But what I have found was that there is no real information available on the Internet about Hurqhada during that time period.

Unfortunately this is typical of the Internet these days-- everything is so focussed on the newest and latest that history itself is becoming irrelevant (witness Facebook’s ‘Timeline’, in which nothing before a member’s joining FB is mentioned).  I am put in mind of how ubiquitous the Atlantis resort at Nassau’s ‘Paradise Island’ is (just Google ‘Nassau’ and see how many of the first ten images are of this monstrosity).  Note that nothing is ever mentioned any more that, as late as the 1980s, Atlantis was just a sand-dune island covered in beachgrass where pigs were herded-- and it was called Hog Island.  (Enjoy your stay at Hog Island, friends.)

This is not a war zone-- this is construction.  The whole town looks like this.

In doing this sort of research I have identified two major issues (problems) with researching a ‘period’ piece of fiction:

1. Most information available through modern means (i.e., the Internet) is only current.  This is a problem when you need information from 10 or 12 years ago about entities that were there then but are not now (the Straw Market in Nassau, which burned down in about 2003) or must avoid entities that are there now but were not then (the big outlet mall at the end of Nassau’s East Bay Street, itself recently rehabilitated, that was built in 2005).

2. Most-- nearly ALL-- information about exotic places is meant for the tourist, not the researcher.  This is a problem if you need to know which day the rubbish is collected, or how much two-bedroom flats cost, or what the high-school term schedule is like, in, say, St John’s, Antigua.   All you get are airfares, hotel rates, and leisure activities.  You get nothing about the very real people who live, work, learn and pay taxes there.

Originally I had bought a really good road map of the region (at Borders!) and later looked up the place on Google Earth, where I was gratified to see that Hurqhada was represented by a satellite image from about 2003.  This was sufficient for Deirdre’s time period (she is there in October-November 2000).  Since that time development has increased exponentially, to where Hurqhada is now the prime Disney World-like resort of the whole Middle East.

When I first have Deirdre land in Hurqhada, she remarks that the place looks like a war zone.  This was evident to me from Google Earth; I later discovered that it was evidence of massive development going on all over the region.  Streets are being made or torn up, construction supplies are everywhere-- and yet the photos, aerial and otherwise, show no details about the people doing the work, their vehicles, their work schedules, and especially not where they live.  The reality behind the promise of new resort space is kept hidden, the unattractive underbelly of a region in transition from a sleepy fishing village to a first-class, world-renowned resort.

In part due to my own frustration I made sure to have Deirdre make comments about this; in her idealistic, youthful pseudo-liberalism she wonders what changes will be imposed on the locals whom she admires and cares little for the paying guests who invade Egypt and who have no care at all for the locals’ ways (which she respects and studies at length).

This recent aerial view of Hurqhada shows the developed waterfront busily entertaining tourists whilst 300 metres west, a new resort will rise upon the huge clearing of sand.  Imagine the dust, concrete powder, noise and ugly earthmovers disturbing your (expensive) holiday in the sun.

So we novelists are left with a dilemma: how to depict a location during a time period of the past without being able to ensure we’ve got it accurately.  Now I know there is a simple solution to this: we write fiction; therefore we just make it up.  Fortunately, in the case of Hurqhada, no-one will be able to tell.  Since the information about what the place was like in 1999-2001 is not available to me, it’s probably not available to anyone else either.  The only people who could debate with authority would be those who were there on holiday in that time period; and that’s just about no-one, since no-one had holidays there back then.  And of course I don’t have to be so particular as to state something that couldn’t be considered credible given even the least bit of latitude.  That's only the novelist's job, after all: to depict a reality that isn't real, yet 'feels' real, without confusing it for the reality that really is.

I just prefer to have it right, when I ever can, that’s all.  But… oh, well.

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