A Blog by the Editor of The Middle East Journal

Putting Middle Eastern Events in Cultural and Historical Context

Thursday, January 23, 2014

The National Gets Nostalgic About Alexandria

Abu Dhabi's The National has a piece about Alexandria which indulges a lot in the "good old days were better" nostalgia that city often inspires: "Alexandria, once a glamourous seaside resort, now a crumbling city."

It starts by lamenting the city's present problems, which are real enough:
Together they can tell stories of a once-multicultural city that was considered a jewel of the Mediterranean until it gradually degraded into the overpopulated, anarchic cement sprawl of budget holiday flats, slums, cement high-rises, exposed sewers, regular power cuts and – since the 2011 Revolution – 27,000 new buildings, the majority of them illegal.
But then it goes into full-blown Lawrence Durrell/Cavafy nostalgia:
Indolent days were spent on beaches populated by beautiful women in two-piece swimsuits or riding the tram from San Stefano to Ramla on a double-decker carriage where “you’d hear spoken every language in the world: English, French, Armenian, Greek ...”

In the dying days of Alexandria’s heyday, the tram would pass dainty patisseries frequented by the poet of Alexandria, C P Cavafy, and raucous bouzoukia joints where Greek captains danced with plates in their mouths. His archival photographs contain candid, personal pictures of princesses of the Egyptian royal family at play. The only remaining trace of his family’s villa by the sea is a grainy black-and-white photograph of a substantial neoclassical building with a columned portico.
Of course, as many have noted, one element that stands out about the romantic cosmopolitan Levantine society of The Alexandria Quartet and similar portrayals is the near invisibility of ordinary Egyptians, except as servants. Look at that quote above again:  “you’d hear spoken every language in the world: English, French, Armenian, Greek ...” No Arabic in Egypt's second city?

The author's name is Iason Athanasia.

I do think Egypt lost something of real value when the Greek and Italian and Lebanese and Jewish communities were dispossessed in the Nasser era, but that was itself a reflection of a nationalist sense that the old Alexandria of Levantine cosmopolitanism was in, but not part of, Egypt. It may well have been a delightful place if you belonged to the elites, but it's also worth understanding why it was swept away with the monarchy that reflected it so well.

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