Tales of a 21st Century Gypsy

July 15, 2004 Alexandria in the daytme.

I never manage to leave Cairo, so I decided I'd better get off my butt and go somewhere. Alexandria Ė Alex, as the expats call it, Il-Iskanderiyya, as itís called in Arabic Ė is only a two hour train ride, so I decided to go up for the day. I took the super duper fancy first class train, which everyone raved about. It seemed pretty much like a train, to me, but what do I know? They did come around and serve me breakfast, like on an airplane, but Ė also like an airplane, I guess Ė it was terrible. And unlike an airplane, an hour later they came around and asked me to pay for it. Outside my window I watched corn and palm trees whiz by. And brick houses whose top floors werenít finished, a jungle of rebars sticking into the sky. In Tunisia you didnít pay property tax on the house till it was finished, so many buildings were left with rebars in the air forever. Maybe itís the same here. But mostly the landscape was lost in the thick fog that blankets lower Egypt every morning. That, plus the scratched and waterstained train windows and the sun pouring in mean I couldnít see much out there.

I was nervous going to Alexandria. It felt much more daunting than taking Matilda to Georgia, talking to strangers in a coffee shop in Virginia, or chatting with folks at a planning council meeting in Ocracoke. And also more daunting than going to work every day in Cairo. Egypt is harder than the US. Unlike Georgia or West Virginia, itís unfamiliar, I have my guard up. And unlike going to work in Cairo, thereís no air conditioned project car chauffeuring me around, or Egyptian colleague who will negotiate the bureaucracy and speak the language. Being a tourist in a big foreign tourist town feels like a vulnerable place to be. Is someone going to bother me? Do I fit in? Why oh why donít I remember anything from all those years I studied Arabic? Will I wilt in the heat? In the US if I wilt in the heat itís just hot, and I find air conditioning or a shower or a place to swim. Here it seems harder, even though I know that a little bit of money will always get a taxi or the right to plunge into a luxurious hotel pool.

Once I got there, of course, Alexandria wasnít at all scary. Contrary to what everyone told me, it was hot Ė not as bad as Cairo, but not the cool sea breezes Iíd been led to expect. I made my way to the sea, and walked up the corniche to the fortress at its western end, where vendors were necklaces made of shells and other trinkets to the busloads of tourists. Many of them were Egyptian Ė this is clearly a local resort more than a foreign one. On the rocks at the end of the corniche, I pulled out my camera and photographed the people. The kids like to be photographed, they jump up and grin and pose for me. Theyíre really pleased when I show them their pictures, give me a thumbs up and say approving things that I donít quite understand but get the general gist of. I photographed one group of young men, and then they wanted to photograph me. I said no, thinking back to twenty years ago in Turkey when a young man near the Aya Sofia showed me the photos of his Japanese girlfriend, his French girlfriend, and then asked if he could take a picture of me. But the young men in Alexandria were a bit offended. I didnít know them, but I photographed them Ė why wouldnít I let them do the same? I didnít have a good answer.

Walking back along the corniche, I watched people swimming along narrow bits of beach, surrounded by fishing boats and nets. A few girls were in the water fully clothed, but mostly it was boys and men, the mothers sitting on the beach in their long dresses and headscarves while their families cooled off in the water. The beaches were cheery places, everyone seemed excited to be in the water and out of the heat. A toddler lay on the sand as the shallow ends of the waves washed past him. Some teen-aged boys posed for my camera, a sturdy glowing group of youths.

My destination was the new Alexandria library, a huge project through which the government of Egypt has sought to place the country on the international cultural and intellectual landscape as it was before the original Alexandria library was burned in ancient times. The library has been a mammoth undertaking, with support from all over the world. The building, seen across the harbor from miles away, twinkles in the midday light, a long slope of mirrored glass reflecting the brilliance of the sun. I didnít know where the library was, but as soon as I saw that gleaming slope of glass across the water, I recognized it.

The building was fascinating, and wonderfully air conditioned after walking in the heat of the early afternoon. I was happy to linger inside for hours, visiting the exhibitions in its galleries, sitting down at a computer to check some things on the internet, and wandering up and down the many levels of the stacks. It was a great show, but rather a disappointment as a library. I wish all that money had gone to books, and let the building follow. Instead, it went to a showcase building - with collections worse than the Arlington County Central Library. It saddened me. I suppose the people who came up with this project thought that if they could attract attention with the architecture and the symbol from ancient history, the books would follow. And perhaps they will. But as it is, itís a sad effort to make an international statement about Egyptís global cultural importance, instead of actually creating a library that really does have cultural importance.

The exhibitions, though, were good. No, thatís much too feeble a word. In fact, they werenít even very good Ė documentation was poor, things seemed to be placed randomly, I had no idea what they were. But seeing huge sculptures in stone, and then seeing photographs of them as they were found lying on the bottom of the Mediterranean Sea, I was powerfully struck with an appreciation of how close the present is to antiquity in this part of the world. A bit like seeing the pyramids over the skyline of Cairo, that sense that this incredible ancient history happened here, it is the history of this place and these people, not something I have read about in books. I have always felt that this history belonged to Europe, and to me. But it doesnít Ė what does ancient Egypt or the classical Mediterranean world have to do with a Jew from Poland and Russia? I donít know where my ancestry really is, but this world, and those statues lying in the mud and silt on the bottom of the Mediterranean, belong to the toddler I saw playing in the ripples on the beach.

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