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     Volume 4 Issue 19 | October 29, 2004 |

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A Roman Column

Lawrence Durrell's
Alexandria and Mine

Neeman Sobhan

We are driving with our friends from Cairo and headed towards the famous Egyptian port city about which E.M.Forster said: 'She belongs not so much to Egypt as to the Mediterranean.' The road signs in Arabic refer to it as 'Al-Iskandria', but to me, it does not mean the city founded by Alexander (whom History conferred the epithet 'the Great' simply because he had a penchant for 'conquering' other people's lands!); nor is it Cleopatra's city; nor the location of one of the seven wonders of the Ancient world, the Pharaoh's lighthouse; nor even the site of the Great Library, which was burned down by many, including Julius Caesar as well as the Arabs.

In my literary myopia, Alexandria was never a geographic location at all but simply the second word on the spine of a book called 'The Alexandria Quartet' which one of my literary minded cousins and bosom friend carried with her all day long in the distant Dhaka of my early teens.

Literary precocity drove us to grasp for volumes on the high bookshelves of my uncle's library that exceeded our reach. This was how we discovered Proust, Simone de Beauvoir and Durrell. I remember being impressed but not moved, naturally, by the Quartet, and if I finished 'Justine' while leaving the other three ('Balthazar', 'Mountolive' and 'Clea') untouched it was only out of a grim determination to save face with my cousin who read and 'absolutely adored' the book. I knew even then that Lawrence Durrell was the kind of master of language whom I would respect, but not just then. Later, going back to the work, I was proven right.

We approach Alexandria and drive along the corniche of the Eastern harbour leaving behind the fort of Qait Bay where the ancient lighthouse used to be. At the Zagloul Square gardens we park at the famous Cecil Hotel where we are staying.

Already I am in Durrell country. Across from the hotel, the sea grazes the sweeping waterfront. This is August, but Durrell's words from 'Justine' in another season float to me in the afternoon breeze. "In the great quietness of these winter evenings there is one clock: the sea. …Empty cadences of sea-water licking its own wounds, sulking along the mouths of the delta…"

We enter the lobby, and as the men check in I let my eyes wander. Am I really inside the Cecil Hotel, which I first encountered within the pages of 'The Alexandria Quartet'? I walk into the lobby's bookshop and ask the young man if they carry Durrell's book. As he reaches for it, he lectures me on the famous 'beoble' who were guests at the Cecil. "Somerset Maugham, Agatha Christie, Elvis Bresley , General Montgomery…" I smile indulgently. I'm not interested now in real people but fictional characters who lived in the greater intensity of a writer's reality. I flip through the pages and there it is, the words of the protagonist, about his lady love's initial encounter with him and with her first husband: "They met, where I had first seen her, in the giant vestibule of the Cecil, in a mirror." I put back the book and check the mirrors of the lobby. There is a girl in one of them, and behind her an irate husband hollering: "Where the hell have you been?" We drift up to our rooms in a quaint grilled lift.

Refreshed, we set out to see the city on foot. Nearby, we note the apartment of the famous Greek poet Cavafy, then arrive at the swanky Bibliotheque Alexandrine recently built near the site of the first great Library of Pharaoh Ptolemy 1 Soter which was destroyed by fire. Two millennia ago, not far from where we stand staring at the modern glass dome, gathered the likes of Euclid of geometry fame; Archimedes of 'eureka!' fame, Aristarchus who concluded the earth revolved around the sun; Eratosthenes who calculated the circumference of the earth and other Hellenic minds.

The new Library is elegant but the idea of housing the world's knowledge under one roof is redundant in the age of information technology. After our tour we break for tea at the café Trianon, mentioned in the Alexandria based Naguib Mahfouz novel 'Miramar' in my hand.

That evening, we drive along the corniche to the Montaza palace. Surrounded by fortified walls, lush gardens and a lagoon lies the other palace, Al Salamlek hotel. This was the royal hunting lodge turned into a guesthouse by King Fouad, father of King Faruq. We have dinner in a nearby hotel's terrace overlooking the moon-soaked, palm-fringed lagoon from which the scent of wet sand drifts to us mingled with the piano music. I now understand what Durrell meant in this passage: "..walking to the last spit of sand near Montaza, sneaking through the dense green darkness of the King's gardens…to where the waves hobbled over the sand-bar." I have finally taken Alexandria out of the Quartet and made it a real place. Frankly, without the literary footnotes of Durrell's passion it isn't all that interesting.


My last days in Cairo are a blur of sensations and perceptions. I am sitting in the square near the Al-Azhar Mosque drinking the fragrant, ruby red Hibiscus juice which has medicinal benefits.(In Bangladesh, abounding in the flower, we should think beyond using it only as hair oil the violently scented 'jawba-kushum' and take it in the form of tea or juice as the Egyptians do). Between sipping my 'karkarey' juice I devour the dessert called Mother of Ali (or Umm-Ali, the Egyptian 'Shahi-tukra') to recover from a shopping spell in the alleys of Khan-el-Khalili from which I emerge with two dozen traditional perfume decanters. Fragile as a breath crystallised into pastel bubbles of various shapes and sizes, these bottles are my weakness.

I am watching from my hotel balcony a rowing team on the Nile composed of girls in hijab. Modern Egypt was quite liberal and un-hypocritical till today. Now the hijab fever has infected it as well. Why do these modern girls, wearing tight jeans and clingy tee shirts, complicate their lives by complying with regressive pseudo-pious practices? What is the correlation between hair and piety? Why would a Muslim man go astray at the sight of a woman's forelock and not an enticing face or figure? Are these tightly head-geared women more pious and moral than our un-hijabed mothers and grandmothers were? Magda in her skirt and flouncy cap answers my question shrugging: "I don't believe in the 'higab' but cover my hair under social/ parental pressure, otherwise I will be called 'a bad girl'."

Cairo is modern in most ways except in the interaction between the sexes. Woman as sinful sex object to be kept under wraps makes women self-consciousness and men curious. No man-woman encounter is neutral, natural, rather a potentially sexual one. How unhealthy, how un-pious! Pity. I never expected liberal Egypt to toe the un-modern line. I am now ready to escape the suffocation of this environment. Ya Habibi! My Egyptian holiday is over.


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