Travelogue: A Return to Alexandria, Egypt

By Wale Okediran,

Football was not on my mind as I arrived the ancient Egyptian seaport of Alexandria that warm September morning.

However, the moment I stepped on Egyptian soil and I was known to be a Nigerian, almost every adult Egyptian male I met from Cairo to Luxol on to Aswan and beyond brought up the subject of football.

‘’ Oh, Nigeria….you play good football’’ came the remarks before I was regaled about the skills of some famous Nigerian footballers such as Daniel Amokachie, J J Okocha, Rasheed Yekini, Ahmed Musa among others.

Even though my visit predated by months the African Cup Of Nations (AFCON) Football Tournament where Egypt and Nigeria were drawn in the same Group D, the Egyptians seemed obsessed with Nigerian football players.

Despite my expression of respect for the Egyptian talismanic footballer, Mohammed Salah, my hosts continued their adulation of Nigerian football and footballers. ‘’Yes, Salah is good but we adore good football wherever we see one.

We, Egyptians love football more than women’’ they said amidst cracks of laughter.

Alexandria, a very important landmark in my Literary Odyssey was the last leg of my holiday to Egypt which began with a visit to the Giza Plateau in Cairo.

This was where I admired breathtaking works of the Pharaohs such as the massive stone hulks of the Pyramids and Sphinx as well as the giant columns and statues at the Temple of Karnack.

This was followed by five days on the Nile River in the cavernous comfort of the cruise ship; RADAMIS 11 before a road trip from Cairo to Alexandria.

My last visit to the Egyptian seaport was in 1978 when as the then President of the Medical Students Association of my Medical School in Nigeria, I had come to attend the annual Conference of the Federation Of African Medical Students (FAMSA).

On that trip, I was in the company of my friend, classmate and the then Secretary of the Medical Students Association, Toyin Akinbi (now a US based Professor of Neonatal Pediatrics).

It so happened that after the very interesting three- day Conference, Toyin and I were taking a walk down the Alexandrian waterfront admiring the Mediterranean Sea when we were approached by two apparently friendly Egyptian youths, who introduced themselves as Tarek and Atef. They informed us that having visited Nigeria before they had become very fond of Nigerians and would like to invite us for Lunch.

Unlike me, Toyin was suspicious of the youths and wanted us to decline the invitation but upon my prodding, he accepted. Midway into the Lunch, Atef, took permission to buy some cigarettes nearby. Moments later, Tarek also took permission to visit the toilet.

At that point, we became suspicious and asked him to pay for the Lunch before his toilet visit. We were still discussing when Tarek suddenly leapt over the dining tables and chairs, at the roadside restaurant, ran away and left us to pay for the Lunch which had been largely consumed by the youths.

When our friends back home later learnt about the incident, Toyin and I became the butt of jokes. We were mocked for being gullible because we were ‘local, uptown’ boys (ara oke in Yoruba) unlike the city bred boys who were very smart and difficult to swindle.

Our greatest transducers were the Lagos boys who boasted of being beyond that kind of ‘cheap’ gimmick. I was however quick to remind them that being Lagosians or residents of any big city for that matter was no antidote to being swindled or coned.

I told them of an incident which Cyprian Ekwensi, the late renowned author of JAGUA NANA and other popular novels once relayed to us at a Writers Meeting.

According to Ekwensi, he had once accompanied some young writers from Lagos to a Writers Conference in Sierra Leone sometimes in the 70s only for the Writers to later return to the hotel crying that their wallets had been stolen at the Freetown market!!

While it is true that visiting new cities and countries can be one of the most enjoyable experiences of your life. traveling can also have its occasional down turns. Apart from being a target of con men (and women), pick pocketing is also an issue that travelers should be wary of.

Since many travelers usually go about with a lot of money, they are usually prime targets for pickpockets. This is most likely to happen in foreign countries where you may not be able to use your debit or credit card.

Having said this, it is still good to know that no African city is in the latest list of the ten top most pickpocketed cities in the world. The trophies for that achievement belong to 10 European countries.

Even though a very painful episode, my encounter 43 years ago with the Alexandrian youthful swindlers was a blessing in disguise. Having written about the incident in the form of a Travel Story, I decided to publish it and therefore sent the story to Ms Amman Ogan the then Editor of the Nigerian Guardian On Sunday.

I was completely swept off my feet when my story later appeared in a 1983 edition of The Guardian under the title; ASSAULT IN ALEXANDRIA. That was my first published Travel Story and the beginning of a long career in Travel Story Writing.

Since that balmy day in Alexandria, I had gone on to write more than 50 Travel Stories many of which have now been published all over the world and in my two current collections of Travel Stories.

Therefore, apart from being a holiday event, my return to Alexandria was also a celebration to mark a Literary Odyssey that commenced 43 years ago and has taken me to more than 40 countries with a large following of literary and academic enthusiasts.

Founded by Alexander the Great in the 4th century BC, Alexandria is a bustling city with a population of five million people.

The city still retains faint echoes of its former glories. Having flourished as one of the greatest Graeco-Roman cities of its time, Alexandria remains one of the most important ports of the Mediterranean.

During the Hellenistic period, it was home to a lighthouse ranking among the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World as well as a storied library.

Today the library is reincarnated in the disc-shaped, ultramodern Bibliotheca Alexandrina. The city also has Greco-Roman landmarks, old-world cafes and sandy beaches. Its 15th-century seafront Qaitbay Citadel is now a museum.

After Alexandria’s status as the country’s capital ended, it fell into a long decline, which by the late Ottoman period, had seen it reduced to little more than a small fishing village.

The French army under Napoleon captured the city in 1798 and the British soon captured it from the French, retaining Alexandria within their sphere of influence for 150 years.

The current city is the Republic of Egypt’s leading port, a commercial, tourism and transportation center, and the heart of a major industrial area.

On the day of my visit, the Library, the beautiful disc-shaped, ultramodern Bibliotheca Alexandrina was closed due to the Covid Pandemic. I therefore missed the opportunity of viewing manuscripts and rare books from Egypt, the Arab world and the Mediterranean countries that are stored in the Library.

Although the famous Light House, one of the seven wonders of the world had been destroyed by an earthquake I was able to visit another historic site, the Citadel of Qaitbay a 15th-century defensive fortress located on the Mediterranean Sea coast. It was established in 1477 AD by Sultan Al-Ashraf Sayf al-Din Qa’it Bay.

Not far from the Citadel was the Moussi Abu Abasi mosque which was said to have been established over 400 years ago by a Muslim cleric from Morocco.

On the other side of the city was the Senghor University, a private French speaking Institution. Established in 1989, the University which has eight campuses on the African continent awards only post graduate degrees.

To reach the University, we had to pass through congested City streets which on that day were full of security personnel. This, I was informed was because of the visit of the visit of the Egyptian President, President Sisi to Alexander.

I also noticed that a famous form of transport during my 1978 visit, the Tram was still very active as could be seen by the well laid out Tram rails.

Other places of interest visited were the Roman Theatre which was discovered buried underground and was excavated using hand tools and the Catacomb of Kom El, which is the second largest in the world.

Also important was the Necropolis of Anfushi, five rock tombs which were discovered early this century and which gave a glimpse into life in the Ptolemaic period.

In an attempt to show us the other side of life in Alexandria, our guide decided to take us through the back streets and alleys of the big city.

Away from the high rise buildings and the glittering five star hotels of the Mediterranean coast, we saw run- down buildings with laundries drying on balconies and windows flapping like multicolored flags.

Meandering round the neighborhood were claustrophobic streets and dark alleys where dogs, donkeys and cats played in the dust.

On the steps of dinghy restaurants, next to grocery shops and bakeries, elderly men could be seen drinking tea and smoking pipes.

On my last day in Alexandria, I decided to go for an early morning walk along the waterfront where the waves of the clear watered Mediterranean Sea lapped the coast line.

As the fingers of dawn’s rays streamed through the cold weather, I encountered men and women of all ages jogging in the misty morning. Far below at the edge of the sea, fishermen in windcheaters could be seen hauling in their midnight catch from their cavernous boats which bobbled on the listless and limitless sea.

After a few minutes of gazing at the swirling waves of the sea, I resumed my walk on the ‘Cornish’ as the Alexandria’s Mediterranean Waterfront is called.

Moments later, my eyes were drawn to clusters of disheveled –looking street kids who were picking empty bottles and trash from the street. One of them barely ten years of age, had an unlit cigarette stick in his mouth, while another, was trying on a cap he had picked from a nearby refuse heap.

A few meters from the boys were two men huddled on the roadside concrete seats obviously still groggy from their overnight reverie.

Further on, stray dogs and cats could be seen amidst the litter of rubbish and empty bottles outside closed pubs and cafeterias where one old man sat singing in a croaked, drunken voice.

In the midst of this medley of early morning mementos, were scores of men and women of all ages soaking up the early morning sunshine and breathing the rarefied sea air. While some sat on the concrete benches, others laid on the grass Lawns on the coastline.

I paused to catch my breath by leaning on the Sterlin bridge, a bridge that is said to be the first in Egypt to be constructed into the sea. Made up of 6 spans with a total length of 400m, the bridge constitutes a major part of the reconstruction and decoration of the Alexandria Cornish. A masterpiece of architectural precision, the bridge preserves the architectural style of the famous and cosmopolitan Egyptian city.

As I gazed into the horizon as I had done about 43 years ago when I first visited the Egyptian port city as a youthful and springy medical student, I could see emerging from the early morning mist two middle aged men. They looked like elderly versions of Tarek and Atef.

If they were, I will shake their hands and thank them for giving me this story.

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