The smell of the sea, the taste of the fresca , the sound of the pianola—all these meant Alexandria to me. But none was as exciting as the melon-yellow, air-conditioned motor coach that carried my parents and me to ‘Skendereyya’ from Cairo.
The luxurious Pullman motor coach linking Cairo and Alexandria in the 1940's and 1950's was equivalent in style to the New York-Chicago express of the same era .We called it "—al-Otobees al Sharawi" the desert bus—or "al Pullman."
You had to be well off to afford the price of a ticket: two Egyptian guinehs or pounds—roughly equal to 20 of today's pound. Those two guinehs bought the traveler style, comfort, and a touch of snobbery, but above all, they bought air conditioning. In 1949, air conditioning was a rare luxury in Egypt, generally found only at grand movie theaters such as the Cairo Palace, Cinema Metro or Rivoli, or the Cine Amir in Alexandria.
The buses that crisscrossed Egypt in those days were just like all buses everywhere—except for the Cairo—Alexandria Pullman. This motor coach was quite futuristic for the times, and not only was it air-conditioned, but it also was specially imported form the United States. No one operated a bus like it anywhere in the country or in the wider Middle East; even the famous Narin trailer bus that linked Beirut to Baghdad via Damascus was no match (See Aramco World, July-August 1981).
I was eight or nine years old when I accompanied my parents to Alexandria on this bus. For a little boy growing up on the then truly cosmopolitan city of Cairo, going to "Skendereyya", as Alexandria is called in colloquial Egyptian Arabic, was in itself a treat that surpassed all treats. Alexandria meant Mediterranean beaches, the Corniche, double-decker streetcars, and Sunday tea and gateaux, accompanied by chamber music, at the Trianon or at Atheneo's cafe at Mahattet el-Raml Square in the heart of downtown.
For me the Melon-Yellow bus, with its green tinted, slanted windows, was the other fascination. From the moment we climbed out of the taxicab at Cairo's Ismailia Square—now Midanel-Tahrir, or Liberation Square until the motor Coach finally pulled up at its stop, the excitement mounted.
I don't recall whether the coach's seats were the reclining type; I am fairly certain that, given my young age, I couldn't see out the windows unless I stood up.
One image comes to mind that has always remained tattooed in my memory; the chrome Logo FLXIBLE, mounted on the front of the bus's distinctive prow. At the time, I could not understand why they had left the letter e out of flexible. (It took me 40 years to learn the answer, after an inquiry to the bus manufacturer Flxible Corporation; Flexible, by law, could not be protected as a brand name because it was an ordinary word in common use, so the Ohio-based company simply dropped the e .)
Heading out of cairo, the a Pullman crossed the Qast el-Nil bridge, passed the zoo in Giza, and drove west toward the Pyramids, where it turned right at the Mena House to chart its way northward through the desert to Alexandria.
The two-line "highway" cut the yellow sands of the Western Desert like a thin black hair. It was almost like penciling the line where the Mashreq and Maghreb—the Arab East and Arab West—met because west of the roadway lay the Libyan desert and the countries of North Africa, while its eastern shoulder marked the beginning of the Levant.
The major attraction along this desolate road—not only for an eight year old boy but also for the grown ups was a stopover about halfway between the two metropolises; the Rest House.
Even today, travelers on the desert highway stop at the Rest House. Topping up their fuel tanks and letting their car engines cool down under the 42 degree (108°F) sun was one reason. But there was a more hedonistic motive: to indulge in a local delicacy, desert grown batteekh, or watermelon crimson red, sweet and ice-cold. Today, 45 years later, I can still taste the delicious batteekh melting in my mouth.
Salty breezes from the Mediterranean greeted the traveler as far out as Amreyya, some 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Alexandria. This was the signal to get ready for the metamorphosis that all Cairenes experience, even today, when they travel to Alexandria. They become altogether different people. Perhaps the best way to describe this phenomenon is to compare it to a New Yorker's vacation at a Club Med paradise. But to understand the transformation fully, you'd have to accompany an Egyptian family on its summer pilgrimage to "Skendereyya."
Lawrence Durrell was perhaps the best-known Westerner to write about Alexandria, but he depicted only one face of the city, chiefly a European face. Egyptian color was not evident in Durrell's four-part mosaic, the Alexandria Quartet: Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive and Clea.
The main ingredient in an Alexandrian vacation is of course the beach. The myriads of multicolored umbrellas, from Chatby Beach to Sidi Bishr Beach, through San Stefano and Stanely Beach, resembled a field of gaily colored mushrooms. The waterline was the site of an age-old promenade; Groups of teenaged boys and girls would stroll past each other, heading in opposite directions, attempting their first shy flirtations, far from the watchful gaze of their parents—who would no doubt be sitting somewhere in the shade of a beach umbrella, absorbed in a game of backgammon.
The waterline was also a favorite place for photographers, whose equipment bore witness through the years to the evolution of photography. Tripod-mounted square wooden boxes with attached black cloth sleeves that made them into portable developing chambers as well as cameras gave way to the smaller and more sophisticated Rolleiflex twin-lens reflex cameras and the rangefinder Leicas.
Then there were the fresca peddlers, Fresca in Italian means "fresh". The thin, round biscuit, about the size of a saucer, resembling thinly sliced but crunchy pancakes, was a relic of day past, when the city nurtured sprawling Italian and Greek Communities. In those days peddlers must have used the word fresca to advertise the freshness of their product. Now the attribute had become the name for a treat that could be found only along the beaches of Alexandria.
The famous Corniche, like the Promenade des Anglais in Nice, was another crucial aspect of Alexandria—especially the picturesque half moon portion of it extending from the historic Sidi Aboul Abbas el-Morsi mosque, past the elegant architecture of the Ibrahim Pasha mosque upto Silsilah.
In Cairo, the coffee house is not the domain of women. But in Alexandria, the sidewalk cafés along the Corniche were patronized by a mixed clientele, sipping Turkish coffee, tea or "Blue Cross"—a soft drink similar to 7-up. Peddlers passed by with roasted peanuts or simeet, a ring shaped galette sprinkled with sesame seeds particularly delicious when eaten with dokka (mixed spices) or gebna roomi (Kashkaval cheese).
Here comes anther typical Alexandrian entertainer, the pianola player. The man carried an impressive black wooden music box, which he set up on collapsible legs and played by turning a crank handle. The pianola produced melodies that would conjure up memories of Alexandria even if one were in the middle of an oompah band.
Alexandria was also unique for its double-decker, royal blue streetcar linking Mahattet el-Raml in downtown Alexandria with Victoria, where the famous Victoria College, now El-Nasr College, is located. The line was dismantled recently, I have heard and all the beautiful streetcars scrapped, to the chagrin of those who grew up with them.
Every summer, the Egyptian cabinet moved lock, stock, and barrel to Alexandria and set up shop at the Bolkley government house. Naturally, the Who's Who of Cairo had to follow suit. Even the Egyptian royal family spent its summers in Alexandria. The ceremonial palace was the imposing Ras el-Tin Palace by the harbor, and the summer residence was the magnificent Montazah Palace, a few miles east of the city, perched on a small hill amid well manicured gardens overlooking the incomparable blue waters of the Mediterranean. Montazah palace was built in an exquisite Venetian architectural style and has been open to the public off and on since the end of the monarchy in 1952.
Alexandria has never really been given the same attention as Cairo, even though this was the city founded by Alexander the Great of Macedonia. It boasted one of the Seven Wonders of the World—the famed Pharos lighthouse (See page18)—as well as the second largest harbor in the Mediterranean after Marseilles, and had been in antiquity the home of the famous library of Alexandria (See page 24).
When the Fatimid caliph al Mu'izz left Tunisia in 969 to claim his new conquest, Egypt, he stopped first in Alexandria, where he was greeted by the city's dignitaries and religious scholars, before moving on to his newly built capital, Cairo.
Alexandria today can seem as congested as Cairo, especially during summer, when Cairenes and other descend on the city. But the old grandeur can still be detected by those who care to seek it; the perfume of nostalgia is ever present and as fragrant as the breeze flirting with the waves of the Mediterranean.
Modern times have caught up with this once romantic lady, but the special dreams it has always conjured in the imagination of the people of Egypt are still there. After all, for me and many others, "Skendereyya" has always been more than a city: It was, and remains, a symbol and memory of freedom, youth happiness and love.
Hassan Eltaher is an aviation management consultant and free-lance writer in Ottawa, Ontario. He lived in Egypt, Lebanon, Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Morocco and the United states before moving to Canada in 1980.