Just a little over two weeks ago, I was sitting on a bus outside the Agra Fort, in Rajasthan, India. I started chatting to a young couple from British Columbia, Canada, who had spent a year teaching in Thailand and were now seeing a little of the nearby world
“Where are you off to next?”
“We’re taking up teaching posts in Egypt.”
“Really? My son teaches in Cairo and lives in Ma’adi.”
“Wow! That’s where we’re going to live and we’re teaching in the American School in Cairo.”
Life is full of little coincidences.
And it’s to Cairo where I’m bound this time. Only, at the moment I’m sitting in the Lion and Antelope at Terminal 3 at Manchester International enjoying a pint of Manchester Pale Ale, which is surprisingly good considering it comes out of the J. W. Lees brewery. I’m waiting for a flight to Charles de Gaulle, Paris and then my connection to Cairo.
We’re off on a mission of mercy. A son and daughter-in-law are finishing contracts and need ‘stuff’ bringing home. So, the suitcase I’ve checked in is partially packed with ‘ours’ and will return suitably crammed with ‘theirs’.
Manchester Terminal 3 is a little disappointing There’s not much to see and even less to do. However, even on a cold Wednesday in March, there are a considerable number of travellers off to sunnier climes, one hopes? Perhaps they booked in anticipation of the March 29th Brexit Apocalypse? The congeries of women sporting ghastly orange fake tans suggests that stockpiling has certainly been happening somewhere out in the suburbs.
In the queue for boarding (I know my place, I’m after ‘priority’ and ‘friends of the airline’, women with small children and anyone with an infirmity), an overweight man in a suit and leaning heavily on a walking stick announces very loudly to everyone that he is ‘going to France’, which is fortunate, as the rest of us hope that we are, as well. I take a closer look. For a moment I wonder whether it’s a Peter Kay prank. After all, the hair would match, but there’s something that is not quite right. A voice whispers in my ear.
“It’s a woman!”
“It’s not?’ Is it?”
The shoes give the game away. So does the rather high-pitched voice when she tells everyone,
“I’ve had seat 3A!”
I’ve never seen so many people check their boarding cards as secretively and then smile so reassuringly to themselves.
The final straw is the box of Cadbury’s Cream Eggs. You know the sort, six in a box? She’s obviously bought them after the security check and there are still three uneaten. One after another they are unwrapped, bitten, chewed and swallowed. What’s wrong with that? Nothing, I suppose, perhaps she’s a nervous flyer? But, come on….six? There are 150 calories in each of them!
She calls over to the departure desk.
“Have you got a waste bin?”
She holds out the silver paper and cardboard. No one moves. Louder.
“HAVE YOU GOT A WASTE BIN???”
Yes, it’s definitely a shout. A passenger from further down the queue cracks, moves forward and takes it from her.
We’re not over yet. This time, it’s even louder.
“CAN I HAVE A BOTTLE OF WATER?”…. “I SAID, CAN I HAVE A BOTTLE OF WATER?”
This time, someone in a uniform comes up to her. A quiet word in her ear seems to do the trick and she shrinks back into her seat. I wonder what was said? I really do…..
Manchester to Paris. Change from Air France to Joon, a subsidiary of Air France-KLM and we’re off. France, Italy, down the Adriatic and across the Mediterranean and into North Africa.
Cairo airport is chaotic. It’s Umrah, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca and there are crowds everywhere. Unlike Haj, which is compulsory for every Muslim who can afford it, Umrah is of lesser significance but is still highly regarded and recommended within the faith. As a result, the arrival hall is packed to the gunnels and there are long queues at every window, every desk and every office.
However, we have a plan. How it happens, I know not. That it does, I’m extremely grateful. We’ve pre-booked a driver and for a little extra, Nabil meet us off the plane. We’re still well into pre-inspection and secure territory, but this is Egypt, after all. He’s waiting for us and three travellers from County Kerry in the Irish Republic. Two young women and their father. They’ve come over to surprise their younger sister who has just had a baby and they are as bemused by what’s happening as we are.
We shake hands and he asks for our passports and $100. He pushes his way to the front of a queue at the window of the Banque Misr and, five minutes later, returns with two visas. No questions, just the exchange of dollars and a nod. The same happens to our companions.
Then we head to Passport Control. Barriers have been erected to create a snake of a queue that looks as though it goes on for miles. You know the sort – in a Florida theme park there would be sign ‘Only two days waiting from here’. Thankfully, today it’s not to be at least for us. We all dip under a blue nylon barrier strap or seven and pop up at the front of the queue. People in thobes, jalabiyas and abayas follow. Suddenly, there’s a tumult of loud shouts and the waving of hands from the officials. Clearly, this is not allowed….unless, of course, you are foreign and accompanied by a middle-aged Egyptian wearing glasses and a tweed sports jacket. The border control officer barely looks at our passports. I’m not even sure they are the right way up. Or even open. We’re waved through.
We collect our suitcases and pile them onto a trolley that Nabil conjures up, seemingly out of nowhere.
The final obstacle is that ALL luggage has to be re-inspected and X-rayed. This is essential in a country where terrorism is not unknown. It’s also a Muslim country and this brings its own restrictions. One of our Irish companions turns to me.
“Will our bags be searched? I’ve got a pound of bacon in there!”
A pound of bacon? I’ve got three packs of best back, two dozen pork sausages, a whole chorizo and a pack of pigs in blankets!
Nabil has obviously heard our conversation.
“You have pork in your bags?”
“No matter, we go this way.”
We bypass the queue for the X-ray machine, the security screening and the man with the electromagnetic wand. A word in an ear and we’re suddenly in the arrivals hall. Mustafa is there to greet the Irish and we say our goodbyes. Final handshakes are a little sweaty, I have to confess.
The drive to Maadi, a suburb of Cairo, is a typical Egyptian experience. Breakneck speeds, and no care or concern for road etiquette. Fortunately, it’s after midnight and the roads are only busy, rather than gridlocked. We even manage 60 mph on stretches. It feels more like 90. A hour later and we’ve reached our destination.
And the cost for all this? The diplomacy and the driving? 550 Egyptian pounds…..£24 in the Queen’s finest. Had I known it would all be so easy, I’ve have packed a box of Mr Porky Scratchings as well.
We’re staying in an apartment in Ma’adi, 12 km upriver from downtown Cairo and it’s an affluent leafy suburb. It’s the same district as we stayed in on our last visit back in 2016. For those of you who haven’t been with me for the last few years, you might want to catch up…..
Two weeks in Cairo :
Aswan, Luxor and a cruise down the Nile:
Escape into the Sahara
Our granddaughter spends mornings at a local nursery, next door to the Cairo American College, a walled-fortress complete with armed guards, steel gates and checkpoints. The Americans have learnt never to be too careful when working abroad.
We walk over to the nursery with Mary, her nanny. Mary is from Nairobi, Kenya. A lovely young woman, with glistening faultless skin and gleaming teeth. She is in her mid-thirties with her own teenage son back home. This is a way of earning good money to support her family, but a good monthly wage for eleven hours days, five days a week here in Egypt wouldn’t buy you a fortnight’s childcare back in London. It’s strange to think that she’s only moved within the same continent. As we walk along the dusty street, weaving around parked cars and negotiating pavements built over a foot above the road, a dark-skinned man shouts at Mary.
“What’s he saying?” I ask
“He’s telling me I’m very black”, she laughs. “He tells me that every morning. ‘You’re very black’ he shouts. I tell him, I was very black yesterday, I’m very black today and I’ll still be very black tomorrow.”
It’s strange, Mary and the man in the street both live on the same continent. There is no ocean separating them, one simply comes from the very north and the other from more or less half-way down on the East coast. And yet, they find each other so different that they need to remark on it.
Later that day, we collect our little girl from nursery and head to The Field, a local sports complex built next to a busy roundabout. Outside the gates is an armoured car and five members of the ‘Central Armed Forces’. They carry fully-automated weapons, they wear body armour and have had the ability to smile trained out of them. A wave and a ‘Good afternoon, chaps’ goes without the slightest acknowledgement. There is more of a reaction from the Alsatian chained up just inside the gate. The way he jumps and strains at the end of his short leash leaves you in no doubt as to his intent. Well, he’s not going to fetch the ball, I can tell you. And nor are you, after he’s finished with you.
There’s a group of young girls from a nearby school having a training session on the baseball pitch. From the dugout, an American voice urges them on and we sit on the bleachers and watch for a while, enjoying the sunshine.
“Do you know”, I say, “we could be in California.”
And then, breaking the silence, comes the call to prayer from the nearby mosque. First the adhan and then the iqama are called by the muezzin through the loudspeakers. California disappears and I’m brought back to North Africa, Egypt and Cairo. The staff at the centre and the majority of the other workers have gathered on the football pitch next door. Mats are laid out, shoes taken off and they stand, kneel and finally prostrate themselves as they move through the salah, the prayer. This is probably the third time today, and there are two more left before bed.
By the way, the armed guards at the gate seem to be exempt from all this, which is probably for the best, considering.
We walk back past private houses, each one has a hired gateman, the bawab, invariably sitting on a plastic patio chair waiting for something to do. They open gates, close gates, help with bags, brush the dust away, wash the cars, take out the garbage, fetch and carry as required. It’s a living and an income. It all helps.
The apartment we’re staying in is on the fourth floor of a block. There’s no escalator, so it’s a daily trudge up and down seventy five marble-tiled steps to the front door. And that’s not just our problem. Everything is ‘phoned-in’. The doorbell rings. Two men stand there. Breathless. They’ve carried three boxes of water up four flights. Eighteen, two-litre bottles. And that’s £6.50. I round it up to 200 Egyptian pounds, a two pound tip. After all, there are two of them. That’s a pound each for four score steps and four landings. And, I’m later told that’s too much!
“You can’t give him that much of a tip. You’re like the Americans. You’re ruining the economy. They tip ridiculously, as well!”
I consider myself told. It’s the same when we have a house call from the local doctor. A house call costs about £20 but that doesn’t include the cost of the prescription. The female doctor has also walked up the four flights of stairs with a heavy bag. I offer to carry her bag down to street level for her. Again, a telling-off. It’s just not done. You can’t offer to carry the bag for a Muslim woman. Not as a westerner.
It takes time to get used to these things.
So, I learn. Later that night, the doorbell rings again. Just the once. Ironically, the postman leaves the delivery at the bottom of the staircase in a communal bin, so the postman never even gets to ring once, let alone twice.
This time, it’s the man from ‘Drinkies’, the Cairo alcohol delivery service. It might be a Muslim country, and off-licences might be non-existent, but it doesn’t stop you from enjoying a drink at home. You order online, or by phone and half an hour later, the order arrives. Twenty cans of Stella, the excellent Egyptian beer, tonic water and two bottles of local red wine, the Grand Marquis, which has been made by the Al Ahram Beverages Company since 1897. It’s a Carignan and Cabernet Sauvignon blend coming in at about 12 percent ABV. The whole bill for this is £24 and the poor chap gets exactly that. Fortunately, he doesn’t really understand the money as the Arabic characters and the Roman numerals often cause confusion but after he’s stared at it for a while, gone away, come back and asked again, he seems satisfied and off he pops, so to speak.
The following morning, it’s Friday. The streets are absolutely empty and walking the avenues and roads in Ma’adi feels as though you’re in a post-apocalyptic movie where the population has disappeared overnight. However, the cafes are still up and running and you realise why most of the more affluent locals and those working out here eat out on such a regular basis. ‘Beano’ cafe serves a magnificent breakfast. Fabulous coffee and juices, a pile of deep-yellow scrambled eggs on crisp toast with potatoes, mushrooms and salad can all be yours for a little over £3. Customers link into the free wifi and phone home. They sit listening to whatever on their headphones and tap away at laptops. Surprisingly, very few are reading any newspapers; such a contrast with Sunday at home. They are blessed. A complete absence of The Mail on Sunday. Just imagine their good fortune! For here in Cairo, the weekend is reversed. Friday is a Sunday and Saturday remains as such. Sunday becomes Monday and the start of the working week.
Anybody who is on the street and not lying in bed before getting up for Friday prayers is sitting in a white plastic patio chair or cleaning a car or taxi with a dirty rag and half a bucket of even dirtier water. Or, they’re feeding the endless stray dogs and cats that live on the streets. Invariably, the animals are full of ticks, even if they seem friendly enough and there have been moves by the authorities to cull them by planting poison around the edges of parks and green spaces, which brings its own problems, as you imagine.
Down in Ma’adi, away from the Malls and the high rise is ‘Margot for Leather’. A small, unassuming shop set down in a basement but a treasure trove for all things leather. The owner will make you anything – he’ll copy your Hermes clutch purse, you’re Fendi shoulder pack or your Mulberry handbag, all for a fraction of the original cost. He only has the finest leathers and he manages to source just the right fastenings, buckles and zips. It’s uncanny how close they are to the originals. These aren’t Chinese knock-offs, this is craftsmanship at its finest. And while we’re there, there’s just enough time to fuss over six newly-born kittens, the mother of whom is competing for food with half a dozen others that live just outside the front door.
Across the road is the Cairo Duty-Free. If you’re within forty-eight hours of arriving in the city and have your passport to hand, you can buy spirits, wines, perfumes and cigarettes at duty-free prices. What you don’t want from your allowance, the staff will ask if they can have it as they are forbidden to buy certain brands of goods. It’s very democratic! Your passport is stamped and your purchases noted and away you go. Well, it beats queuing up at the airport, that’s for certain. They only deal in dollars, although you can pay in any other currency, it just costs a little bit more. A litre of Hendricks will cost $26. That’s £19 and very good value, my dear!
By evening, the rain has arrived but the streets seem just as quiet. ‘Sunday’ lasts all day here. The Gourmet shop, specialising in European food is doing brisk trade at European prices plus a little bit more for their troubles. Still, here you can buy New Zealand lamb, Australian beef, French cheeses, German and Dutch sausages and Kellogg’s Variety Box cereals. They even have salted liquorice imported from Holland. You could be in Waitrose or Marks and Spencer, except……there’s no wine aisle.
Ma’adi is not inundated with beggars in the same way as is central Cairo, but they are here. The majority of them are Syrian and tend to be very dark-skinned families in which the children take the lead, approaching you and asking for money. They don’t pester, merely ask once and then move away. A refusal doesn’t offend.
People tend to prefer to give to the Egyptian women who sit on the pavements on roundabouts or crossroads and try to sell small bags of lemons. Unlike the large plump ones we buy in supermarkets at home, these lemons are small, the size of limes and hard. However, once cut open they are as juicy as they need to be.
“As-Salaam-Alaikum,” we say as we pass.
“Wa-Alaikum-Salaam”, she replies, smiling.
We give her a few LE (the livre égyptienne, the old French name for the Egyptian pound) – probably about 50p in our money and she smiles.
“Shukran” (I thank you a lot)
It’s a small gesture, but a good feeling.
Suddenly, the sky darkens, the wind picks up and there’s a clap of thunder. It starts raining. It’s been a strange year and perhaps it’s another effect of global warming. However, usually, at this time of year, the heat has increased and daytime temperatures are already in the 30s. But not this year. It’s a good five or six degrees below. It so very rarely rains in Cairo. It doesn’t rain enough to actually register on official charts. As this is unusual, it causes a little confusion. It’s not actually a storm, more a quick shower that brings down the dust from the air but, rather than freshening everything, leaves a muggy atmosphere. The roads become a little greasy and cars’ wipers, which don’t get a lot of use at the best of times, and certainly not as much as their horns, aren’t always functioning.
As soon as the rain has been, it’s gone and the following day we’re back to bright blue skies and sunshine. The dust dries out once again and life returns to normal? Well not exactly. There’s a wind coming in from the west – that’s from the Sahara – and it’s bringing with it a fair bit of grit and dust and sand of its own. It adds to the air and you can feel it on your skin, on your clothes and in the back of your throat and nostrils.
We walk the suburban streets, past vast flower stalls that compete with the bougainvilleas and hollyhocks that grow naturally on every corner. We cross the railway tracks to the Grand Mall of Ma’adi, which sounds a lot more exotic than it is. It’s time for lunch at a local Lebanese restaurant, the Al Diyaa, that serves the best falafel I’ve ever tasted. We have hot and fresh Egyptian flatbreads, creamy hummus, tabouli – rich in parsley, lemon, mint and pomegranate, shish tawook – chicken off the skewer with tomato bread falafel, of course, and dips. It’s a feast for a lunchtime and an afternoon sleep is sometimes too hard to avoid.
It’s Sunday and the start of the working week. We’re up early waiting for Peter the Greek to drive us 260 km north to Alexandria, Breakfast has been delivered at 6 a.m., courtesy of Breadfast, the local bakery – huge croissants and chocolate muffins beautifully packed in individual paper boxes.
We’re collected on time and wend our way through early morning Ma’adi traffic. The sun is shining and the wind has dropped. However, it looks as though the rain is just ahead of us and we’re going to run into it sooner or later.
The road out of Cairo passes countless brown brick apartment blocks, all in some state of ‘unfinished’. Every so often the space between them opens up and you can see the Great Pyramids of Giza. Such a contrast and magnificent We turn to follow the Nile, heading north.
A mini-bus full of Canadian students passes. Some of the curtains are closed and those you can see are clearly sleeping, heads resting against the windows. We’re passing one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, and they’re sleeping!
A new Cairo is being built. They’re moving the capital to land in the desert where they are busily building a new city. It’s backed to the hilt with Chinese money and will become the financial and business hub for the whole of Egypt. The new Egyptian museum is set to open in a couple of years and that will triple the space for exhibits as well as drawing in tourists from across the World. What will happen to old Cairo is anyone’s guess- I dare say, millennia from now, it will be covered over in sand and be only either a legend or a memory.
New Cairo brings with it glitzy malls and beautifully tarmaced multi-lane highways. There’s no denying it, it’s an improvement. It’s bringing civilisation to the desert.
The same thought strikes me as we head to El Alamein. Where now there are petrol stations, food outlets and villas there would have been scrub desert back in 1942; endless sand, occasional fuel dumps and the odd wadi or oasis.
This is partly the reason for the diversion to El Alamein. Whenever you read those absolutely pointless Facebook quizzes or postings that ask you to confess your top favourite films, my starting point is always the same, Ice Cold in Alex, the 1958 J. Lee Thompson film starring John Mills, Harry Andrews, Sylvia Sims and Anthony Quayle as Captain Van der Poel. I must have seen it, Lord alone knows how many times, and can quote from it ad infinitum.
The desert is barren but occasionally we pass a couple of bedouins, the odd camel train and herds of goats. The roads are equally empty. Occasionally a truck appears on the horizon, but by and large, we have the road to ourselves. It’s an unforgiving place….
“It’ll send you mad, Carruthers! Mad, I say, Mad!”
We pass the Mohammed Naguib military base. It’s the biggest military establishment in the Middle East and has a wall around that that would be the envy of every Trump supporter and the man himself. It’s there to protect the Dabaa nuclear plant as well as 1,500 other vital facilities. We drive for maybe fifteen minutes before coming to one corner of the wall and then watch as it heads off in the other direction for as far as the eye can see.
Peter the Greek is silent. He doesn’t utter a word. We drive in the serenity of silence for hour after hour.
260 kms after leaving Cairo, we reach El Alamein. It feels like a frontier town. It’s run-down and chaotic. The Commonwealth cemetery is situated just outside of the town and is a place of serenity and beauty amid the squalor and racket of the town itself. The two gardeners and one security guard tend after the graves of 6468 casualties of the North African campaign. There is also a monument to nearly a thousand souls who were cremated in accordance with their beliefs. We were the only two visitors. It’s sobering. So many young men at the same stage of their lives, over twenty and under thirty years of age. It’s terribly, terribly sad. The visitor book is full of comments, mainly from Australians and Canadians who clearly visit here as part of their own pilgrimages.
Curiously, the members of the Foreign Legion who fell at El Alamein are buried with their full names on their headstones. Bearing in mind that so many joined the Legion to seek anonymity, it seems a little idiosyncratic.
From El Alamein to Alexandria, some 112 kms, we pass vast holiday resort complexes with names such as: Marabella, Marina, Long Beach, Stella Maris and Golden Beach. It may be a little early in the season, but it’s not quite happening yet. I had the same feeling in China. Vast areas of potential – ready decked out – the next big thing. But, yet to be a burgeoning tourist hot-spot – if you get my tautological drift…Not there yet! Between the resorts are tracts of pristine white sand and desert, ripe for development. When it all joins up, then this whole stretch will be the Las Vegas of North Africa; only without the alcohol, of course, and the gambling….in fact, nothing at all like Las Vegas!
We finally arrive in Alex. You just have to call it that. Alexandria sounds so odd. MSM Tom Pugh wouldn’t have called it by its full name. We’re booked in to Le Metropole, a delightful 1902 hotel with a working mahogany and brass lift and ceilings so high you really wouldn’t want to have to paint them. We have a ‘sea-side view’, which isn’t a sea view….those are restricted to Egyptian visitors. The sea-side is one where, if you lean out far enough, you can see the sea! Actually, you don’t need to lean out that far. It’s utterly charming. And, funnily enough, the rooms with 180 degree sea views are covered in green netting as part of the renovation programme, Ha!
We head for the Biblioteca Alexandria. For a small entry fee, you are able to walk around inside and admire the sheer majesty of this modern interpretation of one of the largest and most significant libraries of the ancient world. The original library was founded in the third century BC. However, by 272 AD, the Romans had destroyed it in all but name. A small successor, the Mouseion survived for a few years but it was not until 1974 that it was proposed a new library would be built as near as possible to the original site and become a model for modern learning as well as a repository for ancient works. It has been financially supported by countries from across the World, including Europe, of which, at the time of writing, we are still a part! It has the capacity for 8,000,000 books and is also home to a number of permanent exhibitions of Egyptian antiquities as well as personal belongings of the late President Nasser.
Alexandria is an attractive seaside town. Except for the noise. Cafe culture (it’s the French influence, I’m sure) in the height of summer must test the patiences of tourists who flock to the pavement cafes to drink their café and eat their croissants amidst the bedlam of microbuses, motorbikes, cars, endless taxis and trucks.
We eat in the hotel restaurant. It’s a vast French Empire-style salon with red velvet seat covers, chandeliers and gold paint a plenty. I’m back in the post apocalyptic scenario as we’re the only ones there. However, that’s soon rectified. There’s a waiter to open the wine, another one to handle the cork, one to take the order, one to serve it, another to check it’s oK. How many there are in the kitchen is anyone’s guess.
“I’d like the beef fillet…..medium to well done with pepper sauce.”
“Certainly, madam. And potatoes?”
“And for sir?”
“Fillet, medium with pepper sauce and fries, please.”
The order arrives. Beef fillet, both medium with assorted vegetables and a timbale of rice. Clearly, there was an executive decision taken on the passe as to what we really wanted, rather than giving us a choice.
It was very tasty, nevertheless.
The pudding arrived in due course. We felt back in control. The rich chocolate pudding and strawberry cheesecake were exactly what was ordered. Thankfully.
The rooms are a tad nippy. Egyptian homes and hotels rarely have heating. Usually, they wait until there is a need for AC rather than dealing with the chill of winter and spring. It’s refreshingly cool at times…..let’s just leave it at that. Enough to force you under the blankets.
Alexandria is the second largest city in Egypt and has been an important harbour since the 3rd century before Christ. The long Corniche follows the harbour for its entire length and provides tourists with a long evening’s promenade. Step off it and head inland and you’re back in a typical Egyptian city; narrow streets, small overstocked shops and the chaos of vehicles, people and dogs.
The next morning we’re ready for a day’s sightseeing. It’s been raining overnight and the streets are still wet and they’re promising further showers. It’s all quite unusual and Egyptians are not really prepared for it.. Nobody has an umbrella and cars struggle through the rain with or without wipers.
Finding your way around this city is not easy. Some street signs are only in Arabic and others, especially those that are quite old, are in a French blue and white style. Others are simply ‘streets’ or ‘roads’ and there’s little clue as to where they’re headed.
We walk west along the Corniche. Three fishermen in a small dinghy are dropping nets into the water. On the shore, six men have hold of the other end of the line attached to the nets. Gradually, they are pulling it ashore. Each one pulls for a yard or so and then detaches a small rope attached to his waist. This is reattached at the front of the line so the effort is in the back rather than the arms and the whole process is repeated time and time again. A crowd looks on but it’s going to be at least a couple of hours before the catch is landed, so we move on.
At the end of the Corniche is the Citadel Qaitbay. It’s on the site of the original Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world and long lost to time. Built when Ptolemy was on the throne, it survived until 1323 and then slipped into the waves. There is talk about making the site an underwater museum but, unfortunately, nothing has happened as yet.
The Citadel itself is a series of chambers and passages on three floors. Designed as a military bastion, it served its purpose from the fifteenth until the early nineteenth centuries. King Farouk almost managed to reconstruct is as a royal rest house but, today, it’s owned by the Department of Antiquities and is a popular tourist sight.
From the Citadel we walk through a poorer part of Alex, past vast high rise apartment blocks, some leaning at extremely precarious angles. Everyone says hello and ‘welcome to Alexandria’. Families, girls, young men all stop and ask if they can have their photograph taken with you. Apparently, having your photograph taken with a foreigner, even an infidel, is considered lucky?
The fish market is a sight to behold. At the door, a clowder of cats feasts on a selection of heads, tails and entrails. Inside, a man holds up a brachyuran crab, displaying its claws, and I hold up a hand with only four fingers showing. We laugh. He has a wide assortment of hideous-looking fish, all colours, all sizes and all as ugly as ugly can be.
Outside, a man is up to his armpits in a milky water bath. I ask what is he doing?
“It’s like an octopus, but it’s not. It’s like calamari, but it’s not.”
He hold up a squid. He must have a thousand of them in there.
“It’s a squid!” I say.
“YES”, he replies and gives me a High 5 with the fishiest-smelling hand I’ve ever encountered. Never mind all the perfumes of Arabia, I think it’ll take Jeyes fluid to rid me of the smell.
As we move on, he shouts,
“Where you from?”
“Wales. In the UK”
“Ah! Gareth Bale!!”
The international language of football. After all, this a country where Mo Salah’s photograph is on practically every street corner.
We pass the Naval base and the Ras El-Tin Palace and wander the back streets in search of the Cap d’Or bar.
A bar in every port, they say. In Trelew, Argentina, I sought out the very bar from which Butch Cassidy fled when the Pinkerton men started to close in. Today, it’s the Cap d’Or. Rumour, a fickle mistress at any time, has it that this is the bar that inspired Christopher Landon for the setting of the bar in Ice Cold in Alex.
OK, we need a little bit of context. In the film, John Mills, Sylvia Sims, Anthony Quayle and Harry Andrews end their gruelling trek across the North African desert by sinking a beer at a bar in Alexandria. In the scene, John Mills wipes the dew from the glass before downing it and it’s the last drink Capt. Van de Poel, aka Otto Lutz, has before he’s taken away as a prisoner of war. Christopher Landon served as a Desert Rat with the 51st Field Ambulance in North Africa during the 1940 – 1943 campaign and it is said that the Cap d’Or was the inspiration for the bar in the film, which unfortunately, was a plywood alternative built at Shepperton studios.
Anyway, we find the bar on Abid Bek Ashad, just off the Corniche. There aren’t actually that many bars left in Alex. Along with the nearby Spitfire bar, that’s about it. The Cap d’Or is not a memorable bar, unfortunately. The windows are all papered over to keep out the sun. The walls are adorned with photographs of World War 2 frigates and battleships, polo ponies and old scenes of Alex. We drink Egyptian Stella lager which is cold but not enough to form dew on the glass. And we reminisce.
Sister Denise Norton (Diane Clare) has been shot by the Germans. They bury her fabricate a cross out of two old pieces of wood. Sister Murdoch (Sylvia Sims) wants to write her colleague’s name on the cross to add a final mark of her passing. Taking the lipstick from her bag she asks “Will this do? I’m afraid its not waterproof”.
Which is a strange thing to worry about in a desert.
Anyone who has seen the film will probably have also commented on the nature of Anthony Quayle’s shorts….they are brief in the extreme. They might also have commented on the fact that he seems to be the only one not suffering from constipation.
Can I recommend https://www.petebrown.net/2010/05/09/they-served-it-ice-cold-in-alex-for/ ? It’s really worth a read. Especially, if you’re a fan.
Further on, outside of the Al Quaaed Ibrahim Basha mosque there are two large herds of goats. They feed quietly on hay and are content enough not to wander. They watch the world go by and stand patiently in the street or sleep under the tree. Little to do they know, thankfully, that they will soon end up with their throats cut as sacrifices in the name of Islam. I know people buy their animals in advance for El-Hadr, the Festival of Slaughter, so I suppose this is the ‘shop window’ for sacrifices. Perhaps, like DFS, they do all-year round sales?
As it predicted, it rained. Not much, in truth, just a couple of light showers, but it was enough to turn the streets to mud and make the pavements too slippy to manage safely. Along the seafront they are constructing mass defences to keep the tides at bay. High tide has become just a little too high for comfort over the past few years. Back in 2015 and again last December, heavy rain caused flash flooding and the town suffered badly. In 2015, fifteen people lost their lives. The Muslim Brotherhood received much of the blame for a lack of investment. There are drains but they are ineffective and pointless if the rain is more than a trickle. Even with the light showers this week, there are huge puddles on every street corner or where the road dips.
On our last morning, we wake to hot North African sunshine. Alexandria is back where it should be. We walk out to the souk Al Attarine. It’s not a souk in the Moroccan sense of the word. It’s a collection of streets with shops selling everything and anything. There’s little to hold us, to be honest, so we head back to the Corniche and experience something I never thought I’d see.
The fishermen are on shore again. They have taken a large purse net out into the bay, rowing it out by dinghy and then laying the net. The two ends of the net are attached to long blue ropes and two teams of ten fishermen slowly drag the net to shore. It’s back-breaking work and it takes well over an hour and a half for the net to be drawn in. The catch is a miserable twenty or so small sardine-sized silver-coloured fish and the rest is rubbish. Half a tyre, plastic of every colour and kind and household waste. These twenty men haven’t caught enough for a fish supper. It’s soul destroying. By the sheer energy it took to bring the nets ashore, I’d expected a Galilean harvest. No sooner than the nets are coiled and emptied, the dinghy takes to the water again and the whole process is repeated. I dare say that there are more bountiful trawls, but what is clear is how polluted this part of the Mediterranean has become. The sea around this coast is dying and it’s all our rubbish that is killing it. It’s not marine flotsam and jetsam, it’s pure man-made household waste. And the strangest thing is, after they’ve cleared the nets and put the pathetic catch in a bucket, they gather all the plastic together and throw it back in the sea!
I leave somewhat dejected and altogether saddened at this sight. Twenty men – all soaking wet and clearly not affluent – and so little to show for all their hard work. I suppose the lack of seagulls following the boat should have been a clue. When the fishing boats came into Conwy in the 70s and 80s, they were always followed by flocks of seabirds looking for an easy meal. Eric Cantona would have guessed how poor the catch would be, as well.
It’s time to head back to Cairo. We take the Cairo desert highway. What do they say about dark desert highways? Ah well, I haven’t the hair these days to do it justice.
Ma’adi and Cairo
The new cities of Cairo and Giza will bring space-age living to Egypt. ‘Live where you work, work where you play’ the hoardings announce. Marks and Spencer are already here; so is McDonalds, of course. The villa complexes are beautiful….even if they are still empty. There will be schools, hospitals, banks, sports centres, mega-malls; they’ll be cities for the 21st century. It’s happening – backed by Misr Italia and money from the Far East. There are those who are sceptical, however. Some feel that it will be still rather haphazard and will take decades to complete, if it ever is. Others feel the money will run out before completion or that China will lose interest and move on to the next good deal. Time will only tell.
As we once again pass the pyramids, traffic starts to build and within minutes we are gridlocked in six lanes of rush-hour traffic.
“Welcome to Cairo,” says Peter, the driver. Actually, these are the first words he’s uttered since we left Alexandria. Who knows whether the traffic will be as bad when the new cities are populated. But for now, the time made up on empty motorways is soon lost as we edge our way through the mayhem.
The following day we head for the Khan el-Khalili souk. There’s been a bazaar here since the 13rh century. Getting there involves a long drive across Cairo before entering the souk proper. It’s a huge maze of narrow streets divided up into individual areas: souks dedicated to tentmakers, textile workers, metal fabricators, jewellers, goldsmiths, and so on. It goes on for miles. Today, part of it is mainly the territory for tourists and a lot of what is on sale comes in from China. However, work your way through and you’ll still find traditional artisans plying their trade and their crafts.
Haggling is still the order of the day. A hand-made large floor cushion might cost you £80 in John Lewis, but here, the price starts at 760 L£ (£34) and settled at 500 LE (£22). we walk away with two. the workmanship must have taken someone many hours and they are things of beauty.
A man steps out of a carpet shop.
“Welcome, would you come in and have a shufti?”
“Shufti” started off as an Arabic word, along with algebra, coffee, alcohol and lemon. it slipped into military slang back in the 1940s and has now become common parlance at 368, Nelson Mandela House, Peckham.
Everyone is witty, welcoming and honest about their sole aim – to separate you from your money as quickly as possible.
The whole place is ancient in one way and 21st century tacky in another. The tuk-tuk drivers weave their way up and down the alleys, spouting exhaust fumes to the point where the air thickens and the eyes sting. In the tourist bazaar, there’s a range of goods on sale and these are replicated on stall after stall. Far more interesting are the areas slightly off the beaten track. The small craft workshops haven’t changed for centuries. Tin plate is beaten, wool is woven into carpets and rugs, hanks of cloth are stacked to the roof trusses. Tea sellers move in and out of the alleyways with trays of small chrome tea pots and glasses ready for dark tea flavoured with mint and spoon after spoon of sugar. The bazaar is fascinating, but it’s also Hell on Earth.
A couple of hours wandering the maze of streets is enough and we flag down a taxi driver who finally agrees to take us the 45 minutes across Cairo for 100 LE, a little over £5. He smokes continually all the way there, constantly looking at his phone while we sit in the ‘fug’ in the back of a dilapidated Lada, trying to breathe what fresh air we can through the open windows and listen to traditional Egyptian folk music on the radio. It’s music to cut your throat to……believe me.
Our time in Egypt is rapidly coming to a close. I suppose this is the last time I’ll visit this country. I think we’ve reasonably done it justice. We’ve seen the beauty of antiquity, the sands of the Sahara, the ancient cities; some no longer extant, others transforming from the ancient to the modern. We’ve sailed up the Nile and crashed through the main streets at breakneck speed in a taxi that should have been scrapped twenty years ago. We’ve walked hundreds of miles. It’s a fascinating part of the world. It’s welcoming, safe, cosmopolitan and unique. The people are friendly and the children delightful.
But now, it’s time to head for the airport and catch a plane to Paris and then another one to Manchester. I need time at home. There’s grass to be cut and walls to be painted.
Oh, and the next trip to plan!