Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1374, (21 December 2017 - 3 January 2018)
Tuesday,23 April, 2019
Issue 1374, (21 December 2017 - 3 January 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Reviving Alexandria’s belle époque

Nader Habib rediscovers the allure of the city long known as the “Bride of the Mediterranean” during this year’s Days of Alexandrian Heritage Festival

The French Cultural Centre

The streets of the Mediterranean city of Alexandria have witnessed many events that have changed the face of Egyptian history over the past two centuries. The names of these streets in Arabic and French and embossed on blue metal plates have for a long time been a distinctive feature of Alexandria.

However, social, economic and political changes have swept across Alexandria, wiping away many aspects of its historic appeal. The faces of the streets have changed, and so in some cases have their names. But despite this, many Alexandrians today still give the streets their old names, preserving in their hearts memories and a history they sorely miss.

To revive the legacy of this older Alexandria, the Alexandria Studies Centre (ASC), a local group, has for eight years been coordinating an annual Days of Alexandrian Heritage Festival (DAHF) to reconnect the community of “the Bride of the Mediterranean”, as the coastal city has long been dubbed, with its history and cultural background. 

“Together with our partners, we present many shows and works of art for a week in celebration of the DAHF. This year’s theme is the streets of Alexandria,” Marwa Abdel-Gawad, education officer at the ASC, told Al-Ahram Weekly.

“The ASC is hosted at the French archaeological mission in Alexandria and has been so for the past 27 years,” Abdel-Gawad explained. “The mission employs Egyptian and French researchers, archaeologists, restorers and painters who toil to document and explore the history and heritage of Alexandria through rescue missions of artefacts on the land and the seabed.”

The ASC’s Education Department acts as a bridge between the mission and the Alexandrian population, especially school students.

“This year’s theme emerged from people’s desire to hold on to the old names of the streets. These names represent the memory of a nation,” Abdel-Gawad said. 

“We recreated Fouad Street, a key route in the city, inside the hall of the French Cultural Centre. On the walls we hung documents that represent the six main streets connecting to Fouad Street, like Al-Nabi Daniel, Safeya Zaghloul and Sultan Hussein streets. We also hung paintings that document the smaller streets that branch out from the main ones. Our goal was to recreate 70 streets that together tell the history of this part of Alexandria,” she said.

It was a busy week-long schedule for the DAHF. From the visual arts to photography, acting and lectures, the festival organised exhibitions and meetings with writers, intellectuals and artists in several historic locations. 

Starting in 2014, foreign consulates in the coastal city also agreed to open their doors for lectures to be held in their buildings, many of which have historical value in themselves and may not be known to a wider public. This year, the Spanish Consulate, whose building was constructed in 1870, joined in the activities of the DAHF, and so did the Lebanese Consulate, built in 1945, with a lecture presented by writer Maher Sherif on tales of the Latin neighbourhood of Alexandria. 

The US educational agency AMIDEAST opened its doors to the public during the festival. The building this occupies was constructed in the early 20th century and is regarded as an architectural gem by Alexandrians. The Swedish Institute also presented a collection discovered in one of the building’s vaults at the DAHF for the second consecutive year. The collection belonged to businessman Carl Wilhelm von Gerber, the original owner of the building and Swedish consul in Alexandria from 1925 to 1951, and includes medallions and historical documents relevant to Alexandria.

At the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the cultural beacon of the Mediterranean city, a host of Francophone activities was launched. 

Second hand book kiosks at Al-Nabi Daniel Street

STREETS OF ALEXANDRIA: An Alexandria Streets Contest aimed at rediscovering the city, in which contestants were asked to produce brochures embellished with photographs about one of the city’s famous streets with its iconic buildings. 

A photography workshop focused on preparatory and secondary French school pupils, who took creative photographs of the city. The Alexandria Project, also at the Bibliotheca, arranged workshops and activities focused on the history and civilisation of the city and its library.

The Alexandria University Faculty of Fine Arts participated in the DAHF for the second year in a row with contemporary works crafted by photography students. A media research project was displayed during the festival monitoring the downtown area through the perspective of artists from the older and contemporary generations. 

Sara Zoheir, an Alexandrian photographer, participated in the festival with her “Canopic Road” exhibition, commemorating a route dating back to the Ptolemaic era. Zoheir said that “my beloved Alexandria is disappearing day by day, and photography is the only way to immortalise its people and architectural heritage. I wish we could stop looking at buildings as if they were just lifeless bricks lined up next to each other that could be torn down and replaced by ugly buildings that wipe out the memory of the city. The walls of these buildings tell stories that photographs cannot tell.”

At the festival, the Theatre Workshop troupe presented a play called Lucky Night, and the Noah’s Arc troupe put on another play called The Lover’s City, which is an invitation to rediscover Alexandria through the story of a wealthy man forced into hiding during German attacks in World War II. Through his escape, he is able to investigate the depths of the city and rediscover its beauty.

Moreover, the InMagazine website, headed by editor Osama Moharram, seeks to turn the documentation at the festival into friendly infographs. Participating for the second year, “we researched and presented the Fouad and Al-Nabi Daniel streets this year using a ‘design string’ representing the streets. These two streets are key elements of Alexandria, and we traced them back to the time of Alexander the Great in 332 BCE,” Moharram said.

“But to tell you the truth, the vintage style of many of Alexandria’s streets has disappeared in favour of new coffee shops and fast-food outlets. We used to enjoy the atmosphere of the old tea salons, but now the whole scene has become different and strange. There is a glimmer of hope, however, in the work of SIGMA, a group of architects specialising in restoring old buildings and giving them back their original style,” he added.

The Goethe Institute in Alexandria is hosting a photography exhibition produced by the Deaf Lab for Digital and Visual Arts, an initiative aimed at discovering the talents of the hearing impaired and encouraging them to communicate with the outside world through digital and visual media. 

Wagih Al-Lakkani, director of the lab, told the Weekly that, “at the festival we presented the work of nine young people. We let them express freely their perspectives on the city through their photographs. One of them focused on the sea, another on artefacts and another on the fish market or the city’s tall buildings.”

InMagazine website editor Moharram

VESTIGES OF THE PAST: Abdel-Aziz Al-Sebai, the author of a number of books on Alexandria, said that “the reason for focusing on Alexandria through the DAHF and other activities is that we have been seeing the beauty of the city being torn down. Now we are surrounded by ugliness, but this has only revived our passion to preserve what is left of Alexandria’s belle époque.”

 “We have not always been able to preserve buildings registered as architectural heritage, and we had to find another way to draw attention to the fading beauty of Alexandria. This is where the festival comes in, which aims to encourage the efforts of civil society and invite the state to do its part.

“Everyone should pool their resources to map the streets and squares in order to help Alexandria regain its allure. We have been holding seminars and workshops and using the arts to help raise consciousness. But this is not enough. The state and its institutions should step in and contribute as well,” he said.

 “Fouad Street is a historical landmark, for example, that has had many names including Canopic, Rashid, Horreya and Gamal Abdel-Nasser, but to most people it has kept the name Fouad because it was during king Fouad’s reign that the street became an architectural icon. However, today this same street has become an architectural nightmare, with the shops on it making it look like a train station.

“Add to this the socio-economic changes that have swept the country, and one can understand that these have led to a change in the street’s residents. At first they were middle-class people who valued tolerance and amicability. But now most of the buildings are owned by insurance companies that rent them out to the highest bidder regardless of social background.”

Al-Nabi Daniel Street has other kinds of problems, Al-Sebai said. “It has always been known as the street where old books and documents are sold, but now the police sometimes remove the book stands together with the merchandise of household appliances and clothing that has appeared more recently. The book-sellers have decided to hide their old books as a result, and now they only sell modern ones.”

During his research, Al-Sebai discovered that “the street was once a centre for charity clinics and hospitals where the best foreign doctors worked. It got its name because it is said that the Prophet Daniel was buried underneath the mosque of the same name. When you enter the mosque, you can ask the keeper to take you down narrow steps leading to a hall that connects to the old Greek Amphitheatre. There is another route underground that leads to Station Street,” he said.

 “Truth be told, Alexandria is made up of two cities: one above ground struggling for survival, and the other underground maintaining its magic in the vaults and tunnels that extend beneath it,” Al-Sebai said.

Al-Nabi Daniel Mosque

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