Saturday,18 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1270, (12 - 18 November 2015)
Saturday,18 August, 2018
Issue 1270, (12 - 18 November 2015)

Ahram Weekly

After the clouds came

Hala Halim, Alexandrian Cosmopolitan: An Archive, New York, Fordham University Press, 2014, pp.448 -  Reviewed by Gamal Nkrumah

After the clouds came
After the clouds came
Al-Ahram Weekly

Once every blue moon, a thoughtful, serious study is published assiduously and painstakingly combining scintillating writing with sensational facts. Hala Halim, once Al-Ahram Weekly’s Cultural Editor, and currently professor of Middle Eastern and Islamic Studies at New York University has conjured up a masterpiece. Born in Alexandria, Halim adores her hometown with an unquenchable passion. This love is combined with an implacable animus of the portrayal of her city by certain European poets and authors and is coupled with an infinite adoration of Alexandria that paved the way for her seminal work Alexandrian Cosmopolitan.

The late 1990s were not always kind to Alexandria. The Greeks and the Italians and most Europeans had long left, and peasants moved in from the Egyptian countryside, the Nile Delta to be precise. The city’s character was permanently altered. And, the peasants had to learn to roll with punches.

Halim orchestrates an Egyptian discourse with European portrayals of Egypt’s Mediterranean seaport and second largest city. She compares and contrasts the two contending perspectives: indigenous Egyptian and European expatriates. “Alexandrian cosmopolitanism, I contend, was a Eurocentric colonial discourse that perched the city precariously between ‘quasi’ and ‘pseudo’, multiply Europeanizing its diversity in a gesture of appropriation while ambivalently placing it under the sign of Levantine to impute a shifty diversity,” the author expounds.

Halim translated Mohamed Al-Bisatie’s novel Clamor of the Lake. The translation won the Egyptian State Incentive Award. She is not a media superstar, nor do I reckon she spires to be one.

One of Halim’s seminal work’s strengths is its colourful cast: Cavafy, Forster, Durrell, and Berbard de Zogheb.

In this contested  ground strides Halim with the first serious exploration of her home city from the often conflicting perspective of four Alexandrian literary figures, namely Cavafy, Forster, Durrell and Bernard de Zogheb. Cavafy was Greek, and not surprisingly a vociferous and unapologetic Hellenophile. Forster and Durrell were British. Edward Morgan Forster was an English novelist, essayist and librettist. Born into an Anglo-Irish and Welsh middle-class family in London, he later became a member of a discussion society known as the Apostles. In the 1930s and 1940s Forster became a successful broadcaster on BBC Radio. Perhaps his greatest literary success was his bestseller A Passage to India (1924). He was obsessed with the relationship between East and West,

Alexandria was cosmopolitan, but its distinct racial and cultural communities lived apart. I that sense, it was far from being truly cosmopolitan. Perhaps, scarcely metropolitan.

Halim scrutinizes the fertile imagination of Cavafy, Forster, Durrell and Bernard de Zogheb, exploring how they used the very imagery of cultural diversity in their works. Eacj viewed Alexandria from a unique and personal angle. Halim has surpassed herself in the use of the texts to highlight how Alexandria was being refashioned during the colonial era. Alexandria is a port beholden to the Mediterranean, and the foreigners who came to claim it as their own. Yet, the city’s eternal youthful stubbornness prevailed.

Forster was homosexual, like Cavafy, but both eschewed the Egyptian peasant as primeval, even barbarous. Their carefree, laid-back lifestyle offered ample opportunity for them to indulge in their creative activity. The pair were eager to escape the real Alexandria and immerse themselves into the imagined Shangri-la.

Alexandria for Cavafy was Arcadia. For Durrell it was Xanadu. During his years on Corfu, Durrell had made notes for a book about the island, but it was only in Egypt towards the end of the war, that he was finally able to write it. Durell’sThe Quartet impressed critics by the richness of its style, the variety and vividness of its characters. This urge for a life of utter abandon was manipulated by the expatriates with embarrassing ease.

Cavafy did not, however, consider himself an emigre. As far as he was concerned he was a native, a descendant of the founders of his city. For Durrell, Alexandria introduced ineradicable uncertainty.The world was his oyster. Durrell described Corfu as “this brilliant little speck of an island in the Ionian,” with waters “like the heartbeat of the world itself.”

Unconventional, like Alexandria itself, Durrell separated from Eve Cohen in 1955, and was married again in 1961, to another Alexandrian Jewish woman, Claude-Marie Vincendon, whom he met in Cyprus. Durrell was devastated when Claude-Marie died of cancer in 1967. His fourth and final marriage was in 1973, to a French woman, Ghislaine de Boysson, whom he divorced in 1979.

The author is meticulous in her research of a subject dear to her heart. Halim presents a comparative study of literary representations, addressing poetry, fiction, guidebooks, operettas, among other genres.

Consummate or cultivated? Alexandria was founded by Alexander the Great in 331 BC, replacing the ancient Egyptian city of Rhakhotis, the Hellenized version, or Ra-Khatit in the acient Egyptian tongue. From its earliest beginnings Alexandria was built as a a conduit between the Mediterranean world and the Red Sea, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. It soon metamorphosed into the largest Greek city in Egypt. And, in its heyday, the largest city in the world. It also emerged as the city with the largest community of Jews in the world, that is until many Jews converted to Christianity and Alexandria was officially elevated to the exulted status of the headquarters of the Coptic Orthodox Church, the official residence of the Patriarch of Alexandria on the Holy Sea  of Saint Mark, the Coptic Pope. 

Ever since the schism that in the aftermath of the Council of Chalcedon in 451 AD, the Coptic Christians of Egypt carved out their own unique niche in Christianity and as monophysites, the Coptic Christians adhere to the doctrine that the nature of Jesus Christ is both human and divine. Being monophysite distinguished the from the Greek Orthodox , the Roman Catholic and Protestant communities that settled in the city. The chasm between Egyptian and non-Egyptian was inevitable and irreversible.

Alexandria is a city like no other. Extending about 32 kms along the western edge of the Nile Delta, along the Mediterranean, much of it today is a picturesque decrepitude, with winter rains drenching the waterfront.

The European colonial settlers in Alexandria’s funeral was conducted the appropriate solemnity. The gracefully vaulted opulent and ostentatious Ottoman era rooms overlooking the seafront no longer had Europeans peering through. At the start, the guiding purpose was who was boss. And, Westerners would rather be the elite wherever they are, and Halim is fiercely nationalistic.

Demographic shift with the exodus of the expatriates and the ancient communities of Greeks, Italians, Jews and Armenians coupled with the influx of thousands of Egyptians from the surrounding Nile Delta countryside and beyond, The expatriates, too, settled in the city but never became truly Egyptian. “Pour out your Egyptian feeling in the foreign speech,” one of Cavafy’s characters. Raphael, is egged on.

The author focuses on the acculturated intellectual elite. “How do you explain the fact that in AD 600 in Egypt half the population went into monasteries... And, it wasn’t only the poor who went, but people from all all classes of society,” Cavafy marvels. Did it occur to him that a conquered people, consciously or inadvertently, often commit mass suicide? The Native Americans, the Australian Aborigines and the Khoi-San of South Africa, but to name a few. Overseeing this tragedy was the colonizer. Little wonder, perhaps, that the cultural hegemony and social prestige the European settler colonial haut monde in Alexandria enjoyed, the power he toyed with, did not last long.

“If the foregoing discussion has suggested that Egyptians articulations of cosmopolitanism are confined to engagements with the three canonical authors, this would be a rather partial picture. In two 2010 feature films set in AlexandriaHawi (Juggler), directed by Al-Batout, and Microphone directed by Ahmed Abdallah, the multiethnic heritage of the city is not thematized, mere;ly alluded to in in choice of set s (the Jesuit Cultural Centre in Hawi), and names (a warehouse once owned by a Bolanachi in Microphone, a store named Edouard in Hawi). ... both films dwell on the dynamic dwell on the dynamic between alternative culture, state-sponsored culture, and the police state. And much cultural output has in Egypt hasin recent years has addressed the hinge between Alexandria and cosmopolitanism.” Halim extrapolates.

The key determinant in the contemporary politics of Alexandria, as in so many other cultural and social matters, is demographic change. The expatriates have left and the Egyptian peasants poured into the city. If the peasant was alarmed by this strange foreign setting full of feuding forigners, he didn’t show it.

Egyptian Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Miramar springs to mind. Set in the 1960s Alexandria and centred on the pension Miramar owned by a Greek proprietress Mariana and her Egyptian peasant servant Zohra, an attractive young woman from the neighbouring Beheira governorate in the western Nile Delta who has abandoned her village life. Zohra is caught up in the contending political struggles between European and Egyptians of various political and ideological orientations: the Nationalists (The Wafd Party), the Revolutionary Nasserists and members of the Gamal Abdel-Nasser post-monarchy regime, the feudal landed gentry and the Muslim Brotherhood.

There will be nothing easy about breaking the cycle of Alexandria’s history. Indeed, Halim touches on the feminization of Alexandria in literature, both Egyptian and foreign. The allegorical function of gender. “This function, to my mind, is thrown into relief by the fact that the name Futna denotes an acacia flower, thus engaging Mahfouz’s Zohra, whose name denotes blossom and hence the dialogism in Miramar between the feminization of  Alexandria as a Greek woman and of Egypt as a peasant woman,” the author expounds.

Alexandria is a city of contrasts, and yet the contradictions are not as sharp as they appear at first glance. Halim tackles the 2012 Al-Haya Al-Thaniya Li Qustantin Kafafis (The Second Life of Constantine Cavafy) by Tarek Imam, which she describes as a “metafictional postmodern novel that engages the Alexandrian Greek poet’s life and work, as well as Forster’s Egyptian sojourn and texts”. Futna is Imam’s Zohra, or Cafavy’s Antony.

Mediterranean geopolitics was a determining factor in Alexandria’s development. First Greek, and then Roman and Byzantine, Alexandria flourished in antiquity. The city virtually established itself unequivocally as the global cultural capital. Scholars, merchants and art-championing aristocrats flocked to Alexandria. Even when it was under Roman rule, the city was essentially Hellenistic in cultural orientation. The incongruity and inconsistency of the Christian faith with its rival religious ideologies confused the cosmopolitan influx of Levantines, Greeks, Jews, and not to be overlooked as the author stresses are the indigenous Egyptians.

The endless complexity of the city’s cultural diversity unraveled at its own pace. Drawing on Arabic critical and historical texts, as well as contemporary writers’ and filmmakers’ engagement with the canonical triumvirate enriched the author’s work.

The sophistry in Constantine Cavafy poems is centred on the preposterous notion of the sophistication of Hellenistic sophism. Was it not Cavafy who entered the fray of a debate concerning the Elgin Maarbles, the author reminds the reader. Was it not Cavafy who demanded the return of the Elgin Marbles to Greece the author contends. And, rightly so. Surely, what is good for the goose is good for the gander.

Fascinating digressions spices up an otherwise impossibly academic book. The author offers dozens of examples of the poetry and literary works of the European settler community and the European expatriates. Yet for all their greatness, none were bigger in stature than the host city.

The author makes the move of yoking Neo-Hellenism with Neo-Pharaonism. Is it not curious that I searched in vain for a positive, non-Western interpretation of “Neo-Pharaonism on the Internet. I came up to my shock and horror with the ludicrous sounding: Neo-Pharaonism by Gypo-Monarchy of DeviantArt. As the author proposes Europeans by and large ideologically advocated a cosmopolitan interpretation of Egyptian history that emphasized that it was inextricably intertwined with the Hellenistic classical world.  “As for ancient Egypt in Cavafy, when not overlooked in secondary sources, it is often reduced to a reference or two that designate his attitude as dismissive,” the author extrapolates.

“Yet Cavafy’s engagement with ancient Egypt is polyvalent, sometimes depreciating it but elsewhere displaying both a receptivity to certain aspects of ancient Egyptian civilization and a recognition of it as the indigenous element of Hellenistic Egypt. I begin with a poem that, although it does not mention ancient Egypt as such, describes a text that belongs to the Hellenistic period and indirectly clinches one aspect of Cavafy’s multifaceted attitude to Egypt per se,” the author notes. The poem in question is “The Mimiambi of Herodas”.

The author questions the cultural assumptions and inherent racism of Cavafy, and his instinctive bias against Egypt and infatuation with the imagined or real glories of his Greek culture and innate superiority.

“For Centuries abiding hidden

within the darkness of Egyptian earth,

amid a silence so despairing

injury was done the gracious mimiambi;

but those years have passed,

from the North arrived wise

men, and for the mimiambi entombment

and oblivion ceased”

Halim’s narrative mode wheels and soars. Illuminating our knowledge of Alexandria, the city and its cosmopolitan nature beginning with Alexander the Great, the Macedonian founder of the Ptolemaic dynasty, to Queen Cleopatra and the Roman conquest of Egypt, beginning with Alexandria as an entry point. From Greek to Roman, Alexandria endured millenniums of  foreign rule. Not surprisingly, Italians and Greeks continued to be crucial components of its social composition.

Fat forward four centuries. The Greeks returned as “Romanoi”, or Byzantines. Then came the Arabs who were followed by a mishmash of Turkic, Balkan and Caucasian Mamlukes, the so-called “Slave Kings”. And next came the Ottoman Turks. “The Turkish Town comprised several ethnicities and classes,including Maghrebis and Jews (as well as Greeks),  whose presence remains ciphered in the nomenclature of alleys and souqs, in addition to houses belonging to indigenous and Turco-Circassian notables. The area also contains the most mosques of the city dedicated to Sufi figures,” Halim extrapolates.

The foreign masters left an indelible cultural mark on Egypt, but especially so on Alexandria. Their relationship with the native Egyptians was never syrupy sweet. So does the author suggest that cosmopolitanism was a myth?

Surely, the city is not quiet the same as it ever was. Historically, Alexandria was always a city of extraordinarily motley and fluid loyalties.

Little it appears is guarded from the revisionist ardour of the expatriate Alexandrians. Living on the fringes of Egypt, the foreign communities thrived. They mingled with the locals, but they never metamorphosed into natives, as Cleopatra’s Ptolemies did, or pretended to. Alexandria in the post 1952 July Revolution was literally a new take on Greek tragedy.

For all of Alexandria’s glow, the storm clouds were already gathering. And, this was reflected in the literature of the expatriates and European settler colonists. “It is my contention that Forster and Cavafy, rather than being consonant in their outlook (with Cavafy cited and commented on by Forster conferring legitimacy on the English novelist’s view of the city), as an older generation of scholarship that continues to exert its influence has posited, were at marked variance on a number of issues not least Alexandrian Cosmopolitan,” Halim expounds.

Whatever quibbles there might be about the cosmopolitanism of Alexandria, Egypt’s second contemporary city and onetime capital, and Halim should be applauded for highlighting the city’s cosmopolitanism in its proper perspective. As for Cavafy, “allusions to things Greek are favourably coded as European”. Few Greek poets have been more intensely biographised as Cavafy.

The insinuation that wisdom and learning as opposed to superstition is crystal clear in Alexandrian Cosmopolitanism. The Author argues eloquently that Eurocentric conceptions of cosmopolitanism prevailed. Egypt and Egyptian perceptions of the city were relegated to the sidelines.

As it happens, Durrell was an expatriate British novelist, and Egypt at the time was for all practical intents and purposes a British colony. “Durrell does invoke Freud as the frame for one of the Quartet’s self-avowed themes, that of ‘modern love’, the author notes. “Some ten years after posing his rhetorical questions about Freud’s work, Durrell would experimentally work much of this material into his homely/uncanny Alexandrian space. Although the uncanny in the Alexandria of the Quartet owes more to the twilight-of-empire moment of the time of narration, as I will later demonstrate, it is in part a result of Durrell’s fictional mulling over the connections between psychoanalysis and anthropology,” the author extrapolates.

The “twilight-of-empire” is a key phrase. “Although he goes on to contrast Freud against Jung, whom he sees in a more favourable light, Durrell concludes that the connection made by Freud ‘between racial myths and individual dreams... yielded a vast new tract of knowledge’”.

Durrell was an ebullient figure. 

“I would also note that one issue that is at stake in the coexistence of Hellenism and Orientalism in the Quartet is the exceedingly textualised, markedly constructed representation of the city in both of these frames of reference, prompting one to read Durrell’s disclaimer ‘Only the city is real’”.

Nevertheless, by putting these issues on the agenda, Halim unlocked a Pandora’s Box. The life of expatriates in Alexandria was magnificent and their achievements phenomenal. Durrell was a case in point. Immersed in all this, he was also curiously detached from Alexandria.

Halim has widened her conceptual lens in response to these discrepancies, inconsitencies  and contradictions. There in a nutshell, is Alexandria’s cosmopolitanism.

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