Thursday, February 26, 2009

On Alexandria: Capital of Memory...Land of Saffron

What is it in Alexandria that grasps the soul and the imagination? What is it about this city that triggers so much passion and emotions? Is it the scent of its glorious past? Its cosmopolitan history etched in its buildings and streets? The whisper of its sea? The warmth of its cafés?

"Capital of Memory"..."City of the Soul"... “Land of Saffron”... these are some of the words with which Alexandria has been described by some of its native sons and by some of those who have lived in it for short periods of time, only to have the memory of their stay in this ancient city deeply carved in their minds.

It is interesting to compare and contrast how Alexandria was seen and perceived by two different authors and how both expressed their distinct thoughts, feelings and impressions on this city in their literary works. Lawrence Durell (1912-1990) and Edward Al-Kharrat (1926- ) are two prominent literary figures who were deeply touched by Alexandria. For both of them, this city was the main setting and central character for some of their major works of fiction. However, Alexandria signified very different things to each of them.

Durell spent 4 years in Alexandria during WWII. That stay inspired his foremost literary achievement and magnum opus, The Alexandria Quartet, first published in 1957 with Justin, which was soon followed by Balthazar, Mountolive, and Clea, the last to appear in early 1960. The first three novels are three versions of the same story set in Alexandria on the eve of World War II, and the fourth is a look back at events of the first three. Durell was more infatuated with Alexandria’s “Hellenic” past , the roots of Western civilization, more than he was with the Alexandria he saw with his eye and which he described as “ a big sordid city haunted by its past”. Thus in the Alexandria Quartet he evokes the city’s wonderful past , describing it as: “Alexandria, princess and whore. The royal city and the anus mundi.” Alexandria: “the Capital of Memory.” Moreover, Durrell focused in his novel on the city’s cosmopolitan upper class community and the many foreigners that crowded wartime Alexandria but largely left out Egyptians and their culture and society, only depicting them in a mystical and exotic form. For this reason Edward Said saw the Alexandria Quartet as an Orientalist text in that it portrays a mystical Muslim/Arab world that exists primarily in the Western mind.

On the other hand, Edward Al-Kharrat, an Egyptian novelist born in Alexandria to a Coptic Christian family, depicts his native city in a much more poetic and intimate manner, labeling it “City of Saffron” (“Turabuha Za’faran”) the title of one of his three novels on Alexandria, the other two being Girls of Alexandria (“Banat Iskendereya”) and My Alexandria (“Isanderiyati”) which were largely semi-autobiographic al novels. Al-Kharrat was active in the Egyptian national movement and was imprisoned for two years in 1948 for his nationalist and revolutionary activities. He was deeply influenced by the Arab literary heritage such as The Thousand and One Nights and other classical texts, and by Coptic and Christian readings as well as by Russian novelsists and English Romantic poets. All these influences combined to produce Al-Kharrat’s unique poetic language that was rich with symbols, metaphors and myth. And it is with this language that he described his beloved Alexandria, a city which he saw, unlike Durrell, in it’s entirety: in its ancient past and modern present, in its diverse cultural heritage, in its richness and beauty, in its Egyptian heart and soul as well as in the multitude of its diverse ethnic and faith communities. I leave you with some of his beautiful words on his Alexandria…Land of Saffron:
إسكندريتي...مدينتي التي أعرفها و أصونها في عمق قلبي، و أعشقها حتى التدله، و التي ترابها زعفران، حلم و تراث عميق و ساحة حب، و الكد، و مساءلة للمجهول وفي وقت معا. الأسكندرية شط يقع على حافة بحر الأبد، حافة المطلق. الأسكندرية هي هذا المحيط السحري اليانع النضرة على حافة كون ملحي شاسع بل غير محدود. الأسكندرية عالم ساطع و نقي و نظيف و حي، متقلب بروائح خصوبة جديدة دائمة التجدد، و لكنه هش- - يقع على حرف هوة لا قرار لها، متلاطمة، خادعة في لحظات هدوئها ، فيها سحر جذاب لا يقاوم، و جمال لا يمكن أبدا الإحاطة به و الانتهاء من تملي مفاتنه، قوية الأذرع ممدودة الي تدعوني دعاء لا أكاد أعرف كيف أصده، دعاء في الاستجابة له وقوع القضاء الذي لا مرد منه على هذه الحافة الهشة القلقة. بين الحياة و العدم ، بيتي و وطني. إسكندريتي هي الست وهيبة و حسنية و تلميذات مدرسة نبوية موسى و حسين افندي مراقب الكبري بين غيط العنب و راغب باشا و فتاة باب الكراستة التي أنقذتني من الشرطة العسكرية، و المعلم عوض صاحب سيرجة الزيت. إسكندرية رفلة أفندي و أخوالي ناتان و يونان و سوريال، أسكندرية شارع 12 و وابور الدقيق و أصطبل عربات الحنطور جنب ترعة المحمودية، أسكندرية أصدقائي من جابر إلى المردني، و البنات اللتي أحببتهن: مصريات و شاميات و يونانيات ، كلهن من بنات أسكندرية حقا و لسن أجنبيات أو غربيات أو غرائبيات. أسكندرية الريس نونو و بيوت الفراهدة وعمال مخازن من عم على و الأسطى مرسي النجار إلى أبو شنب العجوز و حميدو شورتي. و أسنكندرية سيدى المرسي أبو العباس و الكنيسة المرقسية، لها أبعادها الأسطورية حقا و لكن لها صخرها الواقعي و تراب أرضها في أن معا.