For the last 9 days I have been glued to my computer screen -as we don’t have a telly- for the latest updates on MaSr. The unthinkable has happened and events are moving very fast. The political lethargy of the last 30 years has made room for a proper people’s lead revolution. Before yesterday I felt so proud of the Egyptian people; that they finally got off their assess and despite having little to no access to the internet and mobile phone communication being obstructed they have been able to get everyone out on the streets. Everyone as in EV-RY-ONE…! And this motley crew of young old, men, women, educated, falakheen, well-travelled, never-left-the neighbourhood, religious, secular, tame and hedonistic acted as one nation under a peaceful revolutionary groove. Although it wouldn’t be practical and this popular revolt is not my revolution I wanted to be there, witness how history unfolds and how my Masree mates make that story happen.
Then Mubarak spoke to the nation like a delusional old man and showed the nation and the world that he’s nothing more than a rotten scumbag when he let is mob loose on peaceful protesters. His aim is probably to create instability and make the nation and the rest of the world believe that they need him as a strong man to keep the country together. But Mubarak with his thuggish action has only proved that the situation becomes more unstable the longer he stays on. What is it with so many Third World leaders that they refuse to let go? Holding on like a child to a possession they have abused and wasn’t theirs in the first place. Why can’t they let go of their egos, show some real dignity and resign?
What is also telling is the west’s reaction to the events in MaSr. Stuck in between backing a pro-democracy movement and holding on to an ally that secures geo-politcal interests. If the Egyptian people will stage the transition process in the same manner as they have organised this peaceful revolution the country can reach for the stars. And it seems the fear of islamism and the Muslim brotherhood in particular is more a scary bedtime story made up by Mubarak to keep the people in Egypt and beyond in check; ‘you need me, otherwise the big, bad, muslim fundamentalist is gonna get you’. It is your moment ya MaSr. You sure can do it without Mubarak, a thousand times better.
image: Google stock
Alex the myth
After a couple of weeks of readjusting, hot weather, Orange fever and a lost World Cup, I am trying to get back into to groove in Lowlands Country.
I have been in MaSr for almost 10 months. At the very end of that period I hopped across the border into- seemingly- more western territory to explore and to acclimatise to a culture that is a bit more familiar. Then after 10 months I’d left Alex by taxi without any sentiments to drive across Cairo, where I’m always filled with a feeling of homecoming, to arrive at a brand new looking terminal to board my flight to civilisation. Moina, who lives in Cairo quite close to the airport was so kind to come and wave me aufwiedersehen. It felt I had been there for years and yet time went by very quickly. I prefer to leave a place with a combined feeling of not wanting to leave and being pleased to be returning home or moving on. When it comes to my stay in this country I have been wanting to go home for weeks. I am very grateful for the fantastic people I have met in Alex and across the country. As I mentioned before there are many places I like within Egypt and Alex is not one of them. I’ve would have gone anywhere to go and meet up with newly made friends; Cairo, the far fetched corner of Siwa and the Great Sand Sea, the depths of Upper Egypt, the stunning in-between-land of the Sinai. Anywhere along the North Coast, anywhere but Alex. Alex is a shit hole, an absolute embarrassment to its glorious past. I came with an open mind, ready to love my new city of residence. That was pretty hard work. I kind of gave up, became indifferent and used places and occasions like Cairo or gatherings with friends as pleasant escapes. Alexandrians love their city like probably every inhabitant of a legendary city would. If any Iskanderany is reading this, sorry to be dissing your city, but it has to be done. With its run-down streets and buildings even in more affluent areas, its dirt and dust, its very average beaches and its population of which 90 percent is either backwards or horrible pretentious or – absolutely deadly- both. With its rubbish food, lack of funky establishments, sense of chill and vibrant cultural life. After 10 months I am still not sure to feel deeply, deeply sorry for the city or whether to wipe my figurative ass on it. I guess feeling sorry and being grateful is deemed more appropriate. Grateful for meeting those people part of the 10% that made my stay enjoyable and worth while. Sorry for those people that Alex is not the place they would like it to be. Keep the faith and see you all again, insha allah.
The radio silence has had no specific reason. Laziness, refocusing, reorientation, homesickness, writers block, who’s to say. Although I’d been a pretty bad student the last few weeks -if not months- of the course and I don’t like routine, I miss the focus in my life that used to be studying Arabic at the centre. Almost all uni friends have gone, Jameela and I are vacating our mansion, which seems to have an expiry date as stuff randomly breaks, falls apart and/or stops working for no apparent reason and then I won’t have a home either. There is plenty of stuff I can do; yoga, hit my home gym, study Arabic – tab3an- work, write…but all I seem very good at at the moment is sleeping in, go to a cafe with wi-fi connection, as our internet subscription has expired and Anna, who left two weeks ago, took the router with her, attempting to work – I do need the internet for that- but what I mainly do is check my yahoo account ten times an hour, faff about on facebook and chat to my sister or the Helms on skype. And in the evening I might go out for a few drinks or stay in and watch a film. All this is very chilled but not horrible productive. I guess a sense of boredom has kicked in yet again. As Cairo is getting pretty hot it’s not the pleasantly mental escape as it is the rest of the year. The summer season has started and the beaches are getting really crowded. The only people left are my Masree mates who have different routines than I do and we go to the same old places to drink the same old juices or wine, smoke the same old sheesha and listen to the same old sh*tty music.
I still have to be weary taking a taxi on my own after midnight, I have the same old fight with the driver about the fare price, the city is still dirty and disorganised. I still get harassed by men on the street, especially when I accidentally have ‘too much’ flesh on display, I still don’t understand Masree, and there is still no establishment in town where they play decent music and the crowd is genuinely cool and interesting. I think it’s just time to go to somewhere more familiar, where I can cycle, go about my business independently from anyone any hour of the day, where I am fluent in the language, where I am not (so much) an odd one out, where I can wear what I want without being considered loose or weird, where I can have my hair done, where a rule is a rule and where good wine is widely available for reasonable prices. I will be back, insha allah, but I need to get out first.
It’s Thursday night, so I might as well go out. As tomorrow is jooma’, the day of gathering or – for working folk and school kids- the day off, people pour out onto the streets to have some fun. I’ve never been a big fan of the Saturday night out – and the Thursday is the Arabic equivalent- but let’s not be a bore. And I have to say that I had an unexpectedly fun night out last Saturday. I’ve been a boring twat for months now and although I like chilling in a coffee shop or at a friend’s place I’m not anticipating too much action. So on Saturday Anna and I were on or way to leafy, affluent Kafr Abdu to meet our friend Ahmed. Ahmed is a funny bloke and every foreigner in town knows him. He is a lawyer and doesn’t like his job. But this is Egypt, who cares about job satisfaction, it’s all about the moolah. His job does not seem to involve a lot of work outside office hours, which in Egypt is roughly between 9 and half past 1 Sunday to Thursday, as he is always, always, always up for some action and makes us students look like boring old farts. He calls asking us out at least a few times a week and we politely decline as we feel we have to study, do homework or need to be fresh for just another day of student life. And as there is really not that much action to get in good old Alex it doesn’t feel like you’re missing out on anything. But we went to Kafr Abdu that evening for a drink and something to eat knowing that Ahmed had big plans for the night and we were probably going to disappoint him. But it didn’t turn out to be the case. A friend of his, Omar, who works in Dubai a lot, was back in Alex for a few days and invited us over to his place for some drinks. His place in Alex is a room in his mum’s fancy Kafr abdu flat. His brother and a a friend were present as well and they are a pretty entertaining bunch. The atmosphere was really good and the boys were excellent hosts. We had some good conversations and a good laugh. Since Omar just got back to Alex he was very much in the mood for going out and catching up with some mates and as we were quite jolly and not ready for home yet we decided to trail along. We went to one of the few ‘clubs’ and drinking hubs in the city called Deja Vue. The interior is all black, fairly stylish, especially for Egyptian standards and it’s all table service. I had an absolute ball as I was rather intoxicated. It still occurred to me though, that I am residing in such a classist society. What would be considered as very normal middle class boys in Europe is the crème de la crop in Egypt and they are very different from ‘the rest’. They have good jobs, are well travelled, have loads of money especially for Egyptian standards, have female friends so they treat you as a human being rather than as bate and they’re gallant, charming and entertaining. And at Deja Vue, where we seemed to be the only expats that night, it was all ‘posh’ Egyptians easily spending an average month salary on drinks and food. And you know what, despite the ‘exclusivity’ it all was pretty lame. I am seriously wondering if (‘posh’) Egyptians know how to party. Maybe it’s the restriction of consuming intoxicating means. Although the booze flowed freely that night public drunkenness is not very much approved of as you can imagine in a predominantly muslim country and most definitely not for a woman. I am not asking for much, you know. Just good company, some good music and a drink or a smoke would be nice too. But it seems that all those ‘posh’ people especially the women, were not there for the fun of it. They were there to look good and stay cool. Obviously you’ve got those places all over the world. But where I’m from you can choose to go somewhere else. I feel for those ‘posh’ boys and girls. They’ve got all that money to spend and get relative lameness for it in return. I hope they have, like Omar, ‘funkier’ and more exciting places to escape to.
I am one of those fairies who likes to mark her birthday. Some people don’t care about their birthday for several reasons. They believe it’s just another day and nothing special. I think birthdays are special and you don’t necessarily have to celebrated them in big style, at least not every year, but they should be marked one way or another. A few months ago I had the desire to celebrate my ’16th’ birthday in a city in the Levant, but the payment schedule of the Student Loan Company made me alter my plans and they turned out pretty good, these altered plans. Me and Raisa, one of the Bremen lot who, after venturing in the Sudan and Ethiopia on her own for Christmas and New Year returned to Alex briefly before going to Syria this week, went to a bar which carries the subtitle ‘touristic cafe’ (sic); Every expat in the city knows this place, which is kitsch looking in a charming way and where they serve a pretty good rosé. I invited some people to join us for a drink. We came across a young man called Alex who I met a few months ago here in el-Iskandereeya when he was on a day trip from Cairo with his flatmates one of which is Chloe who happened to study with us at Marleybone uni but left us after a year to study in Devon and is currently on her year abroad in Cairo (I’m not jealous, I am certainly not). Alex, charming, sweet, very cute, oh-if I-were only-really-16 again, recognized me and invited us to his table where he was sitting with his international posse of pretty cool people all studying Arabic. After being sang to in four languages at midnight we (Raisa and I, the rest drank beer or random mixers) downed another bottle of rose and called it a night at around 2.
The next day I had a simple but tasty breakfast on my balcony in the sun and after having gathered the troops, Raisa, Jameela and Michau, we left for Montazah. I’d heard stories about Montazah but I hadn’t been yet. Now I’ve finally seen that the ‘Pearl of the Mediterranean’ can really look like a pearl. Montazah, at the Eastern edge of the city, houses a large walled park, Montazah gardens which contains lush palm grooves and can be considered a urban oasis. There are several beautiful buildings including a palace that used to belong to King Farouk and is now Mubarak’s summer residence. We gatecrashed a private beach, which belongs to the upmarket Palestine hotel. This time of year the beach is completely empty. The sand is clean and soft, the water clear and the view picturesque. Michau had brought some honey wine from his native Poland. While Jameela had a soft drink the rest if us, later joined by native Alexandrian Ahmed, enjoyed some wine and kif in a rather discreet fashion as these means of intoxication are not allowed or at least not approved of on many private beaches. Although the beach was empty with the exception of a man dressed in sports gear who was walking back and forth along a small stretch of beach which looked rather peculiar and a woman fishing clad in a colourful hijab, which I found a wonderful image ,there were security guards, but because we’re foreigners they allowed us on their sand. When the sun was setting, it was getting a bit chilly and Jameela wanted to pray so we left the beach and went to the mosque opposite the hotel which is a small, beautiful building with atmospheric outdoor lighting. After Jameela returned from her session with God we walked until we were outside the garden walls to catch a taxi. Michau went home to be a lazy, boring bastard, Jameela went home to have her private class which she always has on (most) Sundays and Raisa, Achmed and I went to the bar of the Cecil Hotel. If you want an alcoholic drink in Alex it’s easy to end up in hotel bars since qahwas (coffee houses), basic places where men (only) talk rubbish and smoke sheesha and cafeterias, which are Starbucks-like establishments where one also serves food, are dry. The Cecil Hotel is a bit of an institution established in the late 1920’s were literary and political legends like Noel Coward and Winston Churchill once resided. The lobby and the bar on the first floor ooze past glory but it still has its charm. As has turning 16 again and celebrating a birthday in January in sunny spring-like weather with friends, food and drinks set in chilled places. The Birthday Fairy felt very blessed.
Blessings. 2010 is our year
On the last day of the year I fled the relative boredom of Alex and went to Cairo to spend New Year’s Eve with my friend Moina and her friends. Now, I like Cairo. I am very fond of Cairo. This mad, dusty, dirty, exciting, way- too- big-a-town was my first meeting with Egypt and it was love at first sight. There is proper night life, proper culture, tourist attractions, proper shopping from upmarket malls and the shops in Zamalek and Heliopolis to the souk (market) of Khan el-Khalili with its junk and its gems in islamic Cairo and then there are people from all over the world; Europe, the States, the East, Sub-Saharan Africa, the South Pole… Like with most capital cities Cairo is not Egypt, it’s a world of its own. I expected Alex to be like Cairo, only smaller and at the sea and therefore a bit funkier. But I’ve been rather disappointed. Alex is the second city of the country. Officially the city counts around 4 million inhabitants but Alexandrians speak of twice as much. Despite half of Cairo and the Gulf fleeing to Alex in summer and despite its size I find Alex very provincial. Alex might be the summer breath of fresh air to many Cairenes Cairo is the exciting breath of social and cultural fresh air to me. When Moina and I entered the streets to do some shopping no one bat an eye lid or shouted a word. We were just two chicks minding our business and preparing for an eve of celebrations No one was overly keen to try their English on us or was horribly surprised that we spoke Arabic. We went to a New Year’s Eve Party at the Swiss Club, which is a social club of which there are many in Egypt. I hadn’t seen such an international and multiracial crowd since I left London. Foreigners and Egyptians alike, black, white, Arab, muslim,christian, spiritualist, atheist. It was one nation under a Cairenian groove. In Cairo you stumble on Egyptians who are interesting, educated, well travelled and not that impressed by you being foreign in comparison to Alex where they seem to be a rare species and once you find them you treasure them like they’ve been the best thing since sliced bread.
I told Moina that I didn’t want to go back to Alex. That I wanted to stay and live an expat life as I imagined it to be. Exciting, interesting. Socializing with Egyptians on a inter-personal level rather than a foreigner/expat one. A life in which you don’t have to keep up appearance because they know you do things slightly different and that’s okay. But I did board a train travelling to el-Iskandereeya and I am back at our mansion and I guess that’s all good. After all I have met some really nice people in this ‘Pearl of the Province’ and the distances are not that big and the air far less polluted. I would only be distracted or horrible frustrated if I would be studying in Cairo. Distracted by all the cultural and social events and there would be no time left for studying or frustrated because there are so many things to do and I wouldn’t have time for them because I had to study. Now, if I choose to indulge in some escapism, want to be inspired or just want to have fun big-city style I can catch a train and within 3 hours I am in the city of cities.
Alex is loved by many and I do understand why. It could be that funky smaller version of Cairo at the sea. A true Pearl of the Mediterranean. I would say give it some time but perhaps those who love Alex have different ideas about what makes a pearl a pearl. It’s a free world. Each their own…
So, I’ve got a gorgeous place to live, in a neighbourhood with its own little community, the orientation week has started at the university so I have met the people I will be studying with and we are getting around a bit to do our shopping so I get to know the city better day by day. Alex is not a complicated city to get around in. She is a narrow strip stretched out along the Mediterranean for some 30 kilometres and is only a few kilometres wide so the sea is always very near. I grew up in a city that is 150 kilometres removed from the sea and in a country like the Lowlands that is far away. Going to the seaside was a proper day trip which only happened once or twice a year. And now she is just around the corner, literally. Not that you can swim there. Alex has got many beaches but only the private ones are pleasant and clean. Not sure if they are bikini proof. I have done none of the touristy stuff yet because I reason that I will be here for another 9 months and will have plenty of time to go tourist mode. This is true of course but on the other hand because I feel I have got so much time I will not do it or wait until I have friends over from Europe or do it all in the last week and then I get stressed about it and don’t do it after all. In the 7 years in London I have never done the London Eye, London Dungeons or Madame Tussauds. In the 7 years I lived in Lowlands Capital I used to go to school opposite the Rembrandt House. Right opposite. I only went for the first time last year because my dear mother wanted to see a particular exhibition. I haven’t been to another particular tourist attraction in Lowlands Capital which I won’t mention, too ashamed to confess!
I don’t have time for tourist attractions! Or to phrase it better, I don’t want to make time for tourist attractions just yet. I am too busy becoming fluent in Arabic, getting into the habit of writing and leading a disciplined live in general.