Egyptian Beach Succumbs To Veil As Alexandria Loses Its Diversity

By Daniel Williams

Aug 11, 2009

Aug. 11 (Bloomberg) — Along miles and miles of crowded beachfront
in Egypt’s second city, women in bathing suits are nowhere in sight.

On Alexandria’s breeze-blown shores, they all wear long- sleeve shirts
and ankle-length black caftans topped by head scarves. Awkwardly afloat
in the rough seas, the bathers look like wads of kelp loosened from
the sandy bottom.

The scene would be unremarkable in Saudi Arabia or Iran, where
hiding the feminine body is mandated by Islamic-based strictures. In
Alexandria — a storied town of sensuality and openness — the veiled
beachgoers, coupled with sectarian conflicts, represent the loss to
some residents of a valued, diverse identity in favor of religious

"Here is the front line of a battle between secularists and Islamic
fundamentalism," said Mohamed Awad, director of the Alexandria and
Mediterranean Research Center, part of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina,
itself an evocation of the ancient library whose reputation for
scholarship helped give the city its pluralistic credentials.

If the issue were only bathing attire — or the gradual disappearance
of alcohol from open-air seaside cafes to avoid insults from passing
pedestrians — the phenomenon might be just a curiosity. But there
are sharper signs of intolerance: increasing Christian-Muslim clashes
unfamiliar to old Alexandrine eyes.

‘They Will Die’ On April 4, a Muslim man was allegedly stabbed by
his Coptic Christian landlords in a dispute over garbage collection,
according to a July 30 report by the Cairo-based Egyptian Initiative
for Personal Rights, a human-rights watchdog. When the man died the
next day, Muslims praying at a mosque in the city’s Karmouz district
chanted "they will die" and then trashed Christian-owned stores,
the report said.

Similar events in the past three years include Muslims storming
homes they said were Coptic churches functioning without government
permit. Copts, about 10 percent of Egypt’s population, are an
indigenous denomination founded in Alexandria around 61 A.D.

The violence is particularly striking in a city whose skyline is dotted
by minarets and church steeples and where, at least in the memory
of Alexandrian novelist Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, religion hasn’t always
triggered public disputes. He has written two novels of Alexandria’s
20th-century past, with longing for a kind of golden age of diversity.

"I wish we could go back to being the city of Cleopatra," said another
author, Haggag Oddoul, in an interview.

Cosmopolitan Paradise The Alexandria of lore emerged as a major 19th
century transshipment port with Europe, celebrated by Arab, Egyptian
and Western writers as a cosmopolitan paradise where sailors mingled
at cafes with exiles from Syria and Greece, businessmen from Italy,
and, eventually, women in sundresses.

In 1956, Great Britain and France, with the help of Israel, invaded
Egypt to recover control of the recently nationalized Suez Canal,
through which nearly one-tenth of world trade now passes. The attempt
failed, and communities of Greeks, Armenians, Italians, French and
Jews fled as the definition of Egypt narrowed to an Arab nation in
a homogenous Arab world.

Since then, Alexandria has become home to oil refineries that have
helped swell its population to more than 5 million. The immigrants,
many from Egypt’s overcrowded countryside, submerged the scene in a
tidal wave of poverty and ideology.

Now, Arab nationalism and Alexandria’s cosmopolitanism have a new
rival: the push for an Islamic Egypt. Abdel Meguid attributes this
to influence from conservative Persian Gulf nations — in particular
Saudi Arabia, a destination for thousands of Egyptians seeking work.

Dance, Culture "We are no longer a universal city of song, dance,
culture and art," he said.

Awad’s center at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina strives to reverse
that trend, spreading "internationalism" and promoting "a healthy
spirit of diversity, pluralism and interaction among civilizations,"
according to its Web site. And yet "the library is an island," he said.

The fundamentalist Muslim Brotherhood, Egypt’s largest opposition
force, has its major base of support in the city, according to
national press accounts. There, as in other Egyptian urban centers,
the Brotherhood provides health care, subsidized food and social
services for the poor.

The group is the prototype for Islamic political parties across
the Middle East — and nostalgia for a legendary multicultural past
doesn’t guide its agenda.

"At the end of the day, that’s all history," said Sobhi Saleh,
a Brotherhood member of parliament.

Proper Attire A leaflet advising women on proper Islamic coverings is
posted in the lobby leading to Saleh’s office. Caftan and long head
scarf are correct. A skimpy head scarf accompanied by jeans is wrong.

Christian-Muslim tensions aren’t a symptom of intolerance but of
"insults" to Islam by Copts, he said. "Sometimes, secular activists try
to raise the pressure on us by saying Muslims are against Christians."

Alexandria needs "stable" community values, he insisted. Sensuality,
if it means sexuality, is not part of the social equation. Even the
library — with its museum that includes pharaonic, Greek, Roman,
Coptic and Islamic relics — is misguided, Saleh said.

"There, Islam is just one topic among many. We don’t like those naked
Greek statues. Anyway, that’s over. Islam should have a special status
at the library," he said. "This is a Muslim city in a Muslim country;
that is our identity."

To contact the reporter on this story: Daniel Williams in Alexandria
at [email protected].