Saturday, March 03, 2007

Out Cold In Alex

Egypt's second city is Alexandria. Founded by Alexander the Great (him again) and famed for its giant lighthouse, or Pharos (another world wonder), and even bigger library the city was, in its heyday, the greatest of the ancient world. Since then the library has burnt down, the lighthouse was toppled by an earthquake and the capital has moved to Cairo. In fact the only pre-Islamic structure still standing is a single measly column (which the authorities have the gall of charging $3 to see). Why then visit this place at all? Well, there is a largish (and overpriced) 15th century fort on the site of the Pharos which, if you look carefully, incorporates some of its predecessor's masonry, and there's a new library with aspirations of greatness, though it requires more books and less empty space to achieve that. Plus, close by, is the largest Coptic monastery in the country. I didn't know this as I was intending to visit the ruins of an old Christian complex. Apparently 50 years ago the Coptic patriarch decided to take the remains of the saint, around which the ancient pilgrimage site had been built, and build a new monastery complex. Lucky for me as the ruins were distinctly unremarkable, my entertainment being provided by watching local Copts spending their weekend with an outing to the new monastery, having picnics and playing football in the grounds.

Just sitting by and watching people and their lives pass by is certainly the best thing to do in Alex (and only partly because it's free). I would set myself up on the seafront Corniche around sunset and contemplate the anglers sporadically casting their long lines into the bay without much apparent success; young parents trying desperately to stop their progeny from running amok by placating them with candy floss; and courting couples sharing a laugh and a discreet holding of hands. Sartorially, at least, women here seem far more emancipated than their Arab sisters elsewhere. Although many wear headscarves in deference to their beliefs they make no such compromises from the neck down, sporting trendy, sassy clothes that would easily be at home north of the Med (I even saw a couple of girls wearing boob tubes, though with a tight, thin T-shirt underneath to maintain their modesty). Egyptian men, on the other hand, spend a lot of time at the local ahwa (cafe) smoking sheeshas and playing dominoes. Although, to be fair, that's pretty much what all men everywhere do. The relaxed, open, al fresco way of life possibly has something to do with the city's pre-independence cosmopolitan character when over a third of the population were foreigners: Greeks, Italians, Turks, French, British and Jews forming the eclectic mix.

Now if only they could be so civilised when it comes to their public transport. (I know I harp on a lot about buses, planes and trains, but getting around, and figuring out how to get around, takes up a lot of my time and is an area of everyday life with which I am in close contact in every country I visit.) Local minibuses have neither numbers nor destinations displayed, instead Alexandrians have devised a series of hand signals for each of the major destinations in town. That's possibly a good thing because although I thought I was making good progress with my Arabic I'm having trouble understanding, and making myself understood by, Egyptians, as their garbled dialect of Arabic is so different from standard Arabic as to be a different language altogether. For example instead of calling the "new station" (where I wanted to get to) mahattat jadideh in Egyptian it becomes mawfak gedi. So, thumbing my nose at linguistic barriers, there I stood by the side of the road, my right arm held vertically, palm forwards at head height, fingers outstretched, intermittently jabbing at the sky and slowly turning red from embarrassment. It did work though and after 15 minutes of looking ridiculous I was picked up. I just wished I had been going to the place where the signal was a surreptitious pointing towards the ground; at least I wouldn't have felt like such a pillock then.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Heya, this is Chris. It took me forever to get to the bus station. For the same reason. MAN.