Alexandria, The Pearl of the Mediterranean

Cities are stories, telling tales of expansion, degradation, conflicts, riots, natural and man-made disasters, of leaders, of change, of persecuted people’s, of cultural, political, of socio-economic histories. Alexandria has many tales on her skin, that would take years to hear and understand wholly. Alexandria tells tales of the mixing and overtaking of different cultures, of fiercer leaders, of a deep well of culture, a trading center, and so much more. It reminded me of San Diego meets Santa Barbara meets Porto. But maybe this is because I make sense of things by drawing comparisons, as humans think and make sense of their world by drawing similarities and understandings. It is how we situate ourselves in the chaotic world, to give some order to the chaos.

41787131_1939272166137380_833901886594613248_n-1
Pompey’s Pillar

I went to Alexandria on a little day trip with my SO, as they seem to be calling it nowadays. We started off in what was apparently the armpit of Alexandria – slummy, on the outskirts, poor roads, maybe not even working, and filled with potholes, etc. There we saw Pompey’s Pillar and the Catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa. Pompey’s Pillar was as you would expect it – a tall pillar standing erect in the morning heat. Not very many tourists. The Catacombs, however, were much more interesting – there was a tragic backstory that we found out about from a guard who was stationed in the catacombs, 100 feet underground, who had become a sort of tourguide. Apparently a poor pottery maker fell down into the catacombs through a shaft with his donkey, dying on impact, and that’s how people found out about these catacombs that were used during the Greek period. After some research, I realise this may well be a folklore tale of myth, however, if so, it is a widespread one. The catacombs show the influence of multiple cultures of the 2nd century A.D. – Greek, Egyptian, and Roman.

We then had some hookah right by the sea. Ah yes, the sea part of Alexandria. The pace of life in Alexandria is exceedingly slow, but not in the same way as Cairo – which is a sort of slowness in the way that “we don’t care if you are here, we are a capital of a big, important country, and so we won’t be attentive or considerate to anyone else’ whereas the Alexandrian slowness was more of a “we live by the sea and we enjoy life here”. Quite c’est la vie-esque. We also dined at the Greek Club – filled with people from all walks of life, with fresh fish and the like and overlooking the Mediterranean sea. At night, families and children would all go into the sea, staying by the mouth of it, where dozens of plastic white chairs seemed to be almost stacked on top of each other.

db4c67ef-d345-4653-8d0c-d8c855376230
View from the Greek Club 

The Roman Ampitheatre and the Qait Fortbey didn’t leave much of an impression. Perhaps it was because both were closed, but also due to the amount of castles and ruins I have seen. Perhaps it was the lack of the story behind it that I got to know. We didn’t end up having time to see Montaza Palace, with its stretching gardens. No matter, next time.

I left the two most interesting parts of Alexandria until last – the cars/streets, and the Bibliotheca. We drove to Alexandria from Cairo and therefore had the car between each stop. At the end of the day, I was wondering if we should have taken the train there and hopped in cabs throughout the day from site to site. The traffic was the worst traffic I have ever experienced in my life. This is because Alexandria has recently experienced massive projects of expansion without consideration for how this would affect the congestion, traffic, housing, the local people’s, etc. The constant background hum of car’s honking in the streets reminded me of the chaotic streets in Shanghai. A few years ago, it was illegal for cars to honk in Alexandria. This struck me as particularly sad. Cars would often have to stop and wait for people to cross – this would happen maybe 5-6 times down one block. Parking was horrific, it was like in San Francisco. Anyone that has been to San Francisco in a car or tried to find parking there knows what this is like – almost impossible. We drove around 4 laps, doing u-turns, because we couldn’t find parking in any of the small streets in order to go walk by the quarry bay.

Finally, a young man had seen us desperately trying to squeeze our car in a space (only to find it didn’t fit, just as it had seemed, although desperation had taken over by this point hence the idiotic redundant attempt) and offered us to park on a slope, originally not meant for parking. There was a man who must have been about 100, holding a walking stick and the arm of a younger man who was chewing gum and had his earphones in, who were waiting patiently to cross a very narrow little street. We let him pass, only to have about 20 cars lining up behind us by the time the poor old man had passed. On the upside though, the abundance of interesting little old vintage cars was amazing. I’m not a car person myself, so I’m not able to name names but I could tell they were vintage, and “cool.” Some were pink, some old box-ish brownish red cars that you see in films like Greece. The buildings were colourful – many walls lightly pastel coloured, with trams plodding along slowly, countless people holding ice-creams in their hands, men sitting in big round wooden chairs on the pavements of cafes, one hand with tea, the other holding the pipe of a hookah.

41797679_1320018938135354_4442354742349266944_n
Hookah by the sea

Last, but not least, the Bibliotheca Alexandria. It had the most beautiful architecture on the outside, and in the inside it was all modern, but still kept the qualities a library should have. Many libraries I’ve been to that have been modernised have lost the “library” feeling – with books not even seen in sight. This one was filled with lovely wooden walls, but with modernised tables and desktops. We stumbled across the Rare Books Collection room, with the help of a secretary who wrote us the number of a book (otherwise you couldn’t get in). On a whim, we said we’d like to see the oldest manuscript they had of Avicenna (Ibn Sina) – the influential physicians and philosopher of the Islamic Golden Age for philosophy in the West and non-West and medicine across the world. We went into the absolutely freezing room and waited in a hushed silence for it. When we left, we saw rows and rows of digital archives in rooms that stretched on for what seemed like miles, alongside shelves and shelves of books, floor after floor. Standing there, it was overwhelming to think about the amount of knowledge compiled and unified together in that building. I strongly recommend visiting the Rare Books Collection for anyone going to the Bibliotheca Alexandria, which used to the biggest library in the world – with much of it burned when the city was overtaken by different leaders and empires throughout the ages, including supposedly by Julius Caesar during his civil war. However it is often noted that historians may glorify and exaggerate, the extent to which the library has suffered destruction and fires.

So that was Alexandria. The second biggest city in Egypt. The old Capital of Ptolemaic Egypt. The old cultural hub of the Mediterranean world.

Dancing Dervishes

Whether you believe there is a God, Gods, or that there is nothing else other than us, or that everything is just waves, vibrating on some form of energy, or that there are infinite other realms, or that we are merely simulations – whatever it is, they are all attempts to understand the universe around us, indeed, how we came to be, and why.

Often times my friends berate me for going off on what they call “philosophical” tangents, laughing and saying “oh there she goes again” or “this is too philosophical for me right now”. Yet isn’t philosophising merely the act of being a human? A self-aware, conscious human, that is. To speculate, to theorise, yes, to philosophise- about our existence- is this not the most common and fundamental thing of man? For a man not to wonder where he came from, well, he must not truly understand what it means to be alive-  how miraculous it is, that we are here, conscious, self-aware; that all of this around us, is here. I’m not sure if I envy that man. For those angry atheists (of which I used to be one) – name a culture or time where man didn’t have some form of a “religion”? What is culture without religion? At what point do you draw the line between culture and religion? Granted, they have some different elements, but the point is they are inextricably intertwined. Ergo, religion should not be scoffed at, dismissed, or ridiculed- neither should philosophy.

Yet there is an age old argument between philosophy and religion. Many philosophers were persecuted or executed for their condemned thoughts on monotheistic religions. Perhaps most famously, poor Socrates, for not believing in the god of the state, condemned to drink hemlock. The list is too long to go through here. In the Islamic world, during the Islamic Golden Age, many philosophers began to use allegories, which led to what we now call the philosophical allegory. This is a tool, a weapon, of philosophers to use, a clever, sly, way, to theorise, stipulate, ponder upon the wonders of the universe without being clad by the iron fist of certain religions. It is similar to the hidden transcript method used by the persecuted Uyghurs in the North-West of China, who practice Islam and are heavily controlled and abused by the government. Here a religious minority, persecuted for their beliefs, uses linguistic tools in their defiance against the wrath of a nation-state, while, ironically, philosophers in the Islamic Golden Age, persecuted for their beliefs used philosophical allegories, to continue to express their ideas without being prosecuted for it by religious entities. Examining the history of man, it may be still up for debate whether war is natural or not, but one thing is clear – man has always persecuted one another for each other’s beliefs.

And so, one of these many ways of pondering about the universe that is particularly intriguing, and beautiful, to me, is Sufism. It is the mystical, spiritual way of understanding Islam, with most of them being Sunni. Sufism emphasises ridding oneself of one’s ego, of materialism, in order to become one with God. Due to their rather spiritual take on Islam, Sufis are often looked down upon by many Muslims, some even believing they are heretical, others believing many of them are on drugs, or crazy. The Islamic State and other extremist Sunni groups condemn them as heretical. In 2017 235 or more were killed in a Sufi mosque bombing in Northern Sinai.

29187053_10156180201931112_7926518567214177480_n
These dervishes would twirl for up to twenty minutes without stopping, shedding layers of their brightly coloured clothing. This symbolises the ridding of materialism that Sufis believe is necessary to become one with God. near the end, the boys went into a trance- raising their arms as they faced the heavens, lost (Sufi Concert, Cairo)

One of my favourite films, Bab’Aziz – The Prince who Contemplated His Soul, is a Tunisian film about a blind dervish traveling with his granddaughter towards a massive Sufi gathering. This is one of the few pieces of art, that is authentic and that I would recommend for anyone slightly interested in Sufism, or just anyone looking at different paths to facing and understanding the world and the universe. This is a film that deconstructs many misconceptions about Islam, and about Sufism.

7008.large
“You’d think he’s contemplating his image at the bottom of the water.”
“Maybe it’s not his image. Only those who are not in love see their own reflection.”
“So what does he see?”
“He’s contemplating his soul.”

“Hassan: But there can’t be light in death because it‘s the end of everything.

Bab’aziz: How can death be end of something that doesn’t have a beginning? Hassan, my son, don’t be sad at my wedding night.

Hassan: Your wedding night?

Baba’aziz: Yes. My marriage with eternity.”

———————————————————————

The people of this world are like the three butterflies
in front of a candle’s flame.

The first one went closer and said:
I know about love.

The second one touched the flame
lightly with his wings and said:
I know how love’s fire can burn.

The third one threw himself into the heart of the flame
and was consumed. He alone knows what true love is.

11kiAqEO3rF0fbtUxmwxjkJ4Mdg
Bab’aziz and his grand-daughter in the film, “Bab’aziz”. 

This brings me to Rumi. Jalāl ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, Persian, of the 12th century, is one of the most read poets in the world. Referred to typically as Rumi, his works have been translated into countless other languages, and has influenced Turkic, Iranian, Turkish, Azerbaijani, and other literatures. And, yes, he was a Sufi mystic. His master, Shams of Tabriz, is often pondered about what the nature of their relationship was – merely student and teacher? friends? lovers? I believe all, their love transcended these categories, they had the deepest, purest, form of love- in all of its being. These are some books I have on Rumi, Shams, and Sufism; given to me by someone very special, and that I know will aid anyone in their journey, regardless of the nature of their journey:

  • Discourses of Rumi – Jalaluddin Rumi
  • Fiih Ma Fihi – Jalaluddin Rumi
  • 40 Rules of Love by Elif Shafak

Finally, the moth and flame metaphor, which is said to describe certain parts of Sufism. It is said to describe the relationship between Man and God, or between Shams and Rumi, or to symbolise self-transformation, as the moth’s annihilation occurs again and again as it is always drawn to the flame- the annihilation is said to depict the passing into the Divine (fana) on the Sufi path. Or perhaps the love affair of the soul of the human with That Which We Cannot Understand, which is also Everything. Some call it God. others call it Nothingness.

Moth: I gave you my life.
Flame: I allowed you to kiss me.
-Sufi Master Hazrat Inayat Khan

2726399-GOZLIIAQ-7

Egypt’s “McDonaldization”

41490573_328932277871259_4195525368439898112_n
El-Moshir Tantawy Mosque in Cairo. Eloquently encapsulating religion’s meeting with modernity.

Those that waft between places gain the gift of being able to see the changes more clearly than those who are in that place everyday; the incremental changes steering clear from their attention. I want to focus on two points in this post, of things that are, by late 2018, quite prominent and relevant:

  1. China-Egypt Relations

It should be no news to many that China-Egypt relations have been improving and increasing in the past years. Sisi came back from China last week, to discuss the FOCAC cooperation (China-African cooperation). The bilateral partnership is being strengthened by many projects the Chinese fund in Egypt, including creating Chinese language schools in Cairo, the Northwest Suez Economic zone, indeed, the new capital of Egypt is being funded largely by China. From a more macro view, Africa-China economic relations is an increasingly beneficial relationship, with China often funding infrastructure projects in return for resources for their rapidly growing consumption.

Beyond the international relations, political discussion, culturally I have seen very interesting developments in regards to China-Egypt relations. However, the racism prevalent in both countries is both sky-high. As a biracial person with a Chinese mother, I have spent my middle school and high school years in Shanghai, and often return to see my mother. This last time I was there, a couple of weeks ago, I experienced horrible remarks regarding black people that I will not repeat here. In Egypt, I am constantly mistaken for Japanese (something that has never happened to me before). A cab driver once translated what he was trying to say (which was objectification) into Japanese and handed me his phone. I stared at the Japanese on his phone before stuttering out “I’m Chinese” in poor Arabic. And so on and so forth.

Political sensitivity, “PC culture” (Political Correctness) is not a luxury developing countries can afford. This is something that I believe developed countries should take into account. It almost seems as though once a country largely pulls itself out of masses of poverty and corruption, they forget the authenticity of humans – it becomes individualistic, the race to make the most money, get the best car, the best house, the most charming spouse, etc., seems to be the entire point of life. Not that I know what the point of life is, nor does anyone else for that matter, but I am as certain as I can be that that is not it.

In these developing countries, people are the most important. Human connection. Having clean water, some shelter, food, and health. In Egypt, bread is literally called “Aesh”, the word for “life”. This isn’t the case in the other Arab countries. Yet, paradoxically, developing countries like Egypt and China also experience higher rates of racism and oblivion to racial ideologies and thoughts. It is yin and yang- there must be a give and take for everything.

At the end of the day, I hope China-Egypt relations will continue to flourish and will not turn sour. I suppose China is Egypt’s new papasito, after Russia and the US. Let’s hope China will be a benevolent papasito.  I saw a few Chinese people walking near me yesterday in Ikea, precisely in the bedroom section (I knew they were Chinese because they were speaking Mandarin), and I thought, ah, they must be struggling with being in a country where they can’t speak the language. This, I’ll admit, was a presumptious thought on my part, because later on I saw them again, and one of them was yelling down the phone in rapid Arabic, with a strong Delta accent. I hope to see more of this, everywhere- one of the positive results of globalisation. Things brings me to my second point of focus.

2. “McDonaldization”

The second point of focus I’ve been pondering upon regarding Egypt today is its “McDonaldization”. Originally coined by sociologist George Ritzer, the term is rather self-explanatory, referring to the rapid spread of McDonaldization globally. However, more deeply, and more importantly, it refers to the homogenisation of cultures due to globalisation. Some would argue it isn’t the homogenisation of cultures, but the Westernisation of cultures. This is a point of contention many argue within academic circles and the public sphere. There has been, up until recently, largely a Westernisation of cultures. However I believe the rapid dispersion of things like China Town, Korea Town, Japan Town, and restaurants of all around the world popping up around the world might be showing a shift to the homogenisation of cultures. It is simply too early to say, although we must be aware of ideological simplifications, such as the clash of civilisations theory, or the theories of the Edward Said-ians (the “West vs the Rest” notion is oversimplified and arguably outdated in today’s post-modern society).

Being in Ikea, I forgot for those two, stressful hours, that I was still in Egypt. Indeed, being in the complex in New Cairo – Festival City Mall – surrounded by fast food restaurants, clothing stores like DeCathlon, Toys R Us, and TGIF (not to mention McDonald’s itself, KFC, Costa coffee, etc) – I could have been in Los Angeles, New York, London, or Shanghai.

If I were driving by in a car, it would just look like any of those cities, just with a few more covered women. Another experience I had that shows this “McDonaldization”, or homogenisation of cultures, or perhaps the intertwining of cultures, was the boy who took care of the camels in Giza, one of which I was riding, and who was wearing a galebeya* with a sports cap – this strange and awkward juxtaposition perfectly captures this sentiment. As more and more of these places pop up, completely derived from any cultural authenticity, perhaps this is creating a new culture – a global culture.

*traditional Egyptian dress wear.

يا مسافر (Lone Traveler)

40684685_244975609483436_3271350317324697600_n.jpg

 

During my visits to Egypt, I often visited many of the mosques in Cairo. I am not a Muslim, but I brought along my own headscarf in respect of their religion. After all, do in Rome as the Romans do. This, I’ve found, is really the only mantra one needs to take heed in when visiting a new place. I’d wear dark clothes so as not to be see-through in any way, and would not be showing much skin. However, different mosques have different regulations. The mosque of Amr ibn al-As, for example, the men near the front door wanted me to wear a long-purple robe (a strange assortment to give out to one entering a mosque, I know; I felt like an elf), although I was already wearing a headscarf and black trousers with a black, long-sleeved blouse. Another mosque (I can’t remember which- perhaps Al-Azhar mosque?),  gave me a thick, heavy, brown robe – which I wasn’t too pleased considering the 40C degree heat. The mosque of Muhammad Ali was less strict, allowing me to enter with my own clothes and headscarf. The Mosque of Ibn Tulun was one of the other ones I remember quite well. Each of these three rather well known mosques in Cairo each had their own unique set of design.

Islamic art is dominated by Islamic geometric patterns, which may overlap or form tessellations, as it is often believed in Islam to depict God, the Prophet Muhammad, relatives of Muhammad, and so on – is blasphemous, or to depict anything resembling God, or with a soul, that is, a human or non-human animal is similarly, also blasphemous, although to a lesser degree. This is called Aniconism, which is against the creation of images of sentient beings. This has resulted in geometric patterns dominating Islamic art, as well as half-formed figures such as wings without a body, and the arabesque. This can be seen in the shapes and architectures of the mosques.

20770208_10155597360021112_6182882477878493540_n
Mosque of Muhammad Ali
20729348_10155597360001112_101751761034667853_n
Mosque of Ibn Tulun
40402841_344302152979140_2227742696838004736_n
Mosque Amr Ibn al-As
40493902_311985442684925_5760580905294888960_n
Al Azhar Mosque

 

 

The Egyptian Cafe

For those who don’t know Naguib Mahfouz, he’s often considered the most influential writer of the Arab world, having won a 1988 Nobel Prize in literature and having produced over 30 novels and over 350 short stories. He is, of course, Egyptian. One of the reasons he is so well known is due to how he captures the colours, smells, and the atmosphere of Cairo in many of his novels. My favorites are that depict Cairo very strongly are Khan al-Khalili, Adrift on the Nile, Children of the Alley, Cairo Modern and of course, arguably his most famous work, the Cairo trilogy. 

(to see list of books written by Naguib Mahfouz, see https://www.thriftbooks.com/a/naguib-mahfouz/200620/).

21192914_10155650416896112_4823726417563753049_n

The cafe scene depicted in many of his books is a strong part of Egyptian society. Where one goes to escape the corruption and desperation of nihilistic tendencies, as graduates realise they are unable to  get a decent job or the ones they want without connections, as nationalistic individuals realise their fate has been placed in the wrong hands, or religious zealots lose their faith in God- many of the day to day troubles are forgotten in the smoky, hashish filled, cafes, with little cups of coffee or Egyptian tea (the one with no milk, occasionally mint leaves or sage, and usually many spoonfuls of sugar). Laughter fills the cafes, it is a place where, for a moment, we can truly be in the present.

29186556_10156180201006112_8441288075391031410_n

Throughout the day, one can hear the calls to prayer resounding from the mosques, the أَذَان  (pronounced “adhan”)  in Cairo. Five times a day. Although we don’t really understand what time is, we have, in some way, captured it to some extent- by being able to accurately get on a flight at the right time, meeting a friend at a cafe at said same time, and so on. The calls to prayer are, for me at least, incredibly calming, placing our stake, some sort of hold on reality , despite being infinitely small in the grand scheme of things, some order to the chaos, and that all is good and constant. Here is a beautiful video I found on YouTube that captures that essence, in a call to prayer taken in Giza: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eMxUGB-lSqo

Particularly in today’s political climate, it’s important to understand Islam before judging it by the media that survive on the deviants and extremes of society. In 2010, the Egypt’s Ministry of Religious Endowment decided to have a single Islamic call to prayer resound from downtown Cairo, which will then be transmitted through thousands of mosques. This is because it was said before, when each mosque used their own muezzinine, or callers, there was chaos and lack of unity.  Many were unhappy about this change, as often times, change meets resistance, and many cling on to familiarity, confusing familiarity with a stubborn righteousness, perhaps in the attempt to feel we have control over the otherwise chaotic universe.