The Essence of Alexandria (Part Two)

Khaled Fahmy

Note from the Editors: We are proud to present you here the second half of the essay of the same name, which appeared in the January 2012 issue of Manifesta Journal #14.


A Cosmopolitan City?

Recently published critical studies have highlighted the serious fault lines in the discourse on Alexandria’s cosmopolitanism. Robert Mabro, for example, has closely studied the different Egyptian censuses from the late 1840s to the 1960s, in order to come up with a precise composition of Alexandrian society in its cosmopolitan age. Finding that even though the foreign community in Alexandria was sometimes very large, he stresses that it never exceeded a quarter of the population, and that “the Egyptian population constituted a significant majority, with a ratio of at least three Egyptians to one foreigner.”1 He raises considerable doubt about the degree to which Alexandrian society was truly open and cosmopolitan:

Alexandria was a fragmented society, and not only along the Egyptian/foreigner boundary. The foreigners did not form a homogenous group. Those who had a clear national identity held to it: it was the hard core of their inner being. Those who generated the Alexandrian cosmopolitan identity mixed together in cultural events and could talk to each other about certain intellectual issues. But the Shawam* remained Shawam, the Italians remained Italians, and the Jews remained Jews… [Furthermore, the] ambiguity of social life in cosmopolitan Alexandria lay in the coexistence of openness in economic life and [at the same time] closed boundaries elsewhere… Hence the need to tread cautiously, and the impression that social life was a lazy, pleasant but careful dance. The impression was created—and people came to believe—that ‘we are happy together’. [… But] the golden rule was never to talk seriously about the things that mattered most: differences in values, or in religious or political perspectives.2

In addition, Mabro’s critical work on what he calls nostalgic literature on Alexandria stressed, among other things, the curious absence of Shawām, i.e. Muslim and Greek orthodox Levantines, from this literature of nostalgia,3 (after all they speak Arabic, and were therefore “Arabs”). The degree to which ideas and intellectual trends were exchanged and/or created in cosmopolitan Alexandria is something that Sami Zubaida also doubted in his rightly celebrated essay on Middle Eastern cosmopolitanism, where he remarks that the “cultural mix and excitement [of Cairo in the 1920s and 1930s] was cosmopolitan in a much more profound sense than the celebrated European- Levantine milieu of Alexandria.”4
In an earlier study and in a similar attempt to revisit the notion of Alexandrian cosmopolitanism, I pointed out the necessarily elitist and exclusionary components assumed in that discourse. Using police records of the city, a source hitherto rarely used, I attempted to draw a picture of quotidian life in late nineteenth century Alexandria, and argued that the impressive details of daily life that this archival source provides can go a long way towards providing a historically accurate account of what it meant to live in such a multilingual, multicultural milieu.5
One of the most original contributions to the critique of the discourse of cosmopolitan Alexandria is that which Halim provides in her study, “The Alexandria Archive”.6 In response to Forster’s categorical claims about the spiritual decline during the thousand year-long “Arab period” Halim takes stock of two theological areas that had been overlooked by Forster, namely, Islam’s encounter with Classical and Hellenistic philosophy, especially Neo-Platonism and Sufism. She argues that Alexandrian Neo-Platonism was something that Muslim philosophers were eager to engage with and that this engagement partly took place by translators, commentators and philosophers who had either lived in Alexandria or who had been educated there. “Forster’s categorical statements on the subject,” she remarks, “indicate that he was unaware of, and did not pause to investigate, the possibility of an Alexandria-to-Baghdad intellectual transference and assimilation.”7 With respect to Sufism, Halim similarly argues that Forster was oblivious of the significant Alexandrian contribution to medieval Islamic mysticism.

An Olfactory Tale of an “Arab” City

In what follows, I would like to attempt to capture the smells of the lost Arab Alexandria and raise the possibility that these smells may be a sign both of a more inclusive Alexandrian cosmopolitanism than that which we are now familiar with and also of that which is usually left out from the idyllic picture of the city. If by sniffing around the discourse of cosmopolitan Alexandria one is able to detect both the limitations of this discourse and its questionable politics (especially given its undertones of Eurocentrism and its celebration of the Hellenism of the city as the only source of its vitality and creativity), is it possible for the olfactory sense to provide us with other maps? Are they different itineraries, perhaps, to the Alexandria that has been erased by this discourse; ones of an Alexandria in which another cosmopolitanism might be detected, one less tainted by Eurocentrism?

The Smell of Gunpowder

One of the smells that may have struck one’s nose during a key moment in the history of the modern city is that of gunpowder and smoke. On July 11, 1882, the British fleet started pounding Alexandria. Not only was the port under attack, but also the downtown area, and specifically, the Place des Consuls, which was the showpiece of the modern city that was meant to exhibit the multiethnic nature of the city. Fires broke out everywhere, and in spite of Forster’s insistence that it was mostly looting that led to the destruction of the city’s main square and the surrounding areas,8 there is little doubt that the smoke bellowing out of the city that day was the result of ten hours of bombardment by the British Mediterranean fleet under the command of Sir Frederick Beauchamp Paget Seymour.9
The bombardment of Alexandria by the British fleet and the subsequent landing of British troops a couple of months later led to a seventy-year long occupation during which Egypt was firmly incorporated in the British Empire (although never as an official British colony). The smell of smoke that day is a poignant reminder of the colonial context of the much- celebrated Alexandrian cosmopolitanism, and of the oblique complicity with that colonial context by many of cosmopolitanism’s key figures (most notably Forster and Durrell).10
The smell of smoke hovered over Alexandria during another crucial moment of Egypt’s history. This time it was in 1954, during a hot July, and was specifically before the 6:30 p.m. screening of Cinema Rio when pedestrians in Shāri‘ Fu’ād saw a young European-looking man running out of the movie theatre in fire-laden clothes. The man was Philip Natanson, who as it turned out was part of a Jewish Egyptian espionage network that the Israeli intelligence had formed three years earlier with the intention of launching a sabotage campaign (what would currently be called terrorism if conducted by Muslims or Arabs, as Beinin rightly points out). The campaign, called “Operation Susannah”, aimed to attack several targets in Cairo and Alexandria—the main Alexandria post office, the Cairo train station, the United States Information Service library in Cairo, and several movie theatres in Cairo and Alexandria. The intention was to show Egypt to be an unstable, radical country and to thereby convince the British, who had been engaged with the new revolutionary regime in Egypt, not to withdraw their troops from the Suez Canal region. The campaign failed miserably, however, and Natanson’s attempt to blow up Cinema Rio ended in disaster (both for him and for his fellow terrorists) when the explosive device he had planned to leave in the Cinema caught fire in his pocket.11 Again, the smell of smoke reminds us of the imperial context that shaped life in modern Alexandria, a context that is presently missing from much of the scholarship on the city’s tradition of cosmopolitanism.

The Smell of a Quotidian Cosmopolitanism

In contrast to the highly sanitized way in which the materiality of the city is marginalized in the discourse of cosmopolitan Alexandria, Edwar al-Kharrat’s texts embraces and celebrates this materiality in refreshing ways. The Alexandria that comes across in the texts of this Egyptian novelist, translator and literary critic, furthermore, is a city whose cosmopolitanism has a place for the Arab, the Muslim and the Egyptian components that have hitherto been denied recognition in the “Alexandria that we have lost”.
In his Alexandrian texts (Rama and the Dragon and his autobiographical novels The Way of the Eagle, City of Saffron and Girls of Alexandria) al-Kharrat does not provide a coherent guide to the city of his childhood and youth. Given al-Kharrat’s “morbid flinching from nostalgia’s indiscretions”,12 the smells in his œuvre are never employed in a Proustian manner to refer to the essence of a lost city. Instead, they constantly draw our attention to streets, pavements, and alleyways of the material city. In contrast, to Durrell’s oft-quoted scene which ends with the famous words, “Alexandria: The Capital of Memory,” and which is followed by a section where we retrace the footsteps of the protagonist down the narrow streets that are “soft now of rain but not wet”, and that were lined with brothels whose prostitutes “like the true inhabitants of Alexandria, were offering the deep forgetfulness of parturition”, passing through his room where he “listen[ed] to the heavy tone of [Justine’s] scent,” and ending in his desperate attempt to remember the name of Justine’s perfume,13 al-Kharrat’s mix of smells, memories and loss ring less judgmental, more generous. Indeed:

I boarded the Mex tram, the one open on both sides. The agony of love, of jealousy, of humiliation gnawed at me. It had the pungent, putrid smell of the tanneries that was suffocating me. I was not sure she would come. By now I was almost sure she would not come. I stood under the old grey stone wall of the fort, not knowing precisely what was happening to me. The wall rose high to my left, buttressing against an always imminent collapse. It was almost as though I could not see the vendors and fishermen squatting behind baskets and hampers laden with sardines and mullet and blue-fish and prawns and crabs. I threaded my way, careful not to step on the meager bodies of discarded fish, flattened, bloody protrusions marking the heads and bellies.

Everything seemed hostile and yet very intimate…

The scent of the sea and of fresh raw fish permeated the slightly muddy alleys. The puddles of rainwater from yesterday’s storm still sparkled and skidded with the impact of salt-licked gusts of wind, and settled on the basalt pavements.14

What is remarkable about this and other passages in al-Kharrat’s texts is the manner in which the odors of the city, even if they are putrid and suffocating, even if they are of discarded fish and puddles of rainwater, conjure a celebration of the city, rather than a feeling of disgust, amazement or disillusionment. In fact, his constant references to smells express not only a celebration of the city and its exuberant vibrancy but a joyful embrace of life itself, and a childlike wonder at its mysteries and secrets.
The smells wafting out of al-Kharrat’s Alexandria are full of life and fertility, evocative of pleasure and desire, suggestive of dampness and the sea. In contrast to the smells encountered by Keeley which were “cut only sporadically by a pinch of sea-salt, [and which were] of a refuse not ripe enough to pass for garbage and a urine a bit too spotty for official concern,”15 in City of Saffron16 al-Kharrat constantly refers to “the breeze warm and cool by turns on my face, bringing the salt smell of the sea” (42); to the “damp smell from the salt-marsh [and how it] still comes from over the railway-line wall” (15); to the “smell of charcoal and flotsam, faint and slightly dry [coming] from the direction of the harbor, borne by the moisture of the air.” (24) And in contrast to Haag, who describes Alexandria on the eve of Durrell’s second visit as “spiritless, its harbor a mere cemetery” and whose “palatial villas overgrown with bougainvillaea…, abandoned or confiscated or left to rot by their impoverished owner, their rusting gates opening into wild and unkempt gardens,” al-Kharrat describes houses that were “like palaces, their iron fences overhung with the thick branches of trees. The penetrating scent of native Jessamine, and the smell of moist earth, wafted to me.” (20)

Above all, it is the scenes and smells of communal life and of an inter-ethnic mix that is most remarkable in al-Kharrat’s œuvre. In City of Saffron he describes how his Coptic mother and her Muslim neighbor, Sitt Wahiba, shared the task of washing the stairs of the building they shared:

On the day when the stairs were washed my mother filled the pail at the bathroom tap, carried it out to the landing and poured it out. The water cascaded down the steps, making a magnificent slapping, echoing noise. Then she squatted on her haunches and wiped each stair with a piece of sacking, step by step, until she reached Sitt Wahiba’s door. The latter would be waiting: ‘Watch out of me, Sitt Umm Mikhail!’ she would laugh.
‘Steady on a bit—may no evil eye of mine harm you!’ And she would bend down and lift the hem of her house-galabiya to reveal her plump dark thighs, looking at me bashfully as she did so— which I found strange—and finish wiping down to the bottom step. (8)

Difference in religion did not prevent neighbors from getting together and helping each other out in their time of need. When Hosniya, their neighbor, heard the horses’s hooves coming along the white graveled road, and when she realized that the police were on their way to arrest her as a result of Sitt Wahiba reporting on her and on her flat to which cab- drivers and others had been seen going night after night, the smell of hashish lingering in the stairwell until morning, she could turn to no one but to Uncle Qaldas, the narrator’s father. ‘The police, Uncle Qaldas, they’re coming’, she implored.

I beg you, Sidi, help me, please help me—may God spare a woman of your house such shame—hide me in your house, I beg you on your honor—I kiss your feet.’ I heard my father’s voice, husky from sleep. He sounded very gentle and kind, with his Sa‘idi accent that he had retained all his life: ‘In the name of the father, the Son and the Holy Ghost! Come in, my girl, come in! [...] Our Lord has commanded the protection of women from shame. May he so protect the women of this house.’ (10–11)

This tolerance and amicable co-existence that al-Kharrat describes in the city of his youth were not restricted to relations between Egyptian Copts and Muslims, but included relations between Egyptians and foreigners. In City of Saffron, al-Kharrat relates many episodes in which foreigners and Egyptians interacted amicably in Alexandria and the few European characters that are introduced in the novel appear in very positive light. Even Allied soldiers who found themselves in the city during WWII are not criticized by the narrator for their drunken, rowdy behavior; rather, he sympathizes with their ordeal describing their orgies as being the result of “despair, defeat and death.” (25)
What we see in al-Kharrat’s texts are signs of a different cosmopolitanism, one which is not confined to members of the elite, or to Western- educated classes. Rather, his is a more quotidian cosmopolitanism that is inspired by local, popular practices of tolerance and openness to others. In this open tolerant city, religious feasts become occasions for communal celebration and mutual exchange of pastries among neighbors and friends across the religious divide. Al-Kharrat describes in some detail the preparations that his narrator’s mother undertook for the feast of the Archangel Mikhail and the rituals associated with it. These started with the purchase of special oil from the neighboring oil press: where he “was overwhelmed by the sticky penetrating smell of pressed oil with its slightly sweet, sugary overtones.” (17) Then there is a lengthy description of the rituals associated with his mother’s preparation of the pastries for the feast:

At the first glimpse of morning the pastry rounds came out hot from the oven, crackling, round and spreading slightly. Their surfaces were cracked and golden brown, shining with sesame oil. They had words printed on them in Coptic, and foliate Coptic cross. Every year my mother arranged the pastries [… and] sent some of these pastries, on big, flat white-china plates decorated with blue flowers, to all her neighbors and beloved women friends—Umm Mahmud and Umm Hasan and Umm Toto, and my maternal uncle Hanna and my maternal aunt Labiba. The Muslims among her neighbors and bosom-friends would return the compliment at Ashura with special Ashura dishes; and at Ramadan, they sent round jugs of khushaf. We exchanged plates of ka‘k and biscuits and ghurrayiba and crisp milk crackers, at the feasts of Easter and Adha and Christmas and Fitr: plates covered with ironed tea-towels, checked or white. (86–87)

Throughout al-Kharrat’s œuvre, we witness—and smell—a cosmopolitanism that is more inclusive
and more tolerant than that of an elite, Westernized class which has been celebrated by scholars of cosmopolitan Alexandria. Throughout there is the extended invitation to experience another Alexandria, an Alexandria

… which is a smooth boulder in the [heart of the deluge], where the valley slides slope down, green with lily-of-the-valley and elderflower; where the land is saffron, fertile and living; and where on high a black dove flutters, its wings spread out to infinity, beating in my heart for ever. (106)

  • 1. Robert Mabro, “Alexandria 1860–1960: The Cosmopolitan Identity,” in Alexandria: Real and Imagined, ed. Anthony Hirst and Michael Silk (London: Ashgate, 2004), 247–262; quotation from 247–248. * Note from the Editors: “Shawam” is Arabic for Levantines (Syrians, Lebanese and Palestinians).
  • 2. Robert Mabro, “Alexandria 1860–1960”, 260–261.
  • 3. Robert Mabro, “Nostalgic Literature on Alexandria,” in Historians in Cairo: Essays in Honor of George Scanlon, ed. Jill Edwards (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2002), 237–265.
  • 4. Sami Zubaida, “Cosmopolitanism and the Middle East,” in Cosmopolitanism, Identity and Authenticity in the Middle East, ed. Roel Meijer (Richmond: Curzon, 1999), 27.
  • 5. Khaled Fahmy, “For Cavafy, With Love and Squalor: Some critical notes on the history and historiography of modern Alexandria,” in Alexandria, Real and Imagined, ed. Anthony Hirst and Michael Silk (London: Ashgate, 2004), 263–280; and “Towards a Social History of Modern Alexandria,” in ibid., 281–306.
  • 6. Hala Youssef Halim Youssef, “The Alexandria Archive: An Archaeology of Alexandrian Cosmopolitanism”, PhD Diss. (Los Angeles: University of California, 2004).
  • 7. Halim, “The Alexandria Archive” ibid., 163.
  • 8. Forster, Alexandria: A History and a Guide, 101–103; quoted in Halim, “The Alexandria Archive”, 179; This opinion is shared by Michael Haag, Alexandria: City of Memory (Cairo: The American University of Cairo Press, 2004), 10.
  • 9. On the bombardment, see R. Robinson and J. Gallagher, Africa and the Victorians: The Climax of Imperialism in the Dark Continent (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1961), 110–113, and C.L. Seymour, “The Bombardment of Alexandria: A Note”, The English Historical Review, Vol. 87, No. 345 (Oct., 1972), 790–794.
  • 10. See Halim, “The Alexandria Archive”, chapters two and three.
  • 11. Khaled, “The big street”, 22. Natanson was eventually caught, tried and received a fifteen-year prison sentence; for an account of “Operation Susannah, a.k.a. Lavon Affair”, see Joel Beinin, The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry: Culture, Politics, and the Formation of a Modern Diaspora (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2005), 19–20, 110–116.
  • 12. Edwar al-Kharrat, “My City, Sacred and Untamed”, trans. Hala Halim, in Alexandria, 1860–1960, 179.
  • 13. Durrell, Justine, Alexandria Quartet, 152–155.
  • 14. al-Kharrat, “My City, Sacred and Untamed”, 185–186.
  • 15. Keeley, Cavafy’s Alexandria, 4.
  • 16. Edwar al-Kharrat, City of Saffron, trans. Frances Liardet (London: Quartet Books, 1989).