One Ticket to Alexandria

NOT long ago, when I was living at a frantic pace in Washington, D.C., I felt I would come apart at the seams if I didn't take a break and recharge my batteries.

Alexandria, Egypt, where I was born and spent the first 20 years of my life, where friends had apparently never heard of the word "stress," seemed to be a good place to spend a couple of weeks. I took off like the desert wind.

Arriving in Cairo late in the evening, I had to spend the night at a hotel before going on to Alexandria the next day. I stood on the balcony of my room overlooking the Nile and breathed in the sights and sounds of the teeming city. Barges with huge sails drifted slowly before my eyes. On the street bumper-to-bumper cars honked away; on the sidewalk people ate peanuts and sunflower seeds, discarding shells as they walked leisurely by. A fat moon looked down contentedly. I took a deep breath.

Early the next morning I went to the railway station to catch the 7 o'clock diesel to Alexandria and was greeted with enthusiasm by a porter who seemed much too ancient to be doing such heavy work. He lifted my suitcase onto his shoulder while I tried in vain to explain that it had wheels. Then slinging my airline bag onto the other shoulder he grabbed the hem of his long blue galabiyyah in his mouth and ordered me to follow. We plunged into the crowd toward the ticket window.

No one was there. "The ticket clerk is praying," the old porter said. "He won't be long."

I saw a man in a white shirt and gray trousers kneeling on a small rug, his shoes beside him. We waited, while every now and again he bent his forehead to the ground.

Finally the ticket clerk appeared at the window. "Morning of light," he said pleasantly.

"Morning of hope," I replied.

"Morning of jasmin!" the old porter cried. "On the Prophet, please give this good, kind lady a ticket to Alexandria! First class, of course!"

"A thousand apologies, I swear on the Prophet that the 7 o'clock diesel is full, as is the 9 o'clock and even the 12 o'clock." The ticket clerk looked genuinely sorry to be the bearer of such bad news.

"What kind of talk is that first thing in the morning, oh, my brother? This kind lady, this princess, deserves to have the whole train, and you won't give her a ticket?" A hoarse cackle came from the porter's throat as he grinned showing a mouthful of gums but no teeth. I thought of my dentist's sparkling office in Washington, D.C., where teeth were no laughing matter.

"Everyone wants to go to Alexandria," the ticket clerk explained. "It is cool in Alexandria."

That was not a good enough reason for the old porter.

"All we ask is one seat, oh, my brother!" He wheedled. "One seat!" he held up a forefinger. He was wizened and old but very expressive. "Let her buy a ticket, and I'll get her a chair from the cafe so that we can put it onto the diesel!"

"Good thinking." The ticket clerk scribbled something on a ticket and handed it to me. "I wish I could go to Alexandria," he said wistfully.

I followed the old porter as he pushed through the crowd with my suitcase on his shoulder. Bedouin women, many with babies, carried baskets of live pigeons and chickens on their heads. Or tangerines, melons, onions. Voices were loud and musical. There were fellaheen, peasants from the villages, soldiers in ill-fitting khaki uniforms, as well as smart naval officers in starched white. Women in Western dress, their big black eyes outlined with kohl, others in long robes and headscarves, clerks of which Cai ro abounded - they were all there at Bab-el-Hadid, Cairo's railway station.

By the 7 o'clock diesel an attendant in a crumpled khaki uniform waited to board passengers.

"Ahmed, my brother," the porter cried, "run and get this good kind lady, this princess, a chair from the cafe!"

"Right away!" Ahmed replied with a big smile. He gave my suitcase a quick dusting with a large checkered handkerchief and ran off.

I tipped the old porter and thanked him for his help. "May Allah keep you!" he said over and over again. "May you live to be 100, may you never know sorrow!" A beautiful smile illuminated his face as he kissed the tattered, smelly money and tucked it away in the folds of his blue galabiyyah. He refused to leave me until Ahmed returned.

Ahmed not only brought a chair but a table as well, which he dusted with his checkered handkerchief. "We are here to serve you!" he said happily, something I was not used to hearing in the West.

The diesel departed on time. Ahmed went up and down the aisle, asking if anyone wanted coffee, tea, or bebsi. There is no "p" in Arabic. I asked for tea with lots of sugar and lemon.

"Right away, your excellency!" Excellency, me? I was not titled, and, anyway, titles had been abolished with the advent of the 1952 revolution when King Farouk was ousted. But they were still used. They were great for the ego. Nowhere but in Egypt did people call me princess and excellency. "Honey," "Sugar," and "Luv," yes. But there was a world of difference between these too familiar terms and excellency!

Sipping tea with the sounds of Arabic around me, thoughts drifted easily in and out of my mind as I gazed at the fertile green fields. A water buffalo, blindfolded, slowly went round and round, turning the water wheel. Bedouin women walked with heavy jugs of water on their heads. When I was a child in Alexandria, one of our first English governesses tried to teach herself the art of balancing things on her head with some of mother's vases. She had not lasted long.

Here and there were clusters of mud houses which the fellaheen shared with their hens, geese, and donkeys. I pictured myself living with no running water, no plumbing, no electricity, no toothbrush. I never had such thoughts when I lived in Egypt. Friends in my Washington building were most upset if the air-conditioning was not turned on the instant the weather warmed up.

The diesel whistled as it crossed the bridge at Kafr-el-Zayat. Women did their laundry in the brown muddy waters of the Nile. They had shed their black robes and wore bright flowered dresses, with even brighter kerchiefs edged with beads on their heads. Children, pots and pans, everything was washed in the Nile.

I must have dozed off because Ahmed was saying, "Sidi-Gaber, Sidi-Gaber!" It was the small station in the residential part of Alexandria where my friend Aziza, whom I had known all my life, was waiting for me.

The train door opened and a loud burst of Arabic music split the air. A small group of little boys with flutes, cymbals, and an Egyptian drum called tabla made a beeline for me. "Give her a good welcome!" Aziza cried. "She's come all the way from America!" With his fingers and palms the boy with the tabla delivered a rousing exotic rhythm. A man with a tambourine and a performing monkey appeared out of nowhere.

My enthusiastic reception committee followed us to Aziza's car. I couldn't stop laughing.

Had I ever lived in Washington, London, and Geneva? Stress faded away like a mirage. My batteries were recharging nicely, thank you. I was home.

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