A Mediterranean house of mirrors
One trip to Alexandria, five friends: Jailan Halawi
plays with perspective
Intimate we may have been, but the group had very different ways of seeing the same things. A one-day trip to Alexandria revealed a new city for each of Amira -- secretary to the Egyptian Embassy in Algeria who happened to be on a brief holiday, Hazem -- scholar from America, Naheed -- angelic Afghan-American field communications expert, Mustafa -- telecommunications wizard, and yours -- the journalist off the job. (Mustafa gets the trophy for driving, not complaining and being my fellow Cairo resident).
Would I make the deliberately early starting time, requiring me to wake at 5.30am? Hazem thought not. Eat your words, I stuttered as I woke to my Beethoven playing alarm clock. By 7.15, Amira (whom I picked up in Heliopolis) was half-asleep in the passenger seat as we headed to Hazem and Naheed in Doqqi, well on time. I will not even gloat over how long it took him to get ready. Suffice to say that by the time we reached Mustafa, parked in his four-wheel drive outside his house in Agouza, it was 8.30. Rather than letting the traffic blocking our way to the 26 July Corridor spoil our fun, we joked about micro racing courses and the suicidal commuter. We played music but, blissfully ignorant of Arabic, Naheed fell peacefully, angelically asleep.
Before we hit the toll gate, we were famished enough to stop at Cilantro's in Dandy Mall: healthy morning refreshments in smoke-free open air -- a rare treat in Egypt. Road work did not add to the pleasure of the drive, and all agreed the government should have timed it earlier in the year, before the seasonal flux north to the Mediterranean. Only yesterday I had attended a conference in which the governor of Alexandria spoke of improving services for summer holidaymakers; road work did not bear that out.
Towards the toll station in Alexandria, Omar Oasis and the Master Rest Stop are the last options for a decent cup of coffee; otherwise you must wait till you have reached the Carrefour mega mall at the Alex end of the desert highway -- where interests pursued by this troop ranged from books to ice cream. A fly resting on the raspberry tub disturbed me, but no threat could wipe the complacent smile of the face of the attendant who refused to cover the goodies even after the Ministry of Heath was invoked.
Thence to Alexandria's parking crisis. The nearest we could park was miles away from the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, where we headed first, but the walk was a pleasant antidote to the three-hour journey for all of us -- muscle flexing and everything -- plus a good opportunity to inspect the public beaches on the way: a pleasant prospect. Once in the vicinity, the architecture of the library proved impressive. But only Amira (who was courteous enough to insist on taking me through) and I made our way inside, in the end, since everyone else had been there before and could not be bothered to (a) pay to get in or (b) leave their belongings at a deposits window after waiting in a long queue. Who ever heard of paying to enter a library? And why such military security? Anyway...
No doubt the library is an achievement enriching to cultural life: quiet, well stocked but somewhat NASA like. I could not help remembering a trip to Copenhagen on which entering the city library cost nothing and all sections were accessible free of charge. To get into the museums inside, Amira and I discovered, you have to buy another ticket back outside. Talk about absurd. Hazem met us outside to share his usual insights: "Billions of dollars to make knowledge available, but the Egyptian spirit prevails and obstacles are placed in the way to ruin your experience after all." Even Naheed, usually silent, ended up exploding: "At least they could put up a sign to explain what you need to do."
"Unlike Rome or Athens with their monuments extant," wrote Michael Haag in Alexandria: City of Memory, "Alexandria is all intimation: here is where Cleopatra and Antony loved; here the Library, the Serapeum, and so on -- and there is almost nothing physically there. If more of the city survived it would haunt you less, but the imagination is left to dream, and the dream for some becomes palpable, sensual and 'real'... The City, half-imagined (yet wholly real), begins and ends in us, roots lodged in our memory.
"The roots are those of Western civilisation itself, for Alexandria was once the centre of the Hellenistic world, the resort of artists, poets and scholars from all over the Mediterranean, attracted by the royal patronage of the Ptolemies and a lively cosmopolitan milieu of Greeks and Hellenised Jews and Egyptians."
Haag's words rang true as I walked through the city enjoying the breeze and the sparkling vista of the sea no knowledge of history is required to sense, beyond the façades of hotels and in the curvature of the Corniche contained between two harbours, that greatness of the past. It is equally clear such greatness could be used to benefit the future.
Beyond the statue of the great statesman Saad Zaghloul still defying British occupation as he looks to sea, the distinct sense of imperial grandeur turned grassroots popular can be seen at the Café Trianon, at formerly Greek and Italian restaurants like Pastroudis and Santa Lucia, where rich and famous from all across the country, perhaps even from all across the Mediterranean, once wined, dined and danced the night away.
We opted for Athenious, a once classy Greek venue turned revolutionary and intellectual hub after 1952. Sadly the culinary traditions have not been kept up. Architecture and interior design are well preserved, yet the lack of a menu and the drive to rip off customers through imposing a minimum charge will drive many of us away. We positioned ourselves before the beach, but a tour bus waiting for its Gulfie passengers to finish their shishas blocked our view -- spoiling a beautiful nostalgic moment. To compensate ourselves, we sought out Cecil Hotel, a once royal venue now managed by Sofitel, for a breath of air conditioning, maybe a cup of coffee or a glass of water... We made a swift exit on finding out there was a LE35 minimum charge per person. The interior remains pleasantly grand and service is efficient and friendly.
By 5pm it was time for lunch; and given the setting, no one had any doubts about what that would constitute: a sea food feast at the affordable, renowned Abu Ashraf in the old district of Bahari, not far from Ras Al-Tin Palace near the Eastern Harbour. Established as a simple fish dispensing hut in 1896 by Haj Abdel-Hamid Gomaa and his son Mohamed, aka Abu Ashraf; it rose to fame under the latter's management, together with his brother Mohamed. As in every traditional fish restaurant (the options in Alexandria include Zofair in Max, Zefferion in Abu Qeir, Addoura in Bahari and Shaaban in Manshiya), you get to choose your fresh creatures before they are cooked to your liking, and Mustafa being the expert, he did the honours while the waiter came to the rescue with a range of salads, homemade bread, and the house specialty -- shrimp soup. Naheed was terrorised by the stray cats, the rest of us tried -- in vain -- to leave room for the main course. Service proved swift, in the end, and at LE340, a very hefty meal for five -- with grilled and fried fish, shrimp, calamari and many other.
Dessert was a few steps away: gelata (a corruption of the Italian gelato) at Al-Nizami (options include Al-Ammour in Gelim, Saber in Sporting, Azza in Bahari and Al-Fayoumi at Mehatit Al-Raml). By which point -- already full to the brim -- we could hardly swallow; and no one believed Mustafa when he said it would help with digestion. Like friska (an Alexandria-specific filo) and yallo (originally Greek caramelised fruit), gelata was just an inseparable part of the experience of the city. We stood at the downscale Alexandria Corniche, enjoying the breeze while the sun slowly disappeared into the Mediterranean; some children were swimming still, others held their parents' hand for a happy evening stroll. Enough of the working class, we decided.
Before we could even tell, Mustafa was heading irrevocably to Montazah Palace, set in the middle of sprawling gardens at the western end of the Corniche -- with fruit trees, flowers and incomparable sandy beaches. A summer residence for the Mohamed Ali dynasty, it occupies a lime rock hill overlooking a stunning gulf, some 16m above sea level. The Salamlik was built, the Haramlik -- for the blue-blooded ladies --- in 1928; it is distinguished by a Byzantine tower. We stopped at the Hotel Salamlik to enjoy them. And, while the Egyptians admired portraits of their former royals, Naheed was disappointed with the level of luxury the space displayed. Modest kings, or perhaps the palaces were plundered beyond recognition? We left not because of an outrageous LE40 minimum charge, but to catch the evening prayers at the Abul-Abbas Al-Mursi Mosque ( see p.3 ), a comforting space dedicated to the saint who hails from Murcia, Spain.
The joie de vivre of Alexandrians was evident at the Cap d'Or, also known -- somewhat paradoxically considering the owner who inherited from its Greek founders, and chose to close it on Fridays -- Bar Sheikh Ali. An intellectual hub since 1900 situated on a narrow alleyway off the Saad Zaghloul Square, it is an upbeat, lively place with only two waiters. That night, in particular, everyone was in a festive mood; and Hassan, our waiter, took it well enough when none of us ordered alcohol. After all, we argued, that was the bar of a sheikh. By the time the midnight hour struck, we were already hitting the road.
The energy was contagious as we started singing songs, notably by the Italian-Egyptian Dalida, whose Salma Ya Salama (meaning, roughly, "safe journey back") helped keep the heroic driver awake. Naheed joined in even though she did not understand the lyrics, which celebrates all of Egypt's major cities with a special emphasis on Alexandria in the course of welcoming an Egyptian home after many years of missing the homeland.
Alexandria never fails, all the years and the conquerors notwithstanding: an old rose tree never dies. Cosmopolitan it remains in spite of everything, and you can see how it inspired Constantine Cavafy with the famous lines: "You tell yourself: I'll be gone/ To some other land, some other sea,/ To a city lovelier far than this/ Could ever have been or hoped to be.../ There's no new land, my friend, no/New sea; for the city will follow you,/ In the same streets you'll wander endlessly..."