Tuesday, 13 October 2009 Today marks the end of my first month in Egypt; perhaps a good time for a bit of reflection on what thirty days here has brought—or not. I can understand now why most holders of Fulbright grants spend a year in their posts: it takes a couple of months just to get one’s bearings and to learn to navigate the broad waters of a different culture, language, and modes of living before one can become productive. Those who have teaching positions may have a somewhat easier job of it in that they are just transposing their classroom activities to a different geographic location. There is the language issue, but for faculty teaching at the American University in Cairo, English is the official language of instruction, so that’s one less obstacle to overcome.
I have been making an effort to get out and around more and have achieved a certain comfort level with my surroundings. I’ve started buying my bread (the Egyptian “baladi” (country style) bread, that is) from a sidewalk vendor who charges the equivalent of 20¢ American for a plastic bag containing five pieces of flatbread the size of a salad plate. A little rubbery in consistency, but great with cheese or hummous bi-tahini dip. I practice my Arabic at every opportunity but despair at my glacial rate of progress in that effort. I have contacted an Arabic tutor, whose name was given to me by the library director and I hope that a couple of sessions with him each week will move things along more rapidly. My four-month stay here probably doesn’t provide enough immersion time for my skills to improve substantially, but like most endeavors, it will depend on the effort I put into the project.
Yesterday, I decided it was time to do some exploring of an historical nature and went to visit the ancient Greco-Roman Acropolis, dating to the founding of the city by Alexander the Great in 332 BC. My primary reason for wanting to look at this site was because Sohair, the director of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, had told me that there were remains here that gave one an idea of how the scrolls might have been stored in the ancient library of Alexandria. I checked the location of the site on my map of Alexandria and saw that it was located in the southwest section of the city, west of the Bibliotheca and south, in the direction of Lake Maryut, the brackish lake that sits just behind the coastline and pinches the city in the middle. I grabbed a cab and gave the driver the name of the site. He didn’t seem to know the name of the location, but I told him the name of the city district in which it lay and he said okay.
We set off west along the Corniche, the preferred road for most travel if you’re going any more than a few blocks (For this reason the Corniche, which is six lanes wide, is very congested at the beginning and end of the working day and has heavy traffic most of the time.). After we pass the library, we turn off the Corniche and travel to the southwest through heavily used streets. Cars compete with buses and rickety old trams whose tracks are buried in the asphalt of the streets. The asphalt is poorly laid and even more poorly maintained so that the surface often resembles puddles of molten wax. Along the east side of the street leading to our destination, known as the Pillar of the Horseman, there are numerous shops or stalls open to the sidewalk, displaying all sorts of cheap household products, sorry-looking vegetables and fruits, car parts and supplies, and fabrics, among other things. Male pedestrians wear traditional galabiyas and the women are predominantly dressed in hijab. An air of poverty is everywhere.
On the opposite side of the street was a ten-foot masonry wall, broken occasionally by a gate or archway. This was the Bab Sidra cemetery, the main Muslim burial ground for this part of the city. Earlier in this journey, on a nearby street, my cab had passed a red and white ambulance moving slowly along and followed by a group of ten or a dozen men on foot. It was apparent now that this was a funeral procession on its way to the graveyard.
We arrived at the gate of the archaeological site where a couple of tour buses were parked. I entered the gate, purchased my entrance ticket, went though the omnipresent metal detector (which, as usual, beeped, but I was waved on anyway…), and entered the compound. Like the cemetery, the archaeological site was surrounded by a high wall. It encompassed an area of about five acres bounded on the south and west by streets and on the other two sides by apartment blocks that rose one or two stories above the wall. The center of the space is dominated by a limestone hill surmounted by a red granite pillar some seventy feet high. This column was raised in 300 AD to honor the Roman Emperor Diocletian, who saved the city from famine. Apparently, until the Arab conquest in the 7th century AD, the column had a statue of the emperor astride a horse at its top, hence the name of the location.
There is a walkway around the perimeter of the site which leads past various points of interest, some of which are marked by large signs identifying their former functions: the cisterns that held water for the Greco-Roman buildings at the site, a pool, the Roman bath, and so forth. The sun was out and blazing and the wall prevented any air movement from reaching the lower parts of the site. It was near noon and the heat was intense. I made my way up to the pillar’s base, which was reached by a raised wooden walkway. Up here, about twenty or thirty feet higher than the entry point, there was a bit of a breeze and it was possible to wander around what was once the center of the ancient city. Bits and pieces of columns, once supports for the porticos and roofs that covered this area, lay around the perimeter; some were only partially unearthed and stuck out of the ground at angles. The paving stones of the floor had long since been carried away for other building purposes and one walked across the bare limestone and soil of the hill. On one edge of the rise was a pair of statues of sphinxes, facing the west. My guidebook said that there was also a 20-foot statue of Isis here that had been hauled out of the ocean near the harbor forty years ago, but it must have been moved elsewhere since the book was published. At least I didn’t see it.
At the northeast corner of the hill was a staircase leading down into a pit of sorts. At the bottom, there was an opening in the rock that led into a long series of tunnels. Lights mounted in the ground inside showed a series of niches and shelves cut into the walls at intervals. These, I gathered, were the sort of spaces that, in the ancient library, would have held papyrus scrolls. What these spaces were meant to hold, I am not certain, but corpses would have been my guess. In another wall at the base of the pit was a second opening containing more niches. This area was labeled the “Sanctuary,” and lay in what would have been the sub-basement of the Temple of Isis that once stood on this part of the acropolis. At the end of a long gallery, deep under the ground, was a reproduction of a statue of a sacred Apis bull, two skeletons of which had been discovered here during archaeological excavations. The worship and ritual burial of these animals was a feature of certain Egyptian cults.
Back out into the noonday sun, I completed my circuit of the site, pausing at the souvenir shop to see if there were any postcards of the monuments here. Unfortunately, there were only the clichéd shots of the pyramids and the sphinx. How disappointing. I left the enclosure then, intent on getting back to the Corniche and seeing a more modern part of the city. As I left the gate, one of the automatic rifle toting Egyptian cops guarding the site asked me if I were looking for a cab. I said yes and he found one for me. Not that they were especially scarce in that location, but I think he felt that I shouldn’t wander too far in this neighborhood on my own. Or maybe he was just looking for a little supplement to his no doubt meager salary. In any case, he found a cab for me in short order and I was on my way.
My driver was very congenial and we shared a conversation that was a cut above the ordinary. It started with the usual overly generous assessment of my Arabic abilities: “Tahki al-Arabiya Kwaiys.” (“You speak Arabic well.”)
“Shukran, bi-LLahi, mish kwaiyis kteer.” (“Thanks, by God, not very well at all.”)
This is followed, customarily, by protestations and counter-protestations to the contrary nearly ad infinitum, or at least until one person (usually me), surrenders and says, “ Thanks, you’re too kind.”
But this guy understood that my Arabic wasn’t great and took time to speak slowly and to find alternate words when I didn’t understand the first one. He told me about how marvelous Alexandria was fifteen or twenty years ago, when it was still primarily a seaside resort town. Now, he said, the population (I had heard a figure of six million; the driver insisted that it was twice that!) had made living here very difficult. Housing was at a premium and the cost of living had thrown a lot of people into poverty. I told him that such was the case in most cities of the world. He also revealed that he had done some travelling, once to France and once to Israel, of all places. He confessed to having been seduced by the beauty of the country but despaired of ever seeing real peace because of Israeli arrogance and unwillingness to rein in their territorial ambitions. He spoke of the absolutely wretched state of Gaza and marveled at how people there could manage to live. He also expressed admiration for the States; I hear this so often that I suspect—make that KNOW—that it’s a reflexive ploy exercised on Americans to secure a bigger tip. It worked with me or at least I allowed it to work. And he dropped me in front of a hotel with a sidewalk café where I immediately ordered a cold mango juice and a sandwich.
A space at one of the outside table came open and the waiter asked me if I wanted to sit outside. I said yes and moved. The sidewalk was wide and that meant that the traffic noise and fumes were somewhat reduced. The shade was pleasant and I relaxed as I waited for my food. Horse drawn carriages in various states of repair were carrying people from one point to another along the seafront and there was the obligatory parade of sidewalk hawkers selling everything from woven doormats to sunglasses to “Rolex” and “Omega” watches. Uh huh. Guaranteed to function until at least tomorrow…
I did succumb to one panhandler, a guy in his fifties who was missing most of his left leg, a feature he made a point of emphasizing in various ways. I figured, “I’m in a Muslim country and charity is one of the four obligations imposed on the faithful.” Well, I don’t fit either of those categories (Muslim or faithful) so maybe it’s because someone with only one leg has a lot less of a chance here than a person with two, and even those with two are fighting against considerable economic odds. No real social “safety net” in Egypt…
My sandwich was larger and tastier than I expected and rose from the table quite satisfied. I paid my bill and wandered around the square for a while. This was obviously the “high rent” district with a few really nice hotels and a well-watered and maintained park with an impressive statue in the middle. I saw a couple of places I decided I would come back to and then headed for home. I felt that I had done enough of the tourist thing for one day.
Later, after the sun had set, I went back out to eat dinner and do some grocery shopping. I’m still taken with the transformation of the city at night. The lights come on, the storefronts are bright with all sorts of things for sale and people are out walking everywhere. Alexandria’s shabbiness seems to disappear and the city becomes almost livable. I wanted a restaurant nearby so I walked to the Four Seasons Hotel, housed in the same building as the mall I occasionally use. I sat outside on a raised deck overlooking the Corniche and indulged in a little more extravagance with a meal of sushi (prepared by a Japanese chef, who must be wondering how the hell he ended up here!) and a bottle of Egyptian beer. The Corniche isn’t much quieter by night and any romance the location might provide is dissipated by the rush of cars, buses, trucks and motorcycles. This place needs an urban planner in the worst way!
Autumn is on its way in Egypt, too. October’s temperatures here are a far cry from those in Des Moines at this time of year, but the sun has set by 5:30 now and my thermometer read 62 degrees this morning. I’ve been sleeping with the AC off for the past couple of nights and when I open the living room curtains, there’s a haze over the ocean that doesn’t lift some days until 10 AM. Definite signs of a change in season. It will be interesting to see what two more months’ time will bring.