The next morning we sail into Alexandria.
What a contrast. There is no need to watch the approaching port from our balcony. The approach is the equivalent of driving through a huge freeway junction. There are enormous container ships everywhere, all seemingly going in different directions. In amongst them are the little fishing boats weaving in and out of the larger vessels. It is an extraordinary sight and leaves me wondering how many accidents there must be. My thoughts are answered a little later as we pass into the dock area and see the wrecks of several huge container ships just left to rot on one side of the harbour entrance. The harbour appears to go on for a mile or two with dock after dock servicing the container ships.
Most passengers are taking a daylong trip from here to see Cairo and the Pyramids, but we have seen both on a previous trip and decide to spend the day exploring Alexandria. We assume it will be a wonderful City . It is after all where Cleopatra chose to live and surely the term “FABULOUS!” was created for her. But we forget , that having moved to Alexandria , Cleopatra promptly killed herself, and it doesn’t take long to realise why..
In the words of another fabulous woman, “What a dump!”. It has nothing going for it other than our guide. He is a large 35 year old gentleman, with an easy smile, a fun sense of humour ,and a passion for food but not for his wife, all of which he shares with us over the next few hours.
His name is Hosny and he takes us everywhere, but the only place that really holds our interest is the new Library of Alexandria.
It is a fabulous modern building housing several exhibit halls with collections of ancient and modern art and an enormous library arranged in descending tiers that can seat 2000 students.
Hosny also takes us to the well known Abu al-Abbas al-Mursi Mosque. We expect him to explain the history of the Mosque, but he appears to be in an introspective mood and invites us to sit on a bench while he explains the basics of the Muslim Religion, and the purpose of the calling of the prayers. It is a fascinating insight into a religion of which I know little. While he is telling us this I notice that only men are in the Mosque. There is a large partition at the back of the Mosque closing off a small portion where the women are allowed to pray. When I ask why this is, he explains that women are kept segregated and behind the men so that they don’t distract the men from their prayers. Considering that the women are mostly covered from head to toe in loose fitting black robes and scarves it is hard to imagine how they could be a distraction.
Interested as we are in this discussion, we fail to realise that Hosny is just getting started on what he really wants to talk about: Life as a Muslim, and in particular his life, and the role of women in a man’s world, and in particular, his wife and her role in his world. Things start getting personal really quickly.
He explains that a man cannot marry until he has saved enough money to have an apartment so he can move out from his parents. Because the cost of living is so high, most men nowadays cannot afford to marry until they are in their thirties. Once they have the apartment, they are able to look for a wife. Well, actually that is not strictly true. In most cases once they have the apartment, their MOTHER looks for a suitable wife .
What does the mother look for, we ask. Well, one of the basic requirements is that the woman is a virgin (naturally!) Women can’t get married until they are eighteen, and can’t have sex before they get married.
We suggest to Hosny that this can’t usually be the case, but he explains that this is made possible because of the stigma attached to any woman who has sex before she is married, or later, outside her marriage. So most women will marry as soon as they leave college or at 18. But here’s the kicker. The husband must also be a virgin! At 33! So most men are virgins when they get married, or at least they haven’t had sex with a woman. Hosny delicately suggests that this may mean the husband is a complete mess by the time he gets married .
We are fascinated, and the script for a soap opera is already beginning to form in my mind. I want to encourage Hosny to tell us more. But I don’t have to . Nothing can stop him now.
We start to get to the heart of the story, which is of course all about Hosny. He explains he got married 8 months ago and his wife is 7 months pregnant. We offer our warm congratulations, but they are wasted on him. He tells us that no one ever explained to him that women change after they are married. His wife was charming and pleasant before the marriage but now she is a different person. She has terrible mood swings, he explains, He never knows what mood she is going to be in when he comes home. Why, he asks, are women so volatile while men go through life on an even keel without any moods.
Before we have a chance to attempt to answer his question, he goes on to give a typical example, and a very recent one at that, which explains why we are sitting through this outpouring of emotion.
Last night (a-ha!) he returned home a little late ( he didn’t say HOW late). He had been playing video games with his men friends (this is a man of 35), but his wife was convinced that he was out with another woman. She has a terrible temper (something she cleverly never revealed before the marriage) and screamed and shouted and cried all night long. He told her he had to work the next morning and went to sleep on his own. But that made her cry even more. She said was afraid to be left alone in the dark. So he agreed to sleep with her, but only if she shut up (his words.) She said she would , but once he got into bed with her she started all over again. He hadn’t slept at all last night
At this point in the story, gentle readers, I would just like to remind you, that all of this is being relayed to us in a place of worship. The story had started off being told in hushed whispers, but as Hosny warms to his subject, and as the subject warms Hosny, his voice becomes louder and louder
When we wonder why he didn’t know what his wife was like when they got married, he explains that once his mother had picked his bride for him, they had a supervised visit for 30 minutes. After this initial visit the man and the woman are both able to say no thank you. But if they don’t say no thank you at this point, the marriage is basically on! The Bride was gracious and charming at their first meeting, managing to conceal her real character, and so things progressed. But they only met a very few times after that and were usually not left alone. The only unsupervised conversations they could have were telephone calls when the mothers weren’t in earshot.
At this point most people in the Mosque are listening in, although presumably few of them understand English. Hosny is oblivious to everything except his sad story. We on the other hand are beginning to feel uncomfortable.
We try to lighten the mood. We have already found out that Hosny has a passion for good food, so we ask Hosny if his wife is a good cook.
No, she is
a terrible cook, he says. To start with he wouldn’t let her in the kitchen because her cooking was so bad. But then he found cooking for both of them too much work, so he told her she had to go to his mother and ask her to teach her how to cook.
This subject is doing nothing to lighten the mood
Next we ask if wives are allowed to work. It can be allowed, but only if the work does not affect the wives ability to run the household and look after the husband and the children. When we ask who decides if the wife is able to work and look after the family, we already know the answer. It is the husband’s job to decide whether the wife can work or not. And of course the wife will seldom earn as much money as the husband, and what she does earn will just be a little extra pocket money for her.
We understand that this is a different culture, and we are fully aware that we are still in a place of worship, but it is very hard not to scream at this point!
However, Hosny brightens considerably, when he tells us that all is not lost as far he is concerned. The wonderful thing is that Muslim men are allowed up to four wives, and Hosny, only 8 months into his first marriage, is already dreaming of his next one. Why he would even consider another one , after this experience, is beyond me. But at least Hosny is cheering up and our interest is definitely peaking again.
What will his first wife think of him getting another wife, we ask (relief, is probably the correct answer). Hosny explains, that incredibly, he has to ask his first wife for permission to have a second wife. Our mouths hang open in disbelief, but he explains that the first wife rarely refuses, because either the first wife loves the husband so much she will not refuse him anything (not the case here, we suspect) or , the first wife will be happy to have a second wife entertain the husband, because she doesn’t want to (BINGO!)
We asked Hosny how many husbands a woman is allowed. Now ladies, if you don’t know the answer, I am sure you suspect what it is going to be. And you would be correct. A woman is only allowed ONE husband at a time.
So to sum up. Men don’t have sex until they are thirty something. Then they marry a woman who is 18 years old. She hasn’t had sex either. Then they are surprised that the marriage doesn’t go so well. Then the husband takes on another wife or two or three, while the wife is stuck with the man.
And we think our lives are difficult.
OK, hands up all of those who want to move to Egypt
I seem to remember that this started out as a travelogue on our visit to Egypt, so I should just mention that at the end of the day Hosny takes us to see the summer Palace of King Farouk
It sits in prime position on a small headland jutting into the sea, it is unbelievably lavish, it is surrounded by over a hundred acres of gardens, it must have cost millions a year to run, and it is ugly
No wonder the people overthrew him.
Our visit to Egypt continues the next day when the ship docks at Port Said. We have great expectations for this visit as we have been told that Port Said is one of Egypt’s most beautiful cities. If that is true, it is very sad. It is a tawdry city, crumbling into decay, with a serious hygiene problem. There is nothing to recommend it, and if this is the best an Egyptian city has to offer we will not be returning.
When we return to the ship we promptly bump into the Boca Raton Mafia. They have just returned from an overnight visit to Cairo and the Pyramids. They are are not looking at their best. They are tired and disheveled. The Louise Brooks hair do is in tatters, and its owner looks every bit as old as the original owner. I would give anything for my camera, but unfortunately it is not with me.
I ask if they enjoyed Cairo and the Pyramids. Louise gives me a look that would kill a lesser mortal, and exclaims “It was filthy! It was ALL filthy”.
And so we leave Egypt.