Walk Out Like An Egyptian

Gail Westbrook Issue: Section:

I lived in Alexandria, Egypt from late summer 1999 to early summer 2000. One day, I think it was in the spring, I called my Egyptian woman friend, Manal, and asked her if she wanted to meet me for coffee, in a cafe we both liked, in the center of Alexandria. She mentioned that it was a holiday (I don't remember which one) and downtown would be crowded, as children traditionally came in from the suburbs to spend a coin or two on this holiday. I said no problem and set off on the tram, from my neighborhood towards the center of the city.

As the tram approached my destination, I began to notice large groups of young people, mostly male, mostly between the ages of, say, 10 to 16, some older, some younger. By the time I got off the tram in the center, there was an undulating mass of young male humanity, as far as the eye could see in any direction, up any street, fanning out or rather pouring in from the surrounding streets. I felt as though I had fallen into the middle of a science fiction movie, and the future was terrifying. I was seeing the population explosion made manifest. I made my way, with difficulty, to the cafe. The boys weren't hostile, or belligerent, just boisterous, enjoying their holiday in the city. But it was only with great difficulty that I could move at all. And I couldn't see another adult anywhere on the street. I chose a seat by the window, to better watch the throng from the safety of the cafe, but within minutes there were dozens, then what felt and sounded like hundreds, of hands slapping the windows, faces squished against the glass, shouts of laughter. The waiter rushed to move me to the interior of the room, out of sight of the street. My friend arrived, we had coffee, and since it would obviously be impossible to stroll the waterfront, we headed back to the tram station. She asked if I didn't want to take a taxi and I said oh no, I always take the tram. She said I think I'd better go with you. We rode one stop, in a car so packed it was impossible to move, with little boys who had rarely seen a Westerner before, touching and feeling and pulling and poking me all over, my hair, my eyes, my skin, my clothes, my hands, my everything. We got off at the first stop and found a cab. As it inched its way through the crowd, and I mean literally inched, fists banged on the car, lips covered the windows, shouts echoed through the crowd. Again, let me reiterate, not hostile, just curious, just adolescent, just overwhelming. And I sat in that cab, looking out at the human sea, and I thought what in the world is going to happen to these children? My beloved Egypt cannot possibly educate them adequately, there can't possibly be jobs for them all, places for them to live, the opportunity to make enough money to marry. What in the world will happen to them when they grow up?
When I came home from teaching an evening class the other day, my husband greeted me with the news from Egypt. And I thought “They grew up. And it's happening.”

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