The tram shakes the ground as it arrives at the station. While distracted by its screeching halt, I step in fresh donkey manure. The foul scent snakes its way up my nostrils. I hold my breath and stomp my shoe against the dusty concrete. When I’m done, a fly lands on my cheek. I swat it away but it moves to my arm and begins crawling on my skin. Before I start convulsing, a cold drop smacks my scalp. Followed by another on my neck. I look up and see a tall building with rattling AC units sticking out from its side. The AC struggles to keep the apartments cool while the city melts. It’s my last day here. I walk alongside this street hoping for inspiration, but the struggles of life weigh me down.
Back on the main road, the Tariq Al Horreyya is jammed with a glut of cars inching its way forward. A taxi cab driver honks his horn in a staccato of beeps. The surrounding drivers are unphased, immune to his insistence. The cabbie keeps at it until a small path opens and he zooms into the next rut of traffic. Drivers work their way through the entanglement of steel, hovering their vehicles a hair-width away from their neighbor. But no one worries if their Benz will be blemished. In fact, the drivers (and their cars) exit unscathed.
As an Egyptian American on vacation, I wanted to take in the sights and sounds of Alexandria’s living history. The modern city is built directly on top of the ancient city. The idea was idyllic, in theory. This was home to the greatest library of antiquity and one of the world’s Seven Wonders, the Pharos Lighthouse. But Caesar burned the library and earthquakes destroyed the lighthouse. What’s left are their ruins and a people who understand the pathology of time: everything crumbles. The ancient Canopic Way, Alexandria’s main thoroughfare, is today’s Tariq Al Horreyya (literally, the Path of Liberty). In a humid, smelly, loud, and incessant reality, Alexandrians are liberated. They deal with life as it is, coarse and imperfect.
I walk until the buildings start to taper off and the sky comes into view. The traffic eases to a trickle. A rush of sea breeze lifts the sweat from my brow. There’s a Muslim cemetery on my left and, a few steps ahead, a Coptic cemetery on my right. For a moment, it’s deathly quiet. Then, a delivery boy riding a motorbike whizzes past. He’s making a right-hand turn but he stops midway. He gets off his bike, picks something off the road, and carries it toward an iron gate behind the sidewalk. He returns to his motorbike and rides off. I walk closer. Through the bars of the gate, I see a meowing kitten.
Wait long enough and the truth will be revealed. Alexandrians have witnessed more than two thousand revolutions around the sun. That’s enough repetition to understand that life is choreographed. We are lulled by the daily dance of drudgery until the curtain is pulled back. For a split second, we see that anything is possible and dreams do come true. Then the curtains close and the fantastic is stamped out by suffering once again. Like clockwork, the cycle repeats. I used to think life was bittersweet. But I’m beginning to feel it may be timed to perfection.