February 6, 2013

Burmese Days

Few countries have been enshrouded in such mystery in recent years as Burma/Myanmar (the name was officially changed by the military government in 1989). From a distance one reads of the secretive military dictatorship clamping down on all form of protest and almost isolating the country; the protest of the Buddhist monks against price rises in 2008 when some 31 monks were killed; the long house arrests of Aung San Suu Kyi (The Lady), leader of the National League for Democracy (NLD), from 1990 to 1995, 2000 to 2002, and 2003 to 2010, initially after the elections which the NLD won in 1990 were declared null and void. She was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, and now, after her release in November 2010, is wined and dined by world leaders, Hillary Clinton, David Cameron, and especially Barack Obama. She is very much a President-in-Waiting, and photos of her and her father, Aung San, are on sale on every street corner.

Aung San was the leader of the Burmese independence movement during the period of the Second World War. He first received military training in Japan, but then switched the allegiance of the Burmese army to the British in March 1945, helping the British to prevail over the Japanese two months later. In January 1947 he negotiated an independence agreement with Britain, and then his party, the Anti-fascist People’s Freedom League, won an overwhelming victory in the ensuing elections, but in July 1947 he and six colleagues were gunned down. There followed successive military dictatorships while the economy, once one of the wealthiest in Asia, disintegrated.

The military party won the 2010 election, boycotted by the NLD, and considered fraudulent by many, but, surprisingly for many, has introduced a number of liberal measures, granting amnesties to more than 200 political prisoners, introducing new labour laws that allow unions and strikes, relaxing of press censorship, and allowing the currency to float. Economic sanctions have been lifted by Europe and North America, Aung San Suu Kyi now said she hoped foreigners would now visit Myanmar, and the flood of tourists began…

Myanmar is in! The snowbirds come to escape the drudgery of the European and North American winters. And the tourist infrastructure can hardly cope. Hotels at twice the price I find in the Lonely Planet Guide are difficult to find, and plane reservations are tricky.

The tourists come for the culture shock; the quirks: men in skirts, rather longhis, the standard masculine attire here. To ride in cars with a right-hand drive, as in the UK, but you drive on the right-hand side of the road, as in Europe and the Americas – in 1970 the government decided to further distance itself from the colonial past by driving on the right – but continued to import old Japanese cars (Japan drives on the left). And for security reasons, no motor bikes may circulate in Yangon.

And bring a full bag of dollars, and only fresh clean greenbacks, for anything creased and old and dirty is not accepted. It is a country where ATMs are in their early infancy, and forget about credit cards, Macdonalds and Starbucks. And only 5% of the population own a mobile phone, one of the lowest percentages in the world. The tourists come for the smells and crush of the markets, the cheap gifts, the remarkable lack of hassle despite the poverty, the temples and stupas, and to see the male and female monks in their crimson robes holding their begging bowls. It is a country which is still in the 20th century, where you can smoke almost everywhere, where you don’t bother about a seatbelt, where you even get a paper non-virtual hard copy airline ticket, and in the most important airport in the country your luggage is weighed on a set of 1960s Avery scales, in pounds and stones, of course – I remember stretching up to put a penny in the slot of one of them to see if I’d already reached six stone in 1964. 

But things are rapidly changing. I read that the price of SIM cards has come down from $600 to $100, and, by the proliferation of mobile phone shops, it looks as if they are much much cheaper. ATMs seem to be springing up. Motor bikes may be allowed into Yangon. The carpetbaggers have already been and gone. The price of lands has risen rapidly; the number of business visitors rose 64% in 2012. China is building an oil and pipeline right through Myanmar. And Thailand, Japan, the US, France, the UK and Germany are all important stakeholders in the new Myanmar.

As a result of the three Anglo-Burmese wars, 1824, 1853, and 1885, the Burmese kings were defeated, and all of Burma became part of the British Empire. Chinese and Indian immigration to Burma was encouraged. In central Yangon and Mandalay there is a large Indian population, with both Hindu temples and Muslim mosques, and the Chinese population in Yangon is beginning to celebrate New Year.

Burma was not a popular colonial posting for British officials, many of whom were insensitive to local traditions, especially that of taking off their shoes to enter temples. Eric Blair (aka George Orwell) worked as colonial policeman in Katha, in Northern Myanmar, and his dislike of Burma, colonial officials, British wheelers and dealers, and also the Burmese themselves, is clear in his novel Burmese Days. Indeed, this experience of the colonial was to a large extent responsible for turning him into a socialist.

But the Brits left a number of buildings in Yangon, which give it a colonial air: the dark red, or crimson brick Post & Telegraph building next to the Law Courts in a similar style; the classical Customs House, the colonnaded Inland Water Transport Office, and the exclusive classical Strand Hotel. And right in the centre of city is the huge and dilapidated also dark red brick Colonial Secretariat Building. Indeed, it seems that the dark red brick style caught on as a number of recent buildings have followed it.

Unlike some of my colonial predecessors, in the temples I do take off my socks and shoes and wear a longhi over my shorts, and in the Shwedagon Paya, dating back to 1485, I walk in the clockwise direction of all the visitors. The proliferation of the elaborately roofed pointed pavilions, the many Buddhas in their temples, and their followers and disciples is overwhelming. My Lonely Planet waxes lyrical: “You emerge from semi-gloom into a dazzling explosion of technicoloured glitter, for Shwedagon is not just one huge, glowing zedi (stupa). Around the mighty stupa cluster an incredible assortment of smaller zedi, statues, temples, shrines, images and tazaung (small pavilions). Somehow, the bright gold of the main stupa makes everything else seem brighter and larger than life” (p.45).

This is the big tourist attraction of all Myanmar, and we take our pictures and mingle with the locals, who are here praying, burning incense, meeting their friends, doing their homework, picnicking, for the visit to the temple is a family outing, to escape for a while from the cramped living conditions of most Burmese.

Last Days in Egypt

January 31, 2009

I spend my last two days in Egypt. I contract a taxi to take me to see the Step Pyramid at Saqqara, the first pyramid ever built, in 2650 BCE. We cross the bridge over the Nile and are soon passing the fields where small farmers and their families are tending their plot of land and selling oranges, strawberries, peppers, onions by the side of the road. They are from a rural community, where marriages would be arranged, where female circumcision is the norm, and where a girl who does not marry virgin may become an outcast. In Khat Khaal: Five Egyptian Women Tell Their Stories, (Nayra Atiya, American University in Cairo, 1984), women from working-class backgrounds, both rural and urban, both Coptic Christian and Muslim, talk about the circumcision ceremonies, carried out when they were seven or eight, by the women of their village, in order for them not to become too lustful in the future. And the tradition on the bridal night, when their husband would wrap a piece of gauze around his middle finger, break his bride’s hymen, and then exhibit the bloody gauze to the families.

Then the carpet factories spring up, and then the tourist coaches, and we arrived at the step pyramid, the first of the series of pyramids to be built at ancient Memphis, the first capital of the Old Egyptian Empire, where pharaohs, their families and high administrators are buried. The area was buried in sand until the mid-nineteenth century, the Step Pyramid’s funerary complex was not discovered until 1924, and very recently the mummies of three royal dentists, a royal doctor, and a royal butler were found.

Thence to the Cairo Book Fair, the largest in the Arab world. This year many of the books seem to be Islamic, and many of the visitors are wearing Islamic clothing. Many seem not to be from Egypt. There is a large marquee from Saudi Arabia. My friends in Cairo tell me that Egypt was never so religious, or at least apparently religious, as it is now. The overwhelming majority of girls were not covered, you did not hear Koranic readings throughout the day on TV, on buses and from street loudspeakers, and it used to be easy to get a drink.

But at the modern domed Cairo Opera, where I have come to see Aida, we are back in the West. No traditional Egyptian flowing galibayahs allowed here. And no Islamic clothing. You may no longer dress up to go to the opera at Covent Garden, but you do in Cairo, Ties are obligatory. A couple of fuming gringoes (not me), wearing dirty tennis shoes, are only allowed in after everyone else has taken their seats.

Earlier in the day, in the suburb of Maadhi, where I have been staying, I pick up my opera shoes and am served by a female assistant while the man who sold me the shoes is praying. I then walk a few blocks for my last glimpse of Mother Nile. The wind is coming up. It seems we are in for another sandstorm. The last one, when I was out of Cairo, stung your eyes and left a film of sand over the whole city.

A final stroll in the faded Parisian boulevards of downtown Cairo at dusk, when the crowds are out shopping or sitting in the cafes smoking their water pipes. Meeting your beloved once again in old age is how novelist Naguib Mahfuz described Cairo.

I take a taxi to the airport, where, together with Egyptian émigrés, I catch the plane to Athens which will connect with flights to Chicago, Toronto and Los Angeles. The taxi-driver reminds me of the age-old refrain: “He who drinks the waters of the Nile is destined to taste its sweetness again”.


January 30, 2009

In Port Tawfiq, a suburb of the city of Suez, I watch the ships go by. Small children are playing on the grass in the square beside the mosque. Decorous courting couples, groups of young men and girls are chatting and taking pictures of the huge tankers and container ships from Germany, Russia, Sweden, which ply their way along the Suez Canal, just some fifty metres behind them. I walk along the corniche and take pictures. The usual ” Hello, well-come”, “Where are you from?”, “What is your name?”. A group of teenagers take their picture with me. But here there is little hassle as Suez and Port Tawfiq have the canal, jobs and money and do not depend on tourists.

The Suez Crisis. 1956. The year of my birth. One of the watersheds of the 20th century. The Suez Crisis, not my birth. The building of the canal, which would secure a passage to the Indian Ocean and the Far East, was part of the modernization plan of Mohammed Ali, ruler of Egypt from 1805 to 1848, and the canal, built by under French supervision, was opened in 1869. His spendthrift son, Khedive Ismail, was forced to sell his controlling share in the canal to the British government, and then British pressure forced him to abdicate. The British presence annoyed many Egyptian army officers, and in 1882 the British army invaded Alexandria under the pretence of restoring order. The heirs of Mohammed Ali were allowed to remain on the throne as puppets, while the real power was with the British agent. Thus Egypt became a protectorate of Britain despite it being nominally part of the Ottoman Empire. Indeed, this position was made official in the First World War, as the Ottoman Empire fought on the side of Germany. In the Second World War Egypt was a strategic base for the Allied forces, and Egyptian nationalists even saw Germany as a possible liberator.

On 26 January 1952, after years of demonstrations against British rule in Egypt, Cairo was set on fire as foreign shops and businesses were torched by mobs, and symbols of British rule were destroyed. King Farouk, supported by the British, assumed that the army would support the monarchy, but he was wrong. A faction within the officers, the Free Officers, led by Colonel Gamal Abel Nasser, moved on key posts, and by the next day the monarchy had fallen.

In elections held in 1956 Nasser became President. Landowners were dispossessed, and many of their assets were nationalised. The large foreign community felt uncomfortable, and most of the Jews, Greeks, French and British left. In the same year, when Britain and the US refused to help Nasser to finance his project to build the Aswan Dam, he nationalised the symbol of western dominance, the Suez Canal, in which France and Britain were the major shareholders, with British troops patrolling its banks.

When Nasser seized control of the Suez Canal, the British Prime Minister, Sir Anthony Eden was appalled as he regarded Nasser as a dictator whose claim to represent all Arabs was a direct threat to British interests in the Middle East and was determined to make Nasser reverse his decision by force if necessary. Britain plotted with France and Israel to gain back control of the canal. Israel would invade Egypt, allowing Britain and France to issue an ultimatum to each side to stop fighting or they would intervene to “save” the canal.

The invasion took place as planned. But Eden had not informed the Americans, and when they found out, they were concerned about wider relations with the Arab world and refused to back the operation. Desperately short of funds as Britain was still paying off debts from the Second World War, and without the financial support from the Americans, the British were forced to pull out of Suez by December 1956. Eden resigned, and Nasser became a hero of the Arab world, at least until 1967, when Israel defeated Egypt in the six-day war.

It was also the end of Britain as a major power on the world stage, and from now on Britain would follow more closely the words of Winston Churchill: “We must never get out of step with the Americans – never.” By contrast, France began to distance itself from Britain and the US.

The policies of Nasser, and his successor, Anwar Sadat, were greatly influenced by the Soviet Union, and the Egyptian economy has been stagnant for a number of years. Many foreign businesses left in the 1950s, and many more highly-educated young Egyptians have left since then. Of all the groups of Egyptians in the US, the Egyptians are the most highly-qualified. In recent years many have also left to work in the newly rich Gulf States. For a while all university graduates were guaranteed a state job, resulting in an over-heavy state sector of poorly-paid office workers, who often have to depend on other forms of income.

I get an idea of this on a visit to the Central Post Office in Cairo to post some books. I am ushered behind the counter. I ask the price to send five kilos of books to the UK. A supervisor tells me about £E25 (5.5 Egyptian pounds = US$1). Another supervisor checks the books to make sure they don’t contain hashish. The packer makes up a nice parcel. I then fill in a lot of forms, and they weigh in at just under three kilos. They then go to the counter attendant, who gives me the price of express post by air, £E 251. Too expensive, I say, what about the slow mail boat. She calculates £E150, £E 15 for each kilo, and a £E95 ” expedition fee”. But I have a card in my hands, and I tell them that the other supervisor, whom they had all heard, and who has now disappeared, said £E25. The task is transferred to a younger counter assistant, who makes a fresh calculation and who arrives at £E51. This doesn’t seem too bad, so I settle on this. I grease the palms of the the packer for his splendid parcelwork with £E5 bashkeesh and say my goodbyes. The parcels arrive safely in Birmingham just a few days later.

Suez maps: http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/middle_east/5195068.stm

From Ancient Thebes

January 24, 2009

The Stendhal Syndrome is an illness which the French novelist Henri-Marie Beyle (1783 – 1842), better known as Stendhal, suffered from  when he travelled around Italy and marvelled at the churches, cathedrals, paintings, sculptures, fountains, public buildings, ruins, frescoes, and piazzas. He was worried and anxious to see everything, do all the sights, learn as much as possible, experience all the culture that Italy had to offer him. This exposure to an overload of culture may cause nausea, vomiting, nervous twitches, and may even lead to hospitalization. It frequently affects visitors to Paris, London, Rome, New York, and Ancient Thebes, called by Florence Nightingale, who likened it to the works of Shakespeare,  “the deathbed of the world”.

For Thebes was the capital of the Ancient Egyptian Kingdom, where one can find the largest religious buildings ever constructed. Just the central Hypostyle Hall in Karnak Temple, the temple to the Sun God, the God of gods, Amun-Ra, contains 134 two-metre thick pillars and is as big as St Paul’s and St. Peter’s Cathedrals put together. Karnak was added to by various Pharaohs, and a two-metre sphinx-lined road led to the other major temple on the east bank of the Nile, Luxor Temple. This sphinx-lined avenue is only now being excavated.

The temples to the giver of life, Amun-Ra, are on the east bank, and the funerary temples and tombs are on the west bank, where the sun sets. I visit the funerary temple of King Seti I, Pharaoh between 1294-1279 BCE, and see wall paintings of him with the god who will look after him on the next world: the Sun God Amun-Ra; the cow goddess, Hathor; the Goddess of Love and pleasure; Horus, the falcon God of the Sky; Isis, the Goddess of Magic; Hapy, the God of the Nile, of the flood and fertility, an androgynous figure with a head of plants; and Anubis, the jackal-headed man, the God of Mummification, who would lead the king into the next world.

I walk back to the ferry to cross over to the East Bank. Mud houses on the left, on the other side of the canal, some colourfully decorated with paintings of the ancient Egyptian gods. Children playing outside, donkeys, sheep, goats. On my right the green fields of vegetables, sugar cane, rice. Three or four kilometres away the arid hills of the desert and behind them the Valley of the Kings, the burial tombs of the Pharaohs, where  their mummified corpses were preserved in the dry sands. The most famous of them is of course Tutankhamun, the boy king who ruled between 1336 and 1327 BCE and was buried with a fabulous cache of gold and jewellry.

The Egyptian Empire reached its apogee under Tuthmosis III (reigned 1479 – 1425 BCE) and Amenhotep III (1390-1325 BCE) , when it extended from Syria to Libya and south to what is now Sudan. The warrior kings Ramses II (1279 – 1213 BCE) and Ramses III fought to hold it together.

At the funerary temple to Ramses II, the Ramessum, I see his colossal statue, some 17 metres high, which lies in pieces. A huge foot here, fingers nearby, the trunk at 45 degrees. For the Romantic poet, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822), who never actually went to Egypt, this was the image of the broken empty tyrant, the folly of vanity, which he used in one of his most famopus poems, “Ozymandias”.

I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert … Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command,
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed:
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works ye mighty and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.

Thebes, nowadays Luxor, or in Arabic Al-Uqsur, depends completely on tourism and has done so for at least a couple of centuries. Thomas Cook brought his first tourists to cruise the Nile in 1880, and the Winter Palace Hotel was built soon after. The tourists have been coming ever since to basically do the same things as we do today: visit the museums and monuments, see the mummies, get some winter sun, and take souvenirs back home.

In Luxor there are the tourists and the locals, and there is little mixing. It is Thursday night, 10 p.m.. Friday is a holiday. In the Egyptian part of town the streets are full, with people shopping, smoking waterpipes in the coffee bars, and strolling around. One alley is putting on what seems to be a children’s talent show. In a small park the merry-go-rounds are full, and a group of boys are dancing to Arab pop, The Internet cafes are full. Groups of girls walk arm-in-arm along the street. The Corniche along the Nile, by contrast, is tourist territory, with the hotels and cruisers, and the swarms of touts.

Tourism, and the weakness of the Egyptian economy, has led to a double economy here in Luxor. There is one price for tourists, and another for Egyptians. Museums and sites are from 30 to 100 Egyptian pounds (E₤) (1E₤ = US$5.5), and a tenth of this for locals. In the Internet cafes we pay four or five times as much, and drinks are double. Tourists traval by taxi and caleche, and the local minibuses are officially not allowed to transport tourists. Very few goods have a marked price. I buy an Egyptian English-language newspaper at the station. I know it costs E₤2. I am charged E₤3. I complain. “Here at the station E₤3. Besides, what is one Egyptian pound to you?” Well, he’s right. Even when you are overcharged, you’re still paying cheap. Salaries are very low. A junior civil servant may earn some US$30 a month. The caretakers at the sites, who always try to wheedle some baskeesh out of you by showing you around, would earn much less. Tips help them to survive. A E₤20 tip at the Seti Funerary Temple left the caretaker quite ecstatic.

In the Deep South of Egypt

January 20, 2009

Aswan is the deep south of Egypt, the border of Ancient Egypt, some 250km from Sudan. It is a sleepy town which very much depends on the resources coming in from the dam and from tourism. The Nile  cruisers start or finish their trip here, and tourists swarm into town and around the sights during the day and retire to the cruisers to have dinner  and  lunch. I share sunset over the Nile with three busloads of German tourists. The English  tourists complain about the cost of overpriced McVitie’s biscuits at the cafe. Many Chinese, Japanese, Russian, and Indian tourists, for these are the nouveaux riches, as well as the traditional Americans and Europeans, who started coming to Egypt when Thomas Cook started offering trips to Egypt in 1880. But it’s not a good tourist season. The credit crunch and global recession have taken their toll. The fighting in Gaza has put others off. It is supposed to be the high season, but my hotel is half-empty.

In Elephantine, ancient Egyptian Abu, so-called as it was an entrepot for ivory, a 2km long island in the middle of the Nile, I make my way through the Movenpick Hotel grounds, then come to the Nubian village. Houses are painted in orange, green, blue geometrical patterns. Some are mud brick houses, but the newer ones are concrete. I walk between the mud brick walls which separate the two villages on the island, Siou and Koti, for there are no roads on Elephantine. Children play on their bike, women are washing rice and gossiping. All are in black, veiled but none have burkhas. African faces, but many have intermarried with Arabs. They are Islamic and all just speak Arabic. Formerly a separate kingdom, Nubia became a protectorate of Ancient Egypt and followed Egypt into Christianity from the first to sixth centuries CE and then into Islam as Egypt was conquered by Muslim invaders in the following centuries.

Nowhere do I hear the Nubian music I’ve heard about. A community  centre I pass is supported by Germany, which also carries out archeological work on the island. I reach the Aswan Museum, passing lush fields of brilliant green alfalfa. The land irrigated by the Nile is the most fertile on Earth.

I visit the Aswan High Dam, built between 196o and 1971, with Soviet aid, which contains 17 times the amount of material used in the Great Pyramid of Cheops and created the huge Lake Nasser. Cultivated land increased 3o%, power supply doubled, and the unpredictable floods of the Nile have been regulated to produce three harvests every year. But it has also stopped the flow of silt which gave the Nile Valley its enormous fertility and has resulted in the greater use of fertilisers.

It replaced the earlier dam of 1902 built by Sir Williaam Willcocks, whose house is now a museum on Elephantine and the entrance to the complex of Khnum, the God of Inundation, in the Old Kingdom of Ancient Egypt, for it was here at Abu on the Upper Nile that the Ancient Egyptians would have their first idea of how high the annual floods would be. A Nilometer, a huge well, measured this. When the flood was high, there would be greater flooding, bigger harvests, and higher taxes.

I’m slowly getting to know the Ancient Egyptian gods. The Temple of Philae was removed  from an island which was flooded by the New Aswan Dam and reassembled on an island nearer the town. The famous temple is dedicated to Isis, the Goddess of Magic and protector of her brother-husband, Osiris, God of Regeneration, and their son, Horus, the falcon god. The Sanctuary to Isis lasted right until Christianity had taken over throughout Egypt in the 6th century CE.

Fewer tourists, so more hassle for those that do come. Not just in the shops, bazaar, taxis, and with camel and caleche drivers, but also the at the Cybercafe you have to haggle. “Pay as much as you want”. “No, ten pound an  hour”. I get the price down to five. Small boys hassle the German tourists for pens. “Feluca, feluca, one hour cheap, see sunset on the Nile. “No hassle in my shops”, says the owner of the scarf stall as he tries to lure me in. Signs even read “Hassle 10% extra”.

I get a rowing boat from Elephantine to the west bank of the Nile to visit the ruins of the 7th century St. Simeon’s Monastery, formerly named after the 4th century local saint, Anba Hadra, who renounced the world on his wedding day. It was from this monastery that the Nubians were converted to Christianity until it was destroyed by Saladin in 1173.

On the west bank of the Nile we are already in the desert, and the camel drivers are awaiting me. In Egypt the desert is always near. The city ends and the desert begins. Visitors to the Great Pyramid of Giza are surprised that it is in the suburbs of Cairo. Turn your camera the wrong way and your background is the suburbs of Cairo and not Lawrence of Arabia.

From where I was staying in Maadi, in the southern suburbs of Cairo, I could walk to the Wadi Degla Preservation area, a couple of kilometres away, and then I would be in the silent desert, following the path of the wadi, the river course that flows for no more than a few weeks every year. The landscape is almost bare of vegetation, but not quite, for a few areas retain some moisture from the last rains, maybe several months ago, and some bracken, a single bare tree, and  a few delicate desert flowers manage to grow. Then up on the escarpment overlooking the wadi I look through the haze and pollution to the vast high-rise estates of Cairo.

Friday in Alex

January 17, 2009

It is Friday morning in Alexandria. Think of Sunday in a Christian country. A number of small shops are open. And they are all being cleaned and washed. Almost a ritual ablution. The mosque attendants are laying out the large prayer mats outside the mosques, for the mosques themselves cannot hold all the worshippers. The muezzins are practising their calls. 12.10, and the iman begins his weekly sermon, which is broadcast over loudspeakers into the neighbourhood. I stroll around central Alexandria moving from one sermon to the next, listening to the voices of the imans: coaxing, wrathful, fire and brimstone, avuncular, castigating. The men sitting on the mats outside the moques or on those that have been laid out in the street or on the pavements listen attentively. Many have what is called a “raisin”  mark on their foreheads, a bruising or puckering of the skin which comes from rubbing the forehead against the ground when praying.

And the mats are out on the pavement even in Sister St. For I have now discovered this den of iniquity, which turns out to be a central street near the fruit and vegetable market, is now full of lighting shops. Not a whorehouse in sight. And the name Rue des Soeurs comes not from the pimps selling their sisters but from the Catholic church which had an attached convent.

Outside the Acu Abbas el-Mursi mosque a few kids play on rusty the merry-go-rounds, watched over by their mothers or grandmothers. Old women sell cheap toys and sweets. A number of women are in the mosque in their separate area, but the number of men worshipping always outnumbers that of  women. An hour later I enter the mosque. A groups of some twenty men walk round in a circle holding hands and chanting. Another smaller group sway and chant quietly. Others read the Quran in silence. A number just sleep.

Nowhere is the time warp I have often felt in Alex clearer than in the Brazilian Coffee Store, decor from the 1950s, and decorated by some old coffee threshing machines. The wall-to-wall mirror gives some statistics on “La République des Etats-Unis du Brésil”: “Population: 60,000,000; Superficie: 8,450,000 metres carrés; Production annuelle de café: 22,000,000 sacs de 60 kgs”. The barrista, who serves very good coffee, looks as though he has been here since Brazil’s population was 60 million, and I half-expect to see pictures of Brazil’s 1970, or even 1962  or 1958 World Cup winning team on the wall and waiters to wear Mané Garrincha shirts and am disappointed to see them all uniformed in Robinho 10 kit.

Everywhere you find tourists in Egypt you find a massive police presence: outside hotels, museums, temples you find armed policemen behind a bullet-proof shield. Tourism is responsible for over 20% of Egypt’s GDP, and the government fears a terrorist attack such as the bombs in 2005 which killed 88 people at the Sharm el-Sheikh resort. But no policeman outside the Jewish cemetery. The caretaker cheerily waves me in. Gravestones in Hebrew and French: ” Issac Haim J. Ebbo, Chef de famille incomparable. Grand coeur et modèle de droiture et de vertu. Décédé le 3 juin 1949″. No new graves after 1952. When it filled up. When many Jews moved to Israel. When Alex ceased to be a multilingual and multicultural society.

On Friday night in the main shopping street, Dharia Saad Zaghloul, there is a pro-Palestinian demonstration with a couple of thousand protesters, mostly young. Slogans are chanted, speeches are made, Palestinian flags are waved. The women taking part in the demo, who are all covered, some with burkas, but most in hijabs, are as vociferous as the men.

My time in Alex is up, and I fly to Aswan, now of Aswan Dam fame, in the deep south of Egypt, not far from the Sudan border. From the plane I see the fertile Nile Valley, on which Egypt has always been so dependent, a green swathe breaking the monotony of the desert.

On to Alex

January 14, 2009

I came to Alexandria to see: the city founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE, and legend says that he is buried here. A city which became a great centre of learning, where Euclid developed geometry, Aristarchus discovered that the Earth revolved around the sun, and Erastothenes calculated the Earth’s circumference. The city of the Great Library pf Alexandria, established by Ptolemy I in 283 BCE, which attempted to collect a copy of every book, or rather papyrus scroll, published in the world. The city of one of the Wonders of the World, the Pharos Lighthouse. The city of Cleopatra, ruler of Egypt from 50 to 31 BCE, where most of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra is set. The city which was the base for Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt from 1798 to 1801. The city where, between the wars, 40% of its population were non-Egyptian: French, Greek, British, Italian, and many other nationalities. Khedive Ismail, the ruler of a bankrupt Egypt which was a military protectorate of Great Britain, said in 1905: “Mon pays n’ est plus en Afrique. Nous faisons une partie de l’ Europe”.

And Nobel Prizewinner Naguib Mahfouz commented on the Egypt of his childhood and youth in the 1940s and 1950s: “Anything in Europe could be found in Alexandria for half the price: cinemas, dance halls, but all of that was for foreigners. We could observe from the outside. There used to be an open air cinema on Said Zaglhoul St which had a section reserved for Egyptians. A sign in French read: “For the natives”. (Al Ahram Weekly, June 1996).

It was the louche city of easy-going sexual habits celebrated by Lawrence Durrell in The Alexandria Quartet, the city which attracted gay writers such as E.M. Forster (who lived here for three years), Noel Coward, and Somerset Maugham, who in Britain, at least publicly, had to remain in the closet due to the stringent anti-homosexuality laws which remained until the 1960s.

It was the city where many Allied soldiers and sailors were stationed in both world wars, which my own Uncle Jack affectionately remembers from his time as a naval cadet at the end of World War II. He tells me not to miss Sister St, Rue des Soeurs, where the sailors used to go and enjoy themselves…

Michael Palin, member of the Monty Python team turned travel writer, described Alexandria as being like “Nice, with acne”. Shining white it certainly isn’t, but the cafes and French patisseries are still there, and there is much to remind one of the past.  The Roman Amphitheatre, together with some twenty lecture halls, has been excavated and is now open to the public, as have some of the earlier temples and the Greco-Egyptian catacombs, where families went to picnic with their beloved relations now in the other world. But Cleopatra’s Needles, which had little connection with Cleopatra, having been there for a thousand of years before her birth, were given away as gifts to Britain and the US in the 19th century and can now be found in Central Park and the Embankment in London. But there is Pompey’s Pillar, a 30 metre high column named so by travellers who remembered the murder of the Roman general Pompey by Cleopatra’s brother.

The Great Bibliotheca, which was possibly destroyed by Julius Caesar, has been rebuilt. In 2002. It is a splendid building. A slanted sun-like sloping roof allows natural light to illuminate the eight staggered levels of stacks and readers’ desks. It is something of a visiting card for Egyptian culture, holding exhibitions, concerts, and shows.

A stroll through the Christian cemeteries of Chatby shows how multinational Alex was. The British Protestant Cemetery; the British War Cemetery, with graves from the two world wars, ” A Soldier of the Second World War. 2nd June 1941. Known unto God.” ” Three sailors”. ” Two Sailors”. ” A Soldier of the Great War”. And a monument to the thousands drowned at sea. And then the Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic Cemeteries, the Armenian, the French Military Cemetery, and the Cemeterio Latino di Terra Santa, not forgetting the Egyptian Coptic Cemetery.

And some of the faded signs are still there, above premises that are unoccupied or sell Chinese goods: “Standard  ationery, established 1924”, where you could buy a “Stenocord Secretary”, “Steel Office Furniture”, and the latest technology in “Duplicators” and “Monro Calculating Machines”, and we are taken into the world of the Alexandria shipping offices of the forties and fifties, with the Greek or even Egyptian secretaries, or stenographers, taking down the letters of their Greek or French bosses.

But Alex is no longer a multicultural and multilingual society. On the main shopping streets, in the fancy patisseries, down in the docks, you just hear Arabic. The Greeks and Armenians that didn’t go abroad when Nasser nationalized foreign companies in 1956, have arabized their names, and their children and grandchildren speak primarily Arabic. Modern bilingual signs are much more likely to be like: “Maxillofacial & Plastic Surgery. Dr Elsheikh Center. Head and Neck Surgery Center”.

Evening entertainment is shopping, visiting the cafes (if you are a man) and smoking a shisha water pipe. Few drinking holes remain. Today in the old Greek quarter I spotted the Spit Fire Bar, but have yet to find Sister St.

Alexandria’s best known 20th century poet is the Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933), who lived most of his life in Alex,  and who, ironically, knew little Arabic. Born into a wealthy merchant family, he also spent periods when young in Liverpool and  Istanbul. After  the family’s prosperity declined, Cavafy worked mainly as a Civil Servant  in the Irrigation Service. Much of his poetry reflects on “what might have been”, if his own life had been different, if he had lived his life elsewhere, if he had openly accepted his homosexuality, if he had been able to get away from Alexandria.

The City

You said, “I will go to another land, I will go to another sea.
Another city will be found, a better one than this.
Every effort of mine is a condemnation of fate;
and my heart is — like a corpse — buried.
How long will my mind remain in this wasteland.
Wherever I turn my eyes, wherever I may look
I see black ruins of my life here,
where I spent so many years destroying and wasting.”

You will find no new lands, you will find no other seas.
The city will follow you. You will roam the same
streets. And you will age in the same neighborhoods;
and you will grow gray in these same houses.
Always you will arrive in this city. Do not hope for any other —
There is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you have destroyed your life here
in this little corner, you have ruined it in the entire world.

Cairo: City of Contrasts

January 10, 2009

I get off the efficient French built metro at Opera station, check what is on at the state-of-the-art opera house, built with Japanese funding, Verdi’s Aida of course, which will be on at the end of January, see that there is a performance of the children’s ballet Cinderella on at the moment. Then I make my way to the adjacent Modern Art Museum.

After I cross the bridge over the Nile to Talaat Harb Square and have my morning tea and cake at the art deco Groppi tea room, “once the most celebrated tearoom this side of the Mediterranean”, visited by international celebrities and where ”All admired the art deco design and the wonderful mosaic display by A. Castaman. Soon enough Cairo’s top social and official functions took place there and the rotunda became the rendez vous.”


The mosaic is still there, as are the marble columns and the chandeliers, but the tea room is 1970s vinyl, and the sparse cake stands do a poor job of filling up the acres of space once used for the té dansant. There are a few people there on this 7 January, a public holiday in Egypt to commemorate Coptic Christmas, but chic Cairo has moved elsewhere, to the fashionable suburbs of Heliopolis, or Maadhi, where I’m staying. But on the quiet holiday morning when the fumes and noise of the traffic are not cluttering Taalat Hard Square it is possible, with a little imagination, to imagine you are in Paris-on-the-Nile.


By contrast the City of the Dead is full of life. Throughout the centuries Cairo’s rich, in an attempt to copy the Pharoahs, built themselves huge mausoleums outside the eastern wall of the city. The tradition began with the Mamluk sultans and emirs in the 14th century, who continued the Mamluk tradition of using the mausoleum as a place for entertaining living friends and relations. And even the smaller tombs contained a room for family visitors to stay the night. And many stayed longer, bringing their families, and more poor cousins would arrive. As my Lonely Planet guide says: “The dead hoped they would be remembered; the city’s homeless thanked them for free accommodation”. Large mausoleums would be divided into compartments. Brick houses were built between the mausoleums and graves. Families would rent out rooms. More ambitious buildings would appear. Even a five-storey building. Washing is hung out to dry between graves. Also some basic services such as electricity, water, post offices, schools eventually appeared. After all, it’s not such a bad place to live. You are near your loved ones…


Just over the main road is the Citadel, and I looked, as in 1798 did Napoleon, over the minarets and towers of Cairo, the capital of an Egypt which he thought he had conquered, I visit what look like the twin mosques of Sultan Hassan and Ar-Rifai with their huge vertical stone walls and sixty metre high ceilings and arched entrances, I discover the Sultan Hassan mosque is 14th century and the Ar-Rifai is 19th century, and in the latter have the pleasure of visiting the tomb of the Shah of Iran. But the Shah of Iran, ousted by a religious revolution, buried in a mosque! Well, he was ousted by a Shia revolution, and Egypt is a Sunni country, had friends in Egypt and had lived in Egypt after the Iranian revolution. Then on the huge mosque courtyard, covering 2.5 hectares, of Ibn Tulun, built between 876 and 879 CE, and I climb the minaret to look over the narrow main medieval thoroughfare of Cairo, the Qasaba, which runs along the north-south axis of the medieval city and still contains much of the hustle and bustle of the Al-Qahira, the Cairo of earlier times.

I join the Qasaba, here called Shari As-Siyuqiyya on Shari As-Salbiyya, where horses and donkeys are chewing on fresh tasty grass, fuelling up to do some pulling, next to a narguile, water pipe, café, and in such cafés a large part of the male population of Cairo spend much of their time. Shops are small, often little more than a hole on the wall: a butcher’s shop is looked on enviously by dogs and cats; a tinsmith is hammering out plates; a carpenter’s specializes in beds; at a sweet potato stand a group of tourists are enjoying this local delicacy; a junk shop displays a picture of President Mubarak; then the Al Amir Tarb palace. A Chevrolet pick-up burns oil and annoys at least the tourists. A disused cinema; the Centro Italo-Egiziano per il Restauro e l’Archeologia; the Yimaz mosque; a donkey cart pulling a load of potatoes; a hospital with some piles of rubbish outside hardly a good advertisement; plenty of mobile phone shops; girls listening to pop music on their mobile phones; a miserable dusty shop selling nothing; the Prince Almas al Haddad mosque, which is being restored. Haberdashers, fruit stalls, perfume shops, more cafés, a stall selling sheep’s head sandwiches, then the junction of Shari Muhammad Karim. In the middle of the busy junction there is a tiny watered garden; on the other side “El Bebany since 1802”, with its rotisserie chicken.

Now the name of the Qasaba is Shari Al-Hilmiyya, and then Al-Ganbakiyya, and women in burkhas are running their errands at shops and stalls which individually specialize in: local flat bread; oranges; spices; greens; bones; liver and kidneys; live ducks; hens; pigeons, a delicacy here. Another mosque. Barbers’ and jewellers’. A scooter just avoids knocking down an old fellow, and the middle-aged driver apologizes. One old lady sits on the pavement shelling peas to sell; another sells cauliflowers. A man tries to open the manhole to unblock the drain. The Playstation shop has a picture of Christian Ronaldo and cartoons of Ronaldinho and David Beckham. The driver of a small Suzuki pick-up is arguing with the driver of a horse and cart. The horse has had to stop to let the Suzuki pass and has lost the rhythm to pull its very heavy load of metal cables. It whinnies but can’t get going again. I get past and move on…  We are in the souk, and the shops become touristy: scarves, mats, toy camels. I wander up Tentmakers’ Alley and nearly buy a colourful desert tent. It is near here, I read, that one can find the Midaq Alley of the eponymous novel by Nobel Prizewinner Nagib Mahfouz. 

Now we are at the medieval city gates, Bab Zuwayla, the Gates of Victory, built in 1087, near to which the heads of enemies were impaled on spikes. I climb the towers. just outside the gates a throng of water pipe sellers, apparently an enormous business here; tinkers; tailors; coopers, coppersmiths, masons engraving Arabic inscriptions on marble. Then back to the Qasaba, now Shari Al-Muez Li-Din Allah, and I come to the Rag Market: slinky full-length black gowns with heart or paisley patterns favoured by women here; fox furs (with heads); fluffy slippers, blankets, coats, jumpers, probably from China; wholesale raw cotton merchants; the last tarboosh maker in Cairo, for no one except bellboys in plush hotels and restaurant attendants wear a fez nowadays; and at the crowded corner of Al Azhar St, socks, outsize bras, corn, bread are all for sale as the road narrows near the Al-Ghouri early 16th century complex of mosque, with its red-chequered minaret, and mausoleum.

“Come and see my handicraft shop” for we are now in tourist territory, in the Khan el Khalili, the main tourist bazaar. I climb over the pedestrian bridge with porters, shoppers, tourists, beggars, touts. Pick n’mix perfumes, spices, belly dancing outfits, false mother-of-pearl jewel boxes, pyramids of all sizes, models of the dog god Seth, Isis, Osiris and Horus, Tutankhamen tack, drums, crocodiles, Cleopatras, lutes, Marlboro cigarettes, red Egyptian football shirts, green Egyptian football shirts, Lampard and Messi shirts. “Drink much beer a man like you? Where you from? Germany? Come and see my shop”. “Would you like to enjoy your eyes?”

5.10 p.m.: the call to prayer. Tourist shops give way to silversmiths and goldsmiths and then antique shops and shops selling huge aluminium pans. This area has been nicely restored. The cobblestones are new. People are few. There are several restored Turkish houses and a Turkish Arygoz Shadow Puppet theatre. The Egyptian textile Museum has just closed for the day, as has the Madrassa and Khamqah of Sultan Barqaq (1384-6). Coloured floodlighting is now being tested. More water pipe shops. A huge new mosque, and, at the (restored) city walls our journey along the Qasaba ends.

Bridge Over the River Nile

January 6, 2009

From the bridge over the River Nile at about one p.m. I watch the courting couples in the garden flanking the Nile, two Egyptian Pounds (US$0.40) to enter. The guys are trendy looking, jeans, jacket and greased back hair. The girls without exception are covered, wearing a colourful hijab. Most have taken considerable care over their appearance. Mauves and blacks predominate, including one slinky black sequined get-up that glitters and glistens in the early afternoon sun. On the metro hijabbed girls fiddle on their mobile phone and adjust their often heavy makeup, the eye shadow frequently matching the colour of their scarf. Last year in Istanbul I saw on TV a volleyball game between Turkey and Egypt in which most of the Egyptian team played in their headscarves. The majority of girls here wear headscarves. Coptic Christians, some ten percent of the population, do not, and neither do a lot of middle-class girls. But unlike in Turkey, where scarves are still not allowed at universities, they have never been a bone of contention between secularists and religious groups.  For the types of Muslim headscarves see:  http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/shared/spl/hi/pop_ups/05/europe_muslim_veils/html/1.stm

But no headscarves in the nearby Royal Mummy Room of the Egyptian Museum. I meet Hatstepsut, the great female Pharaoh of the 18th Dynasty, queen from 1479 to 1478 BCE, “an obese female who died between the ages of 45 and 60”; Tuthmosis IV, also from the 18th Dynasty, who “died at the age of about 30 perhaps due to a wasting disease that is yet to be identified. The fingernails that are well-maintained show that the king was well cared for”. Amenhotep II, warrior and sportsman; Tuthmosis III, who ruled for 60 years; Merenptah, from the 19th Dynasty, 1213-1203 BCE, who died afflicted with severe dental problems, arthritis and artisclerosis; Ramses III, from the 20th Dynasty, king from 1183-1153 BCE, who may have been poisoned by a conspiracy in the harem; and not to forget Queen Moutkare, who was buried with her pet baboon, long thought to be a child. On to the enormous hermaphroditic statues of Aktenaten, the mother and father of the world. And then the glories of the tomb of Tutenkamun, the multiple sarcophagi, fitting into each other like Russian dolls, the golden mask with its engravings of the vulture of the Upper Nile and the cobra of the Lower Nile to protect him, and the layers of golden necklaces and jewels.  

Into Old Cairo, now very much a tourist enclave. The Greek Orthodox church of Saint George (Mar Girgis in Arabic), the quiet cemetery with inscriptions in Greek and Arabic, the Coptic Church of St Sergius, with pillars from the 3rd and 4th centuries, said to be built over a cave where Joseph, Mary and the infant Jesus sheltered after fleeing persecution from King Herod of Judea, the Coptic 9th century hanging church, suspended over the top of Roman Babylon. The 9th century Ben-Ezra Synagogue. And nearby the Mosque of Amr ibn al-As, the first mosque to be built in Egypt in 642 BCE.

Out of the sanctuary and back into the fray. The traffic of Cairo is the stuff of legends. Choc-a-bloc, noisy, hooting and honking continually, highly polluting, with so many old bangers around, it seems to have an anarchic life of its own. A few ineffectual policemen try to control it at the few traffic lights, which are either broken or ignored by motorists. But even they often have to jump out of the way as it sweeps and surges forward. And how does one cross the road? With one’s heart in one’s mouth, praying to Allah, one just crosses, and the traffic slows down and lets you pass. Sometimes you will cross a major road and stand in the middle or between lanes where a car or bus or truck behind or in front of you just a few inches away may be doing 60 or 70km an hour. I then think of my German colleague who told me he was once fined for jaywalking. Sometimes you may gesture to the traffic to stop and slow down. I have taken to crossing at the same time as a local.

A taxi driver put it to me: “The government does not touch people”. I think I got his gist: the government does not seriously attempt to enforce traffic rules and regulations. And apparently this has been a characteristic of many areas of Egyptian society in the last years. A kind of general laissez-faire in the economy, education, health as many of the social institutions based on the Soviet model set up by Nasser have virtually failed. Nasser’s plan for a pan-Arabic secular socialist state hit a dead end, and his successors Sadat and Mubarak have had no alternative visions. Egypt may still be a dominant cultural force in the Arab world, but the Gulf countries are now vastly wealthier.

London and the Thames; Paris and the Seine; and Cairo and the Nile. I expected a certain grandiosity I failed to find.  The Nile here in Cairo is no wider that the Thames in London. It is no Amazon. And other than a few tourist boats no river traffic. Of course, the city traditionally kept well away from the Nile and its floods, but now the Nile is lined by the Hyatt, Hilton, Four Seasons and Sofitel, while feluccas, the traditional sailing boats, can be rented for a spin on the river. On the other bank of the Nile groups of young Egyptians are renting cheaper feluccas from which comes the sound of Arab pop to which both the guys and the hijabbed girls are clicking their fingers and wiggling their hips.

Pictures from Cairo

January 3, 2009

I am in Cairo, Egypt, for the next weeks. Egypt was also part of the Ottoman Empire, at least nominally, until 1798, when Napoleon invaded and defeated the Mamluks, who held power but who were officially subservient to Istanbul. The French withdrew under British pressure, but their influence lasted under Muhammad Ali, the leader of Egypt from 1807 to 1848, when the country was still nominally part of the Ottoman Empire, but under the control of Muhammad Ali, who enlisted French aid to modernize many of its institutions. The British financed the construction of the Suez Canal in 1869, and were bankers to the spendthrift ruler, the Khedive Ismail, but had to step in to protect the canal lest it fell into bad hands… Egypt was then an unofficial British Protectorate, until 1956, when Nasser nationalized the Canal. The Tory Government threatened intervention but didn’t intervene, and Sir Anthony Eden, the Prime Minister, fell. It was the beginning of the end of the British Empire.

Delapidated splendour, old theatres and opera houses, mosques and churches, not only Egyptian Coptic churches, a branch of the Orthodox Church, but also Catholic churches; art nouveau ironwork in run-down buildings, once magnificent art deco stores is now Omar effendi’s domestic appliances shop: “Raoul Brandon. Architecte: Paris – Caire”. And Caire was to be another Paris, with its wide Haussman avenues, its fancy stores, its chic, its wealth, and its bon goût. The influence in education still seems to be there. I pass Collège St. Joseph de l’Apparition, and the Couvent des Pères Dominicains is right opposite the Al-Aziz Islamic University. And mock Louis XV furniture seems all the rage: “Meubles, Tapiceries, Decoration”. Nearby, next to the government ministry buildings: “Institut d’Egypte, fonde 1798” by Napoléon. In Downtown Cairo I stare at a well-polished small sign “Socrate Signeros. Cirugien Dentaire” and wonder how long the sign has been there, who the sign in French is meant to attract, whether indeed M. Signeros actually exists.

And am then rudely interrupted. “Hello. Where you from?” “England”. “England number one country. I friend. Want you for friend. No baksheesh. Me rich. Come with me.” I had read time and time again about the hasslers and hustlers but let’s see… I am led to “Alybaba Perfume Palace” with an impressive set of vials with multi-coloured liquids, reds, oranges, lemons, purples, around the walls. “Please sit down. Coffee or tea? No, sit down”. I am shown photos of Muhammad Ali (not the 19th century ruler of Egypt but the boxer) together with someone who is apparently the grandfather of the young man who has just become my friend. The brother then comes and explains that the perfumes are made from herbs cultivated on the family estate in the Nile Delta. “What you want? Perfume for man or for woman? All the woman go crazy when you have this on you. What you want more? Jasmine or rose? Rose?” I am no expert on perfumes, but the jasmine reminded me of an eau de cologne sprayed on me on a bus ride from Istanbul to Cappadoccia in 2001. (It is the custom there). Brother begins to talk about prices. My original friend by this time has disappeared. He starts talking about one pound a gram, but which pound, Egyptian or English? I get up and find the courage to escape.

Much hassle, but Cairo is virtually crime free. Get off the main roads, walk through the scruffy dark alleyways away from the tourist haunts. I buy bread and am given as much as I buy just to try. Three teenage girls practice their English with me. And old man disapproves and tells them not to talk to the foreigner.

But at another level not such an ideal society. Journalists are protesting outside the International Press Association building. Nobody seems to be able to tell me exactly why. The police seem a little heavy handed and drag a screaming protester into one of the many waiting paddy-wagons. I find nothing in the English-language daily.

In the Midan Hussein the tourist buses come and go, dropping off passengers to shop in the Khan al-Khalli Bazaar. I tuck into my stuffed roast pigeon, or at least into the rice stuffing. The Tourist Police try to prevent the riff-raff from entering the square to beg or hawk. They are not very successful. On my left the mosque of Sayidna el-Hussein, where I have just taken a pleasant rest and where the devout chant to Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad, whose death cemented the rift between the Shiite and Sunni factions of Islam. On my right, the Al-Azar Mosque, with a huge courtyard and minarets from the 14th, 15th and 16th centuries. The madrassa was set up in 988 CE, and grew into the university which may be the second oldest in the world.