Our van careens along a nearly invisible Saharan road. Our goal is Alexandria, founded in 331 BC by Alexander the Great and revived for the masses in HBO’s second season of Rome. I’m not sure we’ll make it there, though. Sand drifts blanket the highway, the desert slowly reclaiming her kingdom. As I stare at the golden grains erasing all traces of human progress, I think I see something shimmering like water in the distance. But as the van chugs closer, it disappears. I am shocked to realize I have just seen a mirage.
By the time we get to Alexandria, it’s mid-afternoon. Our tour guide, Maged, takes my friend and me to a traditional Egyptian place for lunch. The restaurant is huge, and each table’s massive booths create a little enclave for its patrons. Maged orders the meals while we stretch out our legs. It’s good to be out of the van.
The dishes come out. And keep coming out. And…keep coming out. There’s hummus and another kind of hummus and baba ghanoush. There’s cooked mixed vegetables and raw mixed vegetables and french fries (maybe fries are a Hellenistic thing?). There’s bread and lamb and what I think is chicken. There are more than 15 different plates in all. It’s like Golden Corral had a baby with Benihana: a buffet right on our table.We’re overwhelmed. After taking a moment to sit in stunned silence, my friend and I start eating. But soon another dish arrives and is placed next to me. It’s a vegetable rice pilaf topped with sultanas. “Because you don’t eat meat,” Maged explains to me. I’m gracious, but internally flabbergasted. The rice alone would have filled me up for hours, but it now vies for consumption with at least 10 other dishes.
The meal is over. We’ve left enough food on the table to feed a family for a week. I feel awful and want to take it all with me, but we have nowhere to store it in the tiny hotel room.
“Is this a normal meal?” I ask.
He tells me it is. It cannot possibly be a normal meal for the average Egyptian, though. And so I wonder who—other than our own sense of decency—we insulted with our inability to clean our plates. If you’re reading this, Maged, I’m so sorry. (Even while typing this, I’m cringing at the thought of all that wasted food.)
I guess the moral of the story is that when you go to Alexandria, go hungry.