by Victoria Aitken
The Sinai desert has a new underground radio station – the only one to escape a ban on live radio transmissions – and it is breaking records for a radio station of its size. Radio Sharm’s secret location in the Sinai desert and its Disc Jockey’s code names like “The Mad Monk,” “The Girl with No Name,” and “Little Miss Slumdog” add mystique and character to Sharm el-Sheikh’s only live radio station.
I visited this holiday location on the Red Sea famous for its picturesque beaches, coral reefs, and year-round sunny weather; and discovered Radio Sharm. Who has ever heard of a secret radio station in the desert? Just the inhospitable location was intriguing enough to want to discover more about the radio station.
The station’s manager, Jimmi Monk, originally from Braintree, used to be a double glazing salesman in the UK. He drove me to the station’s headquarters in Dahab where he has lived the past seven years. Dahab is a small Bedouin village in South Sinai about a one hour drive from Sharm el-Sheikh.
There is a heavy presence of international peace-keeping military in this area. Although Egyptian/Israeli government relations are good, there is still some tension between the people. Jimmi’s station is the only one for miles because it is illegal to broadcast in the South Sinai due a ban set in place by the Camp David Accords. According to Jimmi the broadcasting rule was put in place “to stop real time communications happening.” Experts say that a radio signal can be used to detonate explosives at long range. In an area whose borders are under dispute, the ban is understandable. Also, radio transmitters can easily be turned into radio receivers, allowing radio owners to listen in on military communications and transmissions in the region.
The broadcasting ban in the Sinai desert has left many of the region’s youngsters and visitors deprived of good music. Jimmi used to be a Disc Jockey in Sharm el-Sheikh and in 2009 decided to launch his own station. He figured everyone had mobile phones, internet access, and a whole range of real time communication devices. As he says “we do not broadcast, we webcast” thereby circumventing the ban. Even as a “webcaster” Radio Sharm is not allowed to broadcast live from anywhere other than the studio.
Looking out the window at the expanse of desert on the drive to Dahab, I wonder how Jimmi managed to set up a hit radio station in such a location despite the laws. He admits it wasn’t easy. “I went to Cairo to get a sound system [which] we stacked on a very old Peugeot estate car and drove to Dahab with the taxi driver falling asleep at the wheel. It was a nightmare, but we survived, and then hid the equipment, generators etc… All that we needed.”
He explains how he had to build specialty computers. Other equipment came from all over the world. “We had to fly in someone to bring the studio mixer from England. Microphones had to come with someone from Russia. And hard drives came from Holland.” More equipment is coming in slowly. They need more microphones and stands. The list never stops. Jimmi goes on to tell me how hard it is to get the right internet speed from the local providers and how a generator and a battery backup are needed to keep the station running.
Jimmi says it was very stressful to set up the whole thing, and if it were not for his former girlfriend Jane’s support, he would not have been able to do it. Jane is a graphic designer from the Ukraine who has an insatiable passion for music. She did all the design work for Radio Sharm. They lived in the apartment with the radio station, living on rice and onions because all their money went to the station. Officially Jane was the station’s rock expert.
The word “Dahab” means “gold” in Arabic and it seems Jimmi has found a gold mine of a business in Dahab. Less touristy than Sharm el-Sheikh, and perhaps more natural and a fraction more beautiful, Dahab is famous for its diving, wind surfing and kite surfing. In Dahab there are as many camels and goats walking along the streets as humans. Jimmi loves the freedom and feel of the town. “The houses we live in are very basic. Internet has only just really taken off here. Two years ago you would be lucky to find an internet connection at anyone’s home.”
When I finally arrive at the radio station’s headquarters, a non-descript house in the middle of Dahab, I am greeted by a DJ called Little Miss Slumdog. She had dreadlocks down to her waist and a bindi in the middle of her forehead. Instead of the weak internet connection and the various problems Jimmi had been describing, I find a high-tech room full of amazing radio equipment. Just the week before a German band touring the Sinai played live in the studio.
I am amazed at the professional feel of the radio station. I ask Jimmi what is the key to his success and he says, “The shows are done by volunteers who love their music. They create their own programs.” The station started with three people and now has 25, hosting all kinds of programs including Rock, Reggae, House, Indie and chat shows. Jimmi says his success is due to one fact, “No one tells anyone what tunes have to be played. People can go to our chat room and ask for tunes direct from the DJ and chat with him or her.”
In today’s world, especially in the UK and America, radio stations have developed into music businesses. Radio stations have deals with record labels to play certain songs, many times, rather than playing what the listeners want to hear. Radio Sharm is special because it has not been paid or bribed by big record companies. It is refreshing to find an organic station playing what people enjoy versus Sony’s latest hits.
Radio Sharm is made up of people from Russia, England, Ireland, Belgium, Holland, Germany, Egypt, and Bedouin areas – it is a multi-cultural station. At one-year-old they have over 10,000 members. Radio Sharm is not only a radio station but also a community. Although show hosts are expressly forbidden by law to talk about anything controversial – religion, politics, sex, or drugs – Radio Sharm is a source of information about hotels, restaurants, and businesses in Sharm el-Sheikh, Dahab, Nuweiba, Taba and Saint Catherine.
And, the great news is to get that holiday feeling you do not need to be in Sharm el-Sheikh to listen. You can listen from anywhere; all you need is an internet connection.
About the author:
Victoria Aitken has been published in The Sunday Times, Style Magazine, The Daily Mail, Tatler, The Daily Telegraph, and The Guardian. Victoria is currently working on her first album after recently completing three singles – “Daisy” and “I’ll Be Your B***h” as a follow up to her tongue and cheek recession anthem “Vikki from the Yacht.” She was born in Lausanne, Switzerland, educated in Germany, Switzerland, and Washington, D.C, where she earned a B.A. in international relations from Georgetown University.