The Week That Was…September 20th and onward

1.Egypt’s North Coast

We have had a week off because of the Eid celebrations. It is a celebration of a story that is part of the Bible, the Torah as well as the Koran; Abraham being commanded by God to kill his first born son and being spared at the last second by an angel. Instead of his son, a sheep was sacrificed.

So, during Eid, sheep are slaughtered and consumed in great numbers and quantities. When we were travelling to and from the North Coast this week, we saw small, rudimentary sheep pens all along the city streets as well as the highway. It is very real shall we say. Yesterday, we were walking home from the grocery store on Syria Street, which is very busy and bustling, and passed a little Toyota pickup truck with three sheep in the back. I noticed that the two men were in the process of slaughtering and delivering meat to someone right on the spot. Sometimes, you have to put your head down and keep on walking. This was one of those moments. We ate vegetarian last night.

I had not heard of the North Coast of Egypt until a month ago. We wanted a get away from the hustle and bustle of Alex which seemed impossible because everyone said the Egyptians flooded all of the holiday spots during Eid and had a lot of fun doing it. Some of the younger teachers flew to Germany for (the real) Octoberfest. School has been very busy and exhausting really and a battery recharge was needed by the yours trulies (?). We headed out in a hired car. Three days and two nights at the Hotel Al Alamein. It sounded great.

I cannot describe the beauty of the Mediterranean at that spot. The beach was utterly pure and spotless. The colour of the sea itself was aquamarine, almost as if it had been retouched. The hordes had not yet arrived for the Eid parties so we could swim, walk and eat at a relaxed pace. The Honking Horn Society was back on our street corner in Alexandria practicing for our return. The call to prayer was kind of muffled, not right outside our window. And there were no lessons to prepare or meetings to attend or children to corral. It was blissful.

But we were starting to get a little bored on Monday afternoon. We seemed to be the only non-Egyptians in the whole place. At about 1 in the afternoon, after a swim in the ocean, we were just sitting in our chairs doing nothing really when Judy spotted two women walking down the beach in identical outfits…yellow shorts and aqua tank tops. Judy said,” maybe those girls speak English” in a hopeful tone of voice. Well, they marched right up to us and asked, ” would you like to do yoga with us?”

You could have knocked us over with a feather. And off we went. No questions asked…well, hardly any.

The girls were Russian, Irena and Anastasia, and working at the hotel until the end of September. For some reason, I instantly started thinking Bond…James Bond. But there were to be no spy vs. spy goings on this time around. Our two new friends seemed very, very happy to have someone English (and they thought we were English from England at first) to talk to and we pretty well felt the same. We practised yoga for half an hour and it was a slightly different practice from Monica Chappell’s at home. More pure stretching, which is good for my back and general relaxation. Monica’s feels very spiritual as well as being a super workout. Anastasia came to say goodbye to us when we left the next day and Judy now has a bevy of Russian Facebook friends. It is amazing how fast you strike a sort of bond with people, who are really strangers, when you are so far from home. I like it. And if we wind up in Moscow at any point (are we even allowed in?), we will have guaranteed tour guides. And who knows what the future holds?

2. Al-Alamein Military Museum

This will put some of you to sleep but, behind the nice mini vaycay to the North Coast, I was really hoping to be able to get to this museum because it wasn’t far from our hotel. Which means nothing really when you are driving through the desert and you and your driver speak quite different languages.

Here is the way it worked out. We started home from the hotel and were driving through the desert through an actual dust storm. That was something new and different. Our driver had brought his daughter with him for the pick up and he was in a cheery mood. He pulled the van over at one point so we could photo a number of penned in, undernourished looking camels. I hope I don’t come back as a camel.

We went through a security check point and he was asking questions, seeming to look for directions. And then we circled back. I thought he was running out of gas. But he turned up a rather obscure looking road and lo and behold we wound up in front of the Al-Alamein Military Museum. This will interest the WWll buffs because in many ways the Battle of Al Alamein was the turning point of that war. It was the battle for North Africa which I never understood the significance of until now. If that battle had been lost, control of the Suez Canal would have been lost with it and the supply lines of the Allies would have been in very tough shape.

The museum gives equal time and space to the Allies, the Germans and the Italians. There are three cemeteries in the area, which we will see next time, with the graves of approximatley 65000 men, two thirds of them Axis soldiers. The museum is in the middle of the desert with an assortment of battle scarred military vehicles and tanks. The location drives home the awful idea of this terrible battle being fought in the desert heat. It was about 32 degrees C when we were there so we got the point in our own limited way. They fought to preserve a way of life, those fellows, and for that we should be grateful.

Tram Car 1

Men and women; boys and girls; relations between the sexes: these have been challenging issues in some ways. Egypt is predominantly but not completely Moslem. Coptic Christians trace their roots to 42 CE when Saint Mark founded the church here in Alexandria. We have a functioning Greek Orthodox church within our school compound which is utterly beautiful inside. But, for the most part, this is a Moslem country and according to what I have read, it is very conservative in the rural areas and to some extent in Alexandria too.

Here in Alex, this is what I see. When we drove here from Cairo and I was peeking out of the purple curtains of our unairconditioned van hoping the suitcases wouldn`t topple over on me, I noticed many mosques. Even in most squalid neighbourhoods, their elegant minarets could be seen looming over the apartment buildings and homes. There is one right beside our own apartment building and we hear the muezzin singing the call to prayer five times daily, including one at 4:45 am I might add. It`s a beautiful sound once you get used to it (not so much at 4:45 though). On Friday morning, we get the whole service, including a lengthy sermon!

The point is that religion is important here, not like in Saudi thankfully, but still it is a presence. During our orientation, we were given a talk by three of the female Arabic teaching assistants. We have a number of both single and married female westerners on staff. They were advised to avoid having uncovered shoulders, wearing shorts and no French kissing in public! Ok, we`ll try to remember that.

The trams have a first car reserved for women. This is actually really good for women travelling unaccompanied although, if it is crowded, the odd brouhaha can break out. One of our teachers was riding home the other day and she found herself stuck more or less in the middle of two women in the full niqab, the full garment that covers the eyes, who apparently both had anger management issues. They started physically attacking each other and even pulled their head coverings off of each other! Yikes! Luckily, Lydia got out of the situation safe and sound. And a little wiser.

Then, the next morning, five of us were walking to the tram up our street. The tram was heading across the street and we thought we would just catch the next one. But the tram operator stopped the tram in the middle of the intersection, motioned for us to hurry up and hop on, and then, told me to just jump in the women`s car with the other four female teachers and whatever women were on there already who thought they were safe from men for a few precious minutes. I didn`t know which way to look during that ride. Luckily the tram was fairly empty or I might not be here to tell the story.

At home, our friends are not segregated. I have many female friends in the church, Run Club, yoga and it is the same with Judy. And it was like that for our kids growing up and carrying on to today. And for the grandchildren. In Egyptian culture there are more lines, although less so at the school. Learning to live with differences and keeping an open mind are the challenges that never rest.