Alexandria’s demonstrations keep popping up all over the place. Ahmed can’t keep up, and is clearly exhausted. HIs camera remains in his pocket while we watch a small group of young men punch the air with their fists and call for an end to military rule. “The trouble with this country,” he says, “is sex.”
Has he been reading my mind? You can’t help thinking about sex in Alexandria.
There is an erotic charge to the city, which Durrell inculcated in all four of his books that make up the Alexandria Quartet.
“Alexandria is a town of sects and gospels. And for every ascetic, she has always thrown up one religious libertine – Carpocrates, Anthony – who was prepared to founder in the senses as deeply and truly as any desert father in the mind.”
In today’s moral climate, sex is no longer the wanton creature of Durrell’s time. The seductive arts are stifled and desire has created its own distorted path in a country where women are held responsible for male desire, and female virginity holds the honour of an entire family. The charge of unmet desire spins upon the axis of the intact hymen.
Ahmed’s eyes follow a passing girl. She wears a hijab, but her jeans and top are tight. He sighs. “Girls breasts are bigger these days. When I was young they were smaller. It’s because of the Israeli’s and vegetables.”
Not for the first time, Ahmed has rendered me speechless.
“Israel is the best in the world for fertiliser and agriculture. They are the experts. They are involved with the fertiliser and seed companies. We buy from them, but the stuff they give us has hormones in it, or is out of date. The Israeli’s are making Egyptian breasts bigger. Even men are getting breasts these days. “
Mohammed, a student, does not have breasts, but as a testosterone charged 22 year old, he realises he has to find an outlet. He boxes, jogs and tries not to stand too close to his fellow female students. “The only way to have sex is to get married. Many of my friends – men and women - have married just to have sex . They can’t stand it any longer. This is not a good foundation for marriage. “
In Egypt, men must buy an apartment for his bride. She buys the furniture. These days, few people can afford it. Hormones are impatient: boys and girls make out at night under the concrete slabs that line the city’s sea wall. Hymens are surgically replaced.
My landlady is a retired Madam and former prostitute. She travels from Cairo to collect her rent. Prostitutes are said to own half of Alexandria. “I have drunk, smoked and fucked too much,” she says. Her frankness is unexpected and shocking, especially as she is covered in a black hijab and long coat . “The man who owns the café downstairs is married.He came to me. I knew what he wanted. I said, 'I don’t want to fuck you, I can fuck myself.'
She once had seven girls working for her. “You can find every vice here, but it is hidden. You have to know where to find it. If there is a market, it will be catered for. I made a lot of money. Alexandrian men like sex too much. I bought property. But I am not happy. “
Isabelle, a French friend, has fallen in love with Cherif, a handsome Egyptian. They want to make love, but they can’t find anywhere to be alone together. As Public Displays of Affection (PDAs) are a criminal offence, she is too nervous to hold his hand in public, even though some couples do. Unable to afford his own accommodation, Cherif continues to live with his parents. Even as a European she is not allowed to have an Egyptian man in her hotel room unless she is married to him. In desperation, she rented an apartment for a month so they could be together. After their first night, the landlord knocked on the door and asked if Cherif was her husband. She said, no, and he asked Cherif to leave immediately. They packed their bags. They now go for midnight walks along the Corniche, checking out the concrete slabs.
"No wonder people get aggressive and irritable and ill," Isabelle says. "I've come out in spots."
“Sometimes I wish I was gay, “ Mohammed says, “I could have as many men as I want visiting my room at home. I could even walk down the street holding a man’s hand. A lot of men have sex with men because they can’t have sex with women. Perhaps women do the same. Or, we use pornography, which is not good. What we need is a sexual revolution.”