Thursday June 23, 2005

No guides, no masters

Off the beaten path in the port city of Rashid

By Tarek El Seewi


One might be forgiven for thinking that fresh fish is Rashid's only claim to fame.

Tarek Elseewi                                                        


The paunchy policeman, complete with firearm and sweat-stained brown khaki uniform, pulled up a plastic chair and sat, uninvited, in front of us. His armband said “Tourist Police” and I wondered if we, the tourists, were being protected from the locals, or vice-versa.

“Welcome to Rashid, Rosetta,” he said, somehow combining shyness and mild intimidation in one smile. “Who is your guide?”

Behind him the Nile, brackish in its battle to mingle with the sea, stretched half a kilometer between its banks. Rashid is no Club Med. Tightly-wound streets smelling of dying fish and the by-products of the equine digestive process are clogged with the pressing crowd of a Friday market crowd. It seems more appealing, perhaps, to “adventure travelers”—except there’s no adventure. Nor are there many travelers.

Instead, this town of 160,000 is a crowded provincial center and marketplace, filled with crumbling buildings both old and new, a few historical sites, a wide stretch of Nile and tons of fish. It cannot be described as beautiful. It is, instead, interesting. Interesting, in this case, is pronounced with a hesitant lilt and attended by all the ambiguity implied in its choice.

Though it is difficult to tell from the run-down state of the contemporary town, the history of the area is rich. Originally named Khito by the ancients, the town came to be known as Rashit during Coptic times and then Rashid with the coming of the Arabs. Its location on the spot where one branch of the Nile meets the sea has made the area militarily important throughout history, at least for those who wanted either to conquer Egypt or maintain their previous conquest.

In the 17th and 18th centuries, when Alexandria had resigned itself to being a sleepy little sea port with a big name, Rashid was Egypt’s main harbor on the Mediterranean. Many of the towns’ still-plentiful merchant houses, decorated with white-rimmed brown bricks, were built during this time.

The discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1799 may forever be Rashid’s toehold in history. It happened as French soldiers looked for a suitable place for a fort to guard the meeting of the Nile and the Mediterranean. The stone, which led to the eventual deciphering of Egypt’s ancient hieroglyphic script, was dropped by ancient Egyptians who were also building forts in Rashid.

Though the Rosetta Stone is perhaps the most famous archaeological relic ever found, it has done little to bring lasting tourist dollars to the town. Instead, Rashid relies on fishing and boat building to make its way in the world. There is no Rosetta Stone in Rosetta. The English, presumably in a fit jealous rage at having no Pharaohs of their own, hauled it away to London along with countless other historical treasures.

Besides the sweaty tourist policeman, who didn’t give us his name, there is also no significant tourist infrastructure in the area. While there is a hotel in one of the historic buildings, Rashid is more of an Alexandrian day trip than an overnighter. The restaurants are of the popular variety, grilled fish and plastic seating. Public transportation, other than the ubiquitous horse-drawn carriages and a few brightly colored taxis, seems absent.

“Your nationality?” the insistent policeman asked me as we were waiting interminably for our grilled fish dinner. Wondering if pleading the fifth would have any use in Egypt, I answered (somewhat ingenously) “American. All of us,” pretending, as I often do in such situations, not to speak a word of Arabic. He discerned that at least one of us, however, was not American and promptly took him aside for a bit of private banter. Our friend was pegged as our ‘guide’ by sheer dint of his proficiency in Arabic, though other than his knowledge that Rashid makes great pickles and sea salt he was as much a tourist to the area as we.

Who am I to say that two men and two women sitting along the Nile in a remote town, drinking warmish beer and speaking in tongues don’t, in fact, need to be monitored by the stubby arm of the law? Perhaps we were in need of protection from our own foolishness, our own foreignness, our own perceptibly bulging wallets. And thus it was that our ‘guide,’ after a short discussion with the policeman, announced that he’d been superceded. Our khakily dressed friend was now our leader and we would be following him to the tourist spots. After we finished our fish, of course.

As soon as our new guide left us temporarily to eat our wonderful grilled fish dinner at the Zahoor restaurant, right on the banks of the Nile, the restaurant manager asked us nervously to please pour our beers into the glasses so he could have the bottles. “We don’t have a license,” he said sheepishly, despite the fact that he’d sent someone out to get us beers from a local store. Not thirty seconds later four successive splashes in the ancient Nile announced that our bottles, message-less, were about to work their way to Greece or Crete.

“Hey, what are you doing, that’s polluting!” my environmentally minded friend shouted. An old man in a wooden boat directly in front of us agreed and started cursing the restaurant owner in a grizzled voice.

“I like that old guy,” commented our shouter, “he’s cleaning his boat and complaining about polluting in the Nile. He’s hygienic.”

That didn’t stop the restaurant’s other guests from indulging in the time-honored joy of tossing cigarette butts, paper towels, plastic bags and cans in the long-suffering river. They also indulged in the ancient tradition of staring at strangers.

Our friendly policeman came back to drag us through the rough, narrow streets of the town. He began to give a running commentary on what we were seeing but, relishing the joy of having Arabic speakers around, gave up on his meager English and buzzed on in Arabic. His explanations were perfunctory and lacking and therefore easy to translate to our non-Arabic speakers. Clearly, he’d memorized a set of descriptions and was simply rattling them off one by one. It would have been nice to have been guided, if guided we must be, by someone who was truly interested in the history of the area.

Most of the time, though, we, like so many lazy Judases, let our Arabic-speaking friend shoulder the burden of the guide while we hung back and stared at the people staring at us.


When Alexandria was still a little town, Rashid was Egypt's main port on the Mediterranean.

Tarek Elseewi



Our guide was torn between spending enough time with us to earn his expected tip and getting us the hell out of town so he could go home and sit in front of a fan, but we convinced him to take us into one of the old houses.

He explained that the house we were in, just to the west of the town’s main square, had been built by the town’s chief judge three-hundred-odd years ago. Pointing to a cave-like cellar, he said, “That’s where the prisoners were kept.” It was an impressive four-story house, despite the ongoing renovation. It even sported a dumb waiter. The top two floors were reserved for women and still bore elegant mashrabiyyas in the windows. It was a thrill to be able to stare down at the maddening crowd without having them stare back at us.

Our guide took us next to the mosque of Al Mahli, dating from about the same time as the judge’s house and intriguingly constructed. It’s still in use today, so the female members of our group remained outside. Maybe it was the long-bearded gentleman with the fiercely-flashing eyes sitting against the wall and reading who convinced them of this.

Eventually, our trip was over and we made our way back to the car, sans tourist cop, through choruses of, “Welcome to Rosetta!” and “What is your name?”

Driving out, we were increasingly relieved as the packed humanity gave way to date palms and the open road back to modernity and the bustle of Alexandria.

Copyright © 2005 Cairo Magazine


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