Book Review: All our Alexandrias

Nazek Fahmy, Tuesday 26 Aug 2014

Hala Halim examines the long and cosmopolitan history of Alexandria

Book Cover
Book Cover

Alexandrian Cosmopolitanism: An Archive, by Hala Halim, Fordham University Press: NewYork, 2013

From antiquity to the present, Alexandria, founded by, and named after Alexander the Great, has fascinated and mesmerised. Feminised and beckoning, Alexandria has boasted a multi-faceted history, comprising the martial, the political, the spiritual, the lyrical, as well as the erotic. There have been myriad attempts to define and describe this city, with its multiplicity of allegiances. Here is another search for the elusive ethos of Alexandria: an attempt to define the ancient city, this time from the angle of its cosmopolitan practices.

The foundation myth is in place, and according to the undated and anonymous Alexander Romance, the future greatness of the quasi divine city—itself part of the trajectory of Alexander’s own semi-divine origins—was in the oracles. From its founding, Alexandria was to follow the order of a cosmopolis: a dwelling place of people, of different tongues, and from different countries, something which, according to legend, was disapproved of, and contested by Alexander’s great teacher and mentor, Aristotle. Nonetheless, diversity won; a fact that has not only been borne out by ancient history: Hellenistic Alexandria, the library, the Septuagint, but also testified to, in modernity, by eminent nineteenth century travelers such as Flaubert and Sophia Poole.

Different from diversity or pluralism, cosmopolitanism is a concept, a claim of universal citizenship. Cosmopolitan as epithet became firmly associated with Alexandria only in the middle of the nineteenth century—spanning a hundred years, 1860-1960—and according to the thesis of the present study – a Eurocentric cosmopolitanism, which can be read as a subtext of colonialism.

To overturn the colonial discourse by way of exposing complicities or scavenging for deviations and slippages, this inquiry navigates the twentieth century literary map of the city, finding anchorage in the three canonical writers: Cavafy, Forster and Durrell—as well as a fourth, perhaps, less known Bernard de Zogheb. These four writers did not only—in their different ways—become a voice for the cosmopolitanism of the city, but also more interestingly, either literally or metaphorically, acquired legitimacy from each other.

In any attempt to define Alexandria, Greece and the Greeks have to be visited and revisited. With good reason and in a variety of ways, the Greeks have claimed continuity since the days of Alexander. An incontestable link with the Greeks is Cavafy. Coming into recognition in the 1930s, Cavafy is the Alexandrian Greek poet who is most inscribed into cosmopolitan Alexandria. Having spent his formative years in England and Istanbul, Cavafy, a Greek of the Diaspora, made Alexandria his homeland. Cavafy, who could hardly speak Arabic, and who styled himself a “Hellenic” could not totally isolate himself from the local scene. An extremely thorough scrutiny of his poems—published, unpublished, repudiated, unfinished—and of his prose, reveals not only references to both Ancient and Modern Egypt, but covert and overt sympathies and empathies for things Egyptian, most unexpected of which is his compassion for the Egyptian victims of the 1906 Dinshiwai incident.

Beyond controversy, Cavafy is the Alexandrian poet. For him as for others of his or later generations—like Harry Tzalas or Stratis Tsirkas, Alexandria is not a geographical location but a provider of identity and way of life; an exclusive nationality. Even Cavafy’s death in 1933 was not a final exit for he was destined to appear and reappear in other Alexandria-based artistic works.

Unlike Cavafy, who lived and died in Alexandria, Forster and Durrell were sojourners. Nonetheless, they both commemorated the city in their writings and either, wittingly or unwittingly, succeeded in gaining a long-lasting association with Alexandria. They too, like Cavafy, are scrutinised through binaries: Greek/ Barbarian, East and West, Arab/European, Christian/Muslim, coloniser/ colonised, bringing out the many ambivalences of identity.

If Cavafy was in the employment of the British in the Irrigation Service, E.M. Forster, who came to Egypt during World War I, was in the employment of the Red Cross. He was to reverse his initial disappointment and produce a number of essays on Egypt, as well as his famous Alexandria: A History and A Guide, published in 1922. Forster’s work is an attempt to link the city’s ancient and contemporary history, disregarding the Arab/Islamic period, and it is here argued that his work can sometimes be read as a lamentation for a lost Greece. Nonetheless, his creative walking tours of the city bespeak an inclusive mosaic: the Place Muhammad Ali (now Mansheya Square), Turkish Town (Bahari)—itself a hub of many ethnicities—the Arab Town—the locale of indigenous workers.

Less palpable and more aerial is Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet. Writing during the twilight of empire—and projecting onto Alexandria much of the malaise of his time—Durrell made his timeless Justine, Mountolive and Nessim inhabitants of a city more imagined than real.
To break the canonical triumvirate and the colonial inflection, other writers and other genres are discussed. Representing the strong Levantine presence, is the latter-day Alexandrian, Bernard de Zogheb, a librettist who takes us to the realm of music and opera. Having lived a life of changing fortunes, and of overlapping identities, he died in the city in 1999.

Every last writer who boasts an Alexandria connection is also included: Naguib Mahfouz, Edwar Al-Kharrat and Ibrahim Abd El-Meguid, as well as the less celebrated Robert Liddell and Ayoub Sinano. Countless references are made to memoirs, books and articles, as well as visuals, all revisiting and reconsidering, producing and reproducing Alexandria and its icons.

Backwards and forward we move, and before the study ends, we find ourselves well into the new millennium—the topical is sounded with the storm which raged, in 2000, around the statue of Alexander, the latest attempt made by the Greeks to remain connected with Alexandria. Passing by the January 25 revolution, we find ourselves in 2012 and another Cavafy swirl in the form of the Tarek Imam novel, al-Haya al-Thaniya li Qostantin Kafafis, (The Second Life of Constantine Cavafy) .Translated or transliterated, language in this narrative is not only one of the signposts of cosmopolitanism, but a powerhouse in its own right: Arabic, Latin, Greek, Italian, besides English and French.

A dense and scholarly read. Very erudite. By any standard this study, extending far and wide, covering different genres and writers in time and space is monumental in its dimensions. The book is overwhelming in the scope of its research, citing books, newspapers, dissertations, collections of letters. It leaves no stone unturned. It is also daring in its claims, never stopping short of contending with the opinions and statements of literary and critical giants.

This is a labour of love, written by no other than a native Alexandrian, Hala Halim, and bound up by a profound love for the coastal city. With a name that establishes an identity—claimed and reclaimed as a Greek colony, straddling continents—Alexandria is a precarious place, with epithets that convey a palimpsest of identities and loyalties: “Iskindiriyya mariyya,” “Alexandrea ad Aegyptum,” “Spiritual City,” “Unreal City,” “Capital of an Asiatic Europe,” seat of theology and its sister discipline, philosophy, but also of science and medicine. Through it all, Alexandria is a vortex of energy, alluring, shaping and reshaping, immortal in its self-assurance and in its transcendence of time and place. Just as bewitching is Cavafy, the golden lad of the city. All attempts to unmask Alexandria are by default attempts to reach the elusive and equally mysterious Greek Alexandrian poet.

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