Johnnersintheraw's Blog

May 18, 2010

Lost in Alexandria

Prowling Around the Back Streets and Alleyways of a City of Dreams

I have a real love of public transport.  And although I miss the countryside and all that it has to offer, I do love cities.  I especially love cities that have real people living in them; in other words, cities with a good public transportation system.  Because for me, the minute a city has become sterile and its services consist of private car parks and outlet malls and fast-food franchises and botoxed faces, then that is not a city in which I can breathe.  It might have all the best libraries and museums and theatres in the world, but if there are no buses or undergrounds, I’ll go somewhere else. Because I can drive around in cars anywhere; in a city I want to see and smell and taste the city itself. I want to uncover the street life, and the best way to do that is by walking from one end of it to the other.  And yes, by taking public transport.  And, by that, I mean by exploring as much of each and every route as possible.  Because – after all – every separate route .leads to a different place. Or, if they do happen to end up at the same place, then the route by which they travel is along a different set of streets.

One of the first lessons I was given as a kid – and a lesson that has stuck with me through thick and through thin – is that  upon arriving in a strange, new city  the first thing you do is to sample that city’s sights and sounds and flavours.  And, no, this isn’t done through going to a travel agent or through a faceless concierge in your indentikit hotel or in booking a guide to take you on the ‘official unofficial’ tour – which, it goes without saying, is conducted in the back of a car or in an air-conditioned coach.  And in both cases you are at the mercy of this guide (and in the coach this factotum is certain to have a microphone turned on to ‘full-blast’). That’s all very well if you are on a package tour and have only half a day before you move on to the next city and/or ruins, or if – to  put it bluntly – you simply can’t sand another moment of ‘experiencing the Third World’.  And that’s fair enough, because it’s honest.  On the other hand, if that is all you want out of life, then why bother to visit at all – just stay at home, save yourself a lot of money and discomfort, and watch the travel channel.  Of course, that way you won’t be able to share your travel-related horror-stories with your friends, but you can’t have it both ways. But back to guides and pre-arranged tours.  What you have to understand is that nothing they will show you will resemble the city or country in which they live.  For no matter how conscientious the guides happen to be, their tour will have been designed by some expert or other who ‘knows’ what the visitor will want to see.  And you can be sure that on their list there will be nothing that hasn’t been vetted by the chamber of commerce or the guide books or the ministry of tourism. In other words, you will never even hear about the truly exasperating and shimmering parts of the city, much less the nitty-gritty areas that, for the locals, make their everyday lives come alive.

I will never say that you should not do a certain amount of homework, for every city has areas that are best avoided, just as every city has its own special secrets.  This, however, does not mean you should Google the FBI/CIA websites or stick to the news agencies of your own countries. For contrary to what you might have heard, other countries do report news accurately, and not all of them cover up the negative and the ugly. And no, not all of their news is propaganda.  And if you would rather not believe me, just remember this: every month, thousands of tourists visit dozens of countries and most of them even live to tell about it.  And also keep in mind that you are just as likely to get diarrhoea drinking bottled water in Dallas as you are eating falafel from a market stall in Ibrahimea. 

So anyway, here you are in Alexandria!  You are all squared away in your hotel, having unpacked and eaten a good hotel lunch of over-cooked chicken, and you are ready to hit the streets.  Now remember, the first thing you do is ignore the concierge at all costs.  First of all, many of them really don’t know what’s going on if it’s not already listed in the hotel’s ‘What’s On’ Guide, plus the fact that they will never ever have a decent map.  But in any case, even if all you want the concierge for is to book theatre tickets, wouldn’t you prefer to go to the theatre yourself and see what seats are actually available?  It’s not only an eye-opener to discover how much money you will save, but – and this is a real bonus – you will actually get to know where the theatre is; and wouldn’t it be interesting to discover what else is happening in that particular neighbourhood?  For, as far as I am concerned, the whole purpose of travelling – indeed, the whole purpose of life – is to be constantly surprised by sounds and tastes you have never before even imagined. And as for the theatre itself, there will possibly be other offerings not listed in the hotel’s brochure. For believe me, it is only for the ‘major’ events that the theatre or opera house will bother notifying the hotels. In other words, if the production happens not to target a higher-end audience willing to pay a lot of money, the concierge will never hear of it.  And also – in Alexandria – there is the probability that the production will have been cancelled, but since nobody in Alexandria ever notifies anyone of anything, your concierge would not have been informed. 

Another good reason to check out the theatre yourself is that you can also investigate any bus or mini-bus routes that take you back to the hotel; for believe me, there will be dozens of them.  This, for me, is extremely important.  I’m not being a cheapo here – although I admit to preferring to spend my money on something else besides a taxi. However, let’s be brutally honest; in many countries taking a taxi means one thing:  bargaining, endless whinging, perpetual wheedling, followed by yet more bargaining.  And I’m talking about bargaining that will not stop from one end of the ride to the other.  What you will discover is – yes – you may have agreed on a price beforehand, but from the moment the taxi leaves the curb (and you are deluded enough to believe that the affair of the fare has been satisfactorily settled) that’s when the driver suggests that there is, of course, the matter of the tip. And, from that point on, instead of being able to enjoy the sights and sounds and smells of the city, you will perforce listen to a non-stop whine about what a good driver he is, about how the driver has to support his brother’s sixteen children in addition to his own, and about how he has to pay for an operation for this mother. Now, what you have to remember is that the story is always the same; it is, in fact, the same story that ruined the visits of tourists two thousand years ago. And, more recently, it is why “The boy stood on the burning deck” (the boy in question being young Casabianca, the son of one of Napoleon’s admirals) chose to burn to a crisp rather than to swim ashore and risk a taxi to the Cairo Airport. For me – and I am willing to admit that it is personal – on the whole, I would rather leave two hours early and take the most crowded bus  that deal with the average taxi driver.   I’ve been there, done that,  bought the fuckin T-shirt  and, what’s more, I can repeat the spiel back – word for word (in the identical tone of voice) to any taxi driver who dares inflict me with it.  And if you take taxis often enough you will hear it in all its hundreds and thousands of variations.  And you might even hear three different versions from the same driver who picked you up from the airport, who later drove you out to Carrefour, and who – later still – picked you up at Carrefour and drove you back to your hotel.  It’s called one of the seven wonders of Egypt.  And I’m sure it’s why Marc Antony eventually committed suicide.  After all, with Cleopatra dead and unable to bargain on his behalf, he never ever would have been able to set a fare to the airport.  It was simply more pleasant to die.

Needless to say, if you ever ask an Egyptian how much you should pay a taxi to take you – say – to the Greco-Roman amphitheatre (which is has never heard of), he will immediately tell you that you can get a much better deal on a new Nokia phone at Sidi Gaber, and that the tariff to Sidi Gaber is five pounds and not a piaster more.  It is then that you laugh in his face.  Because, you see, you are not Egyptian.  An Egyptian simply gets into a taxi, gets out at the other end, pays the driver the five pounds, and slams the door.  But, as a foreigner, even had an Egyptian settled on a fare on your behalf, the minute you have left in the taxi, and your Egyptian friend is safely back on the street, your driver suddenly doesn’t remember that anything has ever been discussed.  And so the bargaining begins.

Now, I will admit here and now to having sunk to a new level of deceit.  It’s called speaking French. I simply get into a taxi next to the drive, and bark a resolute “Bonjour, Monsieur.” I have found to my great joy that this confuses the driver.  And being confused, he simply accepts whatever sum I give to him (and here, let us be fair:  although I am as skint as a bucket of skinflints, I still have more money than the average Egyptian.  Taxi drivers work very hard.  And I certainly do not expect to pay the same low, low tariff as an Egyptian).  However, I would much rather hear the whinge in French than I would in English. After all, in English I am forced to understand it.

And while we are on the subject of foreigners and bargaining – and let’s face it, there is nothing dearer to an Egyptian’s heart that proving that every foreigner is the idiot that he truly is – I have a story for you.

A couple of months ago, I became acquainted with a young student teacher from Brazil. Now, it so happened he was well-educated, well-travelled and savvy; what’s more he also knew how to use his appearance to get everything at ‘local’ prices. Because, of course, the ethnic mix in Brazil often has more in common with that of North Africa than it does with the rest of Latin America.  And because of his appearance – for let’s face it – the modern Egyptian is an homogenous blend of many different peoples – everyone in the market automatically assumed that he could be either a Nubian or an Egyptian of Sudanese descent or some other mix.  And consequently, just so long as he kept his mouth shut (for he did not speak Arabic) he always paid what the Egyptians paid for everything.  And I do mean everything.   

Now this is where is gets funny.  The other students in his ESL certification class were either Americans of European descent or Northern European themselves.  In other words, the last thing they looked like was Egyptian.  Now, it goes without saying that every one of the students was on a tight budget.  Therefore, the minute they realised the Brazilian could get things for practically nothing – whereas they always had to pay ten times as much – he would invariably end up with their shopping lists.  So far, so good; all’s fair in love and war and in saving a buck or three.

As I’ve already mentioned, this Brazilian guy knew enough to keep his mouth shut when out shopping; he would simply point to whatever he wanted, then pay and leave.  The fact that he hadn’t spoken was irrelevant.

And when he happened to be accompanied by one of his American friends, he still pointed and still said nothing.  And if for some reason, he did speak English to one of the others in the group, the stallholders still assumed that he was Egyptian.  After all, plenty of Egyptians speak at least a little English.  But then – alas – came the day when he actually needed to ask for something.  It was at that moment, of course, when the stallholder – who had been selling items to him at reduced rates for a good three weeks – suddenly saw the light of day.   And, of course, he laughed.  What a wonderful jokester the Brazilian was!  However, to cut a long story short, the Brazilian instantly lost his Egyptian status, as well as the privileges that went with them.  Knowing the Egyptians as I do, he probably ended up paying twice as much as any other foreigner. And to make matters worse, he was never again given any of the choicest fruit. But, of course, he was now a foreigner and all foreigners are stupid; he was simply being put in his place.

Now, you may recall that at the very beginning of this piece, I mentioned that – when I was very young –  I was given an invaluable piece of advice (the only one to which I have ever actually listened).  It is the key to unlocking the mysteries of any city in the world.  And it is this:  the first thing you do, upon arriving in a city – after you get settled in – is to get on the first bus you see.  And once you are on the bus, let yourself be absorbed into the life of the bus, into the lives of the people on the bus, and into the life of the passing streets.  Simply open your eyes and ears, and let yourself go.  And when you get to a place that looks interesting, simply get off and start walking.  And don’t worry about getting lost, because in a city teaming with life, there is no such thing as getting lost.  Yes, you might misplace yourself.  But even should you happen to get totally tangled up, you simply ask for directions (and having asked for directions, you will immediately be invited to eat lunch with everyone within earshot).  

It goes without saying you will have remembered to write down the name of your hotel (I least I hope you have).  And, of course, although I hate to inflict one on you in your very first day in Egypt, there’s always a taxi in case of emergencies. 

Mobile phones may be the bane of my existence, but they really can be lifesavers. And in countries such as Egypt, handsets and SIM cards are cheap.  Plus, since they are invariably pay-as-you-go, you are not going to end up with a large bill at the end of your visit.   Therefore, buy an inexpensive phone; write down the number (as well as the number of your hotel – and yes – your Consulate if you are so inclined – as well as the number of that one person in your family back home in Dundee or Duluth who is most likely to panic).

But anyway, don’t worry about getting lost.  You are, after all, in a foreign city for the sole purpose of discovering that city.  And how you do this is by taking buses – any and all buses – and then by walking and walking and walking.  And whilst you are doing this, you will meet new friends; in fact, if you are in Egypt, by the end of the first day you will have more friends than you’ve ever had in your life.

Before we go any further, here is another thing worth remembering. Each and every one of your new friends will want your phone number, and if they are male, ninety-nine percent of them will be named Mohammed or Ahmed or Mahmud. And all of them will phone you at three o’clock in the morning and invite you out to tea and sheeshah.  For in Egypt, life begins after ten or eleven at night; sitting in cafes until all hours with your friends in an Egyptian tradition.  So don’t get annoyed, and when you enter their names on your contact list, remember to add their second name as well – for in the Arab tradition, each and every person carries four names: his or her own name, followed by his or her father’s name, followed by his father’s name, followed by his father’s name. So if a new friend tells you his name is Mohammed, it will save a lot of embarrassment later on if you ask him to tell you his second name as well. That way instead of being listed as one of thirty Mohammeds, he will become known to you as (for example) Mohammed Sayed (which is easier to remember than Mohammed Number Two).  Otherwise, when you receive twelve different calls from twelve different Mohammeds at three in the morning, you will be able to avoid the usual scenario wherein whichever Mohammed it is will be hurt because you can’t tell him apart from all the other Mohammeds.

One additional suggestion.  Now I know I’ve come down hard on taxi drivers, but when you do meet a good one and he wants to give you his phone number, enter in on your phone.  Because you never know when you might need the services of a good taxi.  And if a rotten drive insists on giving you his number, simply enter it – and after you’ve gone, push the delete button.

Over the past years, because of my curiosity, I have discovered no end of out-of-the-ordinary places in Alexandria. And since the average Egyptian, just like the average Englishman or American or Frenchman or Irishman or (yes, I know, and I’m sorry) Scotsman, won’t have a clue about what’s going on in his or her country – it will be up to you to discover everything for yourself.  Now, I happen to love the local markets in the back streets, as well as the twisty-turny hidden passageways where ordinary people go to shop for special delicacies and bespoke items. I also like to know what sort of cafe is frequented by what sort of people.

For a while I used to suggest to foreign visitors that they might like to visit some of these amazing, magical places, and I always ended on the receiving end of a blank stare.  Because almost none of them ever take buses, they don’t know one district for the other, and when they do go out, it is invariably to Carrefour (which is, after all, a mall like every other mall in the world, and therefore just like home).  Either that, or they go somewhere on a set tour arranged by their school.  Having been burned, I now mind my own business.

At one point (for my sins) I taught one or two evening classes to Egyptian students.  One of the joys of this experience was to have been able to share with them some of Egypt’s cultural icons, of whom they had often heard very little.  For example, none of them had heard of Nass Makan – which is in Cairo and is the Centre for Traditional Egyptian folk music (it is, by the way, on the web – and it also has a page on Facebook). Another name with which to conjure was and is Rahnda Fahmy, who is possibly the greatest female coppersmith in the world, and whose works are displayed in every major museum and gallery and palace (and – yes – mosque) throughout the Middle East, Asia and Europe.  Her sister, Azza, is a major jewellery designer.  The list goes on and on and on… and the maddening thing was not that my Egyptian students knew very little about their own cultural treasures, but that not a single one of the people responsible for running the ESL training centre – which was supposedly guaranteeing foreign students an insight into Egyptian culture – had even heard of any of them.  Nor were they interested.

For what it’s worth, in case you ever do happen to visit Alexandria, here are a couple of places to explore:  first of all, The Friday Market, which is the most outrageously chaotic flea market you will ever find.  It is open Thursdays and Fridays (afternoons to well after midnight) and is located between Anfushi and El Max on Sharia Abaza Oshmann (and which spreads out higgledy-piggledy in all directions).  And then, of course – and this a part of the Friday market, as well – along the canal is to be found the market for new toilets.  And if that isn’t worth more than a visit to the Pyramids, I don’t know what is!  Another little gem is on the rue Nabi Daniel, near Manshea. It is a tiny market chock full of booksellers.  And no, it is not as good as the one in Cairo, nor can it be compared to the Left Bank in Paris, but I have never failed to find at least one long-forgotten and discontinued Penguins amidst the madness.  And yes, just a few minutes from the bookstalls are a couple of legendary cafes.  And while they may be crumbling and the service may be appalling, you cannot sit in their faded and dusty splendour and not be sucked back into the past, to an era when Alexandria was the Alexandria of everyone’s memory.  One more thing:  Across Nabi Daniel (and this is probably the only place in Alexandria where you can actually cross the street and not be run over) is the French Cultural Centre.  Their small exhibitions are truly wonderful, they have a full program of concerts and films (all free), as well as a small French/Arabic bookshop and a mediateque. … and, last but not least, a peaceful garden where you can sit and not be surrounded by noise.  And as a bonus, inside the villa they have well-polished floors.

If there is one thing you should embed in your psyche it is that Egyptians do not have the western concept of service.  So leave any thoughts you have about the customer always being right at home.  If you don’t, I promise you will be miserable.

And one more thing.  Egyptians are not politically correct and everyone yells at everyone else.  So for once in your repressed and frustrated and timid little politically-correct life, go ahead and yell back.  Because nobody will mind at all.  It is the Egyptian way.

Do you want to know one last thing?  I bet you I am the only foreigner in Alex who knows where a certain pet camel lives (and no, it is not the one in the seafood restaurant).  Its home is somewhere near the shipyards.  But if you want to find it, you’ll have to prowl around and find it for yourself.

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