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.