I haven’t blogged for a couple of weeks for a number of reasons, one of which is that there seems to be so much going on in the world that it is hard to find the right words to talk about. But I want to keep doing my Monday travel posts, also for a number of reasons. Obviously one reason is that I enjoy reflecting on my travels. But another important one is that I am more and more convinced that thinking about situations and places in the world in light of actual connections with people in them is the best way to respond to them. I believe sometimes we need to stop viewing things as “political” situations and start re-framing them as “people” situations.
So I have chosen quite deliberately this week to reflect on some amazing experiences of hospitality and history I had in a predominately Muslim country. In light of some of the challenges we face in how we talk about and respond to people of Islamic faith, I think revisiting my time amongst the people of Alexandria for a day could only be a good thing for me, and I only wish others could experience what I did there too.
What did I love about Alexandria?
Alexandria was one of my favourite places in Egypt. The country’s second largest city, with a population roughly the same as that of Melbourne, Alexandria is a little off the standard Nile-pyramids tourist track. Many of the city’s buildings line the shore of the Mediterranean Sea.
The white buildings against the azure blue of the Mediterranean Sea make for beautiful views.
It was wonderfully relaxing just to stroll along the boulevard listening to the waves and watching the sunset.
I was delighted by the friendliness of the people, most of whom were keen to say hello and welcome the foreigner.
Then it was fascinating to watch the city light up and come alive at night with vibrant cafes, shwarma shops, sheesha and karaoke bars. Personally, I appreciated and enjoyed the atmosphere of being in a country (unlike my own) where alcohol is not seen as the only way to enjoy a night out. (And Alexandria remains the only place in the world where I have participated in karaoke!)
As someone who loves both reading and history, visiting the Library of Alexandria was a real treat. The ancient library here was for nearly 300 years the most significant in the world.
The modern Bibliotheca Alexandria stands nearby the ancient site as both a tribute to bibliophiles of all time and a functional library with a fascinating collection.
The 15th century Qaitbey Citadel stands on the site of one of the seven ancient Wonders of the World, the Lighthouse of Alexandria. It is a beautiful medieval fortress with an unrivalled coastal view.
What did I learn from Alexandria?
From the museums and historical sites I learned more about Alexander the Great, who founded the city, as well as just some of this city’s significant residents throughout the years. With names like Julius Caesar, Hadrian, Euclid, Philo, Origen and Athanasius … the influence of great leaders and thinkers looms large here.
But it was from people living in Alexandria today that I learned the most. The man in the juice bar next door to where we were staying, who wanted to get our opinion of his new flavours and ended up sharing his story of opening his own place in a way that would resonate with anyone who has ever taken a risk to follow their passion. The young couple walking along the shore who wanted a photo taken with me and to hear why I had chosen to visit their country, whose tentative glances and stilted conversation so poignantly expressed the early stages of a budding relationship familiar to us all.
And the family of my friend who invited a group of eight rowdy Aussies into their tiny apartment for lunch, sharing their home, their food and their stories. The family dynamics were so familiar to many of us – the older uncle who told hilarious and slightly inappropriate jokes that had even those of us who didn’t understand the language in tears of laughter; the earnest young girl who was torn between wanting to finish her homework and wanting to be part of what the grown ups were talking about; the mother who keep bringing out more and more food and sent us away with baskets of fresh fruit to make sure we were keeping healthy as we travelled.
They could have been my family or yours. They embraced us as if we were their own. It was the welcome they gave us, no questions asked, that stays with me. And it is experiences like that lunch that compel me to challenge the unwelcoming and unhelpful rhetoric I hear too often in my own country today about people just like them. There are many terrible things going in the world at the moment. But Jesus calls me to love my neighbours and my enemies, those near and far, and it is that embrace which I believe can be the start of true transformation.