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A Little Look Around Alexandria

This post is part of a series of posts documenting my trip to Egypt. To read from the beginning, go to the first post and follow the links at the bottom of each page.

Thursday 24 September 2009

My first task today was to get to an HSBC branch here in Alexandria and pick up my ATM card. Attentive readers may recall that, when I opened my account, there was an issue regarding which bank branch would be most convenient to my place of residence here. An educated guess was made by the Cairo branch employees in consultation with the Fulbright folks and the card was sent up to an office in the Saraya section of Alexandria. The other day, when scouting the San Stefano Mall, I found a bookshop and purchased a city map. Using that in conjunction with my scouting trip with Sharif, my Egyptian acquaintance, I decided that the distance was a walkable one, so I set out.

The weather, again today, was typically late-summer Mediterranean: sunny and clear. The map showed that the Saraya district was about the same distance beyond San Stefano as my apartment is from that shopping center, so about twice as long a walk. I took my time, walking along the shady side of the street for as long as that was possible and then in the sun. Once I reached San Stefano, I took a left and walked north, down to the Corniche, thinking that a sea breeze would make the excursion more pleasant.

An advantage to this plan was also that the sidewalks along the Corniche are actually useable. Along most streets in Alexandria (and Cairo, for that matter), the sidewalks are very narrow—three feet or less, generally—and most people simply walk in the streets alongside the parked cars, which seem to be everywhere. There is invariably some sort of construction or maintenance going on somewhere, which requires you to move into the street, or a lamp post stuck smack dab in the middle of the walkway with an overflowing garbage dumpster on one side, so you either attempt to slither past without getting crud all over yourself, or you go out into the street. Drivers are generally courteous in that they honk if they come up behind you, but if you encounter anyone walking in the opposite direction, it’s always a crap shoot as to who endangers him or herself by stepping out into the traffic. I haven’t figured out the etiquette of that yet… The sidewalks are not well maintained in any case since cars are obviously the privileged mode of transport here, too. Traffic lights are few and far between and, from what I’ve observed, they are generally regarded as serving in an advisory capacity only. If they work at all, they tend to be ignored, at least by the locals. Police are another matter. There are intersections where traffic flow is controlled by the police, at least at certain times during the day. Traffic direction from the police, unlike the traffic lights, tend to be heeded much more strictly.

I had been walking for some time and had not recognized any of the landmarks I thought I had committed to memory during my ride with Sharif, and I was beginning to think that I should either a) turn around and re-trace my steps or, b) hail a cab and give the driver the address and let him (hopefully) find the bank. I was also beginning to heat up. I didn’t know what the temperature was exactly, but it was getting warmer. Just at that point, I looked ahead around a curve in the road and there were the big (and for the moment very friendly) letters HSBC. My oasis. I entered the bank and took care of my business. The ATM card was indeed there and I signed for it, received the little sealed envelope containing my PIN, offered my thanks to the clerk who helped me and left the bank. As I did so, I asked the guard at the entrance if there were a decent coffee shop or café in the vicinity. He led me outside and pointed down a street leading away from the sea and told me that at the next corner I would find what I wanted. “Shukran,” I said, and set off in that direction.

I had been wondering about the social and economic organization of Alexandria during my brief outings but didn’t feel that I could draw any conclusions about those issues until I had seen a bit more of the city. To this point, all of my forays had been taken fairly close to the seaside, the high-rent district in any city. Along the street on which I now found myself, I saw evidence of abject poverty. In a rubbish-strewn vacant lot was what I took to be a sort of squatters lodgings: a small decrepit masonry building with a derelict sofa parked outside the doorway, which was itself covered with a dingy hunk of discarded carpet. The buildings on either side, multi-story apartment blocks, were not in the best of repair and I saw more people in galabiyahs and traditional dress than I had seen in my area of the city.

I looked in at the café the bank guard had recommended, which was empty and dark. There were a couple of cold water pipes (hookahs or shishas) standing about but I didn’t like the look of it so I turned right at the corner and decided to explore a bit. The tram line ran down the center of the street, so I knew that all I had to do was to follow it and it would lead me back to my neighborhood. Or at least I hoped it would. From the map, it seemed clear that there was only one tram line running from east to west and I figured I had made a safe assumption.

The street, while not actually bustling, was busy. The shops were open; owners either standing outside waiting for customers, or talking to their neighbors. Coffee houses were frequent and, in late morning, there were lots of men, singly and in twos or threes enjoying their “elevenses” a small cup of Arabic coffee and a pipeful of flavored tobacco. Charcoal braziers mounted on the outside walls of the cafes glowed with the coals used to light the tobacco for the pipes. These are tended by men whose job it is to keep the charcoal going and light the pipes as needed. We’ve been advised to steer clear of the hookah pipes, even though most cafes have started cleaning the mouthpieces. Hepatitis C is rampant in Egypt and we were told that even if the mouthpieces are cleaned, the tubes connecting to the pipes are not and therefore are a potential source of infection.

The area I am walking through is obviously a working class area, although drawing such a conclusion is fraught with danger. My neighborhood is considered a “good” one but you wouldn’t necessarily know that from the street. Public standards of cleanliness are, in my estimation, rather more lax than we are accustomed to in the States, at least outside urban ghettos and depressed rural areas, Mosques are generally very clean on the inside, but shops and even larger stores (the mall was a major exception…) have sticky floors, flies buzzing about and dust. If you’re a clean freak or anal compulsive, Egypt ain’t for you.

Inside, it’s a different story. My building is not terribly impressive from outside; better maintained or newer than others, perhaps, but not flashy or fly by any means. The apartment interior, on the other hand, is generally clean, freshly painted and tidy. The care given to cleaning the insides of homes is evident when you walk down the street and are either hit by droplets of water falling from balconies, or see puddles of water which result from cleaning activities being carried out in living spaces above you. (Another reason many people avoid sidewalks by the way…) Since the social focus in Egypt is on family and relations, and since those relationships are cultivated in private, the interiors of homes often belie their exteriors. All this is to say that it’s hard to judge the socio-economic level of an area from its outward appearance alone. Other clues lie in the types of businesses and styles of dress one sees.

Along my way, I saw the first donkey drawn farm cart I had seen in the city. The two passengers were hawking their load of onions to the residents. Open air stalls, many of which are obviously temporary, are set up on street corners where fruits and vegetables are offered for sale. These sorts of businesses, as well as plumbing and electrical shops, are interspersed among more upscale shops selling jewelry, home furnishings, electronics, and even cars.

It strikes me that there is a major economic and social shift underway in Egypt, a transition similar to the one the US underwent in the 50’s and early 60’s when larger corporations of all kinds began to displace smaller specialty shops. The entire fabric of life is changing. Older men sit in the coffee houses; the younger ones (and increasing numbers of young women) head to the mall. Even if they can’t afford to buy what is sold there, they go there because that’s where their peers are. The San Stefano Mall, which looms ahead of me now and tells me I’m going in the right direction, will no doubt displace many of the small businesses I have been passing by and the owners will be forced out of business or will move somewhere farther away from the mall. A small number will adapt to the change in circumstances and find ways to survive.

Outside the mall entrance is a traditional café. I go in and order a cup of Arabic coffee. While I wait, I pick up an Egyptian newspaper (“al-Masri al-Yawm” roughly “Today’s Egyptian”) and see what I can make of the news. My coffee comes, a small cup containing coffee with a foamy surface. I wait for it to cool a bit and then sip. It’s not well done; some of the coffee grounds sit on top of the drink, making for a gritty taste. When Arabic (or Turkish, depending on where you are) coffee is done properly, brought to a boil three times and allowed to settle, you don’t get the grit until you hit bottom. This isn’t good. Inside the mall, there are at least two Starbuck’s knockoffs where, for a little more money I could have had a latte with no grit. So much for going native.

I enter the mall with the primary aim of orienting myself—not that I plan to spend a great deal of time here, but because when I need something, I want to be able to locate it quickly, buy it and get out. It’s cool inside, though, so I take my time, marking specific stores so I can find my way out again. I go down to the lower level to check out the “Metro” supermarket. I  now have a better idea of what I need to do my cooking and what I would like to eat, so I want to know what I can buy where.

While I’m checking out the cheeses, a woman approaches me and asks, in English, for assistance. (She just heard me ask Cheese Guy, in Arabic,  if he had Parmesan, but my appearance screams “American”). I offer my help: she’s trying to find out what kind of coffee would be best for her coffee machine. The Egyptian store clerk doesn’t understand what she wants so I try to explain in Arabic what the problem is. There’s good old Maxwell House in a can and also shelf after shelf of Arabic coffee and she doesn’t know what to buy.  We finally reach a point where we all get the general idea and come to the conclusion it’s either Maxwell House or nothing. I tell her that she might want to go to the Costa Coffee place (Starbuck’s knockoff mentioned above) and ask if they sell coffee in bulk; that’s the only other option I can think of. I’ve been looking for a cone and filters myself, with no luck.

She thanks me and walks off. I find an ATM, try my card (it works!), and head out. The day is wearing on and I would like to get home. I stop in my local grocery/household store and buy a couple of things, a thermometer and a can opener, and go home. The air conditioning feels good. There’s a phone call from Hend al-Shennawy, Sohair’s assistant, who tells me that on Sunday, there will be a library staff meeting at which I will be introduced and then a subsequent meeting set up for me with the Head of Collection Development and following that another with Hend herself. Work to be done! I’m looking forward to this.

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