Posted by: cedarsurf | May 21, 2010

Surfing In Alexandria,Egypt

Alexandria,Egypt-Women on the beach in burqas and hijabs look out on boys on boards in Quiksilver and Reef wear as four muslim men turn their back to the waves spread a carpet on the sand and bow to Mecca in prayer. A man with a bushy beard cups his hands and calls out to the faithful. I imagine a surreal cheesy beach blanket bingo movie, the bearded man a crazy beatnik yelling Beach Party! Alas, no.

The group are gathered at Shatby beach opposite the Biblioteca Alexandria- a modern commemoration of the Library of Alexandria that was lost in antiquity- on the North coast of Egypt. Alexandria has historically been a place of learning. It’s a city that has attracted poets and writers for thousands of years. Now surfers have recently begun to discover its charms.

Around the corner from the Biblioteca young women in designer jeans, sunglasses and shoes topped with head covering hijabs (suggesting to my eye sexy discretion rather than religious oppression) talk and text into mobile phones while young men walk arm in arm (a common expression of affection here) and file into the University of Alexandria’s, Faculty of Arts.

One can’t help but notice the thongs that pop up from the back of the girl’s pants like a call to a different sort of devotion. Allah apparently does not approve of panty lines.

A royal blue VW bug that apparently died years ago sits like a mummy under a dusty car cover. It’s  license plates read Alex in english followed by Arabic numerals.

Out on the streets traditional falafel huts, ornamental rug shops and coffee shops where men sit and smoke the hubbly –bubbly mix with fast food franchises from America including KFC, Domino’s and Pizza Hut. Alexandrian’s are friendly, curious and courteous but it is much more likely you will be engaged by a man than a woman.

The shore is shadowed by a 30 kilometre seawall. The cement barricades that follow the sea wall are covered in arabic graffiti and along the wall women in hijabs and burqas and men line it. Much litter like a modern, slower decomposing midden covers the ground. Everywhere Alexandria is confronted and confounded by the archaeological remains of its remarkable past and the realities of its present.

Guarding the outer arm of Alexandria’s Eastern Harbour harbour and visible from Shatby beach is Qait Bey Citadel constructed in the late 15th Century by a Mameluk sultan. Over the years, however, the waves of the Mediterranean Sea have continually gnawed at its northeastern perimeter and erosion has become an ever-present threat to the integrity of the site.

A seemingly banal attempt to deal with coastal erosion the construction of a mere sea wall has triggered passionate debates over how best to manage Alexandria’s cultural past in the face of contemporary urban and industrial realities.

Close to 200 blocks, each weighing several tons, were deposited on the sea floor along the vulnerable northeastern perimeter of the site. These efforts to protect the Citadel an unforeseen impact upon another archaeological site of significance. Hidden beneath the waves and partly buried under bottom sediments were the ruins of the Alexandria Lighthouse Pharos, one of the seven wonders of the Ancient World. Unwittingly, the cement sea wall was being raised on the vestiges of the lighthouse.

Racing beside the Med is a seemingly mad river, the Corniche a road that runs along the eastern harbor of Alexandria and gives this area its name. It is crazy busy night and day with ubiquitous black and yellow Lada taxi cabs. Autos have customized horns that blare a musical Caraoke above the roar of the waves. Driving in Alexandria is an extreme sport.

I am here to meet Teymour Adham,35 an Egyptian Canadian who grew up in Agami Beach just 30 kilometres west of here. For decades Adham was the lone surfer in Egypt. In the last three years that has changed as Adham and the organization Surfing the Nations have worked with local Bedouin kids to teach them surfing and provide them with boards.

Adham left Agami at the age of nine to live in Montreal with his family but retuned every summer to Egypt. At Agami Adham initially surfed on a homemade boogie board that his father made for him. At the age of 14 a Lebanese-American brought a surfboard to Agimi and Adham caught the bug. “ I told him ‘you are not leaving Egypt with this board.’” The following summer an Australian professional surfer named Randy Chapman showed up . “He taught me how to surf but also how to appreciate what we have.”

At the time Adham’s first passion was tennis. He went to a tennis academy in Florida where he earned a tennis scholarship to Brigham Young University in Hawaii. “I went to Hawaii with two tennis rackets and came back with two surfboards.” The Hawaiian locals were intrigued by the idea of a kid from Egypt who actually surfed and took Adham under wing.

Just in from a session at Shatby is a young man with broad shoulders and narrow hips, the sort of boy-man who would give the homosexual poet Cavafy fits. Cafavy lived here in Alexandria in the early 20th century at the height of his legendary poetic talent above a bordello just around the corner from the Greek Orthodox Church of St. Saba. “Where could I live better?,” wrote Cavafy. “Below the brothel caters for the the flesh. And there is the church which forgives sin.” Cavafy was followed here by the writers E.M. Forster, Lawrence Durrell and Somerset Maugham all who wrote here in a wave of colonial angst.

I smile at the boy, point to the waves, my heart and make a surfing motion with my hand. The young man smiles and flashes me the universal hang loose sign. He ignores the disdainful stinkeye of the devout man on the mat.

Grant Shilling

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