Alexandria for a day, and I can stay!

painted for the revolution

fashion store window featuring the photographs of the revolution and clothiing in Egyptian flag colours

flag seller, who also sold hats and stickers in the colours of the Egyptian flag - love his wig

My Visa has been renewed to November, a big relief, though the process took four hours and was not exactly pleasant. I got a tired and grumpy woman at the Immigration office – first she wanted to know why I had come to Alexandria and not Cairo, and when I told her I was from Siwa she turned to the entire office and exclaimed “Siwa!”, as though it was the last place on earth you would want to be, and at which the other four women in the office looked equally despairing and shook their heads.

Why didn’t you do your renewal at Mersa Matruh (which is only four hours from Siwa, not eight as Alex is) she asked. I didn’t attempt to explain that I actually wanted to spend the day in Alexandria, not Mersa Matruh, which though it is beautiful does not have the museums and Bibliotheca.

Next she looked at the Visa and got very angry that I was late renewing it, or so she declared. I wasn’t late, and tried to prove this to her but she would not even listen; after she had told me four times to be quiet and that I was SO bad for being late, getting my adrenalin pumping because I thought maybe I would be thrown out of the country, or at least given a heavy fine, I made her count the days since my arrival date and she found I was right. She did not apologize, but raised the next problem – I said I wanted to extend my Visa for a year, not the more usual 3 months. She said impossible, only 3 months allowed, what was I planning to do – take jobs from the Egyptians? I insisted I was allowed to apply for a year, I said she had been wrong about me being late, so maybe she was wrong about this? When I pressed this she just said “Khalas”, that is, “finished, it’s over”. I had to come back in half an hour and see the Director. I did, sure now that he would raise objections, but he signed my forms with no questions for an extension to the full 12 months. Then I went to another counter to pay and get stamps for the form, handed in my passport, photocopies and photo to the grumpy woman, and was told to come back in 3 hours…

I went off to get a few things including coffee – Alexandria has several excellent coffee roasters, some established by Greeks in the early 1900s. At the first one I visited, the kindly man behind the counter packing Arabica in the tall, narrow paper bags they use here for coffee insisted I come out the back of the café store and see the roasting machine in action. He didn’t have enough English or I enough Arabic to explain that in Melbourne, Australia we also have café stores where the coffee is roasted and bagged on the premises, and he enjoyed showing off the roaster and the green coffee beans in sacks. I am now enjoying the coffee I returned to Siwa with, a change in blend to the one I buy here.

All the Alexandrian store keepers were friendly and seemed pleased to engage with a foreigner and tell me about or show me their city, even recommend books for me. In the evening when I bought a fateer (a sort of pancake) cooked on a street stall, the young vendor tried to insist I should not pay. These are a very cheap snack, and he seemed to have plenty of customers, but I insisted I must pay. Alexandrian young men are very friendly to me, as I am obviously a foreign woman, even though I am old enough to be their grandmother, or at least their mother, so I had to be careful all day not to encourage those who called out to me in the street, and at the same time not appear to be rude and snubbing all contact. Being in a city again reminded me how young most of the population here is. So many beautiful looking young men and women, and in Alexandria they dress fashionably and I was constantly admiring the women especially. After a day of getting my hair constantly tangled and blown in my face by the wind from the sea, I am seriously thinking of taking some lessons in headscarf styling, not for religious reasons but pure practicality and elegance.

I also went to the museum, caught up with some friends, and came back to Immigration expecting my Visa still not to be ready; but it was, and the woman seemed no longer so grumpy and called me to the front of the line and handed it over. So that’s one thing I don’t have to worry about for a while. But I was glad I had turned up just before 8am when Immigration opened, as later it was crowded and process would have taken longer, and as they close at 3pm I may have needed to stay overnight. Going for Residency, which I have to do in future, I suspect will take days, maybe weeks.

There are still army tanks guarding streets throughout Alexandria, mostly near the banks and major government buildings. It is a bit discomforting when you turn into a street and are suddenly face to face with one, a soldier perched on the top, especially when the armed soldiers appear to be rather bored and not much older than teenagers. The army also searched our bus and checked IDs as we were leaving and entering Siwa, though it may be just to give them something to do as there is a big army training base near Siwa. They are also guarding the police station here.

In Alexandria I saw just a few small demonstrations, part of the ongoing process of trying to win this country better conditions and a decent government, but there was nothing to make me feel scared, and I wandered around freely. It was good to see the Egyptian flag colours displayed in street art and even in fashion store windows, flag sellers on the streets, and many cars displaying stickers showing pride in the events of 25 January.

Much as I love Siwa, it was good to be in a city for a change (for Australian readers, Alexandria is much more intimate than Cairo, it has about the same population and CBD size as Melbourne), for access to some different foods, a walk along the sea wall and dinner by the ocean, and some hours in two museums and the Bibliotheca, which combines several libraries including one for the visual impaired, a museum of antiquites and a planetarium.

I had bought myself a small Egyptian flag on the street to take back to Siwa. When I checked my bag in at the Bibliotheca counter, the clerk saw the flag handle sticking out of the bag and asked sternly “a flag – which country is it from?” I said proudly “Egypt! I got my Visa extended today, I am so happy to be able to stay here”, and he changed to a big smile: “Well that’s fine then!”

I don’t think I would do the 36 hour Siwa to city and back trip again if I can avoid it, I would overnight there in future – 16+ hours on the bus meant I was very tired when I got back yesterday morning. Between the screenings of an Egytian film, a documentary on Siwa from some morning TV show, and music videos, I got little sleep, although I had two seats to myself most of the way, it was very cold and I had not taken my ugg boots this time, thinking that because the day was warm and nights are getting a bit warmer in Siwa, night in the desert would be warmer now also. No way, it is still the desert, and with no hot spring for relief. I should have taken the hot water bottle and gloves, as well as the ugg boots.

When I arrived back In Siwa the first call to prayer for the day was just starting, and the only workers up were the bakery, just as bakers everywhere have to be.

One of my friends in Alexandria has invited me to her wedding in June, which is an honour for me, so all being well I will attend this. It will be a first time experience, so I will have to find out about Alexandrian wedding protocol before then, and either get a haircut or learn to wear a headscarf, so I can look anywhere near as elegant as the Alexandrian women.

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