It really has little to do with what a place has to offer, and more to do with what you bring to and take from it; after all, everyone travels with baggage and picks up souvenirs along the way.
I first visited Alexandria in 1993. The locals called it Xandraia. Phonetically pronounced: Scan-dray-a.
I believe kismet had a little to do with it, but mostly I wanted to see what I was getting myself into as I made plans to marry my dear love and son of her shores. The notion of making new ties with exotic Egypt and then tying the knot was all very romantic, but then again he had romanticized California and its beach babe mythos. We all bring our preconceptions to a place and its people. I did, as I pictured a glamorous and cosmopolitan Alexandria. I was a generation too late for this Hollywood inspired vision, but it didn’t stop me from embracing it as a flawed fantasy and him as my soulmate.
Fast forward and I am now on my third visit to Egypt. History is calling this, “post revolution Egypt,” not to be confused with the preceding post revolution Egypt of 1952, in which Nasser overthrew the monarchy and ushered in an era of socialism. Now, in 2011, there’s been another revolution. It’s ended Mubarak’s perpetual presidency and left Egypt a little disheveled. But has there ever been a revolution that left things tidy? The Arab spring has sprung! Now, Egypt is in for a long, hot summer. Summer in this region is its own kind of hell with humidity averaging 70%. Couple that with the heat emanating from Egypt’s impassioned, new revolutionaries, and by that I mean everybody, and you’ve got enough “hot” up in here to cook up some shit. I mean that in the broadest sense, because cooking in the streets was tons of neighborhood garbage to be handled by the supposed government that was no longer in commission; also cooking were volatile rivalries, religious tensions, passions, and general pissyness. The shit was piling up everywhere and beginning to stink.
My husband and I stayed on Cleopatra Hamamat in his family’s 800 square foot flat—this flat once housed his father, mother, four other siblings, and assorted guests. These were cramped quarters that would have had me revolting long before the Arab spring, but with just the two of us and within the limitations of a month long visit, it was doable. His siblings had long ago dispersed with their respective families to apartments or flats within Alexandria. One sister was the exception; she lived with her family in Cairo. That sister had a front row seat to what most of the world saw of the televised revolution. She was near enough to Tahrir Square that her photogenic 20 year old became CNN Headline News’ featured image. Her 20 year old was just a bystander flanked by a few friends, but the excitement of an entire nation shined on her face. I guess she fit the cameraman’s notion of how the world should see the revolution: wholesome and youthful—a united people: Christian and Muslim. In reality and not captured was the fact that the youth, young women in particular, were the most vulnerable during this time. The role of law enforcement was unraveling at almost the same time that picture was taken. Tahrir Square among other frequented places changed face. Women didn’t join the residual demonstrations and this was prudent and self-imposed. There was lawlessness. You didn’t hear about that on CNN. Harassment, stalking, and rape were local news better left to the locals. Her CNN photo captured one carefree moment that swiftly disappeared with each outstanding protest demand. The protests were like a stream of aftershocks that follow a quake. Each tremor marked freedom lost to the entire family unit. Fathers, sons, and brothers weren’t free because they had to take care in escorting mothers, daughters, and sisters safely here and there. Mothers, daughters, and sisters weren’t free because the threat upon their safety molested activities they’d once taken for granted. Free Egypt in the months that followed the revolution was not free. Governance was not always clear cut, and where it was, it was not always respected. Egypt’s inhabitants were almost as confused as all of us watching, and there were factions that took advantage of this. But, it wasn’t newsworthy, at least not globally, and certainly not for the American market. Democratic triumph sells news, democracy doesn’t. Democracy is messy. It’s time consuming. Nobody had that kind of time, which meant less and less of Egypt was heard about in the news.
Hundreds of stories that never made global news swirled around in Egypt’s post-revolution. The Imbaba Incident was one of them. Imbaba led to similar incidents elsewhere, one of which was brewing at the time of our visit and right on our neighborhood hamamat. Witnessing it unfold made an impression on me that’s tucked away somewhere in my baggage.
I joked that a visit to Alexandria was for me, business. I wasn’t particularly fond of feeling like I was in a sauna fully clothed, nor was I fond of the crowded, smoke-filled airport, or the predatory cab drivers. My husband didn’t like this either, but he was my (our) first line of defense against it. After all this was his home town—he almost moved through it as fluidly as I moved through San Francisco. More than twenty years an expatriate had slowed his flow, but not so much as to render him a fish out of water.
Before landing, we’d agreed that I would be silent several meters before we approached any transaction, monetary or otherwise. We were trying to do this visit on the cheap, and if overheard, my American accent would immediately change his negotiating leverage. He had the advantage of being both a Xandraia boy and a Nubian, which in Egypt could write us some free tickets. Xandraians were thought of as the scrappiest of all Egyptians, and his strategy for making me less conspicuous proved this out. They were also Egypt’s darlings because of their uniquely Alexandrian twist on speaking. Their dialect was an oasis within Egypt’s uniquely spoken Arabic, Egyptian-Arabic, which itself was an oasis that was recognizably different in the Arabic language spoken by Arabs and their neighbors. Nubians have their own language that until recent history was unwritten. They’re known for trustworthiness among other virtues, one of which my husband claims is not being Arab or Egyptian (yes, Nubians have nationalistic aspirations). So, here you had an honest home-boy negotiating cab fare in the sweltering heat while the exhaust pipe stirred dust around my kicks. I waited at the curb staring past the cabby whose sideways glances strained to read some nationality on my face. I didn’t smile pleasantly or grant him access through acknowledgement; doing this would have been a dead give-away. All things considered, our fare was 30 pounds which included all the bags. I later found that this was far less than fellow passengers could barter when trying to secure a cab leaving from the same point.
I never wore anything finer than jeans and a t-shirt. My t-shirts were devoid of anything that would point to me as other, let alone American. Hubby was as nondescript as me, but this wasn’t a stretch for us: it was tandem to our simple California style. We were here to see his family—a summer visit—like I said, just business.
The first week we sat in the flat with relatives crammed up in there like popcorn kernels and caramel all stuck in your teeth; all come to call. Thankfully they’d usually bring something along to share. I, of course, was expected to supply the infinite flow of tea and gracious welcomes—fair enough. Naturally, you can’t have tea without sugar, or is it the other way around in Egypt? “Shrabti chai?” Translation: “Would you like tea?” Observational insight: “Would you like some tea with that cup of sugar?”
By week number two we had to replenish the sugar and a few other things. Instead of going to the small neighborhood markets, we decided to take up my brother-in-law’s invitation to drive to Carrefour. Translated from French it means crossroads. Now, if you’ve never before heard of Carrefour (and I hadn’t), the multinational hypermarket built to rival Walmart and Costco, then you’re in for a surprise. It was as conspicuously out of place as were the McDonald’s, KFC, and Starbucks we passed along the way. The drive took us south, approximately thirty minutes. We were outside of the city to the extent we passed an occasional farmer on a donkey or other juxtaposed remnants of Egypt’s waning past.
My brother-in-law, emulating a little western ostentation, parked his air-conditioned, SUV-sized vehicle as close to the entrance as possible. We all piled out and waded through the outdoor sauna in order to reach our reward—a newly built, fully refrigerated luxury mall out in the middle of nowhere. There were small stores that sold bed linens, trinkets and the like. There were medium sized stores that sold Payless-like shoes and an endless supply of sandals. But the focal point was Carrefour, with its automatic sliding doors and spritely uniformed cashiers.
It was surreal compared to my last Egyptian visit. That visit had me buying sugar from a burly vendor in a market adorned with hanging carcasses. I waved my arm to part the thin kinetic veil—it was flies. Past this, I found what looked like boxed rations predating the British occupation, among them was sugar. When everything, including the sugar box smells like lamb shank, you just turn and walk away.
Carrefour was a doppelgänger for some Silicon Valley futurescape—the sugar was safely separate from meat and poultry by several aisles. In this I felt some assurance that Montezuma could not take revenge on me this time from something like salmonella tainted sugar.
Late that afternoon we got back to the flat. We’d procured the necessary sugar, supplies, and even tons of take-out. So, we set up to partake, and some neighbors arrived on top of all who were already there—such was the custom. One must leave the door open for family, friends, and neighbors. “Yalla!” “Fuddel.” Translation: “Come eat!” Cultural insight: You can never be tired, inhospitable, or without food—there is no cultural precedent for turning someone away, nor is there a translation for, “Gimme some space.” I wasn’t particularly fond of this cultural imposition, but we were all there, so why not just go with it.
Some guests huddled at the table, and by virtue of the fact that a couple of older women sat there, the table became the place where the women gathered. Some guests sat in the living room area hunched over a plate in their lap, these were the men—they gravitated there, and a couple of 20-somethings sat cross-legged on the threadbare carpet. I got the pass to be less participatory and sit anywhere, because I was the foreigner and I could always feign ignorance.
Imbaba lies northwest of Cairo’s Nile Corniche, an expressway running along the east bank of the Nile. So, if you’re travelling the length of Egypt north to south or vice versa, chances are you’ve passed right by Imbaba. It’s a poor and working class district whose administrators have basically turned a blind eye to overcrowding, neighborhood skirmishes, its crumbling infrastructure, and the fact that it’s lacking basic services. Imbaba is a dormant powder keg that has been neglected too long. So, it wasn’t surprising that the 2011 incident detonated its fuse.
Hubby’s family and the guests had nicely polished off the take-out. Some were settling back in their chairs. I had timed the tea kettle perfectly and began working my way from table to chair… “Shrabti Chai?” “Shraba Chai?”
One of our guests at the table lamented that the neighborhood climate had changed.
After the Tahrir Square uprising and after a brief honeymoon between Christians and Muslims; clashes reappeared. News of fire and destruction in Imbaba and Muslim attacks on Christians was first reported by the BBC. Muslims attacking Christians, Christian persecution, and the Christian minority; this stuff sold news out west, but the news being reported was biased and didn’t tell the whole story.
My sister-in-law began rehashing some of the less publicized details.
A father lost control over his willful daughter who took it upon herself to elope with her fiancé. The boy happened to be Muslim, a Sunni. She was Coptic, Christian. The relationship she had with her father and brothers became untenable. She took refuge at Saint Mena’s, her neighborhood church. There, it is said, the priest tried to help counsel her enraged father—family counselling, basically. It was a family matter being handled privately, and this is how it should have remained. But gossip stuck its wretched nose into their business.
Eyewitnesses interviewed by Egypt’s official Mena news agency reported that hundreds of conservative Muslims, Salafists, gathered in front of Saint Mena in response to a rumor that alleged the church had kidnapped a Muslim woman and was holding her captive. Their protests turned into accusations that Christians are kidnapping Muslim women elsewhere. Church guards, protesters, and neighbors living nearby, all began hurling accusations at one another. Then the words got physical and it escalated into a full-fledged riot. There was stone throwing, shooting, and firebombing. The church and homes around it caught fire. Then western news agencies took notice.
A Reuter’s journalist quoted a Christian man as saying, “I just left one young man dead inside the church.”
AFP news reported that Father Hermina, a parish priest, had complained Salafists attempted to storm the church earlier that day. But, AFP also reported that a Muslim protester said Copts initiated the violence by firing upon them first. The protester identified himself as Mamduh. He said, “We were peaceful and therefore won’t leave until they give up their weapons and the people who killed us are tried.”
By all accounts this incident led to five dead and at least 50 wounded.
Elsewhere in the same district, Muslim protesters firebombed al-Azraa church. Although no one was injured, the church was set on fire and in the end was severely damaged.
Ironically we each sat there sipping tea, processing this story differently. I was sure mine would be the minority opinion, but the over bearing father looked like the catalyst to me. In reference to him, there was that one detail my sister-in-law failed to mention; the fact that the girl had been coerced into marrying a Christian. The fact that she didn’t bother to dissolve the marriage before eloping complicated matters. But I of all people, can’t blame a girl for wanting a little romance. The local news discovered this tidbit soon after the incident, but tucked it so far away from the front page that by the time global news picked it up, it was simply forgotten.
I lived lovingly in an intercultural/interfaith relationship and had experienced first-hand the daggers that meddlesome interlopers cast upon it. So, analysis of the Imbaba incident left a distinct impression on me. Further investigations found that even before Imbaba, Salafist groups had claimed Christians were kidnapping Muslim women. This was actually a thing with them. They used the allegation to influence political opinion and incite mob violence. Basically, they co-opted a private family matter to ignite religious infighting. It was all smoke and mirrors. People died under similar circumstances when neighborhood demonstrators in the southern city of Qena cut transportation to and from Cairo. This lasted a week. They were protesting the appointment of a Christian governor. Bigotry such as this was often unchallenged because Coptic Christians only make up 10% of Egypt’s total population.
The final analysis proved that Salafist’s tactics had less to do with religion and more to do with a political power grab.
Post revolution, we saw tensions boil between Mubarak sympathizers, proponents of democracy, and disparate Egyptian ideals of all kinds. Salafists pushed for a sectarian Egypt, wherein government would ill represent minorities like Copts and women. The Muslim Brotherhood, who had always had a presence that was silenced under Mubarak, seemed liberal leaning compared to the Salafists. Like the Salafists, they wished to “Islamize” Egypt, but were political enough to present themselves otherwise. They were able to drum up support from an Egyptian majority and from countries outside Egypt. Most Sunni’s favored a secular, western-style government, but the mention of anything remotely western was wildly unpopular. Launching a campaign and candidate that could sustain a long-term political fight challenged Sunni moderates—they were like chess players without a game piece. Although Egypt had an appetite for freedom, it had no historic model for channeling freedom into a democracy.
The politics behind Imbaba would have made for lively conversation, but instead the conversation remained focused on the neighborhood climate and other personal observations. It was the neighbor initiating this talk. She was an older woman with a black hijab tightly wrapped around her face. It girdled in her cheeks and brow so that her severe kohl liner punctuated her penetrating eyes. She said, “The young people have too much freedom, freedom this, freedom, that.” I took it to mean she would have favored that the father had prevailed in the Imbaba story. Preponderant parenting. Two of the other women murmured, “Mmmm” just enough to signify a generational acknowledgement without taking sides. You could almost sense they knew this was the continuation of an earlier argument. Then one of the 20 year olds that had come in with the woman spoke up. She addressed the woman as taunt, an endearment with a smidgeon of deference, used when speaking to female elders. “If you consider Mubarak to be like the father in Imbaba, and his daughter to be like Egypt, then you already know the outcome.”
Hubby sat out on the porch. He’d devised a routine of this at nightfall which gave neighborhood men the chance to see him there and join him on passing. No one had passed, so I talked to him from back behind the screen and inside the flat. The embers from his cigarette glowed along with the ratty hanging lights, white laundry, and backdrop of tenement windows. The fan was directly behind me keeping the smell of smoke and sewage outside where it belonged. Noises from every imaginable source floated through the air: animated conversations in Arabic, shouts, arguments, television, music blasting, dogs barking, children, up way too late, whining…
A sound obfuscated all others.
I jumped like a cat on the fourth of July.
Hubby ducked down and scooted in through the door on his butt. I had to laugh, but this was no laughing matter. We eyed one another at the same time, saying, “Damn.” Somebody in the neighborhood or maybe even right there on our hamamat had shot off a gun. My husband motioned as if he might have ventured back outside to see who’d collected in the street, but I looked at him sideways. “Are you crazy?”
We locked up and called it a night.
It was already Friday. It seemed like the Adhan just played louder on Fridays. I’d been there long enough to expect one north of us from the direction of Safwat Monsoor; one loud, but slightly less jarring, five blocks to the south on Bilal Hamamat near Sidi Gaber; and one that sang brightly from our devout neighbor’s kitchen window. Friday prayer and the fellowshipping that followed it was more useful than visiting a syndicated newsroom, you got your headlines, feature stories, and op-eds live and unedited. So, off Hubby went with his brothers and their boys.
I kept my Christian profile low, not because of the Muslims that I lived with, but because an experience during my previous visit had made me a little wary of Christians abroad. The cultural differences took me outside my comfort zone and I found people, both Christian and Muslim invested far more of themselves in religious identity than people I ran with in the U.S. Hubby’s aunt had a friend, however, that was Christian. Her name was Teresa. Auntie and Teresa were said to have been inseparable, in fact, she’d been around family so often when we’d visited that I had come to know her quite well. She had tea with me while everyone was at the masjid. I got quite an earful.
Teresa said with a little bit of mish-mashed English, “Reza been taking care of her daughter friend, Catrine.” I furled my brow trying to recall Reza, then it came to me, Reza was the woman with the punctuated eyes. I shrugged my shoulders. Teresa went on, “Catrine want to run away from her own home.” It seems Catrine was the product of an abusive home. What kind of abuse I’ll never know, but this time my brow was furled because abuse of any kind was just cause for it. Reza’s generosity in this matter changed my impression of her. Based on what I’d heard from her earlier, I was sincerely surprised she had stepped up to help the girl and didn’t mistake her seeking refuge for seeking freedom. I took this revelation about Reza to heart. It became one of my travel souvenirs. I told Teresa, “I didn’t think Reza had it in her, but I’m glad of it.” Then Teresa rightly defended her, saying, “Alaa! She rested one arm across her midsection. The other arm was lying perpendicular on her chest. She sighed, and planting her chin on the back of her hand, said, “She does, but she scared.” This time I raised my brow.
The men at the masjid were animated to put it mildly. It seems that the gunshot that rang out through the neighborhood was tied back to Catrine’s situation. Her father asserted that Reza had kidnapped his daughter. A group of hot-heads wanted to storm out from the masjid and make a bigger deal out of it than warranted. This is what Hubby reported to me after returning to the flat. I shook my head, “That’s how shit happens.” He looked at me knowingly.
We were due to fly out a day later and not a moment too soon. Police had confronted the father about the gunshot, but not until most of the windows of his home had been stoned. All of his actual neighbors were appalled by the vandalism. There were younger children in the house when this happened, and it felt like déjà vu.
I hoped to God that Reza and her daughter would be left alone to do what was right for Catrine, but the immediate prospects looked grim. Concerned men calling themselves “neighbors” had infiltrated the hamamat. It sadly proved that every major city has its Imbaba.
So, now my baggage is packed, laden with hope for the vulnerable and for Xandraia.