It all started with a handshake in the searing heat on the white banks of the Mediterranean Sea. Ahmed, whose English is limited to ten words, agreed to drive me in search of Alexander the Great in a city named after him. I needed, I said to Ahmed through an interpreter, to stare at the naked goddess statue of Aphrodite, look in the eyes of philosopher Herodotus, and perhaps take a picture of a conquering Alexander the Great on a horse. And we had to find the famous marble bust Alexander, and descend into the ancient Roman ruins still under excavation in the city of Alexandria.
So off we went. It was nearly lunchtime (Ahmed’s fault for arriving late) and traffic was brutal. He made it up by driving as most Egyptians do: hooting, swerving and squeezing past whatever space in front of us in traffic in the Corniche road along the beach. I clung onto the passenger handle and tightened my seatbelt. Soon Ahmed pulled up at a white building. He greeted two men sitting idly at the entrance, and said to me: ‘Go in. I wait.’ We were at Alexandria Museum. I fished out 40 Egyptian pounds in entrance fees, walked through a metal detector, got searched, and walked in. And there it was. In the back hall.
It was not as exciting as I thought it would be. Looked smaller than the picture shows. Chipped in part from centuries of manhandling, I guess, and on one side missing cheekbone flesh. But still, the marble sculpture of Alexander the Great is mesmerising to look at. But not as stunning as the Hellenistic athletic statues. Not as surreal as the statue of Herodotus or the naked Venus goddess.
I looked at Octavian-Augustus who apparently lived from between 30 BC – AD 14, stared at Goddess Isis, with Saqqara and Venus in bronze sculptures, patron of arts Emperor Hadrian, and granite busts of Ptolemaic kings. When I came again at the bronze gods of Harpocrates, Serapis in marble, and Goddess Isis nursing son Horus, I decided enough is enough. More so because the museum caretakers keep creeping up behind me every time I attempt to take a picture – it is illegal to take photographs in the museum. Even a selfie could result in a fine, according to the sign at the door.
I darted outside to, ominously, find Ahmed hunching over our Renault with bonnet open. It was not good. The car was overheating, so he switched it off. Now it is not starting. The battery is dead. I blamed the gods and goddess statues inside. He saw the concern on my face and said: ‘No worry.’ But I was worried. There was no one in the street to help push. Two guys appeared – they only helped half-heartedly and left. So Ahmed and I pushed. And pushed. A good Samaritan taxi driver helped us jump-start the car, with Ahmed holding the wires to the battery point, and me starting and revving the Renault to life.
Now the horse. We found it, but traffic is congested. Clever Ahmed negotiated traffic to edge me closer to the statue for my picture without stopping, cutting in front of the Kia sedan on our right, which stopped abruptly causing the minibus taxi behind it to ram firmly into the rear of the Kia sedan. ‘Thud, bwak!’, goes the too familiar sound of car collisions.
By then I had snapped the picture of the statue and I could see the fender bender event unfold. Ahmed and I looked at each other, and he floored our Renault forward, zigzagging in traffic with new found urgency of getting away from the accident scene. As we sped away I looked back to the minibus driver alighting from the car and with finger wagging gave foot chase to the Kia driver, who attempted to get away but because of traffic only managed four feet. It was an incident Ahmed and I would not talk about until he dropped me off at my hotel in King Farouk old garden palace.
We sped off in search of ancient Roman ruins. Without air-conditioning. I had also switched off the radio, to avoid another pushing incident. At ancient ruins, one gets a sense of “ancient” civilisation. It is literally a city buried underneath a city. And the excavation is not done yet. Pillars meters high sprout from the ground, some of whose foundations are not yet completely excavated, yet the deep hold clearly suggests human marvels of construction in the years before computer modelling.