Thursday 7 May 2020

1990 Egypt III: Asyut, Kharga, El Amarna

28.2.90  Aswan

Up to the high dam.  Looking south, water is impressive – they must have been pleased when it filled up.  Even the Soviet-Egyptian monument is simple and effective.  Lake Nasser looks like the sea – huge, dark-blue expanse.  Again, I find it hard to remember I am deep into Africa.  To the Unfinished Obelisk.  A madness of groups (the collective noun).  Even the ancient Egyptians screwed up – but what an impressive attempt.  People seem obsessed with walking on the obelisk – defying gravity and the usual rules, too.  I do not know how they got 1000 tonnes onto a boat…

At the Cataract Hotel, E£10 for the swimming pool – seems reasonable enough – great view of the Nile, Elephantine, the hotel, the sun…. Came here by horse carriage – never again: the poor thin horse with open sores, beaten again and again.  But who am I to criticise?  The driver probably led a miserable existence.  But I still felt my double complicity in all this.  

Well, there are worse ways of spending the mid-point of my trip.  Can that really be?  As much to come again?  Hardly: there can be no other Karnak, Giza, Valley of the Kings…  I sit now under the awning next to the clay oven, waiting for a pizza Vesuvio (well, I had spaghetti bolognese last night…).  Again, I have the Nile before me, felucca sails passing occasionally, the Aga Khan's Mausoleum visible high on the hill.  I am increasingly tempted to visit El Kharga – the secular equivalent of Wadi El Natrun; we shall see.  I have fairly basted myself today – sensibly, I hope.  It really is just rather pleasant – and given that I won't be doing any more pure, animal sunbathing, it seems allowed.

It occurs to me that, as I half expected, part of the problem with the ancient Egyptian stuff I've seen is that there is so – almost too – much of it.  We expect exiguous remains: from the Alfred Jewel we reconstruct a civilisation.  Compare, too, Winckelmann's imperialising appropriation of Laocoön.  We need fragments just as we need "inferior" races to colonise.  If the civilisation is too complete – or the race too superior – we are in trouble.  This over-generosity applies in particular to the religious inscriptions: we have zillions of Amun being worshipped by this or that one.  We know pretty much exactly what is going on.  There is no mystery.

Lots of feluccas zooming around the south of Elephantine.  Tomorrow for me, I hope.  I sit on the Cataract's end terrace.  Below me the "gaily painted" feluccas: white with touches of orange, green and blue.  The Nile is full of them.  Watching, I am amazed by the adeptness of the sailors, the ease with which they push and pull them when holding on to land.  So little friction.  In front of me, the sun shatters on the water, the old shook foil routine.  The dunes beyond have turned into huge velvety humps.  There is a blessed breeze blowing.  Selig.

1.3.90 Aswan

On Kitchener's Isle as was – though there is no reference to him.  Out the hard way – by felucca, but me rowing all the way.  Now I know how galley slaves feel.  Conned by choosing a boat of an old man – asthmatic too, keeps sucking on his inhaler, and coughing his guts up on his arm.  All this because I can't do much now: I have to be back at the hotel at around 10am to see if there are any vacancies.

The garden very lush, very attractive.  Up by the tombs, in the bare sloping face of the sand, one of Those Messages, this time picked out in stones, letters ten feet high: "Oh aged Jamaica" it seems to say; and that says it all.  To the new Philae – having obtained a (slightly mankier) room at Ramsis.  Hiring motorised felucca – expensive for just one person – arrive out here.  Sun scorching.  

Hathor-headed columns in the Kiosk of Nectanebo – again.  Nice to see a colonnade for a change – it shows how conditioned I have become to "classical" ruins.  Also I feel strangely distanced from hieroglyphs – as if I had passed beyond this stage.  Good job there are few more to come.  Good also to see Imhotep – of Saqqarah – deified.

At the north end of the eastern colonnade – amazing capitals – really wacky variety.  Lots of Greek graffiti everywhere.  From the north end of the colonnade, nice rearing up of grey rocks – variety you don't get on west bank at Luxor – all too flat.  Also attractive glimpse of Trajan's Kiosk.  Great first courtyard – the asymmetry really appealing.  All the hieroglyphs here remind me of the eighteenth-century craze for Pompeian designs – that false, rather twee appearance, the superficiality.  Nice hypostyle hall – apart from the black and white bird droppings everywhere – it looks like a scagliola effect.  I scoot through the interiors – all such inferior, repetitious work.  The situation is the only thing that counts.

The ruins to the north of the island form a nice ensemble with the water and surrounding islands/land.  Trajan's Kiosk is definitely the best thing here.  Surprisingly graceful yet powerful, compact yet impressive, it opens out well to the sky and water.  In the small temple of Hathor, pix of musicians – flute player, harpist – larger than previously, also another double-flute.  One on each side.  I suppose Trajan appeals in part because he is manifestly part of my Western tradition.  Round to old Philae – but no romantic columns in the water – just a few pillars on land, a few houses, plus the tin dam that had been built up around the threatened buildings.  No cathédrale engloutie, but romantic enough to think of the submerged land.

And no bloody taxi when I got back.  Kicking my heels for 15 minutes.  Then to the Cataract where I sit waiting another pizza.  The day spent in luxurious, blissful torpor.  The heat unbelievable – as is the efficacy of the old No.4 suntan lotion.  Long slow walk back to my hotel, having consumed some fresh-pressed orange juice and turkish coffee – made in a small pot, boiled on a stove.  At the hotel, commenced my orange orgy with some bought at the local souk; disappointing – not navel oranges, and stuffed with pips.

Shower – how one appreciates water amidst the desert and in the heat – then out for a final stroll along the corniche.  The horizon to the west a sublime peach colour.  Moon high overhead, its crescent horizontal – as in the Red Crescent.  I spent some time last night trying to work out the relation of this angle to latitude – and failed.

After dinner, back to my room – to bed early since I must rise at 3.40am for my 5am train.  The band is playing again.  A local group, apparently for a wedding.  I notice that even here, the men and women are not only separated but cordoned off.  I hope I sleep through it as I did last night.  It occurs to me that the end of empires – all empires – is tourism.  History – and empires – become simply a reason to gawp, to find the world special.  Tourism is the final empire, and will inherit the world. A propos of the music: several times people have clapped in a curious (to me) flat-handed way, producing far more high frequencies.  Even clapping seems culturally determined.  

The cost for four nights here was £30.  

2.3.90 Asyut

Up very early – 3.40am.  No brekkie, but given a take-away.  To the station, conveniently near.  Practically no one on the train; it will be interesting to see if it really fills up at Luxor.  Restaurant car, needless to say, well-nigh non-existent.  I ask for coffee, but when I notice the attendant is looking for a vaguely clean glass amongst those already used, I make my apologies then flee.  Toilet pretty disgusting (and just what is that metal spout-thing sticking up?).

Glorious scenery outside, the Nile to my left.  Essentially we keep pace with the cruise boats – which fairly move it.  I notice that there are few villages: where does everyone live?  At Edfu, all the names in Arabic – only one, whitewashed, showed English.  

An old man by the tracks, as poor as anything, reading a thumbed paperback on cheap paper.  I wonder what the literacy rate here is.  The High Dam has meant an end of 10,000 years of history of living with and working with the annual inundations.  In our lifetimes.  Because of the Nile, it is noticeable how prodigal the Egyptians are with water.  For example, at Luxor station, where I am now, a man is hosing down the dust on one of the side platforms.  It looks good: "Luxor" on the sign… Pity I am only passing through – but it was definitely the right way to visit here and beyond.

Ancient Egyptian religion has no known initial foundation; it is apparently an outgrowth of a natural polytheism, especially based on nature.   The whole business of proselytism – extending the empire of religion – is to do with bolstering your own faith, as empire is to do with self-confidence.

There is something delicious in the traveller's roulette: going into a hotel and asking for accommodation – some frisson – that is quite lost by pre-booking, however convenient. 

What a game.  The train is two hours late – another apricot sunset.  Very unsure which station I am at – I ask several people, finally arrive in Asyut.  Outside, pandemonium; this is real Egypt.  Nobody speaks English.  My muttered "Hotel Badr" produces only the response "Cleopatra?".  Eventually I make it.  Only one night currently free, but I'm too tired to argue.  A group of 25 Swedes is bunging the place up.  I am currently in the restaurant, trying to negotiate the implausible menu.

I must confess it is at moments like that that I wonder what the hell I am doing; however, a part of me – a distant, rational part – knows that places and experiences like this lie at the heart of foreign places – not the Cairos and Aswans…  After the exhaustion has passed away, I think that the abiding impression of my travel down the Nile will be of its amazing, unexpected and unreasonable fecundity: it was as green as England or Ireland – proverbially verdant places.  This generosity must have amazed the ancient Egyptians – and partly explains their precocity.  

One of the nicest things about Egyptian TV is the real 1001 Nights-type music – all augmented seconds.

3.3.90 Asyut

A tiring day already.  At least I am staying here one more night – I think.  Out to try to find a bank and book my train ticket – both difficult.  After finding a bank, only Bank of Alexandria seems able to cope with travellers' cheques.  Amazing place: looked more like Bank of Beirut – plaster torn off every wall.  Ticket to Alexandria non c'è – Cairo instead.  After people pushing in, finally booked 6.30am train – rather more civilised.  Then back to hotel to find I can't pay with a credit card.  So back to the bleedin' bank again, hotter and dustier.

Now I'm in my cab for Kharga – I think I'm insane; the hotel certainly does.  Rip-off price of E£200 – what the hell, half price of Covent Garden seat – how my values are twisted.  Note: both here and in previous hotel, there a very interesting type of bath tile – it looks like water has dropped on it – effective – and apparently unique to each one – I can find no repetition.  Nice idea.

Asyut is certainly real Egypt: the horns are noisier, the dust worse, the crowds crazier.  Apparently, it is now the largest city of Upper Egypt.  O Thebes…

A Peugeot 504 – a traditional African car – I hope: the thought of being stuck in the desert is not the most appealing.  On the road to Kharga.  The greenery dies out – then nothing but desert.  I have been idly calculating the number of particles of sand in Egypt: ~10^21, which doesn't sound that big, but only goes to show how little I understand exponents.  Even in the world, there is probably only 10^24 grains...Only.  Aren't there 10^80 atoms in the universe?  That is, each grain of sand on our planet would have 10^24 grains of sand, each with 10^24 grains, each with a hundred million grains...

The road is straight – the telephone lines are hypnotic.  We pass barely anything.  An army squad out training, camped in the desert.  Yellow lines on the road: no waiting??  The occasional ridge – but basically flat.  At 160km, the sand has turned muddy.  Road generally good – we are passing a road building team.  

Halfway, a rest house.  Not an animal sighted for the last hour or so.  About 90 minutes to here.  Road now broken but not too bad.  Surprisingly, perhaps, there is a nice breeze in the shade.  But the sun is savage.  This was part of the 40-day camel route.  What 40 days they must have been. Interesting landscape: some rocks, then flat, then up over a hill, down – with huge plain before us, two big step-ups miles away.  Pylons have appeared from the south.  All looks like something out of Lawrence of Arabia.  Amazing: every so often there seem to be houses out here – about four or five so far, in the middle of nowhere.  First, a few tufts of grass, then suddenly greenery…

What a game. I am now at the Kharga Hotel – the only person there, apparently, waiting for an omelette and whatever.  Fun before: at one of the many police checkpoints, they wanted my passport.  I didn't have it, of course. So we had a little discussion – and then the head of local security came out, sized me up, and finally decided I probably wasn't a spy.  Further in, the greenery gave out again.  The sand a glorious colour – like Cornish ice cream (ah, what wouldn't I give for a Kelly's…), so neat and clean and tidy.  There seems to be a piano trio playing in the background.  This place feels like a school refectory.  On the whole, the drive was not too bad – the view down on to the plain made it particularly worthwhile.  It will be interesting to see how it holds up on the way back.  Down to the souk – Kharga is very spread out, dusty and undistinguished.  Souk rather quiet.  [Meal E£4, rooms about $20 a night.]

Temple of Amun, Hibis.  Persian – unusual.  Still a fair amount of painting in the inner gateway.  The main building is in a gloriously stippled sandstone, used for restoration – great whorls of the stuff – held up by wooden scaffolding.  Cartouches of Nectanebo II in first hypostyle; rest closed off.  Basically late – nothing special.

To El Bagawat – looks like a museum of mud churches – all arches and pillars, set on a horseshoe of hills on the edge of oasis, brilliant view of the rocky outcrops.  2nd to 7th century AD, there are 263 chapels.  Coptic church architecture and early painting.  Looks very Roman.  Deep black shadows.  Tomb of seven martyrs – 30 foot deep tomb, two chapels, one man, one woman.  Adam and Eve and snake.  Abraham, Isaac, Sarah, Gabriel, the ankh symbol.  Thousands of Greek graffiti.  Chapel of peace.  A basilica, all in mud bricks.  Exodus: first half of 4th century – one of the earliest.  There are more ankh symbols.  The pharaoh, soldiers, the Israelites in the sea – crudely painted – like kids' paintings.  

Stunning views of the escarpment down which I came – a huge slab of striated rock.  Amazing to see these small-scale churches/chapels, all in mud – even the columns – rounded arches – small semi-cupolas, painted, with geometric patterns.  And a hole in the roof – a great patch of blue.  And then, the final show – the mummies.  I crawl down into the ossuaries: two men, one woman and child; the guide prods them.  The man still has black hair.  Mummy wrappings lie everywhere – outside too.

Back across the desert, the sun boiling.  Fantastic view again of the depression.  Now (5.15pm) the rays are low, casting long shadows across the ribbed and ridged sand.  The light seems almost benevolent.  

Back to the madness of Asyut, horns honking, cyclists riding on the wrong side of the road, everyone walking everywhere regardless.  Good to be back – bath et al.  I tried to find out what the taxi driver was being paid – to establish the extent of my being rooked – to no avail.  Still, rooking or no, it was worth it.  [They say pecunia non olet: not Egyptian money, it really stinks of use.]

Once again, I'm not certain whether I'll be here tomorrow.  The hotel is overpriced, but has a faded charm – apart from the bathroom tiles, the smoked mirrors everywhere – half of them cracked; and I have just noticed a wonderful padded "leather" door leading to the kitchens – it looks as if it has melted, or is something out of "Alien": bizarre, sad and squelched.

4.2.90 Asyut

Down to the Nile – larger than it looks on the the old Lonely Planet map – as ever.  Cool breeze at 7am.  At least they have a room for me: this "don't know" business is getting ridiculous. [Some little solider boy has just shooed me off a pier I was admiring the river from.  Well, he did have a gun…]  Opposite is an island, looking very romantic in the early morning mist.  Pity about the car horns though: they seem tuned treble loud – they really hurt my ears.  Occasionally you get a symphony of them: sounds like Janáček's Sinfonietta gone mad.

I can't get "Peter Grimes" out of my head – the "Sea in the Morning" interlude.  That old nostalgia…

The willingness of the population to adopt an invader's tongue is paralleled in the inroads of English as the tongue of tourism.  One of the interesting things about the Coptic necropolis yesterday was that this (in part) was how the ancient Egyptian cities would have looked: that is, built out of mud, not stone.  

Getting to El Amarna's proving fun.  So far I am on the west bank, hoping for a ferry…  Waiting on the ferry – in the taxi – the driver has decided to come with me.  OK – but our language problems get worse.  The Nile flows by swiftly, the odd branch/frond of lilies being carried past, the odd leap of fins.  

A long wait – eventually there – mayhem on the other side – everyone jumping on before we landed.  Then a water-tanker blocked the way – finally out into the open – and lost.  We find the village policeman,who for some baksheesh shows us to the northern tombs – locked.  Across a huge plain – barren, beaten by the heat, the middle of nowhere.  High cirrus clouds, a haze to the north.  The ferry goes about once an hour – if you're lucky.  No other tourists, just the three of us.  Utterly empty and god/Aten-forsaken.

In to tomb 25 – that famous image of Aten worshipped by Akhnaten.  The hymn on both sides – beautiful limestone.  Inside left – dancers.  Down to the tomb – helped like an old woman, held by my elbows down each step.  

Finally to Akhetaten itself.  A pile of mud bricks, a heap of stones and sand – nothing.  That this 3000 years ago was the centre of heresy – no trace remains.  On three sides, the distant mountains, striated.  These are the ruins we expect, that we can extrapolate from.  This is what 3000 years ago should look like.  But it was a city.  In fact, the only one left from this time (?) – and now its inhabitants are hardly aware of it.  Palms to the west, facing the river, desert to the east.  One huge archaeological dig.  What a failure.  But his name lives on, as few others do… And the heterodoxy strikes again: the small explanatory plaques – at the gate – in the main courtyard – have both been smashed beyond usefulness – just a few words – "Akhet-aten…"  His power to provoke lives on.  

There are worse things to be than stuck outside Akhetaten, waiting for the ferry, watching the Nile stream by, the sun hot at 1pm, the wispy clouds overhead.  A tough life.  Money talks, they say: when even Glanglish fails, money always works.  It is the link between language and imperialism.  By the quayside, great fat fish.  Two men sit by the Nile, fishing like any other Sunday angler.  The Nile really is roaring past, with it, even more lilies than ever.

The quay is at the end of a large mud-brick wall, connected by a road.  Behind, a large lake; greenery everywhere.  In the palace, I saw wood planks set in the mud courses; I wonder if they too are 3000 years old – not impossible in this amazing climate.  A curious fact: Egyptians love to put a German (D) sticker on their cars; an old sign of cachet?  Below me, women beat clothes against the stones in timeless fashion.

The ferry arrives; amongst the crowd, three boys carrying fern-like plants in plastic pots.  Amazing the ubiquity of tape players in cars – no matter how beat up, or how old the car.  Mostly Japanese, like the trucks too.  Only the Peugeot 504s reign supreme still.  Back on the bank of the dead.  Stuck at a level crossing – which all pedestrians ignore.  This always worries me at Asyut too: walking across even when the bells ring.  It's interesting how Western/"civilised" societies are more authoritarian in this respect.  A product of our schools, perhaps?

To Hermopolis – not exactly easy to find – 30 minutes from Mallawi through back roads, poorly signposted.  My poor driver thinks I'm nuts.  I asked him if he enjoyed Amarna – nope.  Thoth's baboons are huge 15 feet high.  But rather sad to behold.  Enormous testicles.  On to the "basilica" – just Corinthian columns.  Surrounded by fallen columns, mud bricks – not much, but all quite romantic amidst the scrubby heath – again, looking like "classical" ruins.  Lovely afternoon heat; it feels like autumn.  Moon half out.  Palm trees very affecting in their occasional clumps.  To the catacombs – Ibis, baboons, both mummified and statues, with blue eyes.  Trapezoidal coffin for the ibis. 

To the tomb of Petosiris – a kind of mini Dendera, with a pointy-topped altar out front.  All Ptolemaic stuff.  Can see Greek clothing.  Amazingly deep tomb shaft – good colouring on the walls.  Finally, to the stela – that image again, so haunting in its aspiration and the inscription – saying all this land is Aten's – some boast.  Now just barren desert (blowing in my eyes with the evening wind).  Distant, the Nile.  Beyond the irrigation, desert.

For some civilisations – Roman, Greek – it is mainly texts that we have, rather than buildings, say.  Ancient Egyptian is unusual: we have the texts because we have the buildings.  Back to the hotel, - a proper orange orgy.  A binful of Swedes – more/different – and pandemonium: not enough rooms.  I have visions of being turfed out, and prepared to defend myself; no need.  But a knock-on consequence: the restaurant is full of the buggers.  I'm hungry and must be at the station at 4.30am tomorrow…

5.2.90 Asyut

Which I am – but not thanks to my watch, which I manage to unset.  Wake-up call OK.  To breakfast, where I notice Queen "Ty" tea.  Last night at 8pm on Channel 2, I came across the Televised News – the English equivalent of the Journal Télévisé.  One female presenter had excellent English and accent.  Noteworthy the final, almost unintelligible piece at the end about Mrs Thatcher (another "Ty"), even more unpopular.  Otherwise TV seems to be football, learned disquisitions on the Quran, chemistry/maths lessons and televised proceedings from parliament.  It is worth noting that once again it is tourism that has saved many of the ancient Egyptian ruins – Egyptians more concerned with using them for fertiliser – and why not?  

To the station – cold, as I expected.  Mackerel clouds, tinged by red.  They said the weather was turning.  The sky now amazing – huge rucks of cloud fired with pinks and orange.  Meanwhile, the muezzin continues his melancholy chanting, and the three neon signs of Badr Hotel (plus one in Arabic) flicker in the most wonderfully random way.  Is there a little man whose job it is to carry out this art all day?

Train one hour late.  Freezing wind.

It is interesting how much in Egypt comes from what was the Eastern bloc: for example, this carriage comes from GDR; the telephone from Hungary; a light bulb in Badr's bathroom, Poland.  All cheap, I suppose.  The difference between then and now: the past's rubbish – stone, wood, mud, metal – ages gracefully; ours does not: the paper, plastic, rusting scrap.  This is a fact that is most clearly exposed in Egypt: its past is perfectly aged, its present prodigiously ugly and sordid.  It is also why the passeggiata is unsatisfactory in so many Egyptian cities: you never know what you will tread in…

On the train to Alexandria – or Al Iskandariyah as it has been depersonalised.  Only 15 minutes late so far.  Nice train – a big red one.  

On the platform in Cairo, waiting for my connection to Alexandria: I sit next to two ladies – one rather large.  I get up to ask the station guards if this train at the platform is for Alexandria.  He says no, and so do the ladies - who then proceed to mother me in the most charming fashion.  Both are fluent in English, the younger – the daughter of the other whose hair is dyed deceptively well - with an excellent accent and command of idioms, and it turns out she is an English teacher.  We talk about nothing in particular – though I am recommended to see "Fifi" – a famous belly dancer at the Ramses Hilton – and to eat the green soup.  Both of which I shall try.  Pleasant people.

Very civilised this train – they are offering lunch – with airline-type trays.  Alas, I am not eating – but the very attractive lady stewardess – the first female maître d' I've seen in Western dress here – almost made me change my mind.  The delta looked rather dull – less lush and green, no enlivening hills in the distance.  Also no sun: it has been overcast since Asyut this morning.  In a way, this fits my mood perfectly.  Ever one for neatness, this distinguishes things well from Upper Egypt, from all the wonders I've seen there.  From my reading it is clear that Alexandria has little to do with Egypt.

It is also apt because I have been re-reading the "Alexandria Quartet".  I am amazed at how much is familiar – people, situations, phrases, words even – "banausic" – though I am ashamed to admit I've forgotten what it means.  Such typically young writing – bursting with words and ideas – which is why I must write as much as I can now, even if it is no good – I will be grateful in years to come.  His style dated too; its flowery language, its infinitely-detailed descriptions of love and relationships.  And a different Alexandria, I'm sure, perhaps one that never really existed except for Durrell.  And who needs more?

And so to the hotel.  Quite a way (again, again) from the station to the sea front.  The first taxi tries to rook me mercilessly, the second is only half as bad.  To the Cecil (as the Egyptian ladies suggested), looking like something from Brighton.  Full, inevitably.  It is now the Pullman Cecil – they of the Cataract.  Next stop, the Metropole (Brighton again).  Much seedier – a cross between a youth hostel and the hotel in Bellagio I stayed in many years ago.  At once, for all its crumbling plaster and faltering waterworks, I knew this was the place.  Immensely high rooms, aspidistras (dusty), on each floor, an open cage lift moving ponderously and uncertainly – its lights going out when you exit – the hopeless air of the staff – perfect after Durrell's "Justine".  Old Pullman Cecil (I console myself) would doubtless have been too smart, too new.  This – at £20 a night, too – is not.  I feel in some obscure way this is bound up with my novel…

My first room was on the east, with a balcony from which the sea was visible – stormy and rucked.  The hot water failed to function, so I moved to the west – better view of the sea, better room (just) – 482 (Mozart's E flat piano concerto, since you asked).  They say they will move me to a sea-facing room tomorrow; we shall see…

Alexandria is freezing.  I hope it doesn't bucket, or I am stuffed…

In the bar, downstairs, drinking turkish coffee (what else?).  A fine view of the people along one of the main thoroughfares.  The whole hotel is delicately sprung: my room shakes in the most delightful way if anyone walks past. [NB: what happened to Rimbaud?  He went to Luxor...where else?  Where did he die? In Egypt, what lies after words?]  I sit here, looking at an old man in a cap tottering across the road, hand held out apotropaically lest the traffic move.  The high room is lit by an absurdly rococo chandelier, its gilt turned treacle colour.  A sense of all that I have seen, a sense of all the culture and heritage I bear, a sense of all that might do, meets at this point.  And foolishly, childishly, gratefully, I feel pure happiness well up within me, a kind of internal bubbling.  I know this feeling so well, I am so privileged.  I have to sigh with absurd happiness. [6.47pm.]

To hear Egyptians speaking English/French/German etc., you get the impression that for them it is all one language, different dialects; which it is.  Perhaps Arabic seems the same after Coptic…

To the restaurant for dinner, past the TV room – full of Egyptians.  A beautiful room – bright white, very high ceiling, wonderful pea-green frieze around the top – with classical (NB) Greek figures in relief.  The same chandeliers as downstairs.  Only one other table occupied – Germans.  My first Egyptian wine – Gianaclis Village from the Egyptian Wine Company: ultra-dry white – almost sherry.  In an unwanted access of bravery/courtesy, I offer some to the Germans.  A meal without distinction – except that of its circumstances.  Ridiculously cheap – E£12 for four courses – a magic ambience, a world that barely exists in England or Europe.

Before dinner, a brief walk along the corniche – dodging the spray of the rampant waves.  The wind strong and northerly.  Back along the main street – very bustling – to the Metropole.  Outside, the Egyptian crowd periodically goes bananas in response to the TV – football, or a game show?  Strange how I am unmoved by such things – in which I find the triumph of banality. 

In the middle of the dining room, a wonderful piece of furniture: a large pillbox in dark wood; circumscribed by metal bands – for cutlery, tableware, perhaps.  Marble-topped and rather fine.  I donate the remainder of my wine to a young(ish) lady on her own reading Woolf's "To the Lighthouse" – which, by one of those drole coincidences, is the only other Brit book apart from the "Alexandria Quartet" that I have brought.  

1990 Egypt I: Cairo, Saqqarah, Giza
1990 Egypt II: Luxor, Aswan, Abu Simbel
1990 Egypt IV: Alexandria, Wadi El Natrun, Suez

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