Digging under the surface of Egypt’s famous city
Probably the most important thing about Egypt’s second city according to its residents, is that it certainly isn’t Cairo. In particular they’ll tell you that it’s not as busy, dirty or noisy as the capital, which might come as a bit of a surprise to a westerner arriving in Alexandria who had yet to see Cairo, for by European standards it is all these things, even if it pales in comparison to the grime laden tsunami of its bigger brother’s assault on the senses. Once the European visitor has negotiated the stinking lagoons and austere oil refinery architecture of the city’s hinterland they will find much that is familiar around the core of the old harbour, in the districts of Mansheya, Bahari and Raml: 19th century Italian, French, British and Greek buildings line the wide streets, decades worth of exhaust glued dust and wind-blown desert sand clinging to their neglected facades. This testimony in stone not just to colonial occupation but an outward view on the world, looking out at the possibilities of the Mediterranean, a view enshrined in the foundation of the city over two thousand years ago and still pulsing in the background today.
Almost every Alexandrian will extol the virtues of the moderating sea breeze thanks to its location, even if it does prompt an invasion of the dreaded Cairenes in the summer, but for many the view of the sea, with its offer of a contemplation of something more to life is where the soul of the city really lies.
Whilst there is little doubt as to Alexander the Great’s military genius and inspiring leadership, the same could be said for his overblown ego and lack of imagination that led him to name a dozen cities after himself. Shortly after appointing his chief architect Dinocrates to oversee construction he left to battle the Persian empire, never to return, at least alive that is but his body was reported to have been returned for internment, the city having gained such importance in his absence. Indeed, within a century it became the greatest city on the Mediterranean coastline. Alexander had chosen the location well, as with the addition of a causeway to complete the natural harbour it made an ideal base for trade. Bar some modifications by earthquake and tidal wave sinking parts of the ancient city, the basic outline of the original harbour bay persists to this day, although lacking the Ancient Wonder of the World, the lighthouse of Pharos, whose ruins at least are somewhat immortalized as building blocks in the Citadel of Qaitby that sits on its original site.
If anything the original Library of Alexandria is better known than the Ancient Wonder of Pharos, for it represented the greatest seat of learning in the ancient Middle Eastern/European world until the Bayt al Hikmah (House of Wisdom) in Baghdad in the 9th Century. The circumstances of its demise are much contested and may have been a series of events over a long period but its iconic place in history assured the construction of its worthy namesake in 2002. The modern version if anything, promotes an even broader vision than the original, encompassing not just a library but educational, entertainment, exhibition and conference facilities as well as a museum. Alexandrians are rightly proud of it, not just as a reminder of the city’s illustrious past but encapsulating a spirit of enquiry that is still alive and well. One which goes well beyond education, including art, theatre, music poetry and more.
Creative types may at times have to go to Cairo for technical facilities and in search of fame but the open-minded and questioning outlook was forged in the crucible of their home town. Although the public expression of an Egyptian “alternative scene”, like that in the West, is often stifled by conservative values and political oppression, that doesn’t mean it’s not bubbling away under the surface, requiring the climactic events of the Arab spring to provide a brief opportunity to stick its head over the parapet.
The spirit of willingness to seek inspiration beyond its shores took a bit of a back seat during the centuries of Islamic rule, at least until the Ottomans, as Muslim rulers, as far back as the second Caliph Omar in the 7th century, often expressed a distrust of the sea and only rarely showed interest in naval campaigns. The city was regarded as little more than a stopping point for trade on the way to Cairo, where the real business was done. Although the Greeks had never gone away since the city’s inception, the arrival of the European powers in the 19th century reinvigorated life and many of the older buildings were replaced with foreign designed structures, in many places only the old street plan remained as a trace of history. People always talk positively of these grand buildings, not a reminder of colonial rule but as part of a long history of engagement with the rest of the world. Both the exquisite Abu al Abbas al Morsi mosque and the Haramlek Palace in Montazah were designed by Italian architects in the 1920s, such was the openness to foreign ideas.
The road to Egypt’s independence caused many of the Europeans to drift away but a handful of Greeks remain, primarily visible by their popular restaurants, a faint memory of the 37,000 recorded in 1882. Older Greeks, who regard themselves as Egyptian, bemoan the old, truly cosmopolitan days, withered over decades of Arab nationalism and increasing religious conservatism. Modern times have seen towers of concrete and brick stretch for miles along the coast, hemmed in by the lagoons and their refineries, making the city an elongated band of over 4 million people. The rural poor have flocked in to embrace the employment opportunities but bringing their conservative values and parochial concerns. Some Greeks have complained about the erosion of the former tolerance and the strain of judgemental attitudes in this patriarchal society, so see their future abroad. However this is a struggle echoed by many Egyptian young around the country. True to the original Alexandrian spirit. informed by the Internet and equally comfortable with many elements of western as well as Egyptian culture, ground down by economic paralysis, authoritarianism and controlling parents they only see a hopeful future outside of Egypt.
The western visitor is unlikely to experience the discomfort that the Greeks speak of, which is more rooted in the minutiae of interactions in everyday life where some refuse to accept their qualification as true Egyptians, as like most Egyptians, the Alexandrians take the traditions of hospitality very seriously. You are sure to receive a, “welcome to Egypt”, or an enthusiastic chat with someone pleased to encounter a visitor from abroad. Not once in my many months in the city have I been the subject of abuse, unless you count that internationally reviled pariah the overcharging taxi driver or the equally money grabbing crook running the cafe at the bus station. Foreigners may be a rare breed in these difficult times for Egypt but they are familiar enough to the locals here to mean that you won’t be swarmed upon by selfie seeking teenagers but rare enough to mean that the rip offs are limited to the above examples, rather than the wholesale extortion, endemic to the tourist hell hole that is Aswan. With the introduction of Uber the taxi driver’s opportunity to fleece foreigners is drastically reduced, however don’t expect them to have much of an appreciation of the concept of map reading or what the point of GPS is.
Despite the abundant evidence to the contrary, drivers have retained an almost religious faith in the ability of their car horns to affect the flow of traffic. Hence any attempt to get in touch with the soul of the city will almost always be serenaded by the Klaxon Symphony in E flat (and C sharp, B demented 9th and most other keys). Despite Islam being imbued with communal values and respect for one’s equals, drivers clearly haven’t got the message, as car ownership comes with a divine right to assume priority over all other road users. Where any rational road user would on occasion realise that allowing another vehicle to pass could speed up the circulation for everyone, the Egyptian, on seeing an unoccupied portion of tarmac will say to himself, “Almighty Allah has decreed that space for the sole use of myself and all others will be subject to eternal hellfire and damnation should they transgress this divine revelation”. Even the wailing sirens of an ambulance provokes not the slightest hint of conceding even a millimetre: who knows how many patients die before they even get to the hospital?
Consequently the humble pedestrian has been largely deemed an inconvenience to city planners, although I suspect such a job title may not actually exist in most of Egypt. It does however provide plenty of exercise, locals having to master the 30m slalom if they want to avoid getting smeared over the road by the erratically driven mini buses, known as mashroua or one of the multitude of black and yellow, dented Lada taxis.
A wise woman surely once said that the route to the soul is through the stomach and in Alexandria this must mean a visit to Mohamed Ahmed. Dispensing fuul (the fava bean favorite of much of the Arab world and me) and falafel to the masses for over sixty years, this institution is to Alexandria as the English, greasy spoon cafe with its fried breakfast (the distinction between it and its more refined cousins denoted by the pronunciation caff, rather than with the accented French e, as in caffay), or the US burger joint. With punters sometimes queuing on the pavement it is rarely less than packed from early morning to last orders at 1am. The horde of blue shirted staff, some of whom look as though they have been there since its founding, expertly weave around the tables and each other, laden with steaming platters and a plethora of side dishes, all with such efficiency and precision that it’s unlikely you’ll wait longer than a minute for your order to appear. Ironically the cheaper places such as this will serve you with far greater speed and pleasantness than the posh expensive cafes where you’d imagine that the higher prices ought to afford you such dignities: you’ll have usually ordered, eaten, paid and left Mohamed Ahmed’s before anyone has even bothered to find you a menu at the hallowed halls of the pricey Delices cafe around the corner.
Western institutions would regard the surfeit of staff as a crime against neo-liberal economic efficiency but here, as is common in many Muslim countries, I have found the value placed on service before profit margins is not dead and social welfare is not a redundant concept for all employers: better to provide some extra, modest jobs handing out tissues to customers in the toilet or cleaning tables than to increase the unemployment figures.The astounding efficiency of service is of course part of the place’s appeal and ensures the masses keep coming, regardless of the vagaries of the Egyptian economy. Arabs may be devoted meat lovers but the entirely vegetarian menu has done nothing to dent the popularity of the restaurant either. The same business model of popular, vegetarian food churned out at breakneck speed is repeated at the other local institution, Koshery al Suhkhn, where this carbohydrate fest of macaroni, rice and lentils with tomato sauce is launched into bowls and takeaway cartons at an olympian speed that is exhausting to watch. You rarely see what would be classed as fairly menial serving work done with such velocity, flair and precision in the West, certainly not with the sheer relentlessness of the man in question here.
Alexandria may not be going through one of its historical high points but the spirit that made it great before has never truly gone away, there are always enough of its inhabitants who remain faithful to its founding values to mean that when Egypt recovers from its current malaise the city will be leading the way. When it does, it will do so because it will be looking outwards, engaging with the rest of the world as it has done so in the past but with a firmer view of what it really means to be Egyptian.