My walk on the ragged edge of the law and common sense in Alexandria, Egypt, began innocently enough.
I had traveled to this city on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea because I needed to scout an off-limits Egyptian Navy facility which contained the country’s naval headquarters. It was perched on the western tip of a long peninsula known as Ras El-Tin that extended out into the pristine blue water.
The attractive harbor seen by all visitors to Alexandria was on the eastern side of this peninsula and stretched along the shore. That was where scores of popular hotels and restaurants can be found. This particular morning I hiked along the promenade which followed the shore all the way to the tip of the peninsula. There I found the sandy beach that attracted many local Egyptians seeking to escape the summer heat. At its western edge the Navy installation began.
Taking pictures around military installations such as the Admiralty and navy yards was forbidden of course. Even though this was not spy activity and just for personal use, the police were not likely to be happy with it. So I faced in the opposite direction, took out my camera and looked through the viewfinder. My plan was to pivot slowly and snap a few shots of the Admiralty grounds.
But it is true that “the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry.” I was interrupted at that moment by three little Egyptian girls who wanted to have their picture taken. The commotion they were making caused me to become a person of interest on the beach, with nowhere to hide. This was the last thing I wanted. Then inspiration struck. I agreed to their request and arranged for them to stand in front of the Admiralty. So I was able to include everything I wanted in the pictures. If the police saw me and objected, I could say it was only pictures of these children at the beach.
With that task accomplished, I walked south on the military side of the peninsula to see what else might be found. But all viewing angles of the military harbor — and after that, the commercial harbor — were blocked by jam-packed rows of government buildings. So I flagged down a taxi to take me to wherever it was possible to look through to the harbor.
The taxi driver and I seemed to go for miles along dingy back streets lined with warehouses and other aged structures, but found no way to get to that harbor. Eventually we became lost in a maze of narrow, meandering streets among small shops near the waterfront. Turning a corner, we were horrified to discover we had almost run into a large group of Muslim worshipers kneeling on prayer rugs in the middle of the street.
It flashed through my mind that two travelers in Egypt had been killed only a few weeks earlier for some perceived offense. And the people we interrupted at prayer did not look happy at all. In fact, a number of the men stood up and walked toward us, waving us away angrily and shouting things in Arabic.
I tapped the taxi driver on the shoulder and pointed behind us with my thumb for us to back up — but he was already ahead of me. Just like in the movies, he tried to shift into reverse too fast and the gears were grinding. His eyes were wide with a sense of panic, but he finally got the gears engaged and looked out the rear window as he accelerated backward at a much faster speed than we had used coming in.
It was bad enough that a Westerner had interrupted these Muslim faithful while they were in prayer. But perhaps it was even worse that an Egyptian — who should have been at prayer — was driving him. We fortunately made it around the corner without hitting anything, and set off just as quickly in another direction. After a few blocks he slowed down and I told him what he undoubtedly wanted to hear: we had done enough exploring for one day.
When he let me out at Midan Saad Zaghloul — the open square beside the public harbor that was my staging ground in Alexandria — the driver named his fare. I doubled it and handed him the stack of bills with a sincere “Shukran” (thank you).
After washing up and getting a change of clothes, I went across the square to the legendary Cecil Hotel for dinner. An Egyptian associate had told me his favorite dessert when he was growing up was called Umm Ali. So I ordered it, much to the waiter’s surprise. The dish was not on the menu, but since locals ordered it he was able to bring one out. It tasted a bit like bread pudding with a variety of nuts and other flavorful things mixed in.
And so it was that as the setting sun cast its soft glow of light across the peninsula and harbor of Alexandria, I was able to settle down from the adrenaline-pumped moments of the day, and enjoy a taste of Egypt.
P.S. — The picture at the top of this page was not taken by me. I was not dumb enough to get out of the taxi and try to take a picture.