I recently visited the city of Alexandria, on Egypt’s northern, Mediterranean coast. Coming from land-locked and smog-wreathed Cairo, “Alex” is always a sudden pleasure. The city curves along the open sea. The air is cool, mobile, and laced with salt. In the evening the streets are quiet, almost empty.
Alexandria has a long-standing reputation. It was once a brilliant port city, the so-called “bride of the Mediterranean”, a cosmopolitan center of arts and trades, home to thousands of Greeks, Jews, Armenians, and Italians. Most all of them were driven away after the 1952 Revolution, when the city’s businesses were nationalized and foreigners were made to feel not welcome. Lawrence Durrel’s Alexandria Quartet (Penguin Books, 1991) is probably the best-known piece of literature to document the city and those times, telling the story of various glamorous artists and conspirators flitting through the Alexandria nights.
But nowadays “Alex” is much more provincial than Egypt’s vast and dusty capital to the South. Children hassle foreign women who walk the seaside Corniche, and posters put up by Islamists threaten hellfire for women who wear swimsuits.
It’s hard not to regret the city’s old mixture, hard not to sigh at the sight of nymphs dancing darkly in forgotten corners of the wood panelling of half-derelict coffee shops. Nor is it just in Alex that other times and other languages cast captivating shadows. On Friday mornings in Cairo, you can hear the plaintive call of “Roba biiiiiicchia!” rising through the quiet morning from men who go door to door with their small carts, collecting old and used household items. Their call is a corruption of the Italian “roba vecchia” meaning “old things”, and its use points to the nationality that originally introduced this trade to Cairo. It also points to the country’s past; to a time when Egypt was more a country of immigrants than emigrants. Each time I hear that call it makes me wistful.
Returning from Alexandria with an Egyptian colleague, I shared some of these thoughts. We were on the train back to Cairo at the time, riding past the lush green scenery that scrolls along the sides of the Nile; palm trees, fields, irrigation canals, oxen and villages. “It’s a question of identity,” my companion says quickly, when I mention the mass exodus from Alex, “of finding an Egyptian identity”. And so she reclaims Alex, her city of birth, as directly as Arab socialist Gamal Abdel-Nasser did 50 years ago. It is indeed a question of Egyptian identity. It was a rising tide of newborn nationalism that carried the foreign families and their belongings back to Europe.
I acknowledge that to pine for the cosmopolitanism of Alexandria comes uncomfortably close to regretting colonialism itself. While the city must have been lovely for the foreign merchants and artists who had established themselves there and the diplomatic missions that moved up every year to spend the summer almost none of its wealth and beauty belonged to Egyptians. Still, I argue that a compromise should have been made, such as nationalize some of the big businesses, but don’t drive everyone out. I say Egyptian identity would be enriched by the presence of immigrant communities. But my friend is hardly listening.
In talking about the hasty departure of the thousands of Armenians and Italian and Greeks and Jews that used to call Alexandria home, I used the word “loss”. The ideas of loss, identity and the West which I’ve thrown out are clearly linked for my friend, in a pattern I hadn’t anticipated. Armenian families and their hastily packed bags are dismissed, and we are embarked instead on the much more urgent subject of globalization and its discontents.
My friend tells me with emotion how the Egyptian way of life is disintegrating, how Egyptians don’t eat or dress or talk as they used to, how they no longer know what it is to be Egyptian. “How would you feel if you went back to America and everyone there wore Egyptian clothes and listened to Egyptian music and used Egyptian expressions and watched Egyptian movies?” she asks. “That’s how I feel,” she goes on. “Sometimes when I sit with my Egyptian friends I feel like there is nothing Egyptian about us at all.”
I see that everything that by my standards was “lost” in Alex after the Revolution never belonged to Egyptians in the first place, and therefore can’t be missed by them. Modern-day Egyptians, like many people in post-colonial, developing countries, are being bludgeoned with globalization, knocked about by political and economic forces out of their control. They are expected to be like the West and then criticized for the cheapness and awkwardness of their imitations. They are hardly going to express longing for a city that was shaped and dominated by foreigners.
And I see that for many in the post-colonial world, colonialism isn’t over. The righteous, self-aggrandizing rhetoric of the Bush administration coupled, as such language usually is, with violence only confirms the fears and doubts of the 21st century’s observant “natives”. They are still being invaded and administered, and subsidizing it all by buying the invader’s T-shirts, pizzas and CDs. They want the simplest of things: they want to be someone - not someone’s market, or someone’s project, or someone’s pawn.
That said, I don’t know how seriously to take my companion’s regrets. She works as a translator for a Western development firm, she wears nice clothes and coloured contact lenses. She does not personally want to return to the way of life of the ancient fellaheen (farmers), of this I am sure. Everywhere in the world, people can be heard mourning earlier, so-called “simpler” ways of life. I’m also not sure where to locate in time this vague and ideal “Egyptian-ness” my friend feels is gone, when the history of her country is so woven with poverty, injustice, and foreign domination.
As for me, I have to ask myself if my own longing for the Alex of the past is not a sign of my discomfort with Egypt. Perhaps it’s my unwillingness to let the country be itself. Maybe it’s my desire for a bright enclave from which to enjoy all that Egypt has to offer without giving up any of the liberties and amenities I am used to as a Westerner.
As our train approaches Cairo and our conversation wanes I realize that we are each fooling ourselves. Most countries have a city such as Alex: a city that marks a turning point, a city in which history can be seen and fingered, a city in which nostalgia accumulates. My friend and I are both dissatisfied with the state of present-day Egypt. What troubles me is the country’s homogeneity, the narrow-mindedness of many people, the strict confines beyond which most conversations about politics, about sex, about relations do not stray. I am troubled by the lack of personal freedom and the lack of political momentum. What troubles my friend is her country’s powerlessness, its inability to be proud of itself and to speak for itself. We are both turning to myths cosmopolitanism in my case, authenticity in hers to console ourselves.
I still believe it would be fantastic if Armenian photographers, Italian tailors and Greek grocers prospered in Cairo and Alex, and if more different ways of being Egyptian were allowed and encouraged. But it’s hard to be confident and open when one is hemmed in by so much local and international bullying. This is a country on the defensive. The fault lies with many, and can’t be understood without a long look at history. In the meantime, the only way for Egyptians to find themselves a place in the modern world to achieve transformation, not escape is to live in the present, not the past.