What was Alexandria? The gem of the ancient world; the Hellenic ideal of scholarship; birthplace of Neo Platonism; home of the scribes of the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament; scene of Cleopatra’s demise. Gobbledygook, in other words, to most young westerners.
Alexandria Stories: A Year Among the Apricots
Ah! The misery of harbors and the names they conjure when you are going nowhere. (Justine)
What was Alexandria? The gem of the ancient world; the Hellenic ideal of scholarship; birthplace of Neo Platonism; home of the scribes of the Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament; scene of Cleopatra’s demise. Gobbledygook, in other words, to most young westerners. In many ways the city’s fame had been all but lost to the modern world; those things for which it had earned its name had diminished in importance and become obscure, as the world kept turning and producing great new things—new religions, new science, sliced bread, the Internet. Maybe a city was only as great as the last great thing it did. In Alexandria greatness was looking dusty. The lighthouse was believed to be buried under several foot of mud on the sea bottom, somewhere off Quait Bey fort. The library had long ago been burned to the ground—Europeans had traditionally claimed it was the invading Arabs, but there are two sides to everything, and lately polite academic opinion pointed the finger at the Romans. Indeed, the golden days of the Ptolmies had fossilized the city to some extent, casting it forever as a Shakespeare tragedy—from which it is always difficult to recover—freezing the city in time and rendering all that came afterwards nothing more than a stale after thought, the death throes of a city past its prime, abandoned by its gods, its poets fled, its warriors dead. Istanbul—the Sublime Porte—had taken the mantle in the region for a while, and then Venice of course, with it traders and Doges and painters. Then, only after centuries of sleep, sometime in the early twentieth century, like the Rough Beast that stirred in the desert at Giza, the city had breathed again, haltingly, shallowly, not to achieve its full former glory, this time, but just enough to rekindle some of its ancient cosmopolitanism, after European romantics and misfits began to seek solace there and feed off what was left of its Hellenic genius as imperialist newcomers, harboring dreams of the isles of Greece and longings for a mythic home in which to rest.
“Alexandria was the winepress of love,” said Lawrence Durrell, one of these romantics. “Those who emerged were the sick men, the solitaries and the prophets.” As if those twentieth century residents, those exiled malcontents, had found something bitter-sweet in a city that had died two thousand years ago but was limping on, nonetheless, its boulevards and alleyways cheap and foolish on the ruins of the heavyweight civilization they covered. The exoticism of it was part of the appeal. Its position, teetering at the edge of the African continent, its gateway status and its blend of Europe and Africa providing fertile soil for art and poetry, loneliness and solipsism. Real Alexandrians, on the other hand, like Cavafy, did not need to escape, not because this was where it was at, but because they knew it was never really about place—it was about the self, and a perpetual longing that is unquenchable, which physical movement could never satisfy, only ever express. Cavafy seemed to understand that wandering was pointless to some extent, so he never left the city in which he was born, but journeyed through books and churned out poetry from and about this: “This city will always pursue you/You will walk the same streets, grow old in the same neighborhoods, will turn gray in these same houses. You will always end up in this city. Don’t hope for things elsewhere.”
There was something melancholic about the city, I found. Whether it is really possible to perceive something cleanly, on its own terms, I don’t know. It is possible that my view was so completely clouded by preconception that it would have been impossible to form a different impression. But its melancholy grew on me as I spent time there, only partly because of my own experience—which was that of a young foreigner residing temporarily in a harbor looking across the ocean and obsessing about crossing it. The modern city had little of the ancient. But it also had little of the tolerance and openness for which it was famous in the early part of the twentieth century. Then again maybe this reputation had its origins among a small group of foreign writers, and maybe they, with their Greek obsessions, had chosen the city as their haven, much to the sleepy indifference of their hosts. Around them the city was becoming part of the modern Middle East, more specifically, a part of modern Egypt, and as such was taking on its concerns, it character, its perspectives. Perhaps Alexandria had really begun this journey when Egypt had industrialized its cotton production to supply world demand in the nineteenth century. Alexandria’s port had then served a vital purpose to connect the modernizing state with the international market, and its cotton exchange had become the beating heart of the nation. But now the city was experiencing, like other parts of the Middle East, a kind of stagnation born of two phenomena: economic and political constipation and neo-Islamic culture. These two were closely interrelated.
Alexandria as I found it looked inward. If on occasion it glanced across the glistening Mediterranean, that seductive tramp of a sea, it did so in judgment, the judgment of an increasingly prudish and intolerant religious fervor that was gripping the entire Islamic world, of which this was the very fringe. For a young westerner the city had nothing of the fabled decadence of the Alexandrian Quartet. The ascendant aesthetic was theological, but not even the theology of the ancient city, which had been bent, then, on a wildly progressive enterprise, that of furthering nascent monotheism and all its intellectual genius. The monotheism being pushed now was retro, was recherché, was anything but new, and was, at least to my mind, horribly antithetical to everything I stood for as a liberal, secular Westerner. Needless to say this fact, among others perhaps, meant that the year I spent there was not as pleasant or productive as I had hoped. I was part of a small group of international students going there to learn Arabic and as much as possible about Middle Eastern culture. Most of us were from British universities and had therefore imbibed what was then current in the field of Arabism: We were overwhelmingly pro-Palestinian, as opposed to many of our American colleagues who, with their close association with Israel, and with their greater likelihood to be Jewish, were not so. We had all been versed in current thinking about Orientalism—the old fashioned name for the discipline of studying the East, which had become synonymous with Europe’s invention of the East, according to its own fantasies of harems, snake charmers and evil despots. Even the name Orientalism was thoroughly misleading in some respects. According to the historian Tim Mitchell, a reader of the Egyptian Journal al-Muqtataf wrote in 1888: “How have we come to be regarded as part of the Orient? Are we not closer to Europe than to China or North Africa?” The Editor replied that it had happened because “those who study us call themselves Orientalists.”
For our part we had read and re-read (sometime because we didn’t understand it the first time) Edward Said’s ground-breaking book on the subject, and were all determined not to recreate the mistakes and follies of our predecessors, among them Burton and Doughty, Lane and Lawrence, and of course lots of French intellectuals, among whom Flaubert was my favorite (because of his complete and utter abandonment to his invention of the Orient—more on him later.) These writers and scholars appeared to have all been suffering under various idiosyncratic delusions about the object of their research. In many cases they just liked the boys in the region, and the culture’s tendency to turn a blind eye to what back home would have been called craven homosexuality. In others it was a weird obsession with the desert. We had all seen Lawrence of Arabia, and had laughed when Alec Guiness’ character, King Feisal, says to T.E. Lawrence, “Are you one of those Desert-loving Englishmen? Why do you English love the desert? There’s nothing in the desert.”
So on one level we were trying see the “Orient” for what it was, not what our psycho-sexual fantasies wanted it to be. But our struggle with Orientalism also came down to the attempt to get beyond the racist assumptions of power endemic to the study of the Orient from the time when Europe started studying it seriously (which was about the same time it started exploiting and occupying it seriously). In this, Lawrence of Arabia was instructive again: there were the Brits running around the desert attempting to corral the nomadic Arabs into an alliance with them to fight the Turks and the Germans, using them in exactly the same was as the Americans were to use the Afghan Northern Alliance years later. To this extent Lawrence was the perfect example of the soldier-scholar, and was not shy about brandishing his knowledge of the Arabs as a weapon to achieve his—and his government’s—aims. Knowledge was, after all, power, and knowledge of the Orient was always gained in the context of power over it. Put simply, while one group of Europeans was busy governing and subduing various non-European countries, another group was busy learning their languages, scrutinizing their religions, analyzing their social customs and digging up the rotten cadavers of their old rulers. The two apparently separate endeavors of conquest and analysis were hand in glove conspirators.
But now that Colonialism was over, what did it mean for Europeans to be studying it, often reading the same “authorities” that had been writing about it in the nineteen twenties, or the eighteen eighties? And the biggest faux pas in the entire body of Orientalist scholarship seemed to be its exclusive focus on Islam as the one great motivator in the entire Muslim world; as if Muslims globally were not, like normal people, motivated by a complex nexus of lots of things—money, libido, ambition, fear. No, said the Orientalists. God drove all Muslim actions, prompting scholar after scholar to harp on about the extraordinary way in which Islam “prescribed” activities in every arena of life for the adherent: How to wash you hands, how to make love, how to eat, how to punish someone for stealing, how to tie up your camel. But a Muslim was first and foremost a human being, and was therefore more, or less pious, more, or less greedy, more, or less money grubbing, more, or less libidinal. And he or she also lived in a body politic that required decisions and actions that were not first and foremost theological decisions.
But here was the rub with the Middle East: While citizens of democratic states would have been involved in making decisions—decisions such as who to elect and what policies to opt for—in most of the Middle East these kinds of decisions were absent. Even meeting to discuss political matters was not on the cards, except of course in the Mosque. And this was precisely why it was sometimes difficult to understand why the Orientalist obsession with Islam as the be-all-and-end-all for Muslim societies was wrong—just look at the crowds of people in the mosques and the equally large crowds of police watching them. Surely they looked to Islam to dictate their every move? The Middle East’s political climate post 1967 had pushed Islam front and center accidentally, and this was seen again and again—in Iran in 1979; in Algeria in the nineteen eighties and nineties; in Saudi Arabia. Therefore to the casual observer it seemed like those Orientalist scholars had it right; here was a civilization of God-freaks through and through who could not butter a piece of toast without checking in the Koran to see whether the knife goes right to left or left to right, muttering thanks to God and prostrating themselves on the floor in subjugation to the Almighty.
In the early nineteen nineties none of us knew how this whole fundamentalism thing was going to play out. Without studying Middle Eastern history, it was all too possible to presume that Muslims in this region had always been this way—forgetting the energetic movements of mostly secular, socialist nationalism that had swept through the fertile crescent from the early twentieth century, engulfing Syria and Iraq and Egypt and Lebanon and Palestine and Turkey and Iran. It was easy to forget that Ataturk had banished most overt signs of religion from the new Turkish republic, had adopted the Latin script, had banned headscarves. There was no unbroken line of politico-religious zeal, in other words, dating back to the goat herders of the Najd in the seventh century; fundamentalism, or Islamism, or whatever one chose to call religious politics, was a new phenomenon.
There were those who thought it would eventually go away; the Iranian revolution would eventually fail because it had no real policies when it came down to it: the Koran, exhaustive as it was—for seventh century Arabian society—did not do a good job in explaining how to rule a twentieth century state with billions of people. These people often thought that the best way to deal with fundamentalism therefore was disengagement—let them at it and soon they’ll burn out or be discredited; let them take power if that’s what the people want. They’ll screw things up and then the secularists will take over again, once the women were tired of oppression and the rest of the population were tired of the endless cant of GodGodGod. As a professor once put it to me: “If you have chicken every day, sooner or later you’re gonna wake up and want lamb.” That was his assessment of the future of fundamentalism.
There were still so many signs of healthy secularism abroad in the Middle East in the early nineties that many of us failed to imagine how widespread the Islamist movement would become by the twenty first century, and just how deeply hostile to western civilization in general much of the Islamic world really was. One often read superbly educated members of the Egyptian cultural elite opining in the press, and sounding like Europeans, or on TV, speaking French or English, and seemingly no different to other westerners who had graduated from Cambridge or Yale. Indeed, King Hussein and his sons were British-educated, as were many of the Middle Eastern elite, those who were not American-educated. Mubarak’s wife’s name was Susan. But beyond this, all of us in Alexandria at that time saw enough to realize how antithetical the two worlds of western secularism and neo-Islamic culture were, and we found it often difficult to bridge that gap.
Although a certain religious fundamentalism seemed to be the cultural trait du jour in Egypt, it was not the only challenge to young westerners finding a foothold. There were older, deeper and broader cultural challenges that presented themselves. Gender relations, were perhaps the most notorious. If the west had been through a sexual revolution, this had only affected a tiny percentage of thoroughly westernized Egyptians. For everyone else both Islamic and Mediterranean mores about sex and gender prevailed. The honor code was, it seemed, a facet of most Mediterranean countries, from Morocco to Turkey, including much of Southern Italy. For the average man-and-woman-on-the-street in Alexandria this meant it was difficult to even imagine a sexual relationship outside of the bounds of marriage. And marriage without money was a tough proposition. Money without a job, if you followed the chain of causality, was impossible, and Egypt had a major unemployment problem even though there seemed to be six people often doing the same job. This resulted in lots of young men hanging out in cafes and trying desperately to keep a lid on their libido. What they knew of the west was often from Hollywood films in which the women appeared to be easy and the men were having the time of their lives. It also meant that western women were not to be respected, nor were their men, because they allowed their women to run around on them. This was no new phenomenon. Sayyid Qutb, one of the most famous ideologues of the Muslim Brotherhood, had spent a year in the United States in the nineteen fifties. Having returned to Egypt he became determined to root out all signs of invidious westernization in Egypt, seeing it as the source of all evil. He frowned upon church dances in the small (dry) mid-western town in which he had studied, because they gave men and women the opportunity to mix it up. The freedom American men “allowed” their women reflected very poorly on all Americans.
Yet notwithstanding these ancient customs and beliefs which often controlled sexuality—and which were in large part independent of Islam—there was in Egypt, along with this prudishness and control, its opposite, a kind of craven licentiousness. One read about this in the characters of Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s Nobel prize-winning novelist: a Cairo (and Alexandrian) demimonde of whores and pimps and pushers. Of drug addicts and alcoholics. Of wife-beaters and abusive parents. And yet while these issues were quite recognizable to westerners, what was jarring perhaps was the energy with which many middle class Egyptians denied them. One of our language teachers, an elegant, erudite middle-aged woman, grew furious at the suggestion, based on reports from the feminist writer Nawal el-Sa’adawi, that not only female circumcision, but incest was a massive underground problem in Egypt.
No more contradictory was Egypt, however, than any other country, than our own counties. What we ended up struggling with perhaps was how to be an outsider, how to constantly explain oneself, how to live, ultimately, in a strange place with other people’s contradictions.
Ch. 6. The Hour of the Rough Beast
Autumn finally turned into winter. The wind off the sea was often cold now, and the rain was frequent. The effect was surprisingly raw, and I went to one of the street markets in Muhattit el Raml and found myself a cheap Chinese coat, since I had not come to Egypt prepared to be cold, and a pair of shoes to replace the ragged ones I came in.
Feeling like it was time to shake things up a little, I decided a trip to Cairo was the way to do it. I took the bus down one weekend. Amir had decided to ride down with me as he was meeting a friend there from Canada. Amir was originally from Iran, and like most Iranians of his class, fled in 1979 after the Ayatollah’s revolution. About twelve or thirteen at the time, he went into a private school near Vancouver and grew up like many young Canadians—listening to Crosby Stills and Nash, hiking in the great Canadian wilderness, reading J.D. Salinger, smoking pot and making out with girls in cars. This is not what he would have been doing in Tehran as the son of a wealthy merchant, at least not under the Ayatollah. He might have come close to it if he had been free to live under the Shah, but that country’s trajectory suffered an abrupt and brutal change after the revolution of 1979. Amir, however, chose not to lose touch with who he was; in his attempt to maintain a coherent identity he chose to learn Arabic so as to study Islam more and integrate it into is life. He had read widely in Islamic sources and had a strongly spiritual personality, and thought it fitting that if he was to be spiritual he might as well draw from the traditions of his one heritage. This was a brave thing for a hip young westerner to do, with Islam’s reputation in the west.
In the midst of this Amir was learning about the Prophet, figuring out Islamic eschatology, studying the Sufi mystics. But his religious instincts were naturally eclectic and tolerant. “What you have to understand,” he said, as we got on the modern bus at the station at Muhattit el-Raml, “is that this is not Islam, not the original message, not the core. You can make anything out of a religion and a history. There are bigots and zealots in all religions. What these guys are doing,” he gestured around, presumably referring to Egypt’s home-grown Muslim Brotherhood, “is contrary to many points of Islamic theology and history.” It was Friday and the crowds gathering to hear sermons from the Imams were immense. They spilled out of mosques and blocked off entire streets where the worshippers had put down massive rattan mats and seated themselves expectantly in front of the mosque. They started their worship routine, uttering prayers and prostrating themselves towards the Ka’abah in Mecca, most of them were dressed in white galabayas, some in polyester trousers and shirts, in tones of gray, light blue and white. There were no women.
“And it’s ironic,” Amir continued, scratching his short dark beard and looking at the worshippers with his large almond-shape Persian eyes, “this whole subjugation of women thing. Islam has actually proved itself pretty tolerant in the past, certainly as compared to Christianity, and this image we all have of veiled women is all a modern feature which says more about contemporary political and cultural mores than it does about some essential “Islam.”
In the nineteenth century the veil was only really sported by members of the ruling Turkish elite; upper-class women who wanted to maintain their privacy. Now it has been adopted as a sign of how Islamic you are, in opposition to permissive Western mores that became prevalent through the colonial period. More interestingly, Islam has at least three fundamentally important women; Khadijah, Muhammad’s first wife and the first convert to Islam; Aisha, his second wife, and Fatima, his daughter. And these were no shrinking violets, there can be no doubt about that. Khadijah was twenty years older than Muhammad, and already a widow when she married him. In fact, she employed him to take caravans to Syria on her behalf and carry out the trade negotiations for her; this he carried out effectively and it was Khadijah who approached him through an intermediary and proposed to him. And it was Khadijah who wrapped Muhammad in a blanket after he had run home from Mount Hira after his encounter with the luminous Gabriel, afterwards consulting her (Christian) cousin Waraqa who opined that this could indeed be the prophet they were waiting for. Khadijah, the self-made business woman, was the first convert to the new religion of Islam, creating and interesting situation: the most important woman in Islam was in fact molded by the pre-Islamic era (and to some this meant she was an exception to the rule that Islam dis-empowered women).
As our comfortable new bus sped through the northern reaches of the western desert and skirted the vast Nile Delta, the endless rocky sandscape we had been passing through turned greener, with irrigation ditches full of brackish-looking water and women washing colorful cotton garments, camels and donkeys laden heavily with bundles of straw, sticks, baskets of vegetables.
The bus soon arrived at Giza, and we saw the hulking, impossibly ancient shapes of the pyramids towering over the cheaply-built two story houses along the side of the road. Even when you are several miles away from them, their enormity makes them seem right in front of you, with their ragged, cliff faces of weathered stone shimmering in the heat like a reminder of other, lost, worlds.So staggering are they to see that it is no wonder than otherwise relatively sensible people might think they were constructed by aliens.
I left Amir at the bus station, pondering Islam’s history, and its future and went off to find a room at the Windsor Hotel. This, several of us students had discovered, was a good place to stay in Cairo; it was near the Egyptian Museum and Khan al-Khalili, the largest bizarre this side of New Delhi, as well as Maydan Tahrir, in many ways Cairo’s nerve-center. The hotel was a trip; it had been built in the nineteenth century as a bath house—albeit very elaborate one—for the Egyptian royal family, before being converted during the second world war into an officer’s club for the British army. The hotel clearly still had a sense of history, even if it was extremely frayed around the edges. Ornate oriental furniture decorated its lounge are and dining room. The bar was similarly outfitted with dark woods, ornately carved, and stocked with all the right beverages. Some elderly Egyptians and few ragged-looking, younger European travelers frequented the bar, and stayed at the hotel. For foreigners it provided a welcome break from the more obvious tourist hotels in richer neighborhoods like Zamalek or Maadi, and the history that oozed out of the woodwork here reminded you to the era of Pashas, Khedives, and T.E. Lawrence, historical eras with their own dark issues no doubt, but which were nonetheless more romantic and intriguing than today’s issues involving a repressive police state and its opposition, an equally repressive would-be Islamic theocracy.
I spent the night in the rather uncomfortable and dirty room at the Windsor, and the next day I headed back out of Cairo towards the pyramids, to rent a horse and ride it through the desert. I flagged down a taxi in Maydan Tahrir, and was soon careening through the streets as the driver chattered away, asking me about myself and what I thought of the country, this beautiful country, this ancient city. We arrived at the base of Cheops, and I got out a few yards away from the Sphinx’s enormous reconstructed face. The taxi driver made a hissing sound by sticking his tongue in between his teeth, a characteristic Egyptian way of getting attention, and asked me slyly if I wanted some hashish. I said sure, shrugging my shoulders nonchalantly, although a chill of fear and anticipation shot through me. He suggested he get it while I was out riding, and I shut the door and turned towards the pyramids.
I didn’t see the harm, I said to myself. Besides, I hadn’t exactly committed to anything, yet, and besides, he probably wouldn’t show up to pick me up later anyway. I was willing to take the risk. I battled my way through crowds of tourists who were haggling with the army of Egyptians hawking things: miniature Cheopses, papyri by the hundred, statues of Cleopatra, little black cats, ice cream, hats, T shirts with “I love Egypt” on them, and I headed a little down the road to where there were some stables. I had done this a couple of times before, and while the horses usually left a lot to be desired, they were cheap, and it was a great way to get away from the crowds and see the desert.
I passed a group of Japanese tourists, weighed down by camera equipment, back packs and humility, with massive bottles of water, being harangued by some agent of a stable pressing them to go with him and rent his horses: “Very good Arabians, very beautiful.” The interaction was becoming stressful, and the voice and expression of the agent was sliding quickly towards hostility as the Japanese continued to decline his offer, heads down, eyes averted. Although I was struck by something in their manner which almost suggested superiority—their unwillingness to address the hairy, barbaric agent—I knew what they were going through. Whatever it was that was submissive in Asian culture grated against its very opposite here.
A little further down the road in another stable’s enclosure I watched a hugely fat adolescent boy sitting atop a beautiful dun-colored Arabian mare doing dressage. The boy was clad in full traditional costume with a red and black headdress and a rich, tan galabaya. The horse pranced sideways holding its head high, its nostrils flared and its eyes wild and black. Then it seemed to skip forwards in a balletic trot as if keeping time with some inaudible music. I watched mesmerized as this unsightly lump of a boy controlled this extraordinary animal, caught by a vision into something beyond—and behind—the rest of the tourist industry which ran this whole area, and continued towards my stable, passing the Japanese again who were still marching down the road followed by the agent.
The stables were a dark dungeon with pungent horse smells rendered stifling by the heat and the lack of ventilation. I negotiated my deal with an elderly man who seemed to be running the show, and to my surprise as I was getting ready to mount the skinny black stallion he had allotted me, one of his employees came out on horseback to accompany me. This didn’t happen last time, when they were happy to let me go out alone. What did they think I was going to do? Steal the horse and ride to Lybia? I mentioned this to the guide, and he shrugged, and said, “come, you want to see pyramid, I will take you there.”