The setting sun tints the Cairo train station like a sepia-toned photograph as we pull away. Through the smudged train window I watch an old man in a frayed linen jacket search through his old army bag as he leans against a smog-stained pillar. Friends take photographs in front of low concrete benches, and a woman hoists a bag of rice on her head, trailing her three children behind.
The train gains speed as Cairo’s unfinished block housing gradually gives way to broad fields, dotted with a few workers: the Egyptian countryside. Between the fields stand buildings like unfinished shelves, piled and cramped together, with the rebar poking out like lose whiskers.
Dea, Micheal, and I are on our way to Alexandria, Alexander the Great’s famous capital, where Cleopatra once saw Mark Antony and Eratosthenes invented modern geography over 2,000 years ago.
I’ve wanted to see Alexandria since I was a child. The Lighthouse and the Library represent one of the peaks of human civilization, and some of history’s greatest thinkers walked in their shadows.
Mindful of Alexandria’s epic history, I also recall Egypt’s current issues. The unemployment rate remains over 13%, tourism declines, and the Egyptian pound continues to fall. Rebels block roads around Cairo, intercepting commuters to deliver political statements. Hard-line Salafis attack shrines for Sufi mystics. A recent hotel on the Red Sea celebrated its opening by smashing alcohol bottles on camera. Basic necessities, like bread, fuel, and electricity, remain threatened. Crime is at an all-time high…
Things do not look good for Egypt.
All this occurs as Morsi wrestles to assert Egypt’s water rights against the Renaissance Dam that the Ethiopian parliament voted unanimously to build last week. He cut ties with Syria’s Assad, spurring controversy, and he picked a man named Adel Mohammed Al-Khayat with alleged ties to a terrorist group responsible for an attack that killed 58 tourists last Nov. 1997. Egypt’s tourist minister resigned from the appointment.
Things do not look good for Morsi.
I think of what one student told me the night before. “Before the revolution, we did not have freedom, but we had safety. Now, we have freedom, but no safety. Soon, we won’t have freedom either.”
His words capture the sentiment of many Egyptians. A recent poll by the Arab American Institute puts Morsi supporters at 28 percent–and falling.
A group named Tamarad, “Rebel” in Arabic, hopes to capitalize on this discontent for Jun. 30 demonstrations. Each day, Tamarad gains support: politicians, like Mohamed El-Baradie; disillusioned youth; lawyers; writers; and everyday workers ousted from a job.
Tamarad has already gotten over 13 million signatures for a petition to cut short Morsi’s term and have a new election–almost 15 percent of Egypt’s population.
And things do not look good for tourism. As my time here continues, I consider that this may be my last time in Egypt, at least for a long time. Travel cannot flourish in a broken, unsafe region.
My thoughts swirl as I watch the sun–a bright orange bead on the horizon–set. The train rattles; food carts and hawkers come and go as they sell humus, tea, and sesame treats. Smokestacks silhouetted against the sky smolder like snuffed candles. The fields of sugarcane pass by until they’re too dark to see.
Sometimes at such moments, something opens up inside me: all my years collide into a single moment. One of my friend calls it “the abyss opening up.” I can’t explain it. I can only feel it.
I wonder how I got here. Looking back at my life, I remember when I tried learning hieroglyphics in ninth grade. Around the same time, I made my own Rosetta stone from wet clay. I also collected papyrus scrolls from novelty shops, pouring over them with a magnifying glass.
Freshmen year in college, I took an Islamic art course and witnessed a new world of geometry and arabesque opening up, embedded with traditions recited hundreds of years ago: the alleged dictations of God.
One by one, the moments gather, as Beckett’s characters say in Endgames: “Grain upon grain, one by one, and one day, suddenly, there’s a heap, a little heap, the impossible heap.” After years of disjointed hours you’re on a train bound for Alexandria and can’t explain why.
I suppose the same could be said for Egypt. One by one, the eons accrue, layered like scar tissue as time ticks forward. Some problems never leave. New ones arise. The people live on. Then, one day, you have an “impossible heap” of problems. Someone must take stock and unravel it, but it’s to big and convoluted to make any sense.
Writing in my notebook, thinking of Egypt, and trying to pin down how I feel, the train rolls on.
The next day, we begin our tour, wary after a taxi driver tried to overcharge us the night before. John, a quiet guide with a goatee and a Coptic cross on his wrist greets us in the hotel lobby. After a small stop at the august Opera House, we reach our first major site: the Kom al-Shoqafa, catacombs started in the second century AD. Lost for hundreds of years, a citizen found them in 1900 after his donkey broke through the ground.
We descend a spiral staircase where people once carried the dead bodies to be buried. At the bottom, we enter a low low space that smells of wet clay. Marks of picks and chisels etch the limestone walls, feathered and numerous, like snow disturbed by wind.
The guide points out the mingling of Greek, Egyptian, and Roman symbolism that fills the tomb. In one corner, Anubis wears a Roman centurion uniform. In another, Greek garlands surround scenes with Isis and Ra. The site began as a tomb for a rich family, but gradually expanded into a public cemetery that housed over 300 bodies.
I picture the workers carving the stone, the families hoisting the dead through tunnels, and the mourners grieving in thin beams of light.
Next, we visit to the National Museum. Built in 2003, the museum is an air-conditioned collection of history from Egypt’s Old Kingdom, over 6,000 years ago, to the present day. We pass mummies, statues, and mottled ruins hoisted from the harbor from the time of the Light House and the Library over 2,200 years ago.
Used to a country born in the late 1700s, a 6,000-year-old statue of a scribe is impossible to really comprehend.
We end our tour with the Library, a vast modern structure designed to incorporate ancient design elements–like the lotus flower–with modern materials and a modern aesthetic. A 32-meter-high glass-paneled roof rises from a broad reflecting pool. It’s meant to mimic the sun rising from the sea. The walls are of gray Aswan granite, etched with characters from 120 different human scripts.
Inside, the library hosts museums and a sprawling reading room with millions of books in multiple languages. The library also has millions of ebooks, always gathering more.
It’s a beautiful space, and the library guide–a well dressed women with the voice of a recording–rattles off stirring statistics. Still, I wonder what Egypt’s impoverished population can do with a $220 million dollar project that costs students alone 30 pounds for a year-long subscription.
After the library, we eat lunch at the Fish Market, a popular restaurant where you pick your meal from a display of fish on ice, eating it alongside Mezze and fresh-baked bread. The guide calls his mother and asks her how she makes pickled lemons.
After this, we split up. Dea continues on the tour, while Michael and I opt to walk along the shore. Away from the touristy Fish Market–with its clean tables and gentle piano music–a new world surfaces.
Children run into the water, liberated from thin beaches packed inch-by-inch with folding chairs. An old woman swaddled in black veils works at a public wire to steal electricity. Cabbies and buggies stop along the sidewalk, calling us.
“Welcome to Egypt! You want ride? Very, very cheap!” they say, as if on repeat.
The stench of garbage mingles with the smell of sea water, but farther out, the water is surprisingly crisp and blue, with fishing ships flashing in the sun as they bob. Bright flags ripple with the steady wind. Cars honk alongside us like a pack of dogs. On rocky shorelines beyond the beach, people try to catch fish with long, tapered poles.
On our way back to the hotel, we pass a boy trying to fly a piece of paper attached to a string. He isn’t having much luck, so Michael takes apart a nearby basket and fits two sticks in a cross-like pattern on the paper.
“Kite!” the boy says.
We exchange mutual smiles and continue.
Nearby, we pass through a kids’ carnival outside of a mosque. Two young boys race down a hill on ramshackle scooters, almost running over Michael and I.
“Habibii akbar!” one screams, “my great beloved!” He banks left to avoid a crash, knees tucked up to his sholdiers.
After about two hours, we reach the hotel. Dea meets us there. We go out to eat at the palatial Four Seasons–including a bottle of wine. After that, we visit some of the shops of cheap shoes and misspelled T-shirts with things like “Honeymoon Nightmare [incompresnsible word]” airbrushed on in distressed letters. The crowd of young people surges around us, scoping out bargains and enjoying the cool air.
The next day, we leave the hotel and find our train in the maze of the Alexandria station. The station master tells us one platform, then a passenger yells out another as his train carries him away. The passenger is the right one.
On the bleached old train again, hearing the door clatter as people use the bathroom and vendors race along the aisle, I look out the window. I got what I came for: a taste of a city I’ve always wanted to visit. I also got to visit the ocean that Camus loved so much, walking among the packed beaches, drenched in noonday sun. I could almost see a young Camus among the other children, kicking the soccer ball or swimming through the water, his strong arms cutting through the pale blue.
Phrases of his writing circled in my head the whole trip.
Returning to Cairo, I understand better why he loved the sunlight and the sea–the “wealth of poverty” as he sometimes called it. I guess that was another grain that piled up, spurring my trip.
With all the echoes of past years following me through the city I felt like I was on some pilgrimage. It was just a feeling, but I couldn’t ignore it.
Perhaps, like Chaucer’s pilgrims, we endure the road because we have something sacred at the end of it. Not something religious, but a dream we’ve always wanted to flourish or a place we’ve always wanted to see. The images of a photograph or the words of a particular writer in our younger years become myth-like, and we long to visit their source, like Dorothy longing for “someplace over the rainbow.” Such places feel like they can’t exist in real life. They’re too magical.
But they do.
Whenever I talk about Egypt, people always tell me that they can’t imagine seeing the Pyramids. One can’t. They feel like dragons plopped in the midst of everyday life, something remarkable transcending the mundane.
Alexandria was similar. The name itself evokes hundreds of fantasies and has for thousands of years, culling travelers from all over the world. I feel blessed that I was able to hear its siren song, endure the road, and reach it. I won’t forget what I saw or what I felt. And I hope that other travelers–kids who collected papyrus, read Camus, or pursued their own passions–set foot on their own pilgrimages and that their holy sites remain intact and beautiful.