Month: July 2013

Waves of skimmed milk cartons

Alexandrian mosque

I stumbled upon this mosque while walking through the city and could do nothing but admire its beauty from across the busy street. The sunlight that cut the minaret in half made even this simplest of mosques seem a powerful and proud representant of the Islam. The Islamic crescent at the top, the small bulb underneath and the two balconies around the tower made for an instantly recognizable shape that I found quite marvellous. I knew why this struck so much more of a chord than a church would do, as I live in a secular country where churches are much more common and where I had grown accustomed to them. I wondered whether the mosque would grow less beautiful every time I saw it. Or every time I saw a more beautiful mosque. If I saw the most beautiful mosques from all over the world, what would the mosque above still mean? Would I still look up to it? Probably not, as Beauty is said to be fleeting. But is this the case for absolutely everything? Is there not one thing in the world where Beauty is not fleeting, whether it be literature, art, architecture, or something else? And would it not be one of the most noble pursuits in life to try and create something that is of eternal Beauty?

As I was mesmerized by these thoughts, a plastic bag flew against my head. I grumbled and pushed it away with a quick stroke. Here I was, contemplating on Beauty in the midst of a dirty city. Because Alexandria has a problem with garbage. These pictures were taken in the wealthier and thus supposedly cleaner part of the city, close to where I live.

Garbage 2 Garbage 1 Garbage 4

Frankly, for a clean and vain Westerner such as me, this is a sign of a less civilized country. The government, whenever Egypt has one, should set up a thorough and efficient waste management system and should place garbage bins, as they are virtually non-existent right now. Every once in a while I see one or two garbage containers, but if I’m not wearing my smell mask, holding my rat repellent stick and wearing my radioactive suit, I prefer to stay away from those. A good waste collection system would not only make the city a clean place, but would also create jobs, make the city a healthier place to live in and show the Egyptians the joys of a clean city, perhaps sparking a mentality change.
Because there sits the true problem. While I try to hold on to my little Alexandria library ticket as long as possible before guiltily throwing it on the floor in the hope no one has seen, Egyptians have no problem throwing pretty much everything on the ground in plain view. How much better would the city not be if it were cleaner? Suppose one could walk along the Corniche and see the white foam of the Mediterranean Sea instead of white skimmed milk cartons smashing against the rocks? It is something to aim for, although deep within me, I find pleasure in not being restricted by implicit garbage rules and in being able to simply throw my can out of the taxi window. Hehe.

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Rose

It was nine in the morning and I was sitting outside, talking to my Egyptian friend Shadi. I felt somewhat guilty to be drinking a cappuccino and eating a cheese cake while my Muslim friend was fasting, even though he insisted I ate something for breakfast. Not that there was much breakfast at the pâtisserie we were staying at, since virtually no one eats or drinks before sunset. An old lady had taken place close to us and suddenly asked me where I was from. This started a conversation that most definitely made an imprint on me and left me with an urge to write about it, lest I forget. The lady was Egyptian, born in Cairo and had to be around eighty years old. She wore a chess-patterned colourful dress that was held closed by subtle jewellery. I was very much intrigued when she started talking about her globe-trotting experiences. Along with her husband, she had visited an incredible amount of countries, of which Belgium as well. Her eyes lit up as she told me how she had marvelled at the beautiful nature of the Ardennes, had loved quant little Bruges and colourful Ghent, had admired the impressive Atomium in Brussels and had seen the diamond that was Antwerp. I was nearly moved to tears as I saw how purely and sincerely she admired the country which I often described as a good country to live in, but otherwise boring and grey. Why did I need a foreigner to open my eyes on the beauty of the place I live in?
But it did not end there. She continued talking about Australia, Indonesia, Canada, the United States, South Africa. I was incredibly impressed by how well she still remembered everywhere she had been and what her impressions were of the place. When I foolishly asked her what place she would consider best to live in, she told me one cannot compare between countries, as every country and even every city has its own charms. Ah! It seemed so obvious, yet it came as a true revelation to me. I immediately felt she was right and smiled widely, realizing she had put her finger in the wound of my youth. Here was a person whose personality was so intriguing I wanted to talk to her for much longer than I did. When leaving, I politely shook her fragile hand and asked for her name. Rose, a name that somehow suited her perfectly.

Traffic and religion

I sat pressed against the back seat and the window, had my bag on my knees and my knees against my chest. Eleven Egyptians and me were packed like sardines in the mashrou, a microbus that is a very cheap means of transport in Alexandria. The driver was horning at everything and everyone while zigzagging through the traffic jam. It was hot, I was sweating and I hardly knew where I had to get off. It was the first time I was using a microbus on my own and I was wondering how I would get off, since you can only get off by yelling something at the driver. In front of me, I saw our driver exchanging a five pound note for five coins of one pound with a passenger of another microbus. All of this was done through open windows and while driving at least 80 km/h. All of a sudden, a waft of fresh, salty sea air hit me and I could not help but smiling. You feel most alive outside of your comfort zone. I saw the Starbucks somewhat close to my place, tapped the boy in front of me and said “shokram shokram” (thank you thank you) while pointing with my finger to the ground. He yelled something to the driver and I squirmed my way out.

Moving around the city is very different than what I am used to. Since there are no pedestrian crossings, people cross the street everywhere and whenever. People cross the street even at the busiest point of the Corniche , which has ten lanes divided by a strip of concrete (see picture below).

Corniche

Cars whizz by at 100 km/h and they do not stop, nor are they predictable in their driving behaviour. A few years back, an average of six people died  on the Corniche every day, so I still rather take the underground tunnels, even though these sometimes lie pretty far apart. But apart from the Corniche, I am getting quite used to randomly crossing the street. Nor do I walk on the pavement anymore. You walk on the street, not on those fancy pavements.

I find the traffic to embody the Egyptian spirit quite well. Sudden, chaotic and loud. Egyptians are as quick to anger as they are to forgive. They are also very hospitable and really friendly. Money is hardly an issue when you are going out with them, as they tend to be very generous and share everything they have, even though that is often not much. It has already been a very enrichening experience talking with Egyptians on matters such as the new revolution, faith and the position of women in the Islam. Faith is still very strong in Egypt. People pray five times a day, often visit the mosque and stick to the Ramadan, which started yesterday, with an impressive amount of willpower. Almost every woman is draped in a burka or at the very least has her head covered with a scarf. If you mention the Prophet Muhammad, they reply with a short Arabic sentence that means “May Peace be with him”. You would wonder why religion is still so strong here, but I have been reading up on the Koran and I found out, to my big surprise as an agnostic, that there is some pretty convincing evidence for believing that the words in the Koran were perhaps indeed Allah’s words, spoken by the Prophet Muhammad. For example, the Koran speaks about the evolution from a sperm cell to a child during pregnancy and the creation of mountains and seas in very specific detail way before these things were discovered (and proven right) scientifically. It seems that, as science improves, more and more things are being discovered that were already said in the Koran before anyone could know. It gives an incentive to believe in every word of the Koran to which I have no counterargument. Not that I will turn Muslim now, but it is certainly fascinating and makes me wonder whether there are still secrets in the Koran that science has not yet uncovered?

Some places also breathe a certain atmosphere that I associate with spiritualism. Take these pictures for example , which I took in the Citadel of Qaitbay, a castle built on the remains of the famous Lighthouse, the Pharos:

Spiritual 4 Spiritual 3 Spiritual 2 Spiritual 1The combination of the sun, the darkness, the stones and the sea make for a very beautiful, calm and peaceful combination that I associate with Christianity and with the Islam. In fact, I do not believe the Islam is a violent religion. The Koran is clear in its peaceful aims, saying explicitly that murder is one of the biggest sins possible. Yes, Muslim extremists do exist and perhaps they exist in greater numbers than any other religion, but the fault lies not with the Koran, but rather in the extremists’ misinterpretation of it.

I would like to finish with a sentence I remembered and even wrote down while talking to an Egyptian friend about religion. I consider it a sentence worth thinking about.

“Faith needs no proof. Faith is the proof.”

Egyptian turmoil

Suddenly, Ahmed pressed the gas pedal. The car accelerated so quickly I could only catch a glimpse of what seemed to be a police officer fighting a man and several people running. Traffic had seemed completely stuck, but now everything was moving. Ahmed skilfully zigzagged the car through traffic and we were out of sight before I even fully realized what had happened. The true danger of such incidents is not the incident itself, but the panic it can cause. Even a simple brawl like this would erupt into a panic that made it seem as if something far worse had happened. Apart from this one incident, the protests that had caused massive traffic jams in Alexandria, had been largely peaceful. People were celebrating the 48 hour ultimatum the army had given Mr. Morsi. Within a few hours, Mr. Morsi would have to resign, or the army would take over the power, would stage a coup. That is what almost every Egyptian believed, but it was not true. The army would not force Mr. Morsi to resign, it even explicitly said it would not stage a coup. It would only intervene in the political process from which it had been largely absent since Mr. Morsi took office a year ago. And since the Egyptian army is sponsored by the US, pressure would certainly be coming from that side not to take over a democratically chosen government. In my opinion, the statement from the army to intervene in this turmoil has given the Egyptian people an incredibly dangerous false hope. The Egyptian people expect Mr. Morsi to resign. If he does not do so before the army’s ultimatum, this situation might escalate for the worse, so I thoroughly hope he does resign.

Yet what would happen after his resignation remains a mystery. During the transit year between Mr. Mubarak and Mr. Morsi, the army did a horrible job at governing the country, so they will probably refrain from such a disaster a second time. Now who would govern? Elections would take months to organize, after which Egypt would go through yet another transit period. The Egyptian people want Mr. Morsi to be gone, so the country would prosper again, but throwing him over does not necessarily mean sudden and massive improvement. Economic conditions will not improve, nor will the fuel shortage or the diminishing wheat supplies. In fact, revolutions such as this hold back the tourists Egypt quite desperately depends on. The Egyptians are absolutely right in protesting and showing their discontent, but they should respect their own democratically chosen president by giving him his chosen four years and instead telling the president the change they want, while also realizing changes take time. Why would the president not want the best for his country? Which president would want his country worse off than before his term? If he is incompetent, give a viable solution instead of throwing him over and sending the country into worse, yet perhaps less visible chaos. This is just what I think and I am willing to explain further to anyone that asks.

Right now, no AIESEC intern is allowed to leave the place where he or she is staying, so I am sitting alone in the hostel where I will be spending a second night tonight, since the host family where I was supposed to stay is not in Alexandria yet. I have a very basic room with three beds that each have a mattress and pillow so hard I seriously considered sleeping on the floor, but with an absolutely amazing view of the Mediterranean Sea that makes up for everything. As I lean over my balcony and watch the Corniche, the main highway of Alexandria, I see men, women and children of all ages out on the streets with Egyptians flags and the symbolic red cards. I hear shouting, firework, whistling and of course, car engines and car horns. Egyptians are really skilled drivers and they have to be, as everyone drives as a madman around here. They communicate with their horns extensively. I managed to decipher that one horn means “I’m coming on your left”, while two horns means “I’m coming on your right”. Two long horns and three short ones means “We want Morsi gone”. I have not yet deciphered the insults, but I am quite sure they exist. Some cars even have a device that makes a police sound so they can pass quicker through traffic, but Ismail told me true Egyptians know the difference between a fake and a real police sound.

As I watch the people below and listen to this cacophony of sound that forms a city’s voice, I cannot help but think that the festive atmosphere that was in the city last night seems to have subtly changed for one where anger and anxiety is bubbling underneath the surface. Maybe it’s just me.