Alexandria is famously called the “Pearl of the Mediterranean” and it is an enthralling fusion of history and modernity. A strong urge to be in this city came upon me in 2011, making me plan the first of my several months-long trips to Egypt, right in the midst of the post-revolution bedlam the country was experiencing.
I had always wanted to see Egypt and finally decided to make this trip after reading Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet. The four books are an exploration of modern love, according to the author, and are written in masterful and poetic language. Few writers have such talent with words.
Durrell is a virtuoso, and his four books tell the same story from different perspectives and in powerful, haunting images. His love for Alexandria is tangible throughout. I fell in love with the novels, particularly Justine, and constantly dreamed of the Bride of the Sea, as some affectionately call Alexandria. I imagined myself waking up in the Cecil Hotel, in Ramleh Square, opening my balcony’s French doors, and stepping out to bask in the turquoise splendor of the Mediterranean. I imagined myself writing on its mahogany desk, as Durrell must have, and staring at the sea for hours when the words did not come. Alexandria was magical in my imagination and is even more so in reality.
The Cecil Hotel is a symbol of the now defunct opulence and cosmopolitanism of Alexandria’s glorious past, which is still palpable in its streets and in the wilting magnificence of its architecture. The Cecil was built in 1929 and is the setting of many scenes in The Alexandria Quartet. The books are set in the 1930s; a time when Alexandria was a true melting pot where native Egyptians, Greeks and Syrians co-existed with the French and British colonials. As Durrell writes in Justine, the first book in the Quartet: “Five races, five languages, a dozen creeds: five fleets turning through their greasy reflections behind the harbor bar.”
The Cecil’s ornate, but now tarnished beauty, evokes images of luxurious travels by train, jazz music, and elegant cocktail hours at Monty’s Bar. The hotel seems to be frozen in time, which is exactly what I was hoping for. The mirror, now rusted, where Justine and her lover Arnauti lock gazes in Durrell’s novel, remains in the Cecil lobby and even its original wood-paneled elevator is still in function, bringing passengers up and down inside its baroque, wrought-iron cages.
The hotel is located in Saad Zaghloul Square, home to the Opera House, which is well preserved despite being basically out of commission. As soon as you step outside the Cecil, you are warmly greeted by the hantour (horse carriage) drivers asking to drive you around the city. I recommend accepting; riding a hantour is a necessary part of experiencing Alexandria.
In this square, we also find a couple of cafes that are a local source of pride because they are important “characters” in Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Miramar: Les Délices and the Trianon.
Yes, Cairo is the queen of cities, massive and endlessly fascinating. But Alexandria and its inhabitants have a charm and a warmth that make it difficult to leave.
My Cairo friends had told me I would be able to see Alexandria in two to three days and expected me back quickly. To their surprise, weeks later, I was still in Alexandria and still felt it was not enough. They were disappointed and found me “provincial” for loving it more than Cairo. Yes, Cairo is the queen of cities, massive and endlessly fascinating. But Alexandria and its inhabitants have a charm and a warmth that make it difficult to leave.
Alexandria is poetry. It has the sea and its famous Corniche, which borders the Mediterranean and is crammed with fishermen, businessmen and women, girls in fuchsia hijabs, peasants renting out their brightly colored boats to tourists, and idle men smoking and catcalling foreigners and locals alike. Not to mention its impressively modern library, which I visited every morning during my stay. But most importantly, Alexandria is inhabited by the ghost of Constantine Cavafy, a Greek poet I greatly admire.
In the early to mid-1900s, Alexandria was home to many poets and writers, such as E.M. Forster, who wrote his “History and Guide,” attempting to unveil the city’s secrets and its different historical periods to the reader. But it was Cavafy who was at the center of Alexandria’s heyday. And it is thanks to Cavafy that Lawrence Durrell wrote his brilliant Alexandria Quartet, since Cavafy insisted that he write about the city.
The first place I visited in Alexandria was Cavafy’s home, which is now a museum. To my surprise, almost nobody knew where it was located or that it even existed. As Daniel Williams points out, “perhaps it’s the inevitable fate of a poet who viewed Alexandria as less of a real place than a stimulating figment of the mind.” The view Cavafy had of Alexandria is contagious and one can also sense it in Durrell’s writing: Alexandria as an imaginary city. Reading them has greatly influenced me because I often find myself thinking of Alexandria as a state of consciousness, as the stage for the many ghosts and eras that are still alive in my mind, and generally, as a dream, rather than a real place. But a real place it is, bursting with life.
Cavafy’s home is plain and quite empty, with little art, and a Spartan decoration. There remain a few books on its shelves, some of which are copies of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and E.M. Forster’s guide to the city. There are some manuscripts of Cavafy’s sensual poetry, which I photographed for my best friend, Evgueni Bezzubikoff, a Peruvian poet who also loves his work.
The caretaker of the museum, Mohammed Said, is knowledgeable and passionate about Cavafy’s life and verses. He complained to me and my friend Andre, about the fact that Cavafy’s relatives, helped by the Greek government, had taken most of the valuable books, manuscripts and even furniture back to Greece. Mohammed Said was disappointed because, as he explained, Cavafy loved Alexandria more than Greece and he believes this action by the Greeks was wrong. He was also upset that the only people who visit the museum are Greek tourists. Cavafy was gay and much of his poetry is erotic. Given the strong Salafi presence in Alexandria, it is not surprising that little to no attention is given to his life and work.
This fragmentation of the imaginary Alexandria from the real one happens in the minds of many, not only because of how much has been written about this legendary city, but also because there are coexisting and seemingly bottomless levels to Alexandria’s reality. This city is hundreds of cities in one. But it also gives the eerie impression of not really existing. Each day spent in its streets, amidst the light of its people’s eyes, the smell of fresh fish and its orange sunsets by the Stanley Bridge strengthened my conviction that, regardless of the number of visits, I may never truly know Alexandria (there are too many Alexandrias to know) because the layers of this city are as deep as the ocean. And so, one wants to always return.
You tell yourself: I’ll be gone
To some other land, some other sea,
To a city far lovelier than this
Could ever have been or hoped to be–
Where every step now tightens the noose:
A heart in a body buried and out of use:
How long, how long must I be here
Confined among these dreary purlieus
Of the common mind? Wherever I look
Black ruins of my life rise into view.
So many years have I been here
Spending and squandering, and nothing gained.
There’s no new land, my friend, no
New sea; for the city will follow you,
In the same streets you’ll wander endlessly,
The same mental suburbs slip from youth to age,
In the same house go white at last–
This city is a cage.
No other places, always this.
“The City” ~ Constantine Cavafy
When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen—your final delectation—to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.
“The God Abandons Antony” ~ Constantine Cavafy