To walk like an Egyptian is to walk with dirty feet and a swiveling head. In the first few days of my Alexandrian existence, I noticed that my feet acquired an amount of dirt consistent with the distance I had traveled. Each time I leave beit a-tallibat, the female students’ dorm at Alexandria University, my feet enter an obstacle course of wind-strewn sand, stinking puddles, shisha ashes and can-less garbage. Each evening when I remove my sandals I always find my skin patterned in the shape of my sandal straps.
In every city there is a language of movement. The Alexandrian swagger has a grammatical structure that choreographs for the hands, the feet, the hips and the head. Hands here move with emphatic emotion, like Italian hands. I have occasionally found myself beginning to speak Arabic with an Italian accent, as my Italian accent appears whenever my gesticulations gain speed. Cheeks here are always kissed at least once in greeting, (between men and between women), and kisses are usually accompanied by a hug and a pat for women or a hand grasp and chest bump for men. Often these hand grasps continue after the greeting: a westerner may be surprised to see how many platonic male friends hold hands here. (My friend Elsa surmised that males may feel more at ease with physical affection here because homosexuality is considered non-existent, and thus the threat of “seeming gay” is not imminent.)
Lips smile with ease here, at friend or foe or stranger. Never have I known a more friendly culture. During the Eid al Fitr break (end of Ramadan holiday) group of students from the program and I rented a villa in Marina, a beautiful stretch of
sea where the Egyptian upper class retire. It felt inappropriate to stand in bikinis before niqab clad women so my friend Elsa and I swam in shorts and t-shirts, noting that since modesty standards are reversed here women actually wear considerably more clothing than men on the beach. When we emerged from the aqua marine water we asked someone to take a picture of us before it. What we non-Egyptians failed to realize was that we had just made ourselves available for a long conversation with an entire family. After half an hour I finally returned to my chair, abandoning the walk in favor of a moment of privacy, but it was not to be. Within five minutes a girl came over and introduced herself, surprising me with a kiss on each cheek. Such intimacy is distinctively Mediterranean, rarely found on the beaches of the Atlantic.
In Egypt such easy familiarity is far from rare. The night before our trip to marina, Elsa, our friend Daniel and I had been greeted and then followed by a rambunctious group of teens all named Mohammed, Ahmed, or Mustafa who insisted that they were our “younger brothers.” A young man who was familiar with our entourage soon invited us to escape their eager questions and join his friends for the evening. We proceeded to traverse the city with them into the wee hours. (During Eid people of all ages stay out through the night; daylight finds the streets almost unnervingly quiet.)
Ask a stranger for directions in Egypt and he or she will probably walk you to your destination; enter a cab and with little more than a week’s Arabic skills and you may be entitled to the driver’s life story. Such is the saqafa Masri, the Egyptian culture.
But there is a catch: while Egyptians encourage and almost demand openness, they only accept the realities of a select few. When the beachside family asked where we were from Elsa said we were both Mexican, (she actually is), so that we might avoid pledge-breaking English, and when they asked about our religion I said I was Christian, so that I might avoid having to defend Israel in Arabic. This left me with little to say, and the family wondered aloud why I was so quiet—soon after which I decided to return to my chair. If you are a middle or upper class Christian or Muslim white male in Egypt your identity is yours to keep. If you are not, compromises must be made.
Alexandrian skirts do not sway too much: a woman in this city must try not to attract attention to herself, for by virtue of her gender she is already the subject of visual interest. Female heads do not swivel as suddenly as men’s, as she must look straight ahead purposefully in order to block astringent male stares. Still, the most important rule of gestural grammar is survival, and the biggest threat is crossing the streets.
The main street in Alexandria is called the Cornish (pronounced kohr-neesh). It has five lanes of constant movement on both sides and tunnels burrowing underneath it through which pedestrians change sides. You have to be crazy, an expert, or desperate to cross over that Cornish—but all other streets are fair game.
The system of crossing is not unlike the old Gameboy game called Frogger, in which one must narrowly navigate between constantly busy lanes of traffic with hop-like motions. The aim of the game, like Frogger, is not to be squashed.
Initially, I was not as shocked by the Egyptian roads as some of my American colleagues were because I had been to India. I had seen streets with two painted lanes interpreted as four-lane roads, had seen people and animals cross inches before moving cars that would swerve only slightly to accommodate. But while in Mumbai these roads were a foreign phenomenon to be gawked at, in Alexandria they are a condition to be mastered, a home to call my own. I must adopt the swagger of the Egyptians, swivel my head to make up for the fact that I have only two eyes, and direct my feet brazenly into the road without stoplights. Thus far, I have managed to adopt the walk of the Alexandrian Egyptian. But a greater challenge looms: I must now learn to talk like one.