Posts Tagged ‘Alexandria’

Last Alexandria post.

I’ve been thinking in this manner since two days ago:

Last time I will buy vegetables from Ali.

Last Mass at San Katrine.

Last time Marwan at the Basha will harass me about fitting into my suitcase to go to “Amrika.”

Last subiyya at Mekka Juices.

Last time one of the clerks will hand over a pound change for my fiver, and legerdemain it away somehow before I pick it up. Last time I’ll fall for it.

Last ride on the little tin tram.

Last time I’ll buy a newspaper from Hassan on the corner.

Last day of work.

Last Dahab.

Last walk home with Ahmed.

Last banana that Ayman will give me on my way to work.

Last coffee I’ll drink on my balcony.

Last sheesha on the Mediterranean.

Last walk on the Corniche.

Last time Abu Ahmed will act grumpy and respond “Mish dawa3” (Something like: “It’s not your business!” or “Who asked you?”) when I ask him how much eggs are today.

Last trip to the Spitfire.

Last mashru3a ride from Manshaya. Last time I’ll shout “Al-nafa5 li’gay, usta!” (Next underpass, driver!)

I had actually anticipated leaving yesterday, but I got so depressed thinking like this that I couldn’t really take it anymore: I had to have one more day in Alex. And then I was no longer depressed. Until these became the second-to-last times I would do these things.

How do you talk about memory?

This has been one of the things I’ve been running over in my mind since I’ve gotten here. In college, it’s easy, but you realize it altogether too late: the place is yours for a few years — you are the owners, the veterans — until you pass through it, move on, and the place is possessed by someone else. Is it any less yours? No: memory has rooted there, somehow.

And I’ve been wondering the same about my Alexandria. Was it ever really mine? My feet know the city, and the difference between most foreigners and me is that I came back. I returned. Of all the cities, I chose her to come back to when I needed a time to think, to write, to practice. You could have been Cairo, Amman, Adan, Marrakech; instead, you were Alexandria.

My colleagues (and occasionally I) have expressed a kind of scorn for the often overdone Egyptian sentiment of “Never forget me!” People you just meet or might have a light, passing acquaintance with will often charge you “to remember me always,” and the effect on someone who is used to change and separation is often one of severe annoyance. Our entire lives in America are accustomed to separation, to change; our schools are divided into elementary, middle, and high — graduations mark the passages and the changes and the need to move on beyond the old friends and into the new opportunities. The student that goes back to his old high school, that talks to his old teachers, that writes letters to old friends and tries to rekindle old friendships is looked on as too nostalgic, too backward thinking.

My father has often rebuked me for such things. I can understand why; attachment is a dangerous thing, and there is only so much of your soul to spread around. We can only have so many friends before we end up being a bad friend ourselves.

As for me, though, I’ve had a year to think about it, and I disagree. We do not preserve memory: memory preserves us. There is a simple wisdom in the knowledge that someone knows you, halfway around the world, and likes you for who you are, and how you laugh. There is a kind of purity in keeping the image of a love-long past, long-mourned, long done with preserved from its moments, not because you are the secret kept, but they are. Perhaps that is why the greatest commandment of Christ is to love, to forgive; because love knows and keeps the good memory of others.

I’m waxing a little bit mushy.

Is it real? Is the city real? Durrell said it was, but so many have disagreed with him, and said that what he wrote never existed. I’m not sure I ever will be able to write it “real” for the page, but memory is what makes it real to me. Leaving and returning. Remembering and forgetting. On the eve of the departure, I suppose I’m committing that unforgivable sin of sheer and utter colonialism: I’m calling it my Alexandria. I — an outsider — am saying I know her (and yes, postcolonialists, this is a her. Linguistically.) I know her secrets — the secrets even Egyptians have forgotten, that Egyptians don’t know — and declare that she is a city of secrets. I wish I had someone to pass them on to — and I wonder if I will ever meet someone who knows the same secrets I do, one day.


I’m just sad to leave her.

Good-bye, Alexandria. City of Memory.


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Just kidding

So, we’re not getting kicked out of our place.

The boys were all packed up and ready to sneak out in the dead of the night of the 30th after our previous conflict. Tom and Tammam even moved their bags down four flights of stairs so they could flee the moment the coast was clear; I was less prepared, partially out of sheer laziness, but mostly out of a lack of concern for the situation — after it took weeks to get Lauren out of her flat two years ago from the party that “almost ended it all,” I don’t think she would begrudge me a few days’ grace. T&T also went apartment shopping.

Apparently, none of these preparations were necessary; I came home from tutoring my girls and the five of us had a little chat. Lo and behold: she was dead reasonable, calm, and above all, not yelling. Tammam insists that she was a completely different person, and we have all contemplated the possibility of her having a demon inside her.


The upside to this whole unfortunate series of events (though, alhamduliLah, with a good outcome), is that the boys cleaned the flat while I was at work, hoping to lessen Faten’s criticisms in the event she came upstairs to insist that we trashed the place.

The only way this could have been any better would be if they had mopped.

Well, thank God for happy endings.


Correction 1 May 10: Apparently Tammam went Cinderella on the kitchen floor (that’s the image I get, anyhow, when he describes it as “scrubbing”) and Tom squeegeed.

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Palm Sunday, for the non-messi7in out there, is the commemoration of Christ’s entry into the city of Jerusalem and is traditionally held the week before Easter. Mass today was a little longer than usual at the crumbling cathedral church of San Katrine (Egypt’s patron saint), where I’ve taken to hearing the Latin rite in French, despite a whirling buzz of incomprehension throughout the hour of so. I usually prep the readings myself and sink into a healthy contemplation of the icons and the actual mystery.

When I say the church is crumbling, I mean it. It’s a beautiful old (or I should say, was a beautiful example) of trompe l’oeil paint — where mouldings and cornices are painted to resemble being carved — and has some pretty impressive statuary and iconography (including a giant, wall-sized oil painting of the saint behind the altar. Incidentally, it’s also the resting place of Victor Emmanuel III, the wartime king of Italy who died in exile in Alexandria during WWII.

Says E.M. Forster: “The saint is without grace in her native city,” which is also true. The cathedral, either through neglect or bad taste or both, has fallen victim to exposed lightbulbs, strings of Christmas lights, large fluorescents, and campy plastic flowers. Couple this with the terrible, terrible singing that the cantor does in abominable French (which even I can reconize), and it’s enough to frighten away most Catholics.

I come most every week out of obligation to the Sunday, but also because it’s the only daytime Mass in the city; most Catholic Masses are at night, and since I teach, this narrows things down a bit to where I can go to church. On an ordinary weekday, the place is sparsely peppered with Frenchified Egyptians — suited or decked to the nines and speaking to any and everyone in French, mainly old people, but some come with youngin’s.

Today, however, was different.

A large group gathered near the rose garden that leads up to the cathedral entrance, in the shade of a few broad oaks, and the introductory rite was read for the procession. There was a choir (kind of) of assorted nuns from all over the city (who were few and wizened, but habited in all kinds of grays and blacks and whites and browns), and they sang in French as the sacristan swayed the censer and we processed in with palm leaves and sprigs of oak and holly.

The Paternoster was said in Latin — and to a familiar tune! — which made my morning, because it’s seldom I get to sing in church these days (pretty much every week the songs are unfamiliar and the generally don’t come with sheet music). Incense and lots of candles.

We even got to ring the bells.

Bells! It was wonderful to hear them ringing as the procession went toward the altar!

As I left, palm leaves in hand, I could hear other bells. On my way to the Corniche, I walked past a group of girls with oak branches, and smiled. They smiled back. As I walked past another group clutching pussywillow branches (Armenians? Greeks?) I received a Kul sena wenta tayyib! (May you be blessed every year!). It was like a secret badge or handshake between Christians.

I felt really proud to be carrying palm leaves today.

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In the past two months, I’ve taken up a new — or I should say, renewed — occupation in my time not spent teaching or writing. What’s remarkable is that I’ve really made no mention of the fact since beginning — usually because it gets overshadowed by the crazy things my kids say, shootings in the Sa’id, or incredibly wonderful Melissas (by that I mean the one, the only) visiting for two weeks.

Ladies and gentleman, I am a paid tour guide.

Some time back, after making the offer to Paul — the assistant director of my ertswhile abroad program — I gave a tour (in Arabic!) to a group of Middlebury students and walked them around Manshaya. While this was a bizarre experience (talking to a bunch of students not much younger than me in Arabic, when we actually could communicate much better in English. The result is all kinds of awkward, mainly because, as we walked, every Egyptian in the world wanted to know why I was speaking Arabic to them, and not English).

Apparently it went over though. Paul passed my name along to a tour group that’s been calling me up ever since, looking to spice up their two-day outings into my much-beloved city.

As Rumi told me in Horriyya some time back, “Talk about creating your dream job.”

The result of my obsessive reading and Durrell-worship has been a two to three hour tour through Manshaya, a peak into the older churches, a little lecturing on theological differences between the Armenian, Greek, and Coptic Orthodox, a few mosques, the Sayyed Darwish Opera House, Cavafy’s old flat, the old synagogue (Abdl Nabi and I are really tight these days), and tons and tons of nostalgia. Imagine me walking backwards through the streets of Alex, going, “Here, in the Pharaonic period, was the site of the Canopic Way….” I carry a bag of black-and-white photographs, some old maps, and a few quotes from Cavafy.

I’m reminded of something I jotted down at the AUC Library last time I was there:

In Alexandria itself, the legend is cherished: There is not a writer searching for the poetic world of Durrell and Cavafy, a historian searching for the last traces of ancient Alexandria, nor a freshly landed diplomat who has not encountered a cicerone ready to guide him through the city he had imagined. No one knows better than an Alexandrian just what the traveller has come looking for and none but he knows how to respond. – Eglal Errera

I would like to think of myself as that Alexandrian.

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Now in living color

Brief post before I’m out the door to be flabbergasted by the French Mass in San Katrine.

Rumi turned me on to this guy via Twitter this morning. Solid gold mine of absolutely amazing photographs of beloved Iskanderiyya. From the look of things, he also seems to live somewhere near Cleopatra (judging from his pictures of the Port Said square and his relative distance to Yonany and Clay).

Link here, which has been added to the roll of honor:


Look, support, be amazed.

More later, peeps. I gots to goes.

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At Tom Rumi’s suggestion, we sought out a supposed Greek dive bar in Ibrahimiyya that he had been in once with Tom Taweel back in TAFL days; all that said Rumi could remember was that it was somewhere in between Sharia Abukir and the tramline. It didn’t take us long, but we found it.

It’s a villa. Set back from the street with Greek signs at the gates and a large striped flagpole, the front steps are painted in what an old guidebook described as “bumblebee columns” with the silhouette of a big, black, double-headed eagle above the door. Walking up to the house, you begin to doubt yourself and wonder if you’re about to walk into someone’s home, but as soon as the door is opened, you’re reassured. Tables with stained tablecloths, an eccentric assortment of cheap salt-and-pepper shakers, and a few heavyset old men contemplating their 10 LE Stellas and cigarettes. Greek posters on the bright blue walls and a gilt-edged, giant mirror. Lots of cats, which is pretty unfortunate for me, because I hate cats (allergic). That doesn’t stop the french fries and calamari from being the best in town — and better yet, the closest to Sporting by a long shot. John and I have been stopping in every now and then ever since the discovery. No Greeks as of yet, but the population is local and quiet.

Leads me to next point: on Halloween night, John and I headed down to what shall henceforth be called “al-Younani” (the Greek) with a few others, including a gentlemen named Amr. Amr is a lawyer, balding, a skinny man of an indeterminate age, but I think he’s a lot older than the people he hangs out with. He peeks out from behind thick glasses and tells rambling stories of relatively fluid narrative, though sometimes he gets his gerunds and tenses mixed up (“Do you like the cook?” instead of “Do you like the cooking?”),  switches out his letters for others (“pop the crotch,” instead of “pop the clutch”), or mistakes prepositions (“The first time I was invited in a girl”). Initially, I was quite annoyed by him: he has a habit of appearing at places at the very mention of his name — an eerie quality which would make the devil envious. Two years back, he would just follow the Manchester crowd around: appearing at the Sayed Darwish Theater some nights and just tagging along. It appears he’s taken up drinking, and quite frequently appears at the Spitfire just to make sure that he’s not missing out on anything. I think I’ve either just gotten used to him or he’s gotten considerably more tolerable, because I think I’m beginning to like his nutty stories about German marathon champions that fall in love with him and demand his affections in the middle of the Carrefour Cilantro.

Got sick, though: must have been the cats or the change of weather, but I ended up going home relatively early and spent the rest of yesterday sleeping and sniffling up a storm, sipping mint tea, and trying to make the recovery before today, when my first classes of the month start at 3 PM and end at 10 — a real marathon run compared to what I’ve been doing beforehand. So far, so good: I’m still sniffly, but I expect that’s just the weather: it was gloriously rainy and windy yesterday on the way to Anfushi (dinner) and it warranted wearing my raincoat. Sick, yes, but happy as a clam for the return of “Durrell weather” and a rain-swept Corniche.

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Some updates are in order.

A while back, I started to complain that my job at IBA wasn’t exactly paying enough; in fact, it was paying the miserly (and miserable) rate of 12 LE an hour for “lectures” — not counting out-of-class preparation time. On a good week, this amounted to about 250; totalling in about $200 a month. Needless to say, I needed a change. IBA’s been a good workshop for finding my feet in a classroom, but it’s not anything to live off of. One needs to eat, and if possible, eat well.

Heba’s contacts finally came through, and I’ve started a job with the Egyptian American Cultural Center in Rushdie; a cushy, air-conditioned joint with a garden and library of preparation materials. This past week’s been the probationary period, and I’ve been observing classes and taking it easy until 2 November, when my first classes start. They’ve got me booked for seven and a half hours a day, six days a week, at a wonderful rate that will leave me unworried for the rest of my days. This also says nothing of just being a few stops down the tramline, instead of all over God’s green creation: I won’t be booking it in a cab from Kafr Abdou to Stanley to Sidi Bishr to Azarita anymore. One place, set times. Hallelujah.

Quitting was not a fun affair, though; despite my efforts, my social graces in this linguistic area are still lacking. I end up saying, “I’m sorry, please excuse me, but I’ve got a better opportunity,” multiple times, trying to explain the benefits, but probably just coming across as a jerk in Arabic that’s greedy for more money. One of the bigger stigmas is attached to someone that is bakhiil (a word usually said with the thumb flicked from behind the front teeth, to signify that getting money from them is like pulling teeth). A person that is overly concerned with money is clearly not kariim, or generous, and I’ve found that it applies to many a situation that we would find simply as being careful.

One of the classes I’ve observed was an all-male group; most of my classes have only had a sprinkling of men in them, and they’ve always been the most disorderly of the group — they are always talking, it seems. But here, no. There was a kind of orderly chaos, and as soon as Ahmed (the teacher) said anything, there was instant silence. I sat next to a twenty-year student at the law college (his father is a judge in Kuwait, apparently), who had written a paper on Mein Kampf (extremely well-written, if the subject leaves something to be desired) and spoke nearly fluent English. He needed some correction with his grammar, but he seemed not have no trouble getting his words out, and the subject he chose to give a final presentation on was an ambitious one: love.

Mahmud seemed to be the alpha of the group; he commanded the room’s attention, and the other boys were silent when he spoke. He was very matter-of-fact presentational; he formally introduced himself (though doubtless everyone but I knew him) and addressed his subject one issue at a time, taking a moment to write it down on the white board at the front of the class. He first defined love: “a magnificent emotion that never ends, it fills you with light and happiness.”

It struck me at this point I was watching something rather unique: I’ve had a number of conversations with American women about the bizarre ideas that some Egyptian men have when it comes to dating women. I’ve speculated about Egyptian manliness, I’ve criticized. I’ve listened to men objectify their wives, sisters, and daughters, and I’ve heard the reverse — where women are almost meant to be feared (think of the terrifying matriarch). Yet here was a young man from the shabaab codifying the male side of relationships. Good golly.

He went on to explain how men should call their “lovers” all the time (he insisted on using that word, which I think is product of mistranslation), let them know how they feel, send flowers, hold hands, watch movies together, and, remarkably, feel jealous. Jealousy, he noted, was a way of expressing love — all kinds of possession were a way of showing the beloved how much you wanted her. This, combined with his advice on how to “enforce” your relationship (I think he meant reinforce), raised my eyebrows somewhat.

There were points when the other boys objected. Mahmud had the audacity to suggest that hugs were a good way of showing love. There was an uproar: “Not in this country!” one boy shouted. Instant objections were raised: what was he saying? How was this advice? You couldn’t hug a girl you weren’t married to in Egypt! He conceded and went on to advice on breakups, which made me snicker: “Cry as much as you can. Feel the pain.” More objections: How does crying solve anything? It won’t bring her back!

These objections and concessions led me to eventually think that this was a somewhat representative projection of male values. The rest of the class did object to the things they though didn’t quite pass muster. But as a student of medieval literature, the values expressed in the classroom a few days ago echoed to me of the melancholy lover of Petrarch’s era: with letters and lovesongs replacing sonnets and distant glances. I wonder if this is a result of a religious society? Perhaps not.

I know it’s Orientalist of me to say so, but some days I really do feel like I’ve stepped back into the 1950s at least. I’m not saying it’s backward, just that it echoes of something familiar and past.

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