Journal to Alexandria
14 July 2003
~2:00pm Glym Beach
(“beach” rock-side cafe for lunch)
I dedicated the morning to my Russian visa, though perhaps I am not
sure why I return there. $75 for Egyptians; $200 for “Westerners”. AIDS test needed!
All is going well, but I want to change. How shall I?
15 July 2003
~10:30 am Union Hotel 30 balcony
After doing all the visa-related acts yesterday, I went to the beach
(actually rock) road, ambling east for a better view, and locating a bright cafe built out
over the water, where I sat for rest and lunch. The strong breeze was a bit blocked by the
concrete wall, and the view by the metal railings, but all in all the place was pleasant,
and I ordered salad, a chicken sandwich and “cola” (i.e. Coca-Cola). Noting that the
man sitting next to me was reading English, and seemed a serious fellow – or in such a
situation, or mood – I, wanting, indeed needing, to speak with some Egyptian about life
here – asked if he spoke English. And soon I had joined him for a 3-hour talk on Egypt,
America, Islam, Christianity, politics, democracy, the US government, NY vs Cairo, crime
here and there, marriage, etc. He was indeed Egyptian – but with many years in the USA.
Washington State University, Columbia University, teaching bio-mechanics. A professor. At
the very end of our talk I learned his name to be Mohammad Al S. – now living in
Greenville, North Carolina, retired. (Wished I could have gotten a card or email contact
from him, and while he said he wished that he had one, he offered none, so I did not
ask…would have liked further contact, as I want to establish an intellectual contact
here, and he was intelligent, open friendly, traveled, etc.) We, as noted, spoke of many
things. And he confirmed – as we compared e.g. NY to Cairo, USA to Egypt regarding
street crime – what Hossam abo el M. said of the near absence of such crime common in
the USA. (Mohammad had some stories, and observations in this regard. Indeed, he had
arrived in the USA when I became an adult, so we had experienced much of the same things,
events there. He must have been in his late-to-mid 60’s.) I soon could feel the
different angles on life here, culture, Egypt, etc, in this much more experienced and
traveled…indeed in this more, perhaps I could say, “liberal” Muslim. Hossam
certainly gave me a more conservative view of things. Hossam’s saying that – could he
afford it financially (to not need earn money for his family and future) – he would
prefer to live in the Old Islamic area or Cairo. “This is life” he said a few times
while we were there. (I have since thought how different the meaning of “this is the
life” can be!) Mohammad – though at that point neither of us had even thought to
exchange names – had a much more open, even learned view of society. He spoke of how
much he believed in America when he went there. Of how then and now, amongst many people,
America was a real force for good and democracy in the world. A belief that he said he
gradually lost in the USA, as did many in Egypt by the USA’s “unfair”
support/influence of the Jewish and Israel. He spoke of Arabs as the less-loved son of a
father (America); who felt hurt and angry, but still wanting “love” from his father.
He spoke of Bush and the Christian Right as mis-leading America. Of how much America
should (could?) have been a force of democracy in the world; how much of the world would
even still now rally behind the USA, if they saw that it had changed to represent
democracy, freedom, etc. for all people. He spoke of the “Bell Curve” as to
Islamic fanatics and passionate liberals, with most people in the middle.
There were many more aspects to this talk on the Mediterranean.
I have lost my belief that the beach is quieter and sandier on the other side of Al
Silsila (at the new library), as I saw that there are no (few if any) proper beaches here;
just crowded sandy “beach” areas which have been created by jetties. And there seems
to be not one hotel on the water directly – so that all must face four or six lines of
traffic and noise. Convenient I suppose – but not for the soul. The beautiful view is
ruined by the noise (though it was almost silent at ~ 3 am).
Were I yet, or ever, more of a sensualist, I might more appreciate and
savor this sea breeze and scene. But as I am, I probably long since seek (what Russians
call) new impressions that are not of this world. Deep, novel or intriguing sights,
insights, or ideas are the closest I can likely sensibly come.
One man in this “2-star” hotel looks the part of sensualist. Something satyr-like and
exhausted in his long-haired, mid-30s, experienced face, as he bobbed to trivial
beat-music on the TV, and his small CD player, had me wonder whether he might not partake
of the hashish the street dealer (and “tourists’ guide”) proffered me some 3 days
ago. I told him that doing such was 20, but I could have said 25 years ago for me.
There are details to Origen’s story too much or to the side for me, but I shall see what
still appeals to me.
Finished with profit and appreciator “Alexandria – Past, Present
and Future” by Jean-Yves Empereur. I have not read the “Documents” in full – but
read from chapter 4 to the end the past couple of hours. Very helpful to me. Interesting
history. Now too I understand theses “villas” I came across here and there, as well as
general architecture. The many flavors (i.e. styles) the buildings – so much
European...but where are they [the Europeans], I wondered. I walked up to the main Fort
Qaitbay last night – and maybe saw 4-5 foreigners the whole evening. The Suez Canal
related expulsions of foreigners…now I understand much more what I see here. Including
26th July Street and Saad Zaghlul Square. Why things seemed as “European” – without
the Europeans. Not sure what Americans came here, and left notable notes. What anyway
could I write that has not already been written? I might repeat well, but whatever I would
write would at best be a re-stating of what authors might have said before. Received –
thanks to Compte Jean Francois de Gallup de La Perouse and the internet and David
Wansbrough and Egyptian “exiles” in Sydney Australia – a contact name at the library
here via Lorenzo M.
Reading Empereur’s work on Alexandria, I am brought to mind of the
long (“flow” is too smooth a word!) course of events that have happened here. I shall
take impressions from here, but leave little those passing and trivial in the few people I
interest as one of the not many Americans here. The events of history here – what is
left of them but stones, bones and buildings. Senseless in itself – a great show of
faces, powers, scenes, rises, falls, improvements, collapses. In this long tale indeed
Alexandria does give greater perspective (perhaps depression?) than ~860 Moscow, or
certainly 300 year-old Mobile [Alabama]. Alexandria the Great started a city some 2300
years ago, and people living here can still not agree on whether and what to conserve
It seems to me that the curvature of the earth is visible in the sea I see. Is that
possible from the 5th floor?
By Stephen Lapeyrouse