OUR TRAVEL TALES SERIES CONTINUES, as Valerie Cameron exposes the very modern times of Alexandria.
There is no pleasure in beating down the price of something when the bottom has so disastrously dropped out of the tourist market. Four Bedu rugs bound with string for £35, but how much for the weavers? I give them the asking price on the pavement outside a sheesha cafe. ‘Real wool, real wool’ – a strong man. A lighter flame is held to the camels, pyramids, desert palm trees in traditional browns, but there is no mistaking the dank smell. A foot from my elbow, a boy is making boiled egg sandwiches, since this is a city of limited space.
My deal with the sellers from Aswan cuts into my hand as I walk back to the agreed pick-up point with my driver. Tower block canyons are choked with jingling horse bells, trams, yellow and black taxis, pedestrians in an array of dress (turbans, robes, suits, jeans) sauntering across the jams, waving, gesticulating; apple tobacco aroma – a cosy mess.
Our arranged spot along the corniche, in front of the Biblioteca, is now occupied by a crowd of chanting demonstrators; traffic is slow and being diverted by the traffic police, the only ones in uniform you are likely to see these days. The loathed police force retreated after the revolution, following years of arbitrary arrests, torture, fines. The jackboot is on the other foot.
The Foreign Office advises staying away from crowds and demonstrators. I have already been yelled at by a group of boys and navigated a flasher. I look out across the breakers of the Mediterranean, whipped up by a storm to the Quitbey fort round the bay. Only the sea and construction work is constant; everything else is in a state of flux.
After half a mile I spot an underpass: crossing a racetrack of five lanes is a national sport. On the other side I search for possible landmarks. My Arabic is not up to much and the driver has never heard of the Biblioteca, one of Alexandria’s most famous buildings. It’s probably my pronunciation that confuses him. Is that block with a tattered flag the French Embassy? How will he understand when I can’t even remember my left from my right? The walls are sprayed with graffiti and it looks abandoned.
On the corner is a Mercedes showroom. Inside, two men are talking. I don’t hang around ignored since they stop mid-stream when asked in Arabic if they speak English, which they do. They phone the driver and tell him where to come. I am ushered to a sofa and given a peanut bar. The salesman talks about Christianity, rich Protestants and Coptics. When I tell him I am from Scotland, he says he liked Braveheart, a bloody fight for freedom, but not Mel Gibson. He goes next door, reappears with rolled sleeves, wet forearms, takes a mat to the centre of the floor and recites prayers. The owner, who has a pistol tucked into his waistband, asks me if I would like tea. I can hear distant chanting,’Al Tahira, Al Tahira.’
After an hour the driver appears in his battered Lada and lowers his eyes as he takes the rugs. I could have taken any other cab, missed an Alexandrian tableau, his wages, and endured more unzipped flies. Arab hospitality cannot be cheapened by a hapless card that trumps every time. Alexandria offers the pleasure of accepting it in its purest form.
– Valerie Cameron