Posts Tagged ‘nostalgia’

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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I don’t really get angry. I get irritated, I get peeved. But anger — no. It’s just not my style. I pride myself on my sense of patience. My endurance of uncomfortable situation. My grace, if you will. This is not bragging, this is fact. I fail, naturally, on occasion, but Hemingway’s “grace under pressure” is a condition I’ve aspired to since reading The Sun Also Rises for the first time senior year of high school.

Alas, the past evening has tested and tried and broken that resolve, if ever briefly.

One never really knows how dependent one is on the Internet (capital I) until it goes. Ours has been patchy for the past week, and wouldn’t you know it? It’s been patchy at night, usually when I’m trying to call Melissa back home or discuss something with my bank or mutual funds or the loan collection agency that’s been sending me e-mails for the past month. It’s usually something important. And then it cuts. And gets back on. And cuts. And no matter how many times I call the guy, there is always something. A list of the most recent excuses:

– The elevator in the building the router is in isn’t working.

– It’s the weather.

– Someone has stolen your wireless. (By this, he literally meant that someone had hacked into our account, stolen our IP addresses, and booted us out. Pal-ease.)

– There are really bad winds today.

– Unplug the router and reconnect it (this is his answer for everything. If I tell him I’ve done this thirty-five times already, he insists that the 36th time will do it.

To be honest, I heard all of these excuses (in succession) last night, until said Muhammad said, “It’s working! I see it here! The problem is with your old computer, Michael.”

Response: None of us has Internet, Muhammad. (Translation: don’t blame my f-ing computer, bitch.)

I have a problem.

Despite my electronic impotence in the matter, I think I stared at my screen for a solid hour and fiddled with the router trying (in vain) to fix things. I watched an old episode of NCIS, looked over an old journal, set up the translation of a quatrain, and read an H.P. Lovecraft Story (I short one, I confess: “The History of the Necronomicon”). Still nothing. I stared for hours, and when Melissa called my cell phone and asked me what was up, I continued my distracted fiddling.

I woke up this morning and more of the same.

I don’t exist until I hit GoogleReader. It’s pretty terrible. It’s my window to the world, and ever since I hooked my regular sites up to it, I’ve been reading more and more online. Within a month I’ve become an information addict, and keeping a blog doesn’t help.


I used to think that bloggers were pretty arrogant for assuming that they have a particular insight into the way the world works. After all, who the hell am I? Mike Mewshaw imparted some interesting wisdom on to me once upon a time: if you don’t write it, who will? How many people are in your position, after all? Most people are pretty ordinary and the only way they’re going to “experience” anything is through writing. Isn’t that what you’ve done? Write for yourself. That’s what that means.


On the surface, that seems pretty arrogant, I suppose, but it’s not to be dismissed. Sure, people can access the information without you — after all, this isn’t Iran, and you’re not coordinating protest movements through the streets of Tehran via Twitter — but for many people, you are their own window on the world. You’re positioned in a way that most people in your own community are not.

I get the impression that Ibn Battuta would have used Twitter and kept the Rihla in blog-form if he had the resources. Isn’t it interesting to make the parallel?

The hardest thing about blogging, I think, is writing about it. You can blog, sure, that’s no problem. But media is changing, the way people interact is changing. Photography changed the way that artists looked at the world; it no longer was about creating a realistic impression, art was no longer about accurately reflecting the world. It was about the artist’s perception, the act of creation. In the same way, with the Internet, with so much accessible to the world, the way we write, the way we view literature has to change. No longer is literature literature for the educated few, but for the masses. Books can be accessed in an instant. In my opinion, books, literature, novels, whatever, have two distinct paths that they can go down (shut up, Michael):

1. “Democratization”: This is the route that e-Books seem to be leading us to. Cell phones with books. A book at all time. You carry around all your photos on your iPhone, why not your favorite poetry, your favorite book? Think about what happened to music when you no longer needed CDs: it became cheap. I think about high school when I used to buy one CD: that would last me months. I would listen to each song and memorize practically everything before buying another CD — CDs were expensive, and I was on a limited budget. Nowadays, I’ve got music in my library I didn’t even know was there, because everything is bought in extremely cheap bulk (www.mp3fiesta.com) or is acquired from swaps, burns, or pirates.

Who listens to the radio anymore (aside from our parents)? New music is acquired through Pandora and other websites dedicated to the “customization” of your tastes. You need never listen to pop again. In fact, things like Pandora make me wonder if “pop” is actually a relevant category anymore.

Kindle, iPad, the Sony thingamareader (whatever), these are hailed as the “future of reading,” but I’m not sure. The Internet is. The Internet is free, and people will always read what is free and popular and spread easily and quickly by their friends. Literature’s future is on the Internet, only no one can figure out how in holy hell to make money out of it.

The problem with the freedom and accessibility of all that information is that it changes the way we view literature and the written word. Ours is a generation of multitaskers, chatting in one window, talking with a friend via Skype, writing an e-mail. There is no focus, no calm, for the traditional novel in this context. So writing must change from the fluidity of the longer narrative to the shorter, more succinct spitfire prose of online articles. Part of the reason why Dan Brown’s fiction is so successful is its readability — the short chapters make it easier to pick up and trek through and pause for a rest when we’ve had to much prose, too fast. It’s a result of information obesity: we need to stop for a breather on long narrative runs.

As a consequence, this kind of prose also appeals to the lower spectrum of the literary field. Some time back, Lev Grossman wrote a pretty terrible article for the WSJ on the “death of the literary novel.” It’s really bad. Grossman argued that plot had over taken “style” and “difficulty” as the priority in contemporary fiction, basically pushing forward thrill-fueled rides like The Da Vinci Code and romantic entanglements as Twilight as the “new literature” of the latter half of the twentieth century. People didn’t want beauty, they want interest. They don’t want difficulty in reading, either.

In large part, I can see Grossman’s point. It’s hard to imagine a world where it was easy to read “The Waste Land,” or pick up Joyce’s Ulysses for fun. It’s hard to imagine why they were successful when they remain closed or incomprehensible texts to so many. The Internet is the Great Democratizer. It levels the playing field, and while it makes all things accessible, it also makes clear that some things people just don’t want to access. If something doesn’t appeal to you, it’s not labeled as “boring,” but “bad.” The difference is pretty clear between the two. As a consequence, if the future of the novel is one based on plot, and not beauty, are we to see the decline of literature in the future?

That was a long tangent.

My point: how do you write about blogging in a literary fashion? I think the nature of the novel has to change drastically in the next fifty years and adapt to changing attitudes about the written word. People don’t read blogs for beauty; they read blogs for content. How will the next generation of writers adapt to the changes and incorporate new media into literature? If Hemingway had written about blogging the Spanish Civil War and Lt. Henry tweeting updates to Catherine Barkley, A Farewell to Arms might be a different story. High school reunions have become irrelevant; Facebook allows us to follow our entire high school/college class up until the point they die, really. Our ideas about writing and human relationships (the core subject, if not the foundation of literature) have changed so drastically in the past ten years with the advent of social networking and public-blogging that it is difficult to imagine the first novel that will incorporate those elements into its infrastructure with grace, poise, and sensibility.

2. “Decadence”: This post has actually gone on a little longer than I would like. But I can’t end this post with at least nodding to the other possibility: informational “decadence.” Analogize it to the music industry: when an indie band signs with a major record label, they are instantly shunned by the indie community (perhaps not the die-hards, but you understand). In the same manner, with the complete democratization of literature — a book on every phone, etc. — literature will cease to be about the words and will become confused with the objects. Books will become more and more valued as material objects, and literature pretension will reach heights never before imagined: “You read Shakespeare for class on your Kindle? Well, I read him out of a 2002 reprinting of the Oxford text on simulated vellum paper with gold edges in red morocco leather. Can you imagine? Reading Shakespeare bound in leather is the only way to read him, I think.” Those people that claim that Coltrane is better on vinyl (he is) — imagine that, times ten, with books. “True” enthusiasts don’t dip to the level of ebooks; they read real books. If the world suddenly turns paperless, the act of reading won’t matter — nor even the text — but rather the fact that the connoisseur is reading an actual, physical book.

Speaking of books, it’s time to get back to writing mine.

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Lots of links on this post. I’ve also decided that, hitherto, most of my posts have been media-less. Henceforth, let the pictures commence.

A subject which I have neglected somewhat (though it is never quite far from my mind) is The Alexandria Quartet. As anyone who has spoken to me for five minutes in Egypt will tell you, I am an avid fan; I’d go even to the point of calling it the “lost” work of modernist English literature (move aside, Henry Miller).

To this end, I’ve built an entirely new addition to the site, and hopefully will be adding different links as work progresses on various Durrell-themed pursuits: I’m working on a map of the city with old place names, more pictures, and a quote-themed roadmap. I’ll also try putting up more of LD’s contemporaries (Cavafy, Forster) as things pile up and connect everyone to other wartime writings. Be sure to check regularly, as this hobby borderlines on obsession, and I’m sure to have more up within the week (courtesy here of eid).

I spent the afternoon wandering around a crowded Manshaya and Mahattat ar-Ramleh, snapping pictures and trying to echo some photographs I found on the very helpful Facebook group, The Memory of Modern Egypt, which also has links at the Library (sorry, Arabic). So far, I’ve uploaded a number of photos from the 1940’s (courtesy of the Bibliotheca) and a few companion pieces from my own adventures today to show you how the city’s changed since LD’s day.

Eid mubarak, everyone, and thank God for the return of post-Ramadan normality!

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