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Friday I played tour guide to Katie’s parents, who hired a car to take them to the battlefield of El-Alamein for the day. Although the battlefield proper is closed (due to some 17.2 million landmines and unexploded ordinance just laying about), the war memorials are interesting enough and the drive pleasant enough to make a nice long day of the whole thing. Besides, it’s an article opportunity: in addition to the camel market article I’m working on, I might as well tack on an El-Alamein one.

We left around 10:45 from Sporting, with a driver that took us through the Agami road to the monastery of Mari Mina. There, the bodies of the Coptic hierarchy are interred —  and I figured that the Friday atmosphere would allow all to see Copts at their most Coptic (“High” Mass is sang on Fridays as well as on Sunday). After a fire that destroyed much of the monastery, the glittering white edifice that is the modern complex was built in 1959, including the present cathedral church, which is a splendid building of red and gray Aswani granite, covered on the inside with tasteful mosaics and iconography — not as common as you might think in Coptic Churches (if you ask me). Most Coptic icons tend to verge on the cartoonish, some even looking like anime depictions of the Holy Family.

After getting our whiff of incense of incense from the ongoing Mass, we ducked downstairs to the crypt, which was thronging with shoeless believers (Copts remove their shoes at holy places: the sanctuary, tombs of saints). There was a display of the finest order: something between a museum and a memorial wall. The last pope (Cyril) and one bishop (whose name I’ve forgotten) are encased in miraculously fragrant tombs: believers approach the sarcophaguses and place their foreheads on them, whispering their prayers down and coming away with the musk from the tomb on them. The walls are lined with glass casings displaying the two holy men’s clothes, favorite slippers, and glasses, as well as vestments for holy offices, and festooned with flashing Christmas lights, paintings and flowers and wreaths left by the faithful. It’s quite a sight, though a little disconcerting with its mix of crazy popular religious feeling and intense traditional solemnity.

Unless you’re a Coptic pilgrim (note: Nov 11 is Mar Menas’ Day, which is the moulid), there’s no real reason to see the modern monastery. What you want to see (if you’re a tourist, that is) is the ancient monastery.

You walk out the big battered iron gate that separates the dirty variety of desert from the monastery. You walk for thirty minutes over hills and midden piles of Roman pottery that goats graze over. Occasional puddles of muddy water. And just as the dust makes you sneeze and you begin to doubt that there’s anything actually out there, you stumble on it: a whole city of limestone, brick Roman baths, occasional slabs of glittering marble: it’s a complete city that looks like someone took a hacksaw to the foundation.

This is the site of the third-century monastery, the springs that rose up when the ashes of the Coptic martyr Menas were laid to rest here. Because of it’s location on the coastal road from Alexandria to Marsa (which was also a prominent port in the Roman period), it became a central trading point– and the miraculous healing waters, a pilgrimage site. But the wells dried up, and in the eleventh century, the place was reduced to an Ozymandias-like shadow in the desert, the local amirs and caliphs stripping the ruins of its marble columns to make their own mosques, leaving what was once called “The City of Jasper” to more humble monks in the desert once more.

After dusting off our boots and climbing back in to our car, we followed the road past the Abu Sir lighthouse (the last Greek lighthouse in Egypt, a tenth-scale, ancient prototype of the famous Pharos), and settled in for the drive to El-Alamein, which always takes longer than you expect.

Last time I visited the El-Alamein War Museum (which is a gem of a museum, by the way), Norman, Charlie, Kate, and I had about ten minutes to zip through the thing– because the place was closing at 3. It’s quite a wonderful collection of rooms that is pretty well-informed, if awkwardly written sometimes, which all of its paraphernalia taken from the battlefield. Outside, a collection of tanks and various vehicles from the battlefield are ready to pose with.

Unfortunately, the guards were insistent that they close the museum at 2:30 — for what reasons, I cannot imagine why. I’ve never seen someone so insistent about lunch, and no amount of pleading about Katie’s parents coming all the way from England (and no amount of lying about their grandfather being in the battle) could convince them. The officer in charge kept saying, “This is the army and this is how we do things.” My only thought (and this is the old First Sergeant in me coming out): Your shoes are so scuffed that they’re white at the tips, your brass has no polish, and your patches are fastened with safety pins = You have no authority, you funny man.

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Inside the cloister of the British War Memorial at El-Alamein

The cemeteries, gracefully, are open at all times to any that visit them, and for me, this was a chance to wander through the British and German ones again, and finally see the Italian one. In my mind, all of the monuments seem to reflect something of the national character of the nation to which they belong: the British one is almost understated, about order, and is extremely bright and clean.

You go down a causeway to to a cloister that overlooks the markers. Each headstone has the crest of the soldier’s unit, his name, rank, serial number, birth and death dates, and a personal inscription that the family as written. Most are pretty standard quotes from Scripture, or sentiments of loss but they really tear you apart sometimes in their simplicity — and the effect of the place.

Some of the most poignant, I thought:

“Thy will be done.”
“No greater love hath man.”
“In all the silent moments, we remember him.”
“I have fought the good fight.”
“Not good-bye, but good-night.”

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War graves at El-Alamein. Graves belonging to Polish support forces are actually pointed, as opposed to rounded.

The German memorial, on the other hand, is extremely Teutonic. It’s a giant castle-like edifice, enclosed and imposing, wrought-iron torches and an obelisk in the central courtyard. Big, black, maltese-falcon type eagles. Kind of scary, really. Instead of individual markers, the names of German provinces have tombs, and the names of all the soldiers are listed en masse on massive green-tarnished copper plates. The only thing I can say is that it feels very…German.

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Outside the German mausoleum

These I’ve already seen. What was the most shocking was the Italian memorial. It’s positively enormous: huge marble front with a long causeway that you have to walk up towards. At least fifteen stories high. Slick, polished marble everywhere with a giant reception hall that echoes everything, a huge cross soaring above you. There are two rooms that list the Italian dead in mausoleum-like boxes, whole rooms labeled “Ignoto,” for unknowns.

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Corridors of "Ignoto": haunting, really.

When I say that the memorial was shocking I think I mean that it was the most callous: the British one was about identity, I think (with each headstone meticulously detailed). The German one was about dignity, tradition (it seemed like a temple in which one could grieve over war). But the Italian one seemed less about Italians than it did about Italy. It seemed to be the most fascist of the monuments, and anyone that’s seen a photograph of Victor Emmanuel square can probably back me up.

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24 October deserves another post, if late.

My birthday morning consisted of taking the GREs out in Dokki at 8:30, which proved to be a trying experience. An old wrinkled woman in hijab with the grumpiest American accent I’ve ever heard (kind of impressive) was Gestapo about putting your pencils down at the exact moment she called time. I barely finished the essays and the math sections I was at least five questions shy in. Vocab and reading was a cinch. It’s rather annoying to have to take these things, though. We’ll see if it warrants re-testing. I’m almost certain it will.

Caught the afternoon bus back to Alex, and met up with folks (Tom and Andrea came out for the weekend) at the Spitfire and proceeded to merrymake. A blur of cigarettes and Stellas and sparkling conversation. Discovered a German girl that can roll cigarettes like the real thing. I mean an absolute artist.

Nothing really to say, except quite the night, which ended in the traditional McDonald’s pig-out at 2 in the morning on the Corniche.

I love this city.

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Yumna lives in the district of Miami– a distant point on the map beyond the last stop on the little tin tram– where it seems a great many of my friends live. Getting out there is a maze of tram and minibus trips, and rather than tackle that gargantuan task, Fadhila and the crew (Tom, Mubarak, and yours truly) hopped a cab and let Yumna do the talking to the driver via telephone.

Hadia’s cooking for our seafood-themed iftar was on par with Hana’s: but I confess the company was much less intimidating (read: one family, not ten), and that might have made the evening far more enjoyable. Table conversation was a mixture of Arabic and English; initially, we all were chatting away in Arabic until someone remembered that Mubarak (who is Bengali-British) is in his third year of fusha. Occasional switches to English, occasional translations.

Now is perhaps an appropriate time to reflect on ordinary Egyptian hospitality– which is perhaps my favorite part of the culture. It would be pure fancy to attribute it to that overarching myth of the three-day Bedouin, or the sha’abi Southerner who serves the guests extravagantly despite his poverty. Rather, the modern Egyptian is a city-dweller, or at least aspires to be– he is interested in fashion, culture, music, and society– and he aspires to be in an atmosphere that makes his guests– his friends, I should say– comfortable. If you skip a step in the complicated dance of hospitality, it’s okay; the rules are just guidelines anyhow. Didn’t bring anything? No problem– your presence is enough. Forgot to take off your shoes? Stop it, I just want you to be comfortable. He serves the best cuts of meat, the best dishes to you first, he insists on a second serving because you liked the first, on a third course, a cup of tea, something sweet– even his own bed if you care for a nap after all that food. He insists on using your own language to make you comfortable, and he discusses you: your identity, your goals, your family, your religion.

Why? A guest essentially is the greatest gift, I think. Mind you, these are my own personal reflections; I don’t claim to have interviewed anyone on the subject, but my general impression is that  guest provides something to the host that no one else provides: he makes him feel kingly. A man lives in his house and someone from outside the household enters– he has been invited, he has accepted– the host instantly understands that this, in a small way, is a kind of deference. The guest is present: he must be provided for; his sustenance is in the hands of the host. Much as with gift culture– in which a man gives a gift to a girl to display a kind of possession of her– the acceptance of an invitation is a guest’s deference to the acting host: it relinquishes control of food, of the environment. The guest may be welcome, he may be poisoned– in truth, he does not know. All he knows is that he has ventured into the unknown; he has no control of what is to come.

The host, then, acknowledges this great subconscious submission through preparing the comfort of the guest– and providing for his pleasure. Naturally, when we are honored, we wish to be honored again– and I’m sure that there’s something of the “preparation” mentality involved in all this; that is, ensuring that your guest’s hospitality will equal your own when the time comes for the roles to switch. But the role of the host here is principally to serve the guest; it’s quite likely that you won’t see the women of the house making the meal (and they may not eat with you)– the important thing is to see to the guest. And he never, never, never does the dishes. There is no “payment”; no formal acknowledgement with a thank-you note– simply, the meal, the tea, the company.

What is interesting is that our own guest culture (at least formally) has been watered down by comparison: guests are taxing– they intrude on the personal space (the home) and must be ushered out at a decent hour. The showcase is almost invariably the host: apartments are furnished for entertainment, the host is the one that is honored, rather than the guest (hence the gifts, the cards, the thank-you notes, the whole shebang). Guests talk about objects around the house, pictures, the interesting decor; in Egypt, if you comment on an interesting trinket, the host will most likely give it to you (and really insist).

Perhaps I may seem a little enamored by the idea– but perhaps Abdl Halim and his family are just that fantastic at making you comfortable at home. But it seems to be a trend.

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Uncle Abdou lives about forty-five miles to the southwest of Alexandria in the town of King Maryot, on a villa built on land that the Egyptian army is constantly trying to steal in various corrupt and prevaricating ways. Yet he remains: he and his lovely Egyptian wife are both converts to Islam (he from Catholicism, being from Sevilla–his birthname is Javier–and her from Coptic Orthodoxy Christianity), and they’ve built up an oasis in the desert with their children, Noha, Salma, Yassin, and Ali, in a little half-constructed area just shy of all the industrial complexes south of Alex– and as far as I can tell, the only occupied house in the area.

Last night, Tom and I met up with Fadhila and Yumna and made our way down to Abdou’s for an epic iftar which just about killed us outright. Egyptian food is notorious throughout the Middle East for being relatively boring by comparison– the Lebanese are supposed to be the culinary masters– but this is only because, according to guidebooks, tourists never enjoy food in Egyptians’ homes. The best food is in someone’s house, where dishes abound: frankly, I had no idea what I was eating, but it was incredible– especially what Tom later referred to as “salty pancakes” stuffed with ground beef. Fantastic. I even was brave this time and went in for the mulukhiyya, which for me will forever be associated with Umm Markous’ recipe– which was for a horrible, smelly disaster that I was forced to eat. Mulukhiyya is something of an Egyptian national dish: it is a thick, slimy soup composed mainly of diced Jew’s mallow (a green, leafy vegetable related to mint), served over rice or chicken or drunk as a soup, and its consistency puts most foreigners off– myself included. Hana’s looks so good, though: most varieties look…well, dirty. Hers was a bright green color and delicious– I even had seconds.

Deep-fried dumplings and chunks of bitter-seasoned potatoes, a thick sweet almond paste with peanuts and huge chunks of meat stewed in onions and garlic….And then came dessert: the Omm Ali. A hot mixture of diced puff pastry cooked with milk and almonds and raisins…I was singing Hana’s praises all night and wondering exactly why I stayed away so long. Needless to say, by the time tea arrived, all the men were unbuckling our belts.

Yumna’s marriage is in a few weeks (just after eid) and he kept busting out the marriage jokes. Best one:

“What do Syrians call their wives?”
– I don’t know, Abdl Halim.
“The governors. What do Egyptians call their wives?”
– Same ignorance.
“The police. What do the Saudis?”
– No idea, but here comes the punchline…
“Punishment.”

His wife, who hasn’t been listening, now interjects “Oh my husband, what did you say?”

“Nothing, darling! Absolutely nothing.”

Didn’t get back until 2: having iftar with Yumna’s parents tonight at a fish place in Miami (not Florida).

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