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Into the Mystic
Alexandria, Egypt: Sept. 09, 2006.
Sprawling along the Mediterranean Coast just west of the Nile Delta, Alexandria appears to be a much more appealing city than Cairo. Surrounded by water, it receives more rainfall and is almost lush with vegetation. As in Cairo, the lines on the roads are treated as the exception rather than the rule by drivers. Traffic is thick and chaotic. One must be very quick on ones feet and not make a mistake when crossing the busy streets. Motorists, especially those in taxi’s, of which there are many, use horns instead of brakes when faced with pedestrian traffic.
There is a great blend of very old and new buildings. Laundry hangs outside on almost every apartment balcony creating a patchwork quilt of colour and movement. Along the shoreline, many people enjoy the breakers as they roll onto the beach. Off in the distance, a large ship steams westward while stunted palms wave goodbye in the salty breeze.
In stark contrast the view from my hotel room is compressed by three buildings of indeterminate age into a 12’ by 35’ dingy courtyard 6 floors below. Although at one time these must have been grand old buildings, like the pyramids, they are now showing the ravages of time. On the building to my left is a rickety, metal exterior staircase absolutely full of garbage, stucco and concrete crumble, most of which has been falling from these very old, eroding buildings. Its flat roof has a number of decrepit open rooms on its top that have been shoveled half full of the same sort of debris. The more recently installed iron plumbing attached to the outside walls is the aged “bell and spigot” pipe from the turn of the century. Although listed favorably in guide books, our rooms are Spartan and grimy, devoid even of soap, towel and phone. We were informed on arrival that the rooms with a view are without plumbing and the rooms with plumbing are without a view. I chose plumbing, (we will be tenting it soon enough), I’ll gather the view later from the seashore across the cornice. The antique porcelain potties are still light years ahead of the plastic bucket pick-axed into the Khumbu Glacier that we shared on Everest in 2004 & 05. (See: algonquincollege.com/everest).
With a very long history of prominence, revolution and war, the city, with its natural limestone harbour, was ordered built by Alexander the Great for whom it was named in 332 BC. Only his corpse saw its construction when he was returned here for burial eight years later. At the time of the Arab conquest in 641 AD, Alexandria was described by the Arab commander Amr as containing “4,000 palaces, 4,000 baths and 400 theatres” but when the Arabs moved on to establish Cairo due to a silting up of the waterways connecting Alexandria with the Nile, it fell into decline over the next millennium to the point that when Napoleon’s expeditionary forces arrived here in 1798, they found a mere fishing village with only four thousand inhabitants.
Today, the streets are jamb-packed with little shops and sidewalk vendors selling everything from cell phones to fresh sea creatures. Among other exotics, are tea rooms offering selections of “smokeables” stoked on top of large water pipes for their strictly male clientele. As expected, McDonalds, KFC and a few other North American chains have the beginnings of a foothold in a food market that is otherwise predominantly Arab in nature. The Egyptian economy, here and in Cairo, appears to be flourishing amongst the middle class, although 5.73 Egyptian pounds will buy just one U.S. dollar. I suspect that this impression of relative posterity will soon be shattered when we head off into the desert on Camel with the nomadic Bedouin tribes.
In Egypt, most people are extremely religious. The majority are Muslim people of the Islamic faith who worship Allah and the prophet Mohammed. There is however a sizable Coptic Christian populace that is spread through the country. Christianity is acknowledged by Muslims, though Jesus is seen only as a minor prophet. While some young men will tender cat-calls from moving cars to women on the street, most of the Islamic population is quite conservative. Although nowhere near as prevalent as some years ago, there are still many married Women who will not venture into public with anything more than their eyes visible beneath the traditional hijab head scarf, burka face cover and abayya garments. “It represents a Woman’s inaccessibility as a sanctified possession of her husband”, as written by Dr. Sherif Abdel Azeem, author of, Women in Islam: These ideals were initiated to quell men’s desires for other men’s women. Shaunna and Khairoon will soon expand on this in more detail in a series of articles about the issues facing Women in the Islamic world.
In support of my reported Muslim conservatism, a strange little man in pajamas knocked on my door late last night. He could only speak Arabic but I gathered from his tone as he led me to my closet that there was some kind of a problem. He opened the closet and began pawing at my shirts. I couldn’t, for the life of me, determine what it was that he was trying to tell me so I put on my best big dog voice and led him back to the door and motioned him out. It occurred to me shortly after our “bye, bye’s”, that perhaps it was unacceptable for me to be shirtless in front of the open window. I closed the curtains and did not hear from him again. I awoke at 5:00 am this morning when the call to prayer began broadcasting loudly from the Mosque’s and rooftops in this fascinating, mysterious city of four million diverse people.
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All content copyright 2006 by: Mike Swarbrick