Standing on the side of the noisy corniche on our last night in Alexandria, we again consulted our guidebook, mouthing pronunciations as we prepared to flag a taxi. We were a little wary – any attempt so far to locate places outside of town had resulted in us wandering around suburban streets in the dark, hopelessly lost.
“Put that away, I can tell you anywhere you need to go,” a young man with a shaved head and streaming nose instructed us.
We hesitated – most previous directions offered in Egypt had led straight to someone’s uncle’s café or perfume shop.
“No, no, no,” Amir assured us. “I don’t mind where you go, I just want you to have a good time in Alex. This is my city!”
We told him the name of the restaurant we were looking for. Brow creased, he discussed in Arabic with his burly friend, Hanif. They shrugged.
“Please, don’t you think it’s freezing?”
As we stood with breezes rolling in from the Mediterranean carrying the smells of grilling fish and sugary popcorn, the April evening was perhaps a little fresher than previous nights, but still very pleasant.
“I have been diving by the fort all day,” Amir continued. “May I invite you for some tea and we can talk more?”
They led the way back from the seafront, into the teeming market in Tahrir Square.
“You know what this means, tahrir?” Amir enquired as we stopped to watch a stall-owner spinning golden feteer dough.
“Liberation, isn’t it?” I offered.
“Yes! You are an Egyptian,” he grinned, elbowing my boyfriend.
Suddenly Amir and Hanif swung right and into the narrowest of alleyways. Instantly the sound of screaming car horns faded. On the other side we emerged into a covered courtyard in which men of all ages – mostly deaf, according to Amir – sat playing backgammon and drinking tea. The floor was covered with sand and sawdust. Hanif found us a table and bustled off to order mint teas.
“The revolution has been good for Egypt but bad for business,” Amir mused as he lit a cigarette. “Usually I teach diving in Sharm el Sheikh, but now I have to move somewhere else. It’s all low-budget holidays in Sharm. Tell me the truth, are you here because it is cheaper or because you wanted to see our revolution?”
“A bit of both,” we answered honestly.
Amir told us that he was married to a Swiss lady and had lived there for years, but that he was glad to be back. “People have more feeling here.” Hanif was about to move to America, “But he doesn’t speak any English!” We tried to involve Hanif in the conversation, but he just blushed and smiled, and shovelled more sugar into our tea until we protested, laughing.
“I think he will come back eventually,” Amir grinned. “And you will too. There is nowhere like Alex.”