This is our second-to-last weekend in Egypt! With that depressing thought in mind, we compiled a list of the things we hadn’t yet and still wanted to do or see in Alexandria and went at it yesterday.
First, we headed to Mahatat Raml, one of my favorite parts of the city, by tram.
By some stroke of luck we ended up in a double-decker car. For what feels like the hundredth time, I paid my fare, 25 piastres (about 4 US cents) which is about the size of a nickel and looks like this:
The ticket collector gave me a little yellow slip that looks like this: Everybody and their mother was out and about–on the street, in the market, at the tram stations, and crowding the seats even on the second level. There were schoolgirls chatting in their white hijabs, uniform shirts, and long grey skirts, old ladies gossiping with their neighbors, and chic twenty-somethings yammering away on cellphones. Despite the crowd, the ride was pleasant, especially since I could observe the bustling streets from above. Carrots, eggplants, zucchini, cauliflower, and fairy-tale-sized cabbages sat on display at Ibrahimia station next to a stretch of live protein: turkeys, chickens, rabbits, geese, ptarmidgans all in or on plastic crates, not much minding the people rushing past or the butcher’s block in the shop behind them.
Once we arrived at Raml Station, we headed straight to the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue on Nabi Daniel Street, which was originally built in 1354 but was bombed during the French invasion in 1798 and then rebuilt in the 1850s. There was once a thriving Jewish community in Alexandria, but after WWII many fled for fear of persecution. Today the synagogue still holds services, but the congregation is tiny, sometimes less than 10 at a time. Today the synagogue looks like this:
But it was closed to the public when we got there, so I didn’t get to see the inside.
Next, we walked one block over to Mohamad Ahmed, a restaurant famous for its Egyptian staples. We have been here before for fool and falafel, but this time we had another dish in mind.
Shakshouka is a breakfast dish popular across the Middle East made of eggs poached in tomatoes, peppers, and onion which is spiced with cumin. It is served with bread, which is used as a scoop and to soak up the sauce. Dee-lish!
Next we walked to the Qaid Ibrahim mosque. This was one of the centers of the recent protests. Yesterday, it was peaceful and crowd-free.
It was unclear whether we were allowed in as unbelieving women there during prayers until an old man beckoned us in, gestured for me to take off my shoes and to cover my hair. Another man in a baseball cap came up to us and tried to give us a tour, but his accent was funky. It turned out he lived in Paris and spent a good five minutes explaining exactly where he lives and how he’s in Alex to see his mother. Finally, he went to pray and we walked around in silence and marveled at the beautiful geometric designs, the chandeliers, and the magnificent light coming from the western door.
I had a few souvenirs left to hunt for and we walked toward downtown to find the markets. Always something new to see:
By the time we made it through the maze of tiny alleys selling everything from robotic dog toys to kitchenware we were at Manshia, one of the oldest parts of town. We walked along the Corniche until we got to the Abu Abbas al-Mursi mosque and its two sister mosques. The main complex is built on top of the tomb of a 13th century Sufi saint. As human images are forbidden and other life-like pictures are out of favor, the emphasis is on beautiful geometric patterns and rich color, often with calligraphic scrolls. The mosques often have huge chandeliers of blown glass and ornate metalwork in the center that hang quite low to the main floor, which are complimented by smaller chandeliers on the periphery. The floors are most often carpeted with one big carpet that lies across most of the floor and has rows of prayer rug outlines or repetitive geometric designs that point toward Mecca. The first two mosques were relatively empty and we were allowed to walk around as we wished. When we finally walked into the Abu Abbas al-Mursi mosque it was near dusk and prayer had started. We came in to the women’s entrance and found our way blocked by a gate used to keep the sexes separate. At least it didn’t keep us from getting a look at that spectacular ceiling.
We sat observing the prayers for a little while breathing in the serenity of the place and then we walked to dinner at the Greek Club, at the end of the quay leading up to the Qaitbay Citadel (more about that here). It was dark by the time we sat down on the terrace, the view overwhelmed by the lights of the city that stretched out in an arc before us. Boats bobbed in the harbor and here and there the last of the fishermen to come in stowed their tackle and catch. I felt suddenly very lucky to be here to see this.
We ordered, mussels and greek salad for me, baba ghanoush and sea bass for Hannah. The mussels were bigger than those I am accustomed to, meaty and full of pungent broth, which I mopped up with spongy pita bread. Hannah had gone up to the fish counter, where you pick out the fish you want to eat. The waiter held up an entire sea bass and Hannah nodded for the one she liked. “Taban, Of course! That one looks good.” We joked that the fish would probably come out in a procession of camels and a jester who would do flips while playing an oud and singing the praises of this particular sea bass.
No such luck but when the fish finally came out we saw exactly how much they weren’t kidding about serving the whole thing. It was presented on our table on a big glass platter with lemon wedges tied up in cheesecloth on top of wooden blocks. We watched, mesmerized, as our waiter de-boned the fish on the spot. Forget going whole hog. We were going whole sea bass.
After finishing dinner, we decided (as part of our list) to walk down Qasr Ras el-Tin to El-Sheik Wafik, a dessert shop known for a dish called couscousy. Hannah ordered up a bowl of the stuff and I went for a gelato “cocktail,” which is hazelnut, strawberry, vanilla, and mango gelato topped with roasted and halved hazelnuts, raisins, and chopped walnuts. We crossed the street and sat on a concrete wall to dig in.
Couscousy is a scrumptious combination of couscous, shredded coconut, raisins, hazelnuts, and sugar over which hot milk is poured. Fortunately for the couscousy but unfortunately for Hannah’s hands, the milk was served in a plastic baggy and came hot.
Thoroughly satiated, we hailed a microbus, which looks like this:
and costs 1.25 Egyptian pounds (about 25 US cents) for a ride from the Citadel to Roushdy. That’s:
We got off at Roushdy, walked up the hill to Kafr Abdo, and went to bed.