Flying into Egypt, I was given a one-month visa, which I got right at the airport for a small fee. One is allowed to overstay for two weeks, however, so I’ll likely take advantage of this. I’m getting more comfortable in Cairo, and why not?
In any unknown neighborhood, you must figure out where you can drink coffee, eat affordably and buy the basics, and if you’re partial to green bottles with cheery labels, where you can get buzzed for just a slurry song.
A conservative Muslim country, Egypt is not exactly a bar hopping paradise, but there are hoppy joints. Being right downtown, I have options.
Since my hotel receptionist is an Armenian, he has no qualms about boozing, “But I don’t really socialize. Prices have gone up. I go home and stay home.” He lives near the Giza Metro Station.
“Let’s go to Stella!” My treat, of course, except I haven’t been able to find it. It has no sign.
Although alcohol consumption is allowed, it must be discreet, so no loud music or butt flossed bartenders, such as they have in even frostbitten Michigan. Nothing like Hooters, in short. (Hey, there’s an untapped market here. Go for it!) Most of Egypt is bone dry.
Prowling around looking for elusive Stella, I have been approached by unctuous strangers who began their pitch with “my friend.” In any country, it’s never a good sign.
When I replied to a dark, scrunchy faced man in English, he blurted, “Ah, you’re an American! My wife is from the Windy City.” Yeah, right. “What do you do?”
“I’m a writer.” I wanted to see where this was leading.
“Fantastic! I’m an artist.”
“Yes. My studio is right there.” He pointed. “Let me show you.”
Following this fellow, I was led into a small souvenir shop jammed with miniature pyramids, sphinxes, cats, nefertitties, pharaonic icons luridly painted on supposedly papyrus and body oils with exotic or concupiscent names, such as you’d find in American ghettoes. There’s none tagged “Barack Obama,” however.
“Would you like a cup of coffee?”
Uncapping Cleopatra’s Secret, he held it to my nose. “Nice?”
“It’s for at night,” he grinned.
For most contemporaries, Cleopatra doesn’t conjure up Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra or Dryden’s All For Love, but a naked Elizabeth Taylor submerged to her cleavage in a sumptuous marble bathtub, or getting a voluptuous back rub. That queen, too, is history, for “Golden lads and girls all must, as chimney-sweepers, come to dust,” wrote some antisemitic white dude. Don’t read him!
This Cairo man was an exceedingly minor hustler. In Skopje, North Macedonia, I ran into a very short man who was wandering around wearing a USA cap. In perfect, accent-free and colloquial English, he explained that he had just been robbed by five Gypsies in Ohrid. Though they had taken his IDs, three credit cards, $40, new iPhone and passport, he still had a wallet, first red flag, which he pulled out to show me a photo of an exceedingly gorgeous blonde in a US Army uniform, second red flag. As if to explain why he was so tiny, he said he had been a jockey in Louisville for three years, where he saw nine other jockeys die in violent wrecks, third red flag. As if to snuff out suspicions he wasn’t really a Yank, he said he could name all “44 US presidents, with even their middle names,” and he actually rattled them off, in order, as we were walking along the Vardar. I’m not going to nitpick and say there were actually 45 American prezzes, but the final red flag was when he said his father owned 50 industrial supply stores, one in every state, and that’s just ridiculous, amigo. Still, it was a very impressive performance, so when he asked for $10 halfway through, to get the cheapest hotel room until his wife sends him cash the next morning, I readily coughed up. Plus, there was an outside chance he was genuine, for he hadn’t mentioned the 50 stores in 50 states. Hell, it would be disgraceful to deny a fellow American in trouble ten lousy bucks.
Searching for Stella, I serendipitously discovered Horreya, so that’s where I am now, having my first beer in more than three weeks, a personal record. Stella is Egypt’s only beer brand. First brewed in 1897, it’s a respectable lager, just a notch below Beer Lao. The only other choice is Heineken, so no, thanks.
Horreya is a tall ceilinged, spacious room with long-stemmed, three-bladed ceiling fans and large, multi-paneled windows, so you can clearly hear car horns and motorcycle vooms above the low roar of conversations. There’s no music, thankfully. The hummus-colored walls are decorated with shaped mirrors and a sign from nearly a century ago, “Votre Boisson PRÉFÉRÉ/ VIMTO.” The light is naked neon, such as you find at bus stations.
There’s a tin ashtray at each table. After spitting on the floor, a nattily dressed young man rubbed out the sputum with his shoe. The waiter patrols the floor with bottles ready to be dispensed, and adroitly opened with a quick flick of his wrist. Most patrons are men. Just now, though, some matronly broad just ambled past me. Ten feet away sits a fierce eyed, sharp chinned and tightly smiling beauty, with her cigarette, beer and bearded, prematurely balding boyfriend.
Behind a square column are two joined tables of possible Americans, judging not just by their faces, but body language. Pudgy and pasty, they may be professors at the American University here, but who knows? Perhaps they’re Cornhusker offensive linemen from the mid-80’s, here on a quirky reunion. “Hey dudes, let’s go to Cairo!”
“Man, that’s just a pissy little village! My sister lives right on the corner of Mecca and Alexandria, near the Baptist Church. There ain’t nothing in Cairo but the Medina Coffee Shop…”
“I don’t mean Cairo, Nebraska, dumbshit! I mean Cairo, Egypt!” So here they are.
An Egyptian Mau lurks, frowns, eyes you with hope and resentment then bounces away. In Muslim countries, stray dogs don’t wander indoors, but cats do. In Cairo, I spot them often inside metro stations, sometimes nibbling from small plates. At Istanbul’s Hagia Sophia, I encountered meowing pussies, licking themselves most indecorously.
Horreya means liberty, by the way, and that’s apt, for it is an oasis of license in a culture that generally shuns alcohol. The Koran (2:219), “They ask you about intoxicants and gambling. Say, ‘There is gross sin in them, and some benefits for people, but their sinfulness outweighs their benefit.’” True enough, so get shitfaced responsibly, and don’t gamble.
For 1,375 years, Egypt has been Muslim, but not entirely, for there are significant Christian communities here, with beautiful, well-maintained churches, 500 in Cairo alone, some of them huge.
For thousands of years before the Muslim conquest, Egyptians downed more beer than Bavarians, Brits, Koreans or whomever else you could think of. In fact, they were one of the first brewers. The oldest large-scale brewery anywhere was in Nekhen, Egypt. In 3600BC, it cranked out the equivalence of 650 bottles a day. In 2580BC, a laborer at the Giza Pyramids was allotted four to five liters of beer daily. (When I was housepainting in Philly, our boss, Joe, only gave us one bottle of Samuel Adams at quitting time!)
Egyptian men, women and children all drank beer, for it was deemed nutritious. Beer was also used in medicines. During their annual Festival of Drunkenness, Egyptians whooped it up all night, complete with orgies, it’s claimed. Trashed, they sloshed through the marshes, so to speak, without clothes.
Now, alcohol is no longer available in most of Egypt, and with its few bars, Cairo is much drier than, say, Beirut or Istanbul. It’s also more conservatively dressed. To chance upon flowing female hair is a luxury and, one starts to feel, obscene privilege.
As an outsider, I have no right to suggest Egypt should be anything but itself, but there’s an internal squabble here, with public intellectuals assassinated, and even tourists massacred. There’s an element that wants all foreign influences purged.
Denounced as an apostate, the popular author and magazine columnist Farag Foda was murdered in 1992 by militant Islamists. In 1994, the only Arab Nobelist in literature, Naguib Mahfouz, was stabbed in the neck, also by a Muslim fanatic. In custody, the would-be-assassin lamented his failure to shout, “Allahu akbar,” during the attack, thus sparing the 82-year-old novelist’s life.
In 1997, 62 tourists were killed in Luxor. Fifty-eight were foreign, with Switzerland losing 36 people. In 2014, a suicide bomber walked onto a bus about to enter Israel. Killing himself, he also murdered three South Korean tourists and the Egyptian driver. In 2015, a Russian plane blew up shortly after taking off from Sharm El Sheikh, killing all 224 aboard. With ISIS immediately claiming responsibility, one may wonder if it’s really Uncle Sam butchering Russians? In 2018, a tour bus in Giza hit a roadside bomb, killing three Vietnamese visitors and an Egyptian guide.
No Egyptian city has ever been more cosmopolitan than Alexandria. In fact, it was the greatest city on earth, though a Greek one, mostly. Writing in the 1st century BC, Diodorus Siculus noted, “The city in general has grown so much in later times that many reckon it to be the first city of the civilized world, and it is certainly far ahead of all the rest in elegance and extent and riches and luxury.”
From Ptolemy, Cleopatra, Euclid and Plotinus of ancient times, to the modern poet Constantine Cavafy, nearly all the greatest Alexandrians were Greek, and in 1940, there were still 250,000 Greeks in that city.
After gaining power in 1956, Nasser expelled nearly all Greeks, Turks, Jews, Armenians and Italians. With all those non-Egyptians gone, the most visible alien population remaining are sub-Saharan Africans.
Lawrence Durrell arrived in Alexandria in 1942, and his three years there yielded his magnum opus, The Alexandria Quartet. Right on the first page, Durrell sums up Alexandria most memorably, “Five races, five languages, a dozen creeds: five fleets turning through their greasy reflections behind the harbour bar. But there are more than five sexes and only demotic Greek seems to distinguish among them.”
Yet even then, Alexandria was decayed. Durrell, “What is resumed in the word Alexandria? In a flash my mind’s eye shows me a thousand dust-tormented streets. Flies and beggars own it today—and those who enjoy an intermediate existence between either.” Let’s pause here. Alexandria, he’s saying, is for those who enjoy an intermediate existence between flies and beggars!
With a few upticks, it has been a long decline from the Pharos Lighthouse, Library of Alexandria and the Mouseion, a process that accelerated after the Arab conquest of 642. Though initially merciful and tolerant, General Amr unleashed his wrath on Alexandria after its inhabitants got Constantine to send 300 warships to retake this gem.
In any case, Arabs have never valued Alexandria as highly as the Greeks, Romans, English or French. In The Rise and Fall of Alexandria, E. M. Forster explains, “The Arabs were anything but barbarians; their own great city of Cairo is a sufficient answer to that charge. But their civilisation was Oriental and of the land; it was out of touch with the Mediterranean civilisation that has evolved Alexandria.”
After two visits to Alexandria, I can confirm that it is a real dump. Its main train station is in disrepair, and just about every building downtown is rotting, with some collapsing years ago, and just left as is. Crude wooden shacks or concrete cabins are slapped on top of grand edifices once gorgeous. Just two blocks from the ocean, thus still prime real estate, I’d think, a street is already puddled, pebbled and garbage flecked dirt.
In chi-chi Sidi Gaber, there are more fastfood joints, chic eateries and English on signs, but if anything, it’s even uglier than downtown, for it has no character or charm. Even its mosques are hideous. Advertisements for its condos inevitably feature the palest faces in Egypt, for such whitebread can’t be found on the streets here, or even in Cairo bars. There’s a beauty salon for men.
As I’ve already said, much of Cairo is also falling apart, but it’s infused with tax money, and also cash from tourists. As with London, Paris, Rome or Tokyo, etc., foreigners tend to flock to the capital. The Giza Pyramids and Sphinx are also nearby. Alexandria has no equivalent pull.
You’d think a seaside city not far from Cairo would attract tons of domestic tourists on weekends, but ocean swimming and sunbathing aren’t big here. To maintain their modesty, women don’t shed but put on extra clothing before entering the water. To prevent their shape from showing through their soaked abaya, they wear pants underneath.
After my last article, one “Alfred” commented, “Alexandria was a beautiful Greek city. The Greeks of Alexandria were vastly richer and more cultured than the Greeks of Athens. As a kid, I went to some of their houses. They were like palaces on a hill with big gardens and overlooking the Mediterranean. Like the best of the Côte d’Azur. Their kids spoke 4 languages—Arabic, Greek, Italian and French. I felt like a peasant next to them.”
That Alexandria and those Greeks are gone, and so is Alfred and most other Egyptians of his class. In his magisterial Cairo: The City Victorious, Max Rodenbeck clues us in, “One summer morning in 1961, many an ex-pasha was to spill his Turkish coffee on reading the headlines in Al-Ahram. To finance the march to socialism, the government had just made it practically illegal to own assets worth more than £10,000. Anything in excess of this amount, whether it be a Garden City villa or a stake in the Cairo Electric Tramways Company, was to be seized. Four thousand of Egypt’s richest families were ruined.”
Even worse than the number of victims of this state robbery is the precedence it set. To accumulate wealth in Egypt became a foolish gamble. With enterprise snuffed out, only corruption remained, and it was best to transfer your cash overseas.
Rodenbeck also points out that in 1996, Egyptian-born Americans were the most highly educated among immigrants, with an astounding 60% having college degrees.
With its bias, and often diatribes, against overachievers, socialism has always tamped down or chased out the best, a process I saw in my native Vietnam. It’s also happening in the US. Take the dumb down policies at Thomas Jefferson High School in Alexandria, Virginia, for example. (It’s my alma mater, by the way, though I went there before it became elite.)
Had a Martian landed in either Cairo or Alexandria, and like me, spent a month walking around everywhere, he would conclude that a good percentage of urban Egyptians had lived in pretty decent houses, with some dwelling in magnificent ones. In recent decades, they must have fallen on very hard times, however, because most of these homes now look like shit.
The Martian is only partially correct, for there’s a key, hidden reason for this appalling deterioration. Thanks to rent control, another popular socialist policy, many Egyptians pay less than a buck a month for rent, you read that right, with some coughing up just 23 cents, less than for a cup of tea here. Though rent control was abolished in 1996, about 1.5 million Egyptians still enjoy “old rent” contracts.
Seen through Marxist lens, landlords are just bloodsuckers, you see, and so are all industrialists and successful businessmen. At least in Egypt, they haven’t looted mom-and-pops to grab payback, as they’ve often done in you-know-where.
As brainy Egyptians flee to the West, common laborers flood east to the Gulf States. There, they can make a few bucks while soaking up Wahhabism, to be brought home to further restore Egypt to the 7th century. Egyptian television and movies, a shadow of themselves, have also been tailored to accommodate Gulf States esthetics and ethics, for that’s where the money is.
On my first trip to Alexandria, I got back to Cairo on the wrong train, for foreigners aren’t supposed to ride third-class. After it clanked and chugged into the station, I pressed onboard like everybody else. As a mass of meat and bones, we raped that door.
It proved unnecessary, since there were no seats to be had, and everyone got on. Since it was so packed, ticket inspection was impossible, so all who got off by the second stop rode for free. There was also the option of riding outside the train.
Every square foot was taken by passengers standing or sitting, and on the luggage racks, several people lounged or slept. Despite this density, hawkers selling drinks or snacks still managed to muscle their way through. All windows were grimy, with many cracked, and it appeared no surface had been cleaned for months, if ever, but so what. With all doors open, the views were generously splendid.
Just before Damanhour, the train thinned out enough for me to find a seat, and everything was lovely, but then the conductor kicked me off. Though I couldn’t understand anything he said, he was polite and smiling. It was clear he was quite amused to find such an idiot on his watch.
In Damanhour, too, I met some lovely people.
Reprinted with the author’s permission.
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