As of today I have been in Alexandria for two months, and Egypt a little over that. For this post, nothing outstandingly exciting having happened, I shall simply recount two things that have occurred since my last one.
My first story is related to school, and my difficulties rather akin to dyslexia in reading and writing Arabic. The problem is apparently common in those learning the language: in both reading and writing, though I know the spelling, I substitute letters that for the one I need. For example, the letters ‘ب’ (ba) and ‘ن’ (noon) look very similar (despite appearances – when one writes Arabic letters by themselves they look different compared to when they’re in a word), and I will frequently read or write one when I mean the other. This also happens with ‘ت’ (ta) and ‘ث’ (tha); ‘ص’ (saad) and ‘س’ (seen) (which sound similar), and so many other letters that I don’t know why I’m choosing any in particular as examples… It happens frequently enough that my teachers don’t tend to say anything except to point out that it’s wrong. As I wrote in my last email, my fus’ha teacher’s daughter is just learning to read and write as well, and makes many of the same mistakes I do. (In fact, she makes one rather impressive mistake that I haven’t made: she’s learning French as well as Arabic, and E (the teacher) told me that she’s started writing her Arabic from left to write. She brought in an example, most easily read by holding it up to a mirror!) One example of my usual error cropped up in my homework this week, however, that caused my a’mir teacher to collapse in fits of giggles. I asked her what it was. “You’ve forgotten the dots,” she gasped. I protested that this was a common occurrence, and not really cause for such mirth. “No, but with this word you’ve written something else!” I asked what it was. “I can’t tell you, it’s a bad word.” She giggled again, then “no, I’ll tell you exactly what it means. It means… it means…” At this point she apparently lost her nerve: “It means a very bad woman!” I’m unconvinced as to quite how ‘exact’ this definition is…
There is shortly going to be a change of personnel at my flat. D is to return to England (he’s been here a year now, and says that is quite enough. This seems to be a common reaction to prolonged residence among expats that I’ve met, though as I found in Yemen, a large proportion of such expats can’t bring themselves to leave either!), and in his place H and I have asked E, a Swede who also studies at our school to join us. As part of the getting-to-know-you process we all (including D) went on a trip to Alemein on 5 November.
Meanwhile, D had been very keen to celebrate bonfire night in semi-traditional fashion, by making and burning a guy (something I had never done). So on the fourth the four of us got an old shirt and ripped trousers, stuffed them with newspaper, and knitted them together with paperclips in lieu of pins, and resolved to take him into the desert during the trip the next day and burn him. H posted a picture of the evening on Facebook, with the caption “Upside of living with the Brits: the chances are that you’re going to see something you’ve never seen or heard of every other week”.
The next morning our driver got a bit of a shock when I walked out holding a life-size dummy in my arms, and asked him if I could put it in the boot. We rather failed to dispel his initial impression of our being rather strange as the day went on… The journey to Alemein from Alex is about 90 minutes, along the main coastal highway that essentially stretches all the way across North Africa. It’s through the desert, though on the coastal side there are continuous resorts all the way to Alemein and beyond – as far as we could see, mostly deserted. Our first stop was a museum that appeared to be about the whole war in the Western Desert. The displays seemed to be quite interesting, though it was hard to tell what they contained, as the English descriptions (where they existed) were incomprehensible. The management of the museum clearly were also of the view that any foreign language translation of the Arabic descriptions would do: so some displays had English, some German, some French, some Italian and, bizarrely, some Chinese – but no display had more than one of those languages.
Our next stop was the Commonwealth Cemetery. As with all Commonwealth War Graves Commission controlled cemeteries that I have visited, it was hauntingly beautiful. As one enters the gate one can see nothing but desert, both immediately in front of one and, as the ridge that the gate is on drops away, in the distance. Then one moves forward, and sees the memorial gate rise up as if out of the ground as one does so. Inside the gate (a big, light-coloured sandstone affair that blends very well into its surroundings) are engraved 13 000 names of those whose bodies were never identified or recovered. This is put into perspective when one reads that there are 8000 graves in the cemetery (not solely from the Battle of El-Alemein, though largely), and many of them are ‘Known Unto God’. On the far side from the gate is a very large cross, and half way between an altar below which had been laid a freshly picked wreath of local flowers. In fact, the place was full of flowers, though the soil was very sandy, and clearly very well cared for. It compared favourably with the cemetery at Silent Valley in Aden, where the cross has been shot down by an RPG.
We went from there to the German memorial, which is an imposing castle-like structure built to look as if had been hewn whole out of the rock. It stands on top of a hill which stretches down to the sea. Inside, however, it felt dark and claustrophobic, with large, cast iron, gothic lettering, and great sheets of iron with the names of the dead packed so small and close together that it was almost impossible to read. The caretaker told us that the ashes of the dead were interred below the memorial.
The Italian memorial was a similarly imposing affair, though much lighter. From the road one has to walk up a long straight drive, uphill, for about half a kilometre. At the top is a very dramatic marble tower that wouldn’t look out of place in The Lord of the Rings. Inside, however, it was very moving. The ashes of the dead are interred inside the tower, each one separately, with a plaque with their name on. The walls are covered with these plaques up to about three metres, and then there are a series of rooms off the main tower that are also full of them. Particularly striking were two rooms full where there was only one word on every plaque: ‘Ignoto’.
So ended our battlefield tour. We were all feeling rather sombre, and were rather relieved when our driver, who’d been talking to a policeman, told us that we’d have to drive about half an hour inland to get to somewhere suitably uninhabited to burn our guy. We decided that this was too much effort and went home, where with some savagery he was hung, drawn and quartered, with a blunt and rusty Bedouin knife…
Meanwhile, in Alex, the winter is setting in. It has been tipping it down today, and apparently will again tomorrow. ‘So what?’, I hear you say with some derision – well it doesn’t rain here very much, and the system isn’t very good at coping with it. The roads flood, and rainwater is the least of what one might be stepping in!