In one of her (many) misadventures, Monica Gerges decided to hop on a train and make her way to one of our country's most iconic cities, Alexandria, discovering the beautiful seaside spot and challenging Egypt's culture of fear along the way.
Growing up outside of Egypt makes you see most things from a perspective very different than those living here; no matter how immersed I was in the Egyptian community during my 20 years in Canada, it's still not the same. Coming to Egypt on vacation was always a small dose of another reality - one laden with "7asbi," "mayenfa3sh," "people aren't good," and "but you're a girl." One laden with 'don't'. While none of this actually phased me, it did get me thinking. Not long ago I wrote about 'Can't Culture' and restricting ourselves by our own self-imposed disabilities; I've encountered a whole new realm of Can't Culture here in Egypt, and that's the Can't Culture driven by fear.
I was here on vacation a few months ago and, being the spontaneous person I am and having never before been to Alexandria, I decided to grab my camera and hop on a train alone to explore the Pearl of the Mediterranean - (surprise, mom!). A beautiful city with gorgeous landmarks and corniche views to consume an entire camera roll, Alexandria's streets were also the first time I ever felt unsafe in Egypt - and in broad daylight, too. From the old taxi driver who tried to rip me off and the library security guard who was displeased to see an Arabic copy of Taxi in my tote bag (as well as embarrassed to find some personal intimates on his search) to the little elementary school boy who said that, since I'm skipping school, I should skip and go off somewhere with him, Alexandria should have left a very sour taste in my mouth. It should've cemented in me what almost every Egyptian mother attempts to ingrain into her daughter's head and what almost every father tries to enforce: "It's not safe out there! Don't talk to strangers; don't come home late; don't walk alone." However, it didn't; it did just the opposite, actually.My first encounter on this misadventure was the grumbly ticket booth lady at Ramses Station, having to elbow my way through throngs of 9 AM travellers just to reach her only to miscommunicate with her about ticket prices and have to explain that I'm not from around here - much to the amusement of some stranger standing to my left. I still don't know the difference between all the train categories, but I managed to get on the air-conditioned one that makes about seven stops on the way to Alexandria. The 7ommos and lib vendor that hopped on our train in Tanta, the curious people of Damanhour, the gorgeously green fields of palm trees in Kafr el Dawar - the little adventurer in me soaked up every tiny drop of this new-yet-familiar sense of home.
As we approached our destination, people began asking the guy in front of me for directions while I just stared wanderlustfully out the window. After he was finished giving directions he turned and asked me if I knew where I was getting off, which seemed like a very stupid question to me because we're obviously approaching the end of the line - Alexandria. So, apparently, there are two train stations in Alexandria; traveller tip number one: have a less-than-vague idea of where the heck you're going. He asked me where I was headed, to which I said that I'm off to the corniche; after furrowing his eyebrows in momentary thought, the welcomedly-intrusive stranger asked me if anyone was waiting for me when I arrive. "No." He definitely thought I was batshit crazy. He instructed me to get off the train at Sidi Gaber and, upon exiting the train, he told me to wait for him a moment as the corniche was on his way home so he offered to walk with me so I wouldn't get lost. Cue every Egyptian mother: "You better not have let him walk with you ya habla!" I'm of the opinion that meeting strangers often makes for good stories; I wouldn't be telling this story if I hadn't started strolling with this run-of-the-mill-looking not-a-boy-not-yet-a-man.As we began our walk through the sparsely populated streets of Alexandria on a Sunday morning, I learned that he's an Alexandrian native stationed in Zamalek with the army, coming home for his first vacation. So, what made him choose to offer his help to a stranger in a foreign city? Did the army leave him with a gaping hole of faragh 3atefi? Did he want to rape me and leave me in the alleyways of Sidi Bishr? Could he have been a genuinely good-natured person who saw an opportunity to help? He volunteered the answer: "I'm sorry, I couldn't help but overhear you at the ticket booth saying that you weren't from around here. I didn't want you to get lost and, since you're on my way, I thought I could walk you there." Hello, amused stranger standing to my left at Ramses Station; I didn't see that coming, but I guess that answers that question. "Alexandrians are such good people but, because a lot of people come here during the summer and make a mess of our city, we don't ever really get to enjoy it during the summer and become resentful towards the non-locals," he thought out loud before giving me a warning that would ring true throughout my day. "You should be careful; Alexandrians tend to take advantage of people who aren't from around here, and they can spot them right away. Just be careful, okay?" Okay.
En route to Stanley Bridge, he shared that he was a travel and tourism graduate and subsequently began pointing to little monuments in his hometown and sharing their stories, reminiscing as he went on. It would've been très movie-esque to continue this encounter without ever exchanging names, but this was share3 el corniche and not Sunset Boulevard, so he presented his Ken Adams and I my Regina Phalange. Arriving at Stanley Bridge, he asked if it would bother me that he keep walking with me; it didn't. We walked in near silence as he waited patiently for me to take pictures until we reached Café Latino where he wished me well and we parted ways. Two things infallibly happen every time I tell this story: first, people start to worry about me for having (God forbid) accepted a friendly gesture from a kind stranger in this dog-eat-girl country; second, I spend an excessive amount of time expressing how highly I thought of this kind stranger who put everyone's negative speculations to shit. I'll let you come to your own conclusions about random acts of kindness (hint: do them!), but something as simple as this genuine gesture made the entire rest of my adventure in Alexandria all the more bearable, and made for a story worth telling.
Arriving back in Cairo at Ramses Station around 11 PM on a gorgeous night, the logical (read: Monica) thing to do was to walk down Ramses Street, from the station down to the start of Abbaseya. I wanted to aboos torab 2ard el Qahera walking through that area, which is not so much a negative reflection on Alexandria as it is an appreciation of a neighbourhood in which most people are afraid to walk but in which I find comfort and reassurance to wander alone at night. It's a matter of perspective.A countless number of things could have gone wrong on this trip to Alexandria - everything from getting kidnapped to my train derailing into some unidentifiable ter3a. Were there road bumps? Yes. Did I come across problems? Yes. Did I feel unsafe? Yes. But outweighing all of that was the experience of taking a train through gorgeous unexplored parts of Egypt, meeting a kind stranger, enjoying a beautiful view and a relatively relaxing day, and having a story to tell at the end of it all. The 'outside world' is not something to be feared - it's something to be explored. I could be sitting in the comfort of my apartment and an earthquake could bring eight stories' worth of rubble crashing on me - an anticlimactic end to life. Or, I could go on an adventure to Alexandria and come home perfectly fine. Again, perspective.
Living in fear is creating your own disability and later wallowing in regret of experiences not had. Yeah, I know Egypt isn't the safest place out there, but no country is a walk in the park - not even the over-glorified America. If we spend all our lives not doing things in fear of what might go wrong, we're never going to live. Go ahead; live a little.
Photography by Monica Gerges - otherwise, this trip would've been useless.