Alexandria. The African City Of Alexander The Great
Taste of a City
Music: There’s a Storm a’ Coming, Richard Hawley
Movie: King Tut
Book: The Fires of Alexandria, Thomas K. Carpenter. The Amun Chamber, Daniel Leston
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I don’t remember seeing a dark cloud in the skies of Alexandria. I wonder if it ever rains in this urban oasis at the fringe of the Sahara Desert.
I’m up on the open deck to watch the ship drop anchor and to check the weather. As expected, it is another sizzling day.
The Millennium docks in Alexandria only once a month this summer. I would typically jump on a tour bus to Cairo. Not today, though.
It is time I saw what made Alexander the Great entrust his general and successor with building the most magnificent city of antiquity on the northern coast of Africa. A city that has brought the Greeks on the pharaohs’ throne, has hosted the most majestic library the millennia has seen, has fallen to the Romans and has become a bustling modern swarm, apparently unaware of its unbelievable history.
It is not all doom and gloom, and time has still to fight for the right to sink this corner of the world in the darkness of oblivion. One indeed needs a creative imagination to envisage the wonder of the antiquity that was The Lighthouse. Also, the old library is long gone; more vision is required.
So, I close my eyes and do see the Pharos rising proudly from the waves, all the way to the clouds. I see millions of scrolls stored on shelves and Pythagoras going about his research in the cool rooms of the old library.
Then I open my eyes. A massive medieval Muslim fortress lays where the Pharos once was. It’s a trick of the mind! It does not mean that Alexandria and its rich history has vanished in time out of mind.
The new library shines its glass dial roof in the searing African sun. Millions have access to the knowledge catalogued in each sunlit room of the futuristic edifice.
You might not hold in your hands the scrolls Pythagoras produced twenty-five centuries ago, but you get the idea.
And maybe Alexander is still around here somewhere, sleeping his eternal sleep undisturbed by the day-to-day commotion.
Colleagues who have been out on different occasions warned me that the city was a little rough and suggested I shouldn’t go alone. So, I’ve arranged with a friend to accompany me, and he agreed.
The walk from the terminal is long, the sun is merciless, but it won’t make me give up. Yet!
The first thing that strikes me is the pungent stench of urine exulting from the narrower streets. My friend, Lisbon born and bred, is already twitching his nose. “Not posh enough for your taste?” I tease him while I wish I had a peg to pinch my nose.
The streets get busier. The air is charged with fine hot Saharan sand particles that hit my face in the persistent breeze. So far, I can’t see anything architectural that would strike me. It’s all square apartment buildings, broad boulevards suffocated by heavy traffic and exasperating honking.
I was about to tell my friend that it seems only men wearing white gallibaya walk the streets in the late morning hour. Before I open my mouth, a hand grabs my shoulder and shakes me quite brutally.
I turn to see who would do such a thing and why. A man in his fifties is gibbering incessantly in a language that makes no sense to either of us. His grubby hands are clutching to my forearm and won’t let go.
I shake myself free and shout at him to stop touching me. The man shows a lot of missing teeth in what he probably believes is an enticing smile. He turns to my friend, throwing a word in English among a lot of gibberish and heavy gesturing:
“Camel!” and something else I did not understand. Then, he points at me, broadening his ugly smile.
More men gather around to watch the freak show.
My friend is, literally, my friend. A married man of thirty-three with a wife waiting for him in Portugal. He has hinted before that he would have liked a different sort of relationship between us. I told him that there was a wife between us, not a romantic relationship.
We remain friends, because we have good banter every time we talk. We feel comfortable with one another. He’s a smart guy, although a little bonkers. I enjoy spending time with him, that’s all.
Why is the way he’s staring at me making me so prickly?
“How many camels?” I hear him asking the Egyptian.
Is he for real? We’re in a foreign country with weird customs, surrounded by a handful of men who push and shove each other to get to touch my arms. We don’t understand their language, and they speak an iota of English which makes communication arduous.
These people don’t get at all his sense of humour, can’t he see it? And I call this idiot ‘friend’!
The older man launches in a tirade of faster babbling and sawing the air while pointing at me. By his body language, he takes the negotiation seriously.
My friend can hardly hold his laughter while encouraging the old man. The bloody imbecile thinks he’s funny!
I get so annoyed and already feel sorry that I asked him to accompany me out in the city today.
My head is full of antique history; I’m not curious to find out what’s my worth in camels! The idiot thinks it’s hilarious to put me in such a situation!
How would he feel if somebody offered me two camels in exchange for him? Given how annoyed I am at the moment, I would sell him for a camel’s hoof or just give him away for free only to get rid of him!
I tell him to drop this nonsense in a serious tone of voice, or I’ll go back to the ship and never speak to him again.
The idiot rolls with laughter and somehow explains to the Egyptian that I am more expensive than that. The Egyptian finally turns his back and leaves, annoyed by the failed business.
I feel like slapping both of them: one for his Dark Ages mentality, gender and marital status discrimination. The other one for encouraging this freak show.
Through laughter, my arsehole friend asks me to observe his appreciation as he refused the Egyptian’s generous offer.
Gee! I’m ecstatic that I’m worth more than two camels. I already see my index raising on the stock exchange!
The moron is on fire. He won’t stop. He says he could have started a transport company through the desert and establish some sort of trade with the Bedouins. He should have considered the offer better.
“Such a wasted opportunity!’ I reply sarcastically.
All I can think of is that Caucasian women must be considered exotic around here. And for sale. After all, the man approached us in a busy quarter of the city and proposed the trade as if it was the most natural thing in the world.
The time is elastic. We are contemporary but don’t live in the same century. What if I had adventured in the city by myself? I would have been abducted by aliens, probably. Not that the present company is a lot better!
My friend takes my hand. I accept this since it deters other locals from looking for more ‘business’. Miraculously, the jabber and touching cease. The ad hoc, boisterous throng disperses visibly disappointed that no deal was sealed.
What the hell? Do they believe that white skin feels different? Oh, I see. A man is holding my hand. I now belong to someone. I’m not up for grabs anymore!
I’m glad that in my world I don’t get harassed for being a woman just like more than half the planet’s population or for having a skin (no matter the colour) attribute to all Sapiens! The things we take for granted …
I make an effort to shake off the ugly encounter by talking about the founder of the city and the glory these places once knew. The thing is when you read books or watch movies you don’t think about the pestilent stench or the behaviour of some.
I have been to Cairo a few times and used public transportation. I have never dealt with anything other than persistent starring that I could ignore with little effort. This was a new, unexpected, unwanted and degrading experience.
My friend tries to make me feel better and asks someone about a bazaar where he knows I would love to spend some money. There’s no bazaar in the area, so we just walk to the seafront.
Another image I was not expecting strikes both of us: local vendors selling food that’s on display on large trays placed on rags thrown on the ground. They advertise out loud their ware consisting of spices, sweets and meaty pasties.
To my horror, passers-by stop, pay for and eat the stuff that’s being buzzed by swarms of flies in the heat of the midday!
My Portuguese friend is a five-star restaurant manager on board the ship. I wouldn’t even touch a fork if I hadn’t washed my hands and hardly ever a morsel of food directly.
Be it OCD, snobbery or basic food hygiene standards, it is too much, so we decided to call it a day. The greatness of the wonder of antiquity does not appeal to either of us anymore.
The streets walked by the factual Cleopatra or by the fictitious Heron (from the book recommended at the beginning of this post) in her search for the culprits that had burned the library in the book just don’t call me anymore.
I’ve lost any interest in seeing the city’s posh area and checking the local customs over there. I’m trying hard not to imply anything, but the first impression is important and, on this occasion, it just wasn’t great.
The most magnificent city of antiquity built by the Ptolemys to honour the greatest man of the times (or what’s left of that city), the man himself, Alexander the Great (if he’s indeed resting around here), the new Bibliotheca Alexandrina and many other old and modern edifices will have to wait for me to come back and give them another chance. My loss!
As for my stupid friend, the ship will be back in Venice at the end of the cruise. We will have another chance to go out, sit on a bench and talk about everything and anything as friends do.
Most likely, we’ll laugh about his wasted business opportunity and how he nearly sold me for two camels. What an arsehole! And what a lousy taste in friends I have!
However, most of the time, he’s a nice guy, although a little bonkers. Anyhow, I was never interested.