A man flicks a shrimp at cars passing by the fish market in Alexandria, Egypt © Jeff Koehler
Alexandria is a true sea city, fifteen miles long and not much more than a mile deep. From above, the city’s port looks like the tail of a fat cartoon whale, with the near symmetrical western and eastern harbors. The former is filled with cargo ships and large vessels, the later with green and robin egg-blue fishing boats.
Walking through the Anfusi, the dusty, crowded fishermen’s quarter sandwiched between the two harbors, I am reminded of arriving here the first time back in 1992 on a ship from Crete. (After a year in Africa I returned to the U.S. but, just months later, found myself back on a familiar hotel balcony.) There was pleasure then as there is now of wandering lost in the din of the city, letting the edges of familiarity drop away among the loud rasp of Arabic, the graceful curves of door arches, the smell of apple-scented tobacco and baking bread and crushed coriander – as calls to prayer float through the city like smoke. At Anfusi’s northern edge the streets open to the fish market. Men stand on the edge of the road holding up sea bass and prawns for passing cars and taxis. Someone absently flicks water on a tray of red mullet, another, in yellow rubber boots, holds a large pale shrimp in the palm of his hand, flicking its tail like a well-oiled jackknife.
There is pleasure, too, in eating familiar dishes, though this time I don’t live solely on kushary – a strangely delectable mix of two types of macaroni, rice, lentils, tomato sauce, a bit of chili sauce, and topped with chewy, sweet fried onions – and bowls of fuul midamess, fava beans mashed with onions, tomatoes, and spices, scooped up with pieces of round flatbread. This trip there is also plenty of stuffed vine leaves, kobeba (fried cracked wheat with lamb meatballs), rice sayadeya (amber-color fisherman’s rice), shrimp and cuttlefish baked in the oven with tomatoes, onions, and plenty of spices, grilled quail, pigeon stuffed with rice and with frik (green wheat), creamy rice pudding, and an even creamier mohalabiyya made with crushed rice and rice flour.
I go to Cairo for a final version of stuffed pigeon at the magnificent Abou El Said. Between Alexandria and Cairo run two roads of equal length, one through the edge of the silted Nile Delta, congested and slow, with its rice and cotton fields and web of brown canals. The other, straight and fast, is the Desert Road – once through the desert, but now filled with the green, canal-fed agricultural land. Buses pass wailing their horns, flashing their headlights, trucks with loads of onions and melons. Pigeon cotes sprout up in tight pairs, weighing down garages and shops. Phallic and made of earth, with holes and protruding stick perches, the cotes look like they belonged more in Mauritania or Mali.
Getting to Cairo is easier than getting out. In the morning a massive sandstorm blows up, the khamaseen, the weather going from pleasant to 90-some degrees in hours as the sand moves in, filling the air with a fine dust, giving the sky a buttery metallic glow. Quiet, hot, almost claustrophobic. You can hardly breathe. Everything is shut up. Sand swirls around your feet. Driving slowly out to the (closed) airport for my flight home, the city trails off at the length of a football field, a bit more perhaps, the buildings fading to warm gold.