Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Mediterranean Blue I (2000): Greece and Egypt

When setting out upon your way to Ithaca,
Wish always that your course be long,
Wish for many adventures, many good stories ….
And let there be many summer mornings
When with pleasure and with great delight
You enter a harbour for the very first time;

But do not rush your journey.
Better that it should last for many years,
And that when you moor at Ithaca at last,
An old man, enriched by all you have gained,
You do not expect Ithaca to give you further wealth.

For Ithaca has given you the journey.
Without her you would not have set your course.
There is no more she can give.

When you step off a ship in Alexandria a large smiling person by the name of Mohamed Aly Elbehiri or his brother or cousin or nephew will greet you like a long lost relative. 'My dear friend', he will say, 'You are in Egypt for first time, isn't it? Of course you wish to visit Pyramids! I give you driver and car. You ride camel, you see Pyramids, you see Cairo, you eat lunch -- very good foods -- you have wonderful day! You are good fellow, I am good fellow, I give you very very cheap price!'

The amount mentioned is not cheap at all. On the other hand, it is 200 Km from Alexandria to Giza and another 200 Km back to Port Said. What is the point of visiting Egypt if one doesn't clap eyes on the Pyramids and come to grips with a camel? These thoughts must have been printed on my forehead because Mohamed Aly immediately grabbed my arm and pushed me into a waiting car, 'My friend ... please, please. This Ahmed. This very good car, new car, air-conditioning! Ahmed very good man, good driver. In, in! … leg also, please… now I close door. Enjoy, enjoy! Good bye.'

As Ahmed drives you away you begin to feel a little uneasy. This uneasiness is entirely justified, because as the day progresses you discover that Mohammed (tel: Alexandria 4808407/4806909) doesn't believe in paying overheads such as entrance fees, camel hire, meals, drinks … and drivers. Ahmed makes this clear to me over the space of the next ten hours and so do many others in the burgeoning cast of extras on this Grand (One-Day) Egyptian Tour. They all live on tips. You provide the tips.

Before I realized the full depth of the financial horror awaiting me, I asked Ahmed to pull over and find us a decent cup of coffee. We parked in a dusty sidestreet and walked into a place with wooden tables and a tiled floor. There was a row of nargiles (water pipes) parked over the bar like Keep-Bottles. The clientele was entirely male, quietly murmuring to one another at the tables. Occasionally one of the patrons or one of the waiters would kneel on a scrap of rug behind the refrigerator and pray for a bit. The other customers would ignore this person entirely but one of them would always saunter over when the rug was free, as if to a vacant telephone booth, his turn to talk to God. The coffee, when it arrived, was filthy stuff.

Alexandria (Arabic al-Iskandariyah), once the greatest city of the ancient world, was the capital of Egypt from its founding by Alexander the Great in 332 BC until AD 642, when it was conquered by the Arabs. It also played a key role in passing on Hellenic culture to Rome (and other areas of expertise: Cleopatra welcomed both Caesar and Antony to the city she ruled) but by the time Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798, Alexandria had been reduced to a fishing village. The free port status granted Alexandria by the Ottoman Turks accentuated the cultural ambivalence of the city's location-- it turned its back to Egypt and its face to the Mediterranean. This idea of a free city, open to all manner of men and ideas, was something the Greek Constantine Cavafy, drawing heavily on its legendary past, developed in his poems of the city. This idea of Alexandria was taken further by the English writer Lawrence Durrell in his four-part novel, The Alexandria Quartet.

Durrell observed that the city was shared by 'Five races, five languages, a dozen creeds, … but there are more than five sexes and they communicate in demotic Greek.' Writing in the late 1940s and early 1950s, he claimed that the different communities 'still live and communicate - Turks with Jews, Arabs and Copts and Syrians with Armenians and Italians and Greeks … ceremonies, marriages and pacts join and divide them'. This is no longer true. Since the 1952 coup when the nationalist Nasser took control in Egypt most of Alexandria's foreign community has departed. Alexandria today is dusty, battered and severely rundown with its minority populations long exiled or existing on the margins of the dominant Islamic Arab culture. It could no longer be a home to Cavafy, for instance, whose poem 'Ithaca' (or, rather, parts of it, very freely translated) stands at the head of this extended article. Constantine Cavafy (1862-1933) was a Pharaonic Greek -- one whose family had taken service under the Ottomans and other rulers of Egypt -- he believed himself a Hellene, one of the descendants of the extended civilization of the great Alexander. He nurtured his dreams and learned his craft as a poet while holding down a job in the Irrigation Department. As a Greek (or Armenian, Turk, Syrian, Copt or Jew), he would not be able to get a civil service job in modern Egypt.

Ahmed and myself barrelled along the dusty highway to the Pyramids of Giza. Air-conditioning was generously provided by the four open windows. We got there, we saw them, we came back. I got up on a camel. I nearly fell off the camel (no joking matter, they are about three metres high) and the heat was desperate. I wore an Arab headdress, I got my photograph taken … and the results were predictably foolish. To rub it in, the camel's name was Michael Jackson. He couldn't sing and he couldn't dance but he was definitely moving to rhythms of his own.

The Pyramids are depressing. They don't give you any sense of spiritual uplift whatsoever. They are large and they obviously took a very long time to build. They will probably last forever. Allowing for the ponderous weight and enormous physical size of these monuments one cannot help but commiserate with the people who had to actually drag these huge stones into the desert and lift them into place. None of this could have been accomplished without slave labour on a grand scale. We condemn the Nazis out of hand for enslaving people from the territories they conquered but because the ancient Egyptian Pharaohs are so distant from us in time we tend to admire them for their ideological monomania (their religion, if you like) while we overlook the human misery they must have caused. The Sphinx, it has to be said, fails to live up to expectations. It looks ten times better in photographs than it does in reality. The thing sits very low on the ground with a battered face and manages to look smug and condescending. Apparently, the French Army used it for artillery practice in 1798. I am convinced they did so from disappointment rather than malice, and probably to wipe that annoying smile off its face. From a distance, it looks like a crumbling Love Hotel, one of the structures you half-register in Japan as you whizz by on the train.

Ahmed and I developed a strange relationship. We were starting to like each other and embarked on several interesting discussions but the question of money always came between us. I didn't fully realize how much Ahmed was depending on a huge tip at the end of the day because of Mohammed Aly's reassuring patter on the docks of Alexandria. I believed what Aly had told me and that was a mistake. He had lied to me because I was a stupid damned tourist. Ahmed was trying to put me straight on the economic realities of Egypt. The way it works is that you don't get paid a salary when you work for somebody else in the tourist trade. The best you can hope for is an opportunity to make money from tips or commissions. And if you do make a lot of money from tips then your boss will demand a percentage or else he will fire you. Here's Ahmed, he's 53, with a wife and two grown children. He lives in an apartment in Alexandria and he is lucky to get a tour about three times a week during the season.

Everything is priced in US Dollars. I never even saw Egyptian money from the time I arrived until the time I left. Not once. People leap at you if they think you have Dollars in your pocket.

Egypt is the cultural centre of the Arabic-speaking world. They have the quickest minds and the best universities; they produce the best newspapers, the best books, the best movies … but they have no oil and therefore no money The two cities I visited (Alexandria, Cairo) were chaotic, overpopulated, congested with traffic, frantic. People were scrambling about the streets with no money or not enough money. Touts prey on tourists because tourists, by definition, carry disposable cash. It's a survival economy. Five civil servants do the job of one person. There were also about five different kinds of police, each with a different uniform and lounging about the place, all bored out of their minds. There were roadblocks on all the major highways and army camps whose walls stretched for four or five kilometres along the side of the highways. Every 100 metres along these walls there was a guard tower. Inside each guard tower was a young soldier with a rifle and a fixed bayonet -- waiting for what? I began to realize that the rule of the Pharaohs was not altogether a thing of the past.

At Port Said I had to deal with young guys in white nylon shirts and mobile phones but also with the older guys manning souvenir stalls which they wheeled to the docks. Egypt is a bit like India in the sense that nobody leaves you alone. Every foreigner stands out like a magnet and they all come after you. I found it a lot easier to get along with the older guys because they had a dry and cynical sense of humour. They knew they were selling a load of junk and they left off harassing you to buy it after the first ten minutes. The young fellows in the nylon shirts, on the other hand, were nervous, distracted, frazzled, somewhat resentful, and you couldn't get through to them at all. Male pride is universal and economic disadvantage only makes things worse.

At the end of the day, I gave a ruinous tip to Ahmed. I believe he wanted more. Too bad: I was already bleeding from a hundred cuts. It was with a sense of relief that I boarded the ship. The ship was beginning to take on the role of Mother. You could run away and play all day but you had to be back on time or else Mommy might leave without you. That was a frightening thought. Egypt had reminded me too much of India, the same human avalanche, the same stirrings of pity, the same feelings of impatience, the resentment at being singled out and targeted, the peremptory tone of command you adopt (I had forgotten all this) just to stop these people from bothering you all the time. It brought back a flood of unwelcome memories. I was ashamed. I was glad to get back on board again. The Raj may be dead and buried but the roles we once thrust upon one another are not so easily laid to rest.

Egypt … that was Monday, July 10th. The previous Monday, July 3rd. I had been in Japan at the End-of-Term Ceremony of my school. We were finishing early for the summer because renovation work had to be done on one of the school buildings. Carpe Diem. On Tuesday the 4th I was at Nagoya Airport and on Wednesday the 5th I was sipping a restorative glass of wine under the shadow of the Acropolis in Athens. I was contemplating a full seven weeks of solo travel. Travelling alone is the best way to go because you don't have to explain anything to anybody. You go where you want. You can wake up in the morning and make a completely new plan. You meet people, you have new ideas, you change your mind about destinations and schedules. Going solo is the only means of modern travel in which you can still apply the latest intelligence reports but it is usually not possible. This journey was going to be the best and probably last opportunity for creative anarchy since the days of my careless misspent youth, fondly but selectively remembered, when I spent months at a time wandering about the known and unknown world with very little money but a great deal of optimism. Luck played an extremely important part in that ill-planned enterprise and I shudder to think of the dangers even now. But I had never felt so free before. It was time to try again.

There was a plan. There has to be a rough framework that you can play around with. I was going to spend two weeks in the eastern Mediterranean visiting as many places as I could; I was going to spend the next two weeks on trains and ferries travelling on a EURAIL Pass through some if not all of its 14 possible countries; and I was definitely going to spend the last three weeks in Ireland. My hometown Dublin was my Ithaca. I certainly didn't expect it to 'give me further wealth' -- quite the opposite -- but I didn't plan to be too much older when I arrived there.

(A fellow Dubliner wrote a very famous book in which all the action takes place in Dublin on one day: June 16, 1904. James Joyce's "Ulysses" is a classic of modern English literature -- with a lot of Dublin in-jokes that fly over the heads of foreign professors -- and each chapter operates on a series of interwoven levels of meaning taking place at the same time. You have to read the book several times before you understand how the different levels are all connected. I STILL do not understand everything that is going on but when I look into this book every few months it makes me laugh, it reminds me of home and I pick up on something new each time. Joyce's chapters follow the same titles and themes of the much earlier work by Homer. In Homer's original (700 BC) we learn of the trials and adventures of Ulysses as he makes his lengthy homeward journey from the Trojan War. It takes him ten years to get back to the real and not imaginary land of Ithaca from whence he had set out as a young man some twenty years before.)

The Internet hadn't existed when I first took to travelling. Now it did and I had arranged a cruise on a ship through the eastern Mediterranean. I managed to get a big reduction on the price (don't ask) and I was ready to go. I spent two days in Athens during a 45 degree heatwave and it was appallingly hot, crowded, noisy but not so bad because of the people. I found that you could get a medium Cola cup of cheap cold beer at McDonald's (!!) in Syntagma Square for 440 Drax (130 Yen); I found it was easy to talk to strangers in shops and restaurants all over the city … including young Theodosius in his newspaper kiosk who plied me with free Heineken's from the fridge while he berated me about world affairs in German, Greek and English. I discovered the music of Anna Vissi, for which I am still grateful. I learned to call the country Hellas, because so many people told me they disliked the words 'Greece' and 'Greeks'. I rediscovered that Athens, heatwave or no heatwave, is a pretty horrible city (many Hellenes would agree) but this is where you start, this is where you begin.

On Saturday the 8th Nikos from Cephalonia drove me to the port of Piraeus in his shiny new Mercedes. Piraeus is the old port of Athens, as familiar to Themistocles and Pericles as it is to the modern traveller. There I boarded a towering new ship called the 'Olympic Voyager' and embarked on a dazzling strange new world that had maritime echoes (the sea never changes) of the 1920s or 1930s. I had never been on a cruise ship before and was (temporarily) impressed by all the middle-aged Americans I met who were on their 4th, 10th, or 14th cruise. Some of them seemed to do it every year. Within two days it became apparent that they were more interested in the comforts of the ship than the places we were going to. To me the ship was a means of transport. Yet you couldn't help but get involved in the social patterns on board and as a member of this enclosed community I met people, shared meals and drinks, traded stories and made a number of new acquaintances. Quite a lot of things happened during the voyage, but none was compelling: there were no murders, no suicides, no dramatic confrontations. Some people got drunk. Other people said silly things. A novelist might have delighted in the subtle social interplays but I was content to let them go by.

The real delight was in watching the sea from the after-deck, late at night. There we would sit, five or six of us, with several bottles of wine. The great inky sky was overhead crowded with stars and the churning wake of the ship was racing through an indigo sea. There was no horizon, there was nothing to see and you felt like jumping overboard. It would be a clean quick and silent death, perhaps better than the one in store for us. I resisted the temptation. I had a return ticket.