Today we drove to Alexandria. It’s about 3 hours from Cairo by bus (with a 20 minute rest stop at the largest souvenir mall we can find), through desert being largely claimed by homesteaders, and – increasingly frequently – builders creating communities out in the middle of nowhere. This is distance it once would have taken days to cover by horse or donkey, but now it’s an easy day trip.
Alexandria is home to the Library, opened in 2002. An amazing building with soaring ceilings and a planetarium that looks like the Death Star, the library is one of only two places in the world which claims to have a comprehensive backup of the Internet. However, it has a dearth of books. One of the shelves, for example, held only 5 books under a section of the Dewey decimal system, one of which was “Horoscopes of 1972″ (I have no idea where the other years were). But the library is digitizing every book they get, perhaps in an effort to ensure that there can never be a repeat of the loss history suffered when the original library was burned.
Alexandria, or as it is affectionately called by the locals, Alex, is largely cosmopolitan. It is also uniquely Mediterranean, and indeed it sits on the sea. Once Greg and I wore our galabeyas (the typical Egyptian dress) to Alex and all the locals looked at us as if the hick tourists were in town. Now we know better and wear hip Western clothes, and the looks we get are mostly approving.
In the library, I go into the ladies room, where a group of college girls, all Muslim, are adjusting their taiyas, the head scarves they wear with their blouses and jeans. As I leave the stall, they surround me so curious, and the bravest ones pepper me with questions.
“What is your name?” “Halle.”
“Where are you from?” “America.”
“How old are you?” “41.”
“Do you believe Mohamed is the one true prophet?”
Uh-oh. Danger, danger, Will Robinson! If I answer this one wrong I could set Middle East relations back by 50 years. I consider my answer carefully.
“Well, I believe Mohamed was a prophet, just as Jesus and others were prophets, too.” She nods, satisfied, and launches into an explanation of Muslim religion that I only half follow. I remember when I was 20 and every word I spoke was a justified pearl. I am just grateful the road to Alex is still open.