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Alexandria Again and Forever

[Alexandria's Rio Cinema, image by Muhamad Kutp, used with permission] [Alexandria's Rio Cinema, image by Muhamad Kutp, used with permission]

Outside the Middle East, the name of the Egyptian city Alexandria evokes images of the city’s lighthouse, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world or the ancient library of Alexandria. Both are symbolic of a golden age of culture and knowledge. Beyond these historical artifacts, the West has usually perceived the port city as an oasis of religious, cultural and political tolerance—a veritable, yet disappearing cosmopolitan sanctuary. Today’s English-language mass media frequently revives similar vague images of Alexandria’s past. Mentions of the city are prefaced with the “former” or “once cosmopolitan” characterization. The tone is unfailingly nostalgic for this foregone cosmopolitanism, and it is a nostalgia contrasted with the “rise of Salafism” in Alexandria—the religious identity associated with the city since the 2011 Egyptian Revolution.

Considering these popular discourses on Alexandria, mostly disseminated by “outsiders” to the city but also sporadically emerging from within,[1] several questions ought to be asked in order to deconstruct these depictions: was Alexandria ever cosmopolitan, and is it still cosmopolitan today? And, why is there a tendency to juxtapose two imagined historical eras (the “former cosmopolitan past,” and the “Salafi present”) of Alexandria, at the expense of other historical periods? I address these questions by examining the images of a cosmopolitan Alexandria in western literature. I then contrast this depiction with insights I have gathered from extended periods of time spent in Alexandria since the 25 January revolution, and from the work of other scholars who have suggested alternative ways of defining Alexandrian cosmopolitanism.

A cosmopolitan community or place is one characterized by multicultural exchanges, tolerance, and a shared feeling of belonging to a universal community, which often leads to the burgeoning of intellectual and artistic life. This vision of cosmopolitanism sits at the core of many literary works that have nurtured western imagination of Alexandria, such as E.M. Forster’s Alexandria: A History and a Guide (1922), and Constantine Cavafy’s poetry (mostly 1891-1904). Lawrence Durrell’s eminent tetralogy, The Alexandria Quartet (1957-1960), similarly depicted the life of cosmopolites shaped by their environment who waltzed from elegant balls at the Cecil Hotel to dinners à l’Étoile, and moved from romances in the apartments of European diplomats and intellectuals to the hedonisms of sea-side brothels.

Literary accounts are fictionalized archives, and should not be mistaken for anthropology or sociology. Yet, the three authors lived in the city: Cavafy was an Alexandrian Greek, E.M. Forster was stationed in Alexandria with the Red Cross during the First World War, and Durrell stayed there for four years in the late 1940s. They were themselves embedded in this atmosphere. The way they portray Alexandria is not only fictional, but is also autobiographical in some respects. These literary works have impregnated western imagination of Alexandria (Durells’ novels were best-sellers reprinted numerous times), but their representation of Alexandrian cosmopolitanism is not to be taken as representative of how most city-dwellers experienced the costal metropolis, or worse, inclusive of all the communities who called this place home.

In reality, Arabs[2] are out of place in this cosmopolitan portrayal. In Durell’s Quartet, the so-called “Arab quarter” is the site of dirt, where famished humanoids reside. Darley, the main character, takes walks in the “dark Arab-smudged street.”[3] When he overhears Arabic, it is unfamiliar, and is usually spoken in a streaking voice, full of “objurgations.” Besides those referred to as “Arabs,” Durell’s novels include extensive descriptions of Syrian prostitutes, hired to cheer up diplomats and poor European intellectuals, sometimes blamed for fast-travelling “veneral infections.” What is referred to as “cosmopolitanism” in this context is inherently exclusionary, and rooted in colonial ways of seeing “the other.” It is a mosaic of European and classist liberal pleasures that camouflages an Arab majority whose activities go largely unnoticed, and whose existence—when briefly acknowledged—is disregarded as squalid. Cosmopolitanism is limited in reach, and loaded with ethnic and classist connotations.
 


[A view of a busy street in the Alexandrian neighborhood of Attarin,
image by Muhamad Kutp, used with permission]


[A glimpse at Délices in Alexandria, a restaurant that opened in 1922, image by Muhamad Kutp, used with permission]

 

These authors see this “euro-politanism” as vanishing as they are experiencing it. According to Khaled Fahmy, Alexandria has always been associated with “loss” in western imagination, and is thought of being cyclically in decline. Fahmy mentions how in E.M. Forster’s guide on Alexandria, the author blames this loss on the “Arab” conquest of the city in 682. This eurocentric reading of history casts the conquests as the beginning of a “thousand years of silence,” a dark millennium that is believed to be briefly interrupted by the rule of the Ottoman Khedive Muhammad Ali Basha (who reigned in 1805-1848). The long period between 682 and 1805 is erased from history—and the Fatimid, Ayyubid, Mamluk or early Ottoman eras are disregarded as irrelevant. The so-called cosmopolitanism gradually returned to the city, and reached its apogee during the British occupation of Egypt. Hence, the first half of the twentieth century, the rehabilitation of the colonial project, is remembered for tolerance towards Jews, Greeks, Italians, and other Europeans, and ends, according to these narrators, with Nasser’s political project. In a 1977 BBC documentary titled The Spirit of Place, Durrell returns to his city, and mourns this second wave of cosmopolitanism that has ended. Fahmy notes how he deplores Alexandria for the cultural life that has left it and fears “that Nasser’s puritanical socialist revolution had destroyed the city.”

Decades later, journalists and writers continue to evoke the so-called cosmopolitanism depicted by these authors. But today, instead of blaming the loss of cosmopolitanism on Nasser’s nationalist and socialist project, they place the responsibility on the upsurge of Salafism. This new binary dominates western depictions of Alexandria in mass media. James Traub’s December 2014 piece in Foreign Policy entitled “The Lighthouse Dims” describes Alexandria, as “once the pulsing cosmopolitan heart of the Arab World, is now the base of Egypt’s Salafists, a hardline Islamist movement that had tied its fortunes to the country’s autocratic new president,” typifying this dualistic discourse. Having researched and written about Alexandrian Salafism (of which the Da‘wa Salafiyya is the main representative) for the past few years, I can attest that the rise of the party, and the religious organization behind it are both fascinating and full of complexities, and unambiguously worthy of journalistic and scholarly attention. Moreover, the existence of the movement and its significance in the city should not distort our vision of Alexandria, which is bustling with multiple and at times seemingly contradictory movements and dynamics. Thinking of Alexandria as a once-cosmopolitan-city-turned-Salafi-hotbed is reductive and misleading. As Amro Ali pointed out in a recent conference paper, “reviving, and uncritically referring to this ‘former cosmopolitanism’ is a conscious action done in the light of a security mindset.” This security mindset is one that obsessively considers Middle Eastern societies through the lenses of its Islamist movements.

There is indeed an important Salafi movement in Alexandria. The Da‘wa Salafiyya, the organizational backbone of the main Salafi party (Hizb al-Nour), was founded in Alexandria in the 1970s, and has maintained the city as its base ever since. The al-Nour party surprised pundits when it came second to the Muslim Brotherhood in the 2011 Egyptian parliamentary elections with 27 percent of the vote. After the summer of 2013, al-Nour and the Da‘wa Salafiyya decided to support the military-backed government of ‘Abd al Fattah al-Sisi, while actively opposing the Muslim Brotherhood. These surprising political alignments have challenged how we understand Salafis’ relations to the Egyptian military and other Islamists groups, and also have attracted considerable attention to the Salafi movement.

When researching Salafism, reporters walk the streets of the neighborhoods of Miami, Abu Suleyman or Mandara, looking for characters that confirm a pre-conceived idea of a Salafized and homogenous city, and perpetuate an idea of the cyclical decline of Alexandrian cosmopolitanism.[4] They discuss fragments of Alexandria’s history, and longingly walk the corridors of the Cecil Hotel, emblematic of this fictional past and site of predilection for parties in Durell’s novels. Most likely unaware of the exclusionary connotations of this cosmopolitan literary vision, they still engage with history in a piecemeal fashion.

Western imagination of Alexandria is hard to cure. Returning to the annals of European literature can be addictive, an easy way to satisfy a thirst for nostalgia. Amro Ali suggests that “the western world looks at Alexandria the way the Arab world looks at Cordoba. It fires up the imagination. Alexandria is the blueprint for western civilization.”[5] To reminisce about the cafés full of Europeans (from which non-elite local Egyptians were most likely banned), taxi drivers speaking Greek, and British sailors stopping in the port city for some comfort, is to actively ignore the history of the majority of Alexandrians. This nostalgia for cosmopolitanism certainly does nothing to illuminate the existence of a religious movement like Salafism which, while deep-seated and popular, is neither internally homogenous, nor dominant in society. Perpetuating these ways of imagining the city comes at the cost of erasing long periods of history, and carries the risk of glorifying European culture.




[Alexandria's Rio Cinema, image by Muhamad Kutp, used with permission]



[The Rialto Cinema in Alexandria, now almost completely demolished (except for El Cabina),
image by Muhamad Kutp, used with permission]


One could argue that Alexandria actually exhibits a number of cosmopolitan features today if we dissociate the term from the connotation it inherited from the works of Durrell, Forster and Cavafy. Alexandrians continue to feel that they belong to a universal community at home, but their aspirations and creativity simultaneously surpass the borders of their city—pushing them to reinvent ways of inhabiting their city and its history. Alexandria breeds artistic life in early twentieth century spaces that were desolated but are now re-appropriated, revitalized and opened to all, such as El-Cabina—a community art space located in the abandoned control room of the now almost completely demolished Rialto cinema, or Wekalet Behna—a center devoted to cinema located in what was once the film distribution offices of the Behna family. A large number of young writers, translators, and scholars call Alexandria home, even if many are understandably momentarily disillusioned in this post-revolutionary crisis, and often face the dire challenges of scarce employment.

Egypt’s second metropolis is both a locus of little tucked away bars (such as Spit Fire), and corner mosques (some neighborhoods such as Bacchus have dozens of zawiyas). Alexandria is a site of resistance. It has both local (seldom mass mediated) voices of struggle, as well as more public activists such as Mehienour Al-Masry, who all continue to protest for the release of political prisoners, defend refugees and fight for disenfranchised groups. Today, migrants from across the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa converge in Alexandria, many of whom aim to continue their route to Europe, while some decide to stay. The new ethnic and cultural make-up of the city is not only the result of forced migration, but also of new global travel routes. I recently met dozens of Indonesian teenagers who sit in new cafés on Fouad Street, where Durell once resided, who live in the neighborhood and study at the Arabi center.

In his new book, Samuli Schielke writes about young adults who originally have come from a village outside of Alexandria, but who either work in the city or live in the Eastern neighborhood of Al-Mandara. In his exploration of their ambivalence in religious commitment, their dreams and aspirations, he reflects on the meaning of cosmopolitanism. In light of his ethnographic work, he sees cosmopolitanism as modality of action and imagination, rooted in the “versatility in and belonging to ‘the world.” Alexandrians are cosmopolites in that they “aspire to make global modernity their own, without becoming homogenized or fully connected in the sense evoked by globalization.”[6]

Spread along the corniche and growing into the desert, the city’s upper and lower class neighborhoods fluidly border one another. Without defined class enclaves and clear geographical or historical boundaries, Alexandria exists beyond false binaries. Alexandrians live in a port city, which is by default characterized by the movement of persons and ideas. They are proud of their identity, rooted in a history of multilayered cosmopolitanism, and continue to reach for the world beyond their city. The city is a perpetual struggle to simultaneously define its identity and future but also to comprehend its past. For outsiders, and some insiders as well (as boundaries are often blurred), perceiving and experiencing the city’s changing essence is conditional on rejecting colonial memories of cosmopolitanism, and on transcending Manichean visions of history.

[The title of this essay is a reference to Youssef Chahine‘s 1989 film, Iskanderiyya Kaman wa Kaman. This film is the last part of an autobiographical trilogy. It follows “Alexandria Why?” (Iskandiriyya Lih?, 1978) and “An Egyptian Story” (Hadduta Misriyya, 1982). Chahine was born from a Greek mother and Syrian father and spent the first twenty years in Alexandria. The trilogy questions the essence of “being Alexandrian.” The third part is impregnated with a sense of loss, and as Halim explains: “what Chahine dramatizes in these sequences is the on­screen director, Yehia's unresolved mourning of that personal loss which coincides with a sense of national defeat, both acted out through icons of the Hellenistic city. This process, in turn, serves as a vehicle for Chahine's reflections on the foundation myths of the city. ” Hala Halim, “On Being an Alexandrian,” Al-Ahram Weekly, 11 April 2002, 581 edition.
I would like to thank Magda Magdy, Amro Ali and Boyan Gerasimov for their guidance, comments and for engaging in fruitful discussions on cosmopolitanism and Salafism in Alexandria.]

-----------------------------------------
[1] Businesses that date from the beginning of the twentieth century in Alexandria tend to promote themselves with similar nostalgic references to Alexandria’s cosmopolitan past. In the veranda restaurant inside the Délices patisserie, which has been an Alexandrian staple since 1922, one can see the walls decorated with “cosmopolitan Alexandria” branding. Lately, Facebook has been afloat with old black and white pictures of Alexandria, usually showing colonial buildings, the beach and the Mahatat el-Raml (downtown) area shared by Alexandrians.
[2] The term Arab, as used in these literary works, refers to non-Europeans, including Egyptians but also groups who have come from other Middle Eastern countries.
[3] Lawrence Durrell, The Alexandria Quartet: Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, Clea (London: Faber and Faber, 1968), 49, 55.
[4] Such as in Takis Würger, “Mein Freund, Der Salafist,” Der Spiegel, November 2013.
[5] Ali, “Alexandria and Activism--Translating Memory, Mythology and Utopianism.”
[6] Samuli Schielke, Egypt in the Future Tense: Hope, Frustration, and Ambivalence before and after 2011 (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2015), 153.

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