Ptolemy’s Descendants in Egypt
Next up: Alexandria, in Egypt. Every time I hear Alexandria's name it evokes the city’s once-great, and greatest, library, so frequently damaged and ultimately destroyed by the succession of time’s and invaders’ erosions. We forget sometimes that the Nazis’ blitzing of London in 1940 burned some 6 million books, too. Thinking about that as he wrote subsequently, maybe to console himself, George Orwell (who worked in a drab and dank bookstore in his earlier days) noted how “when the Caliph Omar destroyed the libraries of Alexandria [in the 7th century], he is supposed to have kept the public baths warm for eighteen days with burning manuscripts...”
Well, what do you know: the Bibliotheca Alexandrina is open again, a $200 million glass edifice that dubs itself “a place of learning, dialogue and tolerance.” But why glass? How can that be protective of books, under the Egyptian sun? (A 2001 Times article about the place wasn’t encouraging: “The 11-story 31,000-square-foot library—much of it one vast soaring room—has barely scraped together a few hundred thousand books. Most are not on the shelves, and those that are do not quite reflect the spirit of the repository of ancient learning.”)
When coalition forces marched into Kuwait City in 1991, after throwing out Saddam Hussein’s army in a 100-hour ground war, Kuwaitis lined up the streets waving little flags—American and other coalition countries’ flags. It was a PR coup for a man called John Rendon, hired by the U.S. government to give the “liberation” its World War II feel for the cameras: He’d had the flags imported and implanted in Kuwaitis’ hands.
No flag-waving these days in Kuwait, just a return to the city’s happy placidity. This is a country of more than 3 million, but of less than 1 million Kuwaitis. The rest are imported labor. Kuwaitis aren’t much for working themselves, but they do have the capital to invest, shop, play, and invite other foreigners to do the same (as long as you bring cash). Direct United flights from Dulles Airport, near Washington, begin in January 2008. “Yes, there’s a war next door,” says the Times, “But that’s not preventing Kuwait City, a bustling metropolis on the Persian Gulf, from… playing host to international boat shows, or opening a slate of opulent hotels.” Kuwait City’s ranking on the Times’ list, by the way, is 32 (well ahead of Detroit, at #40).
Where Islamism Is Supposedly Passé
It wasn’t really that long ago that Algeria was synonymous with bloodbaths, its civil war—between a brutally secular military and Islamists who thought they’d won a democratic election fair and square—filling graveyards and front pages (100,000 people were killed in the 1990s). Now it’s a tourist spot, even though the U.S. State Department still warns of an al-Qaeda presence called the Islamic Maghreb. (The State Department is right: on Dec. 11, 2007, two car bombs exploded in Algiers, the capital, one near the Constitutional Court building, another near United Nations offices. The death toll was in the scores. In April 2007, another bombing killed 33 people.)
The Times doesn’t offer very many details to prospective visitors to Algeria, saying only that tourists are “trickling” back to that vast and multilayered country (it’s about three and a half times the size of Texas, not counting President Bush’s Crawford ranch each time). For the Times, Algeria clocks in at #43, between the snows of Kilimanjaro and the streets of San Diego.
For the State Department, it's still closer to something like CSI Algiers. Give the State Department the last word on this one: "The crime rate in Algeria is moderately high and increasing. Serious crimes have been reported in which armed men posing as police officers have entered homes of occupants, and robbed them at gunpoint. False roadblocks/checkpoints have been employed to rob motorists (see Traffic Safety and Road Conditions section below). Some of these incidents resulted in the murder of the vehicles' occupants; there has been an increase in the kidnapping of vehicle occupants who appear to be wealthy. Petty theft and home burglary occur frequently, and muggings are on the rise, especially after dark in the cities. Theft of contents and parts from parked cars, pick-pocketing, theft on trains and buses, theft of items left in hotel rooms and purse snatching are common. Alarms, grills, and/or guards help to protect most foreigners' residences."
Finally at #49 on our Middle Eastern hit parade, just after Vietnam and just before Vegas, we have the undiscovered city of Essaouira in Morocco, which seems to be doing to Marrakesh what Panama City is doing to Daytona Beach — stealing its spring breakers: “As Marrakesh gets more touristy,” the Times writes, “well-heeled Europeans are heading to the Moroccan port city of Essaouira, not only to trek through its ancient streets and windsurf on its beaches, but also to party. The Gnaoua and World Music Festival, held every June for the past 10 years, now draws 250,000 fans for five days of music, art and budding friendships — a kind of Burning Man of Morocco.”
You say Burning Man, I say spring break. Either way, Essaouira has been inspiring party-song lyrics since it was visited by Carthaginians in the fifth century B.C. Since 2001, the city has been listed among UNESCO’s World Heritage sites for being a “well preserved example of a late 18th century European fortified seaport town translated to a North African context.”
One is saddened to note that the list includes neither a Lebanese nor an Israeli spot—those naturally founding members of anything Club Meddish. Maybe it’s subtle retribution for the summer 2006 war that did so much to demolish Lebanon’s progress and tarnish Israel’s reputation. But with a list like this, including as it does places such as Iran, Algeria and Libya, it’s not inconceivable that a few years hence the 53 best places to travel will include Syria, the West Bank, Baghdad and, of course, Beirut. No reason not to hope. Imagination, at any rate, is always the best means of travel, if not the best destination.