The wind swept the summer away as I stepped off the train, whisking me to what felt like springtime. I was undoubtedly in Alexandria, the pearl of the Mediterranean and my true Egyptian love, having narrowly escaped Cairo’s zahma wa dawsha (congestion & noise). Don’t get me wrong, Cairo is growing on me by the day with its disorderly streets spanning millennia and its somewhat cooled evenings brimming with cultural events. But Alexandria will always hold a place in my heart: maybe I fell too easily for my first abroad experience or the flawless sunsets over the Mediterranean, or maybe she just wooed me with her silent charm. Alex may seem to wane in Cairo’s shadow, but she just warrants a second look, and then her distinctive beauty becomes clear.
After visiting our favorite juice stand and sucking up the textured sugar with glee, my friends and I made our way out toward the Corniche, the deadly road running along the heavenly ocean. As the street fell away behind us, I felt like we were nearing paradise, and the view only affirmed this. We strolled silently along the Mediterranean’s curves, and I felt at ease in the company of the ocean’s strength, a sentiment cultivated in summers in Puerto Rico. We arrived at Silsila Cafe, an old seashore haunt of our semester abroad, and settled in to drink mint tea and talk revolution with our Egyptian friend Mohammad Wahaba.
Wahaba told us how different the revolution had been in Alexandria. Mainly, there is no central square in Alex like Cairo’s Midan Tahrir, which can easily fit a million people, so protestors resorted to winding through the streets chanting their demands, zig-zagging every now and then to avoid police blockades. Activist organized sit-ins, different marches coordinated in order to meet and reignite the energy, and bystanders were encouraged to join. Since then, activists continue to organize around certain causes and events; this article chronicles the weeks immediately following Mubarak’s fall, when the West thought the revolution was over, but it was really just getting started. When I asked Wahaba, a sharp and educated young doctor, about his take on the upcoming elections, I was struck by his optimism that there would be little violence or protests during the elections and that they would be fair and their outcome positive for Egypt. It was evident that he recognized democracy’s learning curve and was thus not expecting immediate change.
Later that evening, I reunited with one of my professors, Heba, a powerhouse Coptic woman who heads up the English department at Alexandria University. With her loving and enunciating voice slipping between English and Arabic (and even a bit of French), she described to me the way in which Egyptians, not Muslims or Christians, came together during the height of the uprising. For at least five days, there were no police in Alex, and Heba beamed as she proudly told me how youth protected their neighborhoods from any looters. As we looked out over the Alexandrian harbor twinkling in the cool night, her patriotism was infectious, and I wished more than ever I had been in Egypt (and Egyptian!) during that time.
My gracious Egyptian friend Asmaa hosted my roommate and I that evening, and she, too, had tales to tell of the tumultuous days of the January 25th movement (in addition to stories about having just gotten engaged!) She is doing her residency at one of the hospitals in the city, and she regaled us with horror stories of people coming in with injured comrades and fighting one another for access to the hospital, and even threatening doctors. For her, the resounding sentiment was fear and apprehension, although when she spoke to of us of her country’s future, her tone eased and I could hear the hope filtering through.
I share with you these vignettes of my trip not only to highlight how great it was to rekindle my romance with Alexandria, but to introduce you to Egyptians. This week in class we used the theme “The Egyptian Personality” to explore vocabulary and expressions and culture. Many of the articles we read pointed to the patience and faith Egyptians possess, and these were on colorful display in Alexandria this weekend. Egyptians understand that democracy is a process that does not just appear on your doorstep overnight, that it must be worked for. I have asked many an Egyptian which candidate or party platform they support and though their nuanced political answers often seem daunting, they’ll usually end with, “But that’s democracy!” It is this patient spirit, sabr, that is so noteworthy in Egyptians’ attitude toward their ongoing revolution. It is this unwavering faith in their nation that leaves me so impressed. On the other hand, it seems to me that there is a fine line between patience and apathy. When does waiting become lackadaisical? I think, that after this massive shaking of Egyptian society, I need not fear that things will revert to the political indifference of the Mubarak era. I will borrow some of the hope that Egyptians plow through their every day with.
In other news, my istikshaaf (exploration) of Cairo continues with vigor! I had the most fun this week grocery shopping, believe it or not. In Egypt, this includes visiting the man who sells spices and dried goods out of drawers in his nook of a store, the veggie market in Wust al-Balad (downtown), the fruit stand across the street, the butcher, and the normal grocery store. It’s great for building vocabulary, and it’s lovely chatting with Egyptians, who are thrilled to welcome me to their country. I also paid a visit this week to Mohammad Ali’s citadel, whose Ottoman style minarets dominate the city’s skyline, where some CASA fellows and I enjoyed an outdoor concert. Check out this video of Nassir Shamm, the famous Iraqi ‘oud player whose music took me across Arabia all the way to Papi playing his guitarra in the living room. I have also recently hung out with mummies, read 120 pages of Arabic in 2 days, and had impromptu meetings with Iraqi politicians and businessmen!
Upcoming posts will focus on the challenges of the parliamentary and presidential elections this fall, as well as the role of art in realizing the Egyptian peoples’ revolution. Love to you all!!
PS - Some photos!!