Al-Ahram Weekly On-line
23 - 29 July 1998
Issue No.387
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875 Current issue | Previous issue | Site map

A poet in the turret,serpents in the garden

By Hala Halim

Durrell Nineteen Al-Mamoun Street, Muharram Bey, Alexandria, was once the residence of the Ambrons, a wealthy Alexandrian Italian Jewish family that played a prominent role on the city's arts scene in the 1940s and '50s. The Ambrons' main residence was the three-storey mansion, topped with a tower, while the smaller house later built in the garden functioned as the atelier of Amelia Ambron and her daughter Gilda, both of whom were portraitists.

It was during the second world war that Durrell, having been transferred to Alexandria, where he worked as the British Embassy's information officer, shared a flat in the Ambron mansion with two British Council couples, Mr and Mrs Paul Gotch and Mr and Mrs Harold Edwards. "From the start," remembers Gotch, "it was agreed that Larry, the professional poet and novelist, should have the use of the tower on the roof-top to himself... Artists don't have to starve in garrets and squalor." A frequent visitor to the Durrell-Gotch household was Eve "Gypsy" Cohen, later to become Mrs Durrell and the dedicatee of Justine. The Ambrons, who were living on the ground floor of the mansion, were not aloof with their tenants. Durrell and Eve were occasionally invited to formal teas at the Ambrons, and Gilda, remembers Gotch, painted the portraits of Durrell and some of his guests.

With the war over, the Durrell-Gotch flat was vacated, but the house in the garden was given a new lease of life when Alexandrian artist Effat Nagui and her husband Saad El-Khadem, pioneer of folklore studies in Egypt, rented it in the early '60s. The couple, remembers their friend Nawal Hassan, owned a formidable collection of paintings as well as rare objets d'art, Coptic textiles, folkloric pieces quarried from their many trips, manuscripts, and letters from writers and artists.

In May 1995, a few months after Effat's death, the Ambron heirs had sold the property to a construction company. In August of the same year, it was reported that inspectors from the Supreme Council of Antiquities (SCA) had discovered antiquities in the garden of the ex-Ambron property -- column bases and capitals, a sundial, among others. As in many Alexandrian houses, these had been strewn around the sprawling garden, the centrepiece of which was a gigantic banyan tree. The presence of officialdom on the property also brought to light the fact that most of the upper storey of the smaller house had been illegally demolished, while the balustrade of the Ambron flat in the mansion had been broken.

Meanwhile, a number of NGOs -- spearheaded by the APT, the Friends of the Environment Association and the Centre for Studies of Egyptian Civilisation -- sent appeals to the president and various ministers for the preservation of the ex-Ambron property. The case also received wide media coverage, both locally and internationally. Spurred on by the furore, various committees from the ministries of culture and tourism as well as from the Social Development Fund were dispatched to look into the issue. Their recommendations that the property be preserved, however, were overlooked.

In the interim, the new owners of the property felled the banyan tree and let the garden go fallow. Eventually, the company partitioned the property and sold out the garden -- supposedly the least controversial portion of the 4,313-square metre grounds and the most likely to be built on. The last tenant still living in the Ambron mansion, Mustafa Gomaa Abdel-Aziz, finally accepted a financial settlement last January and moved out (see Al-Ahram Weekly, 1-7 January). Time, it seemed, had run out for the ex-Ambron property.

With the large-scale demolition of villas in Alexandria last autumn and the subsequent deposition of district authorities, however, the official balance appears to have been tipped in recent months. A revamped showcase villa is now needed to endorse the governorate's conservationist credentials, and the candidate may well be the ex-Ambron property.

The impetus for this renewed interest in the property, however, came in the unlikely context of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the on-going project of recreating the ancient library of Alexandria. The link between the two sites is, if not putative, then tentative. Both legendary, one, the ex-Ambron property, is an extant site situated at the juncture of Alexandria's modern cultural history -- the cosmopolitan and the Egyptian; the other, the Bibliotheca, is to be a modern reconstruction of a long-gone archetypal centre of learning.

A more immediate link, however, comes in the person of Mr Paul Gotch. Informed during a telephone interview with Al-Ahram Weekly (1-7 January) of the threat to the house, Gotch, at a recent meeting of the Friends of the Alexandria Library in London, made a persuasive speech addressed to the Egyptian ambassador. Gotch put forward the argument that "with the present rebuilding of the famous Alexandria Library... the villa Ambron could be a continuation of the renowned literary tradition of the great city in this century... [it is] a monument to Anglo-Egyptian and international relations." To David Wardrop, secretary of the UK Friends of the Alexandria Library, "the UK community would be more interested in the development of Alexandria and at the same time the opening of the new library if they had something they could identify with more closely [such as] the villa Ambron, because Lawrence Durrell's books have been read by many."

Gotch's speech was reported to Minister of Higher Education Mufid Shehab, who then referred the matter to the governor of Alexandria, Mohamed Abdel-Salam Mahgoub, on 11 April. The governor, in turn, sought the advice of Mohamed Awad of the Alexandria Preservation Trust. In his report to the governor, dated 2 June 1998, Awad recommended that the ex-Ambron property be "expropriated for the benefit of the general public and [that the present] owners be compensated", as well as "urging the Supreme Council of Antiquities [to conduct] an archaeological dig in the basement of the house and in the garden."

At Alexandria's Central District, under the jurisdiction of which the ex-Ambron property falls, an official told Al-Ahram Weekly that the governor of Alexandria had indeed notified the district that no demolition permits are to be issued for the ex-Ambron property. However, the conservation decree, as confirmed by the official, does not extend to the garden.

According to the lawyer of the construction company, Ihab Khamis, "the two ladies who have bought the empty plots of land [in the ex-Ambron property] are a step away from receiving construction permits." Should both municipal and entrepreneurial moves come to fruition, the ex-Ambron property is likely to become a self-contradictory complex. The mansion with the tower and the adjoining atelier, while elevated to the status of monuments to Alexandria's cultural history, would rub shoulders with concrete housing blocks in place of the garden -- an integral part of the associations enshrined.