Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
26 Aug. - 1 Sep. 1999
Issue No. 444
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Issues navigation Current Issue Previous Issue Back Issues

 
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Against the dying of the light

By Hala Halim

Bernard de Zogheb The last time I saw Bernard de Zogheb was in January. We spoke, among other things, of his plans for the eve of the new millennium, and of meeting in summer when I was to return from a trip to the US. On my return, I heard that after a terminal illness diagnosed three months earlier, he had died. It is very hard to think of Bernard de Zogheb gone, and of Alexandria without him.

There is, of course, a sense of the last sigh of a certain era about his going. Born in 1924, Bernard de Zogheb was the last descendent living in Alexandria of a Syro-Lebanese family that had moved to Egypt at the time of the French occupation, prospered in the nineteenth century, acquired titles, and became part of the social and cultural fabric of the so-called cosmopolitan city. But it is not only as latter day witness to that world that the loss of Bernard de Zogheb is mourned. The finesse of his wit, his un-streamlined talent, the generosity of spirit that was so light of touch as to be imperceptible -- all made for Bernard de Zogheb's uniqueness.

Bernard's relationship to Alexandria did not conform to the pattern seen among members of his generation from the same background. Most of his friends immigrated with the rise of nationalism and the loss of their assets to sequestrations, returning on vacation once every few years to re-visit old haunts and seek whoever acquaintances remain. Bernard's parents, he once explained, lost their fortune in the cotton crash of the late 1920s and early '30s, so there was nothing substantial to be sequestrated when the sequestrations of the 1960s began. He himself left Egypt in the early '60s, mostly in search of personal freedom, and lived for about two decades between Morocco, France and Greece, working in tourism and journalism. Having returned in the '80s to look after his mother for a spell, he decided to spend the rest of his life in Alexandria. His reintegration was smooth. He did not confine himself to the cozy, ever-smaller niche of Francophone friends of mixed origins, but made new friends, went for walks all over Alexandria, and held exhibitions of his watercolours of city- and landscapes.

But beyond his work as an artist, it is arguably Bernard's comic operettas that are his most outstanding achievement. Set to popular tunes, the libretti are written in Bernard's "kitchen Italian", with much tongue-in-cheek ventriloquism of the mannerisms and verbal macaronics typical of Mediterranean cities, particularly Alexandria. Often in these operettas the conventions of high art are rendered in camp, as in La Vita Alessandrina (Alexandrian Life), a fictional biography of the Alexandrian poet Constantine P Cavafy. Here, the muse, whose name is drawn from an Irish-American acquaintance of Bernard's called Anne O'Leary, is hailed to the tune of Hallelujah: "John, Peter, Paul: 'Anoleri, Hakelberi, Tomangieri, Umpapa.'/ Tutti: 'Anoleri, Anoleri, Bladimeri, Tra la la'." Originally written for the consumption of his circle of friends, Bernard's operettas caught the attention of the late American poet James Merrill. It was thanks to Merrill that the Little Players, a puppet theatre company in New York, had two of them performed in the late '60s and early '70s. The memory of the performances of Le Vacanze a Parigi (The Vacation in Paris), and Phaedra, adapted from Racine, was an abiding source of pride to Bernard.

One of the most memorable aspects of Bernard as a person, is his totally individual and very playful way of doing things. I remember the signs bearing arrows and "Bernard" which he stuck to the cacti lining the corridor to his roof-top apartment on Gabarti Street, to help me find my way on my first visit. Who else would have received you on a hot day looking perfectly cool in an honest-to-goodness sailor's suit? And thematically arranged the paintings on the three walls of his L-shaped living area -- an Egyptian wall, a Greek wall, and a gift wall? Yet for all his jocular grumbling and devastatingly funny impersonations, he was thoroughly attuned to others, to their frailties and needs. In London two summers ago, I met an émigré Alexandrian-Italian friend of Bernard's whose mother, well into her nineties, was living in the German elderly people's home on Sultan Hussein Street. The old lady, I was told, no longer recognised anyone -- not even her son -- except for Bernard who visited her on a regular basis. Bernard's popularity, the years he spent writing the society column for the Alexandrian Sunday paper La Réforme Illustrée, his keen eye for detail and excellent memory all made him an invaluable resource for researchers writing on the social, architectural and cultural history of Alexandria. And for one possessed of such a rich imagination, he was remarkable in that he never embroidered on his recollections.

It is indeed hard to conceive of Alexandria without Bernard de Zogheb.

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