Was Alexandria ever really cosmopolitan? Or was it more that the city’s former colonial residents wanted to embellish their situation, creating a city that was never really theirs?
These are questions that Hala Halim, a professor of Middle East Studies and Comparative Literature at NYU in New York, tries to answer in her book Alexandrian Cosmopolitanism: An Archive.
The author’s introduction is clear: the book is “a radical critique of Eurocentric conceptions of cosmopolitanism”. Herself born and brought up in Alexandria, Halim goes through the works of European authors C P Cavafy, E M Forster, Laurence Durrell and Bernard de Zogheb.
She reminds her readers that in 1849 the French novelist Gustave Flaubert wrote of the city that it is “half-Arab and half-European” without saying that it was “cosmopolitan”.
Nonetheless, this was a description often made in the 100 years between the mid-19th and mid-20th centuries and between the 1882 British bombardment and the independence of the country in the 1950s.
Halim highlights the colonial versus the cosmopolitan. In doing so, she reflects on patriotism and nationalism, with its shades of qawmiya, self-determination and anti-colonialism.
She also examines Sufism as an idea that celebrates multiculturalism and allows for tolerance, as opposed to the “cosmopolitanism” of colonial Alexandria in which many Egyptians were never truly integrated.
Halim’s book addresses the assumptions of the mid-19th to the mid-20th centuries, but it could not do so without taking the story from the beginnings of Hellenistic Alexandria when the idea of a “cosmopolis” was first initiated.
Comparative literature and literary criticism aside, Halim’s book is a valuable examination of the “other” history of the city, taking in not just the Hellenistic but also the Arab-Islamic Alexandria, especially during Fatimid and Mameluke rule.
She rejects the argument, associated with Forster, that those centuries were times of neglect only overcome with the advent of Mohamed Ali.
Going from the archaeological to the literary and from the historical to the geographical, Halim’s book is one Alexandrian’s history of a city that has long been held hostage to what might be only an abridged, or incomplete, version of its long and layered story.
Hala Halim, Alexandria Cosmopolitanism: An Archive, Fordham University Press, New York, pp459, 2013.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 12 July 2018 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Alexandria’s other history