On to Alex

I came to Alexandria to see: the city founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BCE, and legend says that he is buried here. A city which became a great centre of learning, where Euclid developed geometry, Aristarchus discovered that the Earth revolved around the sun, and Erastothenes calculated the Earth’s circumference. The city of the Great Library pf Alexandria, established by Ptolemy I in 283 BCE, which attempted to collect a copy of every book, or rather papyrus scroll, published in the world. The city of one of the Wonders of the World, the Pharos Lighthouse. The city of Cleopatra, ruler of Egypt from 50 to 31 BCE, where most of Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra is set. The city which was the base for Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt from 1798 to 1801. The city where, between the wars, 40% of its population were non-Egyptian: French, Greek, British, Italian, and many other nationalities. Khedive Ismail, the ruler of a bankrupt Egypt which was a military protectorate of Great Britain, said in 1905: “Mon pays n’ est plus en Afrique. Nous faisons une partie de l’ Europe”.

And Nobel Prizewinner Naguib Mahfouz commented on the Egypt of his childhood and youth in the 1940s and 1950s: “Anything in Europe could be found in Alexandria for half the price: cinemas, dance halls, but all of that was for foreigners. We could observe from the outside. There used to be an open air cinema on Said Zaglhoul St which had a section reserved for Egyptians. A sign in French read: “For the natives”. (Al Ahram Weekly, June 1996).

It was the louche city of easy-going sexual habits celebrated by Lawrence Durrell in The Alexandria Quartet, the city which attracted gay writers such as E.M. Forster (who lived here for three years), Noel Coward, and Somerset Maugham, who in Britain, at least publicly, had to remain in the closet due to the stringent anti-homosexuality laws which remained until the 1960s.

It was the city where many Allied soldiers and sailors were stationed in both world wars, which my own Uncle Jack affectionately remembers from his time as a naval cadet at the end of World War II. He tells me not to miss Sister St, Rue des Soeurs, where the sailors used to go and enjoy themselves…

Michael Palin, member of the Monty Python team turned travel writer, described Alexandria as being like “Nice, with acne”. Shining white it certainly isn’t, but the cafes and French patisseries are still there, and there is much to remind one of the past.  The Roman Amphitheatre, together with some twenty lecture halls, has been excavated and is now open to the public, as have some of the earlier temples and the Greco-Egyptian catacombs, where families went to picnic with their beloved relations now in the other world. But Cleopatra’s Needles, which had little connection with Cleopatra, having been there for a thousand of years before her birth, were given away as gifts to Britain and the US in the 19th century and can now be found in Central Park and the Embankment in London. But there is Pompey’s Pillar, a 30 metre high column named so by travellers who remembered the murder of the Roman general Pompey by Cleopatra’s brother.

The Great Bibliotheca, which was possibly destroyed by Julius Caesar, has been rebuilt. In 2002. It is a splendid building. A slanted sun-like sloping roof allows natural light to illuminate the eight staggered levels of stacks and readers’ desks. It is something of a visiting card for Egyptian culture, holding exhibitions, concerts, and shows.

A stroll through the Christian cemeteries of Chatby shows how multinational Alex was. The British Protestant Cemetery; the British War Cemetery, with graves from the two world wars, ” A Soldier of the Second World War. 2nd June 1941. Known unto God.” ” Three sailors”. ” Two Sailors”. ” A Soldier of the Great War”. And a monument to the thousands drowned at sea. And then the Greek Orthodox and Greek Catholic Cemeteries, the Armenian, the French Military Cemetery, and the Cemeterio Latino di Terra Santa, not forgetting the Egyptian Coptic Cemetery.

And some of the faded signs are still there, above premises that are unoccupied or sell Chinese goods: “Standard  ationery, established 1924”, where you could buy a “Stenocord Secretary”, “Steel Office Furniture”, and the latest technology in “Duplicators” and “Monro Calculating Machines”, and we are taken into the world of the Alexandria shipping offices of the forties and fifties, with the Greek or even Egyptian secretaries, or stenographers, taking down the letters of their Greek or French bosses.

But Alex is no longer a multicultural and multilingual society. On the main shopping streets, in the fancy patisseries, down in the docks, you just hear Arabic. The Greeks and Armenians that didn’t go abroad when Nasser nationalized foreign companies in 1956, have arabized their names, and their children and grandchildren speak primarily Arabic. Modern bilingual signs are much more likely to be like: “Maxillofacial & Plastic Surgery. Dr Elsheikh Center. Head and Neck Surgery Center”.

Evening entertainment is shopping, visiting the cafes (if you are a man) and smoking a shisha water pipe. Few drinking holes remain. Today in the old Greek quarter I spotted the Spit Fire Bar, but have yet to find Sister St.

Alexandria’s best known 20th century poet is the Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933), who lived most of his life in Alex,  and who, ironically, knew little Arabic. Born into a wealthy merchant family, he also spent periods when young in Liverpool and  Istanbul. After  the family’s prosperity declined, Cavafy worked mainly as a Civil Servant  in the Irrigation Service. Much of his poetry reflects on “what might have been”, if his own life had been different, if he had lived his life elsewhere, if he had openly accepted his homosexuality, if he had been able to get away from Alexandria.

The City

You said, “I will go to another land, I will go to another sea.
Another city will be found, a better one than this.
Every effort of mine is a condemnation of fate;
and my heart is — like a corpse — buried.
How long will my mind remain in this wasteland.
Wherever I turn my eyes, wherever I may look
I see black ruins of my life here,
where I spent so many years destroying and wasting.”

You will find no new lands, you will find no other seas.
The city will follow you. You will roam the same
streets. And you will age in the same neighborhoods;
and you will grow gray in these same houses.
Always you will arrive in this city. Do not hope for any other —
There is no ship for you, there is no road.
As you have destroyed your life here
in this little corner, you have ruined it in the entire world.


5 Responses to “On to Alex”

  1. Nádia Chacra Says:

    John, I loved it…Have a nice time!

  2. Gisele Wolkoff Says:

    (this one) is more vivid than ever!

  3. Claudia Says:

    Belo. Um tanto melancólico, talvez. Natural. Acho que Alexandria evoca, inevitavelmente, momentos de um passado quase mítico. Mas Alexandria me lembra Borges e Babel também, e volto ao mundo da tradução… Deixo com você um poema do Kafávis, na tradução do José Paulo Paes.


    Belos corpos de mortos que nunca envelheceram,
    com lágrimas sepultos em mausoléus brilhantes,
    jasmim nos pés, cabeça circundada de rosas –
    assim são os desejos que um dia feneceram
    sem chegar a cumprir-se, sem conhecerem antes
    o prazer de uma noite ou a manhã luminosa.


  4. Claudia Says:

    Oops. Sorry. Kaváfis, não Kafávis.

  5. Bi Says:

    (as usual)…
    I wonder how you get to see so much… 🙂
    I guess you have magic eyes! 🙂

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