By Jacques Tocatlian.
Who Burnt the Library of Alexandria?
Around The World In Eighty Missions.
Inchaalah, Maalesh and Maktub.
Dust, confusion, noise, anarchy. I was in Cairo.
This must have been my sixth or seventh mission in Egypt. In spite of some minor inconveniences I loved being in Egypt. I found Egyptians hospitable, colorful, humane, amiable and delightfully amusing.
Knowing my fascination for Egypt, my colleagues at the Unesco Office in Cairo used to call me Champollion. For everyone else outside the office I was ‘Mister Jacques’. One is generally not called by one’s last name in Egypt. When the relationship was more formal I became ‘Doctor Jacques.’
Zaki, the Office driver, drove me to the hotel, zigzagging his way through chaotic traffic and tumultuous crowds. Zaki had a deep sense of humor – a widespread blessing in Egypt. While hooting his horn he shared with me his views on Unesco, the problems of the Middle East, President Mubarak and the future of Humanity. At every visit he had to bring me up to date with the latest local jokes, the so-called nokat. Zaki had a warm personality and enjoyed a reputation for being loyal, resourceful and obliging. He was a man of impeccable rectitude.
The road from the airport leads through the modern suburb of Heliopolis into a large square facing the railroad, dominated by the ancient statue of Ramses II. Automobile elevated freeways connect nowadays various suburbs to the heart of the city.
Further down, in the large square ‘Midan El-Tahrir’ we were trapped in an incredible jam and doomed to go in circles three to four times. The population density in Egypt is among the highest in the world – over a thousand people per square kilometer of cultivable land. Forty years ago the population of Cairo barely reached two millions. It was now over fifteen millions! If anyone was uncertain about these statistics a tour of Midan El-Tahrir would convey an order of magnitude. I felt lucky to be observing Cairo from a comfortable, aseptic, four-wheeled cocoon. It took us thirty minutes to cover fifty yards.
A man on a bicycle was carrying on his head a huge basket of bread, finding his way among cars, motor-cycles, hand-carts and overcrowded busses with people literally hanging from the windows. On the sidewalk – which represents an assortment of waste, paper and debris – a street vendor was dispensing a popular sugary refreshment which, as Zaki explained, was made of licorice and called Argi’suss. Further down a dog was taking a dust bath. Couples walked at a distance, usually men ahead of women. The display of intimacy being strictly forbidden, men an women never hold hand. Men often do. Vive la difference!
Looking around at the traffic jam it occurred to me that Egyptians had a deep-rooted aversion to anything that resembles order. Anyone who remembers watching on TV the funerals of Gamal Abdel Nasser will agree to that ! That is part of the charm .
The air in the streets was filled with a smell of deep-fried Falafel, spices and overcooked Kebab – an odor I loathed. But the crepuscular light and the overlapping voices of the muezzins, calling the hour of prayer from the top of hundreds of minarets, gave a mysterious and enchanting touch to the scene.
Once at the fine Hotel Meridien overlooking the Nile, I felt at home. In the hotel, everything was shining: the brass, the glass, the floor and the golden teeth of the doorman. I tipped my way, right and left, to the Reception Desk under a shower of greetings, blessings and salam-alek. Tipping in some countries is an occasional bonus for special service. In Egypt it is a nagging obligation lying in wait at every corner: an excruciating must.
In the lobby of the hotel I was greeted by Sharifa, a staff member of the Unesco Office who was waiting for me. She first apologized for not being able to come to the airport and then briefed me on latest events relevant to my project.
Sharifa seconded me during my various missions on the project of the Revival of the Ancient Library of Alexandria – the so-called Bibliotheca Alexandrina. She was reliable, knowledgeable and most pleasant. I always admired her patience and endurance. Married to a famous Cairo lawyer and mother of three children, she belonged to the upper class – ‘la grande bourgeoisie’. She had been educated at the convent school Notre Dame de Sion and at the American University of Cairo. Perfectly at ease in Arabic, English and French, Sharifa moved about the Egyptian scene with statuesque demeanor and great ease. She was priceless.
After a thorough, but concise, brief she handed me a detailed program for my two-week mission in Cairo and Alexandria, asked about my health and family and left with a bright smile.
Several meetings were scheduled in Cairo for the first couple of days: at the Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Culture, the National Library and the Cairo University. On the third day I was to spend time with Mr. Marius Van der Meer, one of the Assistants Director-General of Unesco, who would stop by in Cairo for 24 hours on his way to Nairobi. I had to accompany him for his meeting with the Minister of Education.
Then I was to go to Alexandria to work with the International Jury on the selection of the winner design of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina. I expected the mission to be interesting and effortless. The weather in October was delightful; I had flown out of a dark, rainy Parisian Fall into beautiful Spring-like weather.
In addition, Sharifa had arranged for me to be invited in Alexandria by the cream of the Alexandrian Society where I would meet representatives of well-known, old families, as well as some Europeans whose families had been established in the city for several generations. She thought that their knowledge of the city and their ideas on the Library of Alexandria project might be helpful to me.
As I was searching my pockets for some change to tip the elevator groom and retire to my room on the eleventh flour, I noticed a commotion at the door of the hotel. Maddened hordes of tourists were running towards the door with all sorts of cameras. A strident, rhythmical music invaded the hallway, as tambourine players and colorful musicians blowing in some sort of clarinets made their appearance, machine-gunned by a thousand flashes.
Then came the bride under a thunder of applause, fleshy and shiny, decorated like a Christmas tree. She was followed by the bridal party, all dressed to kill. The men in designer suits and wearing fashionable sunglasses looked as though they had come to buy the Meridien Hotel. They were followed by a number of women in bright, colorful dresses displaying flashy jewels.
The overdressed bridal party contrasted with the effusive and careless crowd of tourists who had gathered to watch the event. Bermudas, T-shirts, ski jackets, jeans, Texan hats, sneakers, baseball caps – which may have been appropriate around the swimming pool – looked sloppy and in bad taste. I was certain that these very same tourists would never dream to be seen in such outfits in a four-star hotel back in their respective home towns. The strangest of all was a tall blond man dressed like Laurence of Arabia. While he was taking a picture of the bride, another tourist was taking a picture of him. Quelle salade !
In no time, the wedding procession got nicely out of hand, as some elderly ladies uttered wild howls of joy and jubilation. The ear-deafening ululations and cries of praise to God burst out from every side. It sounded like a dozen warmongering Indians were attacking a stage-coach. I strolled to the elevator and up to the eleventh floor where I found my freshly mutilated suitcase, a hot bath, a cold Stella beer and a few minutes of quiet rumination to knit myself together before going to bed.
Just before turning the lights off, I switched on the television, out of curiosity. My attention was caught by a local film. I could not understand a single word of Arabic, but I was tickled by the outmoded acting. Egyptians are demonstrative and place high value on the display of emotions. I found the convulsive harangues and heroic declamations amusing. They certainly were not meant to be so, but the more tragic the situation seemed to get, the more I became hilarious. I was still laughing well after the film was over and thought that Indian films, made in Bollywood, would be appreciated over here.
The next two days were uneventful. Meetings were held more or less on time and yielded reasonable results. Sharifa was always there to second me. Evenings were spent reading briefing material, taking notes and preparing forthcoming meetings.
In contrast, the third day turned out to be eventful enough to make up for the first two quiet ones. The day practically started at the airport where I went with Sharifa and Zaki to fetch Mr. Marius Van der Meer.
Mr. Van der Meer was not my boss and I did not know him very well at the time. I had never worked with him and on the few occasions I had happened to meet him at meetings or receptions we had never managed to engage in any meaningful conversation. He always seemed pensive and tense.
Mr. Van der Meer was of Belgian origin but of Swiss nationality. I did not know from which side he had inherited his sense of humor for I had never seen him smile. That unusual background combination certainly did not predestine him to quickly understand the Egyptian soul or appreciate the local nokat. That was the way I felt. A Frenchman, as everyone knows, has all sorts of petty prejudices against his European neighbors. In any case, Mr. Van der Meer had not come to Cairo to exchange jokes and my personal bias was of no importance.
Come to think of it, why was he coming? Why had the Director-General asked Marius Van der Meer to stop over to meet with the Minister in Cairo ? Officially, he was supposed to prepare the forthcoming visit of the Director-General to Egypt, which I could have done myself. He no doubt had a hidden agenda.
Waiting for Mr. Van der Meer I looked around the airport and watched the very heterogeneous crowd. Among the more sophisticated types of Egyptian businessmen and government officials in western-type suits was a countryman, or fellah, wearing a long dark-blue cotton robe, known as gallabiyeh, and a close-fitting skull cap surrounded by a white turban. He was of dark complexion and of sturdy physique; he looked cheerful and, at the same time, resigned to hardship. I felt sympathetic towards him.
“What do the Fellahs usually eat ?” I asked Sharifa. She said, “Basically, coarse maize bread, Egyptian beans known as fool, white cheese, lettuce, onions and fruit. They seldom can afford meat.”
I then asked her if the old red hat of Turkish origin, known as tarboosh, was still worn. She explained that it had fallen out of use. A young man then offered to shine my shoes. Since shoe shining is a dead art in Paris and in most of Europe, I accepted.
We kept looking at the crowd of tourists coming through customs. Suddenly, the tall, slim and nervous silhouette of Van der Meer appeared. He looked stiff. When he realized that I was having my shoes polished, he looked stiffer. Or as my brother-in-law, Albert, would say : he looked constipated. The greeting ceremony was short, the Salam-alek part being kept at a strict minimum. Marius Van der Meer already seemed in a state of trepidation.
We had a laconic ride directly to the Ministry of Education. Zaki did not share his opinion about global matters this time. As to Sharifa, she gave the Assistant Director-General only indispensable items of background information. Conversation was not encouraged. It gave me a chance to admire my shoes – as bright as the Egyptian sun – and to look at the scenery. Dust was everywhere. Thick on the sidewalks; thin on the foliage of the sycamores, the eucalyptus and the date palms. If Cairo could have had the benefit of some rain it would have been a cleaner city. But, surrounded by desert, the rainless city is permanently covered by a mantle of sand.
When the car stopped at the Ministry, Mr. Van der Meer said to me, “Mr. Dupont, I am told that you are familiar with the Egyptian scene. This being my first business visit to Egypt I would like you to sit next to me at the meeting and whisper to me whatever you think may be helpful in my negotiations. Use your own judgment. Don’t overdo it”
That statement caught me by surprise. Now, I had been given a clearly vague and perfectly ambiguous assignment. As the car was leaving, Sharifa waved goodbye to us with a Mona Lisa type of smile. I felt she anticipated problems and sympathized with me.
At the Ministry Mr. Van der Meer and I were shown to the Minister’s waiting room by a young lady in long-sleeved gray dress of near floor-length, wearing a white hejab to cover her hair. We were served tea and left on our own for a while.
Since Mr. Van der Meer did not give any sign of wanting to engage in a conversation, I silently meditated on the duality of the Egyptian society. The young lady with the hejab and westernized Sharifa represented the two tendencies prevailing in Egypt. Sharifa was, in my eyes, the symbol of a secularly-minded, modern and forward-looking Egypt. The young lady with the hejab, represented the religious, conservative traditionalist movement. The first group believes in a Western type education: scientific inquiry and rationality. The second believes that the spirit of Islam, which prescribes proper behavior patterns for everyday life, should be the dominant feature in all teachings. This duality created a permanent conflict between the two tendencies and resulted in a sort of social fracture which was noticeable in every aspect of Egyptian life.
My meditation was brought to an abrupt end as the door opened and we were invited to enter the office where the meeting was to take place. Nothing palatial, only a very large room with a large desk, several couches and chairs and three or four open doors leading to neighboring offices. Several telephones were scattered on the main desk. They seemed to take turns in ringing one after the other at all times. About a dozen people stood in various corners of the room in small groups or by themselves. It was difficult to guess who was who and who was doing what.
Any Western guest unwarned about the particular style of an Egyptian meeting and expecting some sort of privacy usually finds the arrangement amazing. Mr. Van der Meer found it shocking.
Mr. Abdel-Rahman, a high official of the Ministry, greeted us warmly “Ahlan wa Sahlan, Doctor Marius! Ahlan wa Sahlan, Doctor Jacques! Marhaba! Welcome, welcome !”
He apologized that the Minister had been unexpectedly called by the President of the Republic and would not be back in time for the meeting. Mr. Abdel-Rahman said that he had been charged by the Minister to meet with us and report back to him. I looked at Mr. Van der Meer. He was deadly pale.
Next to Mr. Abdel-Rahman were a couple of men who were never introduced. The telephones kept ringing and were answered by whoever seemed to be closest to the desk at the time. Once in a while, the phone would be brought to Mr. Abdel-Rahman to take the call.
Mr. Van der Meer was by now livid. He asked in a curt manner if we could have some privacy and meet in a quieter room. Mr. Abdel-Rahman smiled and, after a little pause, asked, “tea or coffee?” Mr. Van der Meer said stiffly, ” We just had tea.”
While our host was again on the phone I whispered, “You have to take some beverage. No matter how many drinks you have had, you cannot refuse. This is strict Egyptian etiquette.” There was no reply except for a sniff of irritation.
Mr. Van der Meer pulled a sheet of paper and said in a firm voice that he had come all the way to Cairo specifically to settle some details concerning the forthcoming visit of the Director-General. He had prepared an agenda and had about a dozen items to discuss. I suddenly remembered my meeting in Tokyo and I shivered with fear recalling Professor Earl Ray Clark’s rigid behavior.
Mr. Van der Meer proceeded to read the items on the agenda while some clerk brought a pile of documents to Mr. Abdel-Rahman, which he proceeded to read and sign, one by one. Once in a while he would stop, raise his head and say to the Assistant Director-General with an engaging smile, “No problem with this item. We can look into it,” or “We can do that, inchaalah.” To another request he would say, “Why not? We have provided such service in the past. We may do it again, inchaalah. ”
At that point a fat man came in from a neighboring office through one of the open doors and said “Salam alekum !” He was warmly greeted by two or three of the people standing around who exclaimed at him with enthusiasm, “Ahlan ! Ahlan Wassahlan!” Mr. Abdel Rahman jumped to his feet, furtively said to us, “Excuse me for a minute,” and immediately went to embrace the fat man and, hand in hand, they went in a corner to talk.
Fuming with rage, Mr. Van der Meer turned to me and said, “This is intolerable. I will simply recommend to the Director-General to cancel his visit. We should not even try to do any business in this country ! They are simply not serious! ”
Sensing that we were on the edge of a disaster I replied firmly, “You cannot say that. Unesco has successfully done business here for decades. During the Nubian Campaign, for example, organized by Unesco with the collaboration of the international community: over eighty temples were saved and restored, including Abu-Simbel and Philea. The campaign lasted some thirty years. Work was done painstakingly with the full participation of Egyptians at all levels. ”
He blushed and asked, “You mean to tell me that you agree with this way of conducting business ?”
I replied, “No, but I agree to respect the way they are used to doing things. I am not here to change their way, their etiquette, their tradition or their culture. They do not have to necessarily adopt our ways. Even if, in our eyes, our ways are more rational. We have to understand and accept theirs.”
By now he had turned purple. In the last hour Mr. Van der Meer had waxed all the colors of the rainbow in turn. It was obvious that he was making an effort to control himself. He finally whispered, “They are rude and insulting! ”
“They do not mean to,” I said. “They behave with us as they behave with each other, at their own pace and according to their codes of behavior and to their conception of work, hospitality, dignity and loyalty.”
He looked at me with steely eyes and said, “You seem to have become totally ‘Egyptianized.’ Perhaps we should call you ‘Abdel-Dupont’ ! Does Mr. Abdel Rahman really agree with my requests ? Is he serious when he says ‘yes, inchaalah’?”
Since Mr. Abdel Rahman was still discussing with the fat man I proceeded to say, “You know, Mr. Van der Meer, Egyptian etiquette demands that a request has a positive response, regardless of the intended follow-up to be given to the request. Mr. Abdel Rahman’s agreement to your requests is nothing but a declaration of intention, not a promise. The addition of the expression inchaalah – meaning God willing – adds a degree of uncertainty. You should understand that ‘yes’ means only ‘yes, I shall try’.”
“Under those conditions, how can we work? Tell me what I am supposed to do since you are a specialist in Egyptian matters !” he said sarcastically.
I took a deep breadth and replied, “Be patient. Be charming. Be tolerant. Be warm and smiling. Show emotions. Be demonstrative. Egyptians think that emotion connotes sincere concern for the substance under discussion. If you speak softly and concisely, making your statement only once, they think that you do not consider the matter too important. Egyptians love rhetoric, long-winded speeches and flowery prose. Do not try to plan the future in detail. Too much self-confidence in planning and a desire to control forthcoming events is considered arrogant. Do not forget that, in this part of the world, whatever you plan God must first be willing for it to happen. Hence, the many ‘inchaalahs’ you hear. Logic without emotion and faith is much too cold for them.”
“You ask me to show emotions. If I had to show the emotions I feel right now,” he added, ” I would scream!” After a short pause he added, “As to faith, I am now convinced that if God does not personally intervene, nothing will ever be achieved over here !”
I was calm on the surface, but sweating abundantly. I could feel that Mr. Van der Meer resented me for what I had told him. We sat there in silence watching a couple of flies crawling around the empty coffee cups.
When I saw the fat man ready to leave I gathered enough courage to conclude, “Whatever you do or say, Mr. Van der Meer, let me tell you that constructive criticism is unknown here. Criticism is always destructive. Egyptians cannot lose face. They cannot admit ignorance, errors or weaknesses. Above all they have to preserve their dignity. That is why flattery and praise is so very important.”
He looked at me in disbelief and said, “You must be joking !”
Mr. Abdel Rahman apologized and the meeting resumed with the usual interruptions. Somehow, Mr. Van de Meer had reconciled himself a little more with the Egyptian style of conducting a meeting and managed to make all his points. Mr. Abdel Rahman agreed to everything, sprinkling every request with a number of ‘inchaalahs.’ No agreement was officially recorded. No notes were taken. No Aide-memoire was signed.
More coffee was served. More telephone calls were taken. More guests were greeted. More flies came roving around the coffee cups. The meeting at the Ministry of Education at long last came to an end.
As we walked out of the building I tried to break the ice and said, “Things will work out at the end, you will see. They always do, eventually. Not exactly the way we had planned them. But, miraculously, things do work out.”
Mr. Van der Meer was now green. He gave me a last icy look and said he needed to walk to the hotel by himself. I knew that he had disliked my lectures to him and that he would always resent me. Nevertheless, deep inside, I knew that I had saved the day for him, even if he would never recognize the fact.
I slowly walked to the hotel, meditating on the significance of the day. How did I feel ? Once again I had witnessed a problem arising from cultural differences. Each one looked at the world through his particular cultural prism and with reference to his own set of rules. Mr. Van der Meer seemed to reject all people whose behavior, attitudes, methods or codes were different from what his culture dictated. He was rigid. Above all, he had misread and misinterpreted certain innocent actions as being rude and provocative.
On the other hand, Mr. Abdel Rahman had not bothered to compromise and modify ‘his way’ in order to meet his guests half way. I thought that all these years of exposure to the international community and its intercultural tensions had taught me many lessons; it had made me more tolerant and open-minded. I silently felt proud of it.
The next day, after ‘Doctor Marius’ had left for Nairobi, Zaki and Sharifa picked me up at the Meridien and we started our journey to Alexandria. We first crossed the Kasr-el-Nil bridge to Guezira island, along the fashionable Guezira Sporting Club, then onto the Pyramids, the Mena House Hotel and the desert road to Alexandria.
We discussed several topics, but mostly ‘Doctor Marius’ and the forthcoming visit of the Director-General. We did not see the time fly. A little more than two hours later we were in the outskirts of Alexandria. A light breeze from the sea tasted of algae and salt.
At every visit I kept finding Alexandria intriguing, fascinating and disappointing, at the same time. Hard to explain. It is a declining city which displays a number of features reminiscent of Mediterranean cities of Southern Europe, rather than those of a typically Arab city. A place where the fragrance of several ancient civilizations still hangs in the air. A sort of old lady in shabby clothes who, you could tell, used to be endowed with beauty and elegance.
One of the features I like about Alexandria is its fine seacoast road running eastward for about 16 miles with bathing beaches along most of its length. It used to be known as la Corniche , or ‘avenue Faruk.’ Since the advent of Gamal Abdel Nasser it is, of course, called the ‘avenue of the Army.’
In Alexandria, buildings are, for the most part, falling apart, uncared for, abandoned, ravaged by time, corroded by the saline Mediterranean winds and devastated by neglect. A distressing sight.
Yet, its history and its cosmopolitan aspects remain alluring. The names given to its quarters and tramway stations hint at its fascinating international past : Camp de César, Cleopatra, Stanley, Victoria, Zizinia, Bulkeley, Schutz, Glymenopoulo, Gianaclis, Fleming, San Stephano. Once in a while a name, such as Mustapha or Sidi-Gaber, will remind us that we are on Egyptian land!
Many pastry shops, tea-rooms, restaurants and department stores still maintain foreign-sounding names of the past : Athinéos, Pastroudis, Baudrot, Trianon, Hannaux and Cicurel. Very intriguing, indeed.
Sharifa explained that, for the most part the owners were now Egyptians but had kept the old names. She believed there were a few exceptions : The tea-room ‘Délice’ was still run by a descendent of the Greek founder, Cléopolos Moustakas. Also the tavern ‘Zéphyrion’, founded in 1929, was in the hands of the Tsaparis family. It still served the best fish in town. “Another famous place,” she added “is ‘l’Elite’ ran by Mrs. Cristina. Until a few years ago you could dance the ‘Bouzouki’ every evening. But things have changed. The cosmopolitan feature of Alexandria is no longer what it used to be.”
Feeling my fascination for the city, Sharifa added, “You perhaps know, Mister Jacques, that Plutarch has recorded that the builders of Alexandria at some point ran out of chalk for tracing its outline on the ground. They marked the streets instead with barley meal which the birds promptly ate. Alarmed, Alexandre the Great consulted his soothsayers and clairvoyants, who assured him that this was a good omen. ‘Alexandria,’ they said, ‘will be a nursing mother for men of every nation.’ As you know, Mister Jacques, Alexandria has indeed been, over the years, nursing mother to French, English, Greeks, Italians, Syrians, Armenians, Jews, Maltese, Turks, and many more who were born here and had no other home than Alexandria. ”
“What happened to these communities?” I asked.
“After the Suez Canal war of 1956,” she said, ” the great majority left. An exodus. But a few are still here, I shall see to it that you meet some of them.”
Then I told Sharifa that a number of these Egyptian-born ‘foreigners’ had come to France and had become famous singers. I cited Dalida, Claude François, Moustaki, Georges Guétary and others. She said with a smile, “They are an additional link between our countries.”
We had now reached the Cecil Hotel where I was booked for my stay in Alexandria – the hotel Lawrence Durrell had made famous through his book ‘The Alexandrian Quartet.’ It had now fallen from its former glory and looked untidy. Before retiring to my room I glanced at the Guest book, or “livre d’or,” and was pleased to find the names of famous visitors, such as Somerset Maugham, Josephine Baker, Tito Gobbi, and many others.
The following days I was totally absorbed by the results of the International Architectural Competition. The 524 architectural project rolls were opened, displayed on panels and examined by the Technical Committee to see if they adhered to the competition rules, local regulations and main functional requirements. Those who did not were rejected.
Then the International Jury examined the remaining 357 projects for several days, analyzing them according to a number of specific criteria. After a long discussion, the Jury selected 45 and examined them in greater detail. Then reduced them to 20 and eventually selected the three prize winners.
A couple of days later the Ceremony for the announcement of the results was attended by the Jury, the winners of the contest who had been invited by telephone, the Press and a large number of high-ranking personalities. The event was transmitted by the Egyptian Television. It was a moving and solemn ceremony.
This elegant crowd was then invited to a late lunch at the Yacht Club of Alexandria, overlooking the Eastern Port, a few yards from Fort Quaitbey. I was seated at a table between Mr. Abdel Basset, Egyptian Archeologist, and Mr. Mahmud Fawzi, historian. Seated at the same table were the representative of the Supreme Council of Egyptian Antiquities, the French Ambassador and a number of foreign journalists.
Noticing that the journalists were admiring the Quaitbey Fort, Mr. Fawzy explained that it had been built in the 15th century by the Mameluke sultan Quaitbey on the very site of the famous lighthouse – one of the seven wonders of the world. “Certain parts of the lighthouse,” he said, “were recuperated and integrated into the fort.”
“What exactly happened to the lighthouse ?” asked a journalist.
His eyes bright behind gold-rimmed glasses, Mr. Fawzy said, ” The lighthouse was built in the third century B.C. and served for over six centuries. It was destroyed by a series of earthquakes in the fourth century A.D. We know, for instance, that the Arab traveler Ibn Battuta visited Pharos in 1349 and reported that it was in such a state of ruin that it was impossible to enter. We believe that most of the remains of the lighthouse are under water.”
Mr. Fawzy proved to be right. I remember reading in the papers, several years after my visit, that Jean-Yves Empereur, head of the Alexandrian Study Center, had found under water by the Quaitbey site a profusion of objects superposed from different periods – Pharaonic, Ptolemaic and Roman – as well as massive blocks of granite that had belonged to a large structure, probably the lighthouse.
We were served fruit juices and mineral water. Some of the foreign journalists asked for beer or wine. The waiter answered in Arabic and the French Ambassador explained to the journalists that on official government-sponsored receptions, no alcohol was served. A French journalist commented that she considered that as a sign of intolerance.
At that point I tackled another subject with Mr. Abdel Basset and Mahmud Fawzy, trying to draw their attention away from the embarrassing topic at the other end of the table. “What other important archeological sites exist around here ?” I asked.
Mr. Abdel Basset said, “Somewhere in this very port existed an island, the island of Antirrhodos, on which Cleopatra had her famous palace. That was also destroyed in the fourth century AD by an earthquake and submerged by a tidal wave. Underwater exploration is made difficult because the city sewage runs into the eastern Port. We would need sophisticated means and special equipment, such as the Global Positioning System, which we do not possess. But I am sure that in a not-too-distant future we shall be able to do something in that direction as well., inchaalah.”
Mr. Abdel Basset was right in his prediction. I remember reading in a magazine, several years after that lunch at the Yacht Club, that another French by the name of Frank Goddio had began exploring that other part of the site and started to unravel another mystery page of the history of Alexandria.
Our attention was then caught by a heated discussion going on between the representative of La Repubblica and the journalist of Le Monde on the fate of the Ancient Library of Alexandria. Who destroyed the Library ? A recent Italian author, Luciano Canfora, had tried to deny the responsibility of Julius Caesar, blaming the Arabs for its destruction in the 7th century A.D.
Unesco had commissioned the Egyptian historian, Mostafa El-Abbadi, to research the subject and write a book to be published by Unesco on “The life and fate of the ancient Library of Alexandria.” El-Abbadi had the advantage to research the subject from original texts since he had the necessary knowledge of Greek, Latin and Arabic. Authors without such skills, such as Canfora, relied on translations.
Having benefited from discussions with El-Abbadi I felt confident to speak on the subject. “Most probably the destruction took place in several episodes.” I said, “First, Caesar accidentally destroyed part of the Royal Library in 48 BC. But we know that, later on, Mark Anthony made a gift to Cleopatra of 200,000 books from Pergamum. The Library must have continued to function, if not at the original site of the Palace, certainly at the daughter Library at the Sarapeum. We also know that the Temple of Sarapeum was destroyed in 391 AD – and probably the daughter Library with it – as a result of a widespread Christian campaign against paganism.”
The journalist from The Repubblica wanted to know what evidence existed that Caesar was responsible for the fire. Mr. Fawzi said that Plutarch in his biography of Caesar had written, “When the enemy tried to cut off his fleet, Caesar was forced to repel the danger by using fire, which spread from the dockyards and destroyed the ‘Great Library’. The Historian Strabo, who later described Alexandria in details, does not mention the Library. Probably because it was no longer there.”
We had finished dessert by now and were drinking our Turkish Coffee. We had had a very interesting ‘archeological’ lunch, washed down with fruit juices and mineral water. Yet, the journalist from Le Monde wanted to hear about the Arab involvement in the destruction of the Library.
I was disappointed to think that all these international journalists Unesco had invited, instead of writing about the Unesco project of the revival of the Ancient Library, would discuss its earlier destruction. “Well,” I said, “for more that five centuries after the Arab conquest of Egypt by General Amr, not a single reference to the fate of the Library is to be found. Then in the 13th century we suddenly hear of an unfounded account by Ibn Al-Qifti describing how General Amr had burnt the books. There is a plausible explanation for this fictitious story. According to our Unesco Expert, Mostafa El-Abbadi, Ibn Al-Qifti, like his master Saladin, belonged to the Sunni regime who was accused by the competing Shiite branch of selling libraries and precious books. So Ibn Al-Quifty made up a story to show that selling books was not such a crime since General Amr and his Caliph Omar, if they had not sold books, had burnt them.”
After taking leave from my hosts, I walked by myself along the Corniche all the way to the Cecil hotel. It was almost twilight. The sky was a never-ending blue and pink mantle. I enjoyed the fresh air and meditated in silence. I was overwhelmed by the history of this city. Nothing monumental had survived the fires, the earthquakes, the tidal waves and the wars. The richness of that past was all buried under either ground or water.
As Sharifa had promised, I was invited on the last evening before my departure to an outstanding reception which took place at the house of Mrs. Ferghaly who lived in a large villa by the seashore in a district known as Bulkley.
Zaki drove us along the Corniche eastward to Bulkley. He first stopped at the Stanley Bay beach so that I could admire the rows of cabins on a semi-circle on three levels. Looking at my watch I asked,”Aren’t we late ?” With eyes lively with amusement, Sharifa said, “Maalesh! Do not worry, Mister Jacques. As you must know by now, we are very relaxed about time, in Egypt. Hurry is not our type of intellectual concept.”
I had often heard the expression Maalesh, which means ‘never mind.’ Quite a useful and extensively used expression which accompanies anything which has gone wrong, or is about to go wrong, or will certainly go wrong. In any case things happen in Egypt because they were meant to happen by God’s will. One should not try to change events. As they say, Maktub, which means ‘it is so written’. With a Maktub here, an Inchaalah and a little Maalesh there… life goes on unperturbed.
I was asked to admire on the eastern headland of Stanley Bay, a restaurant called ‘the Ship.’ Further down I was shown the most famous hotel of Bulkley the ‘Mediterranée’ with its night-club ‘le Romance.’ Soon after we stopped in front of Mrs. Ferghaly’s imposing villa.
As we passed the Entrance Hall, I found myself drawn into a fascinating world. Around the Hall were two large lounges and a separate dining room. As Sharifa had told me, the cosmopolitan Elite of Alexandria was here. “After a long ‘siesta”‘ in the afternoon,” she said, “they usually come to life in the evening.”
The house was very spacious, elegant and beautifully furnished. Perhaps, a little over-decorated. The rugs were Persian and the furniture mostly French. A few touches of local color would creep in here and there. The overall effect was magic.
Mrs. Ferghaly was an elderly lady in her eighties, elegant, very charming but a shade disdainful. She moved about with grace and dignity and kept everyone at arm’s length, like a deity. Her bearing was that of a queen.
At all times she kept an eye on the personnel which she treated with distant politeness. Waiters in black jackets and servants in formal, white gallabiyeh, very responsive to the slightest signal, circulated carrying large trays with appetizers and drinks.
Sharifa took me to the first lounge which was filled with a number of richly dressed women and a few men. I was introduced to a number of ladies of the grande bourgeoisie of Alexandria. The younger ones had typical Egyptian names, such as Abdel Meguib, El Taieb, or Awad. The foreign-sounding ladies, on the other hand, were in a higher age bracket. Conversation was whisper-quiet at the beginning, but gradually grew crescendo, speckled with bursts of laughter.
An elderly lady, with a turban and an undefined accent, Mrs. Naoum, seemed to be intrigued by my presence. She ran a polite but disparaging eye over my suit from top to bottom. I could tell that she was trying to put a price on it, or on me. With a voice of doom she asked on what business I was there. “I am with Unesco,” I answered. She seemed interested but not impressed. In the brief conversation that followed I learnt that Mrs. Naoum, an Egyptian lady of Syrian origin, had survived a divorce, two World Wars, three nationalizations and countless devaluations.
We were soon joined by Mrs. Costantinides, wearing a sort of Pharaonic dress. Having been educated in the States – as I was later informed – Mrs. Costantinides had retained a semi-Yankee accent and certain American mannerisms. When introduced, for instance, she offered a nod, instead of a handshake, and said ‘Hi.’ After the usual exchange of platitudes, Mrs. Costantinides wanted to know if I had heard of the writer, Stratis Tsirkas, or the poet, Constantin Cavafy. Both Greek Alexandrians. I timidly said, “Vaguely.” Her smile almost disrupted my self-confidence for the rest of the evening.
Maalesh ! she said with a giggle, “but you will have to read some poems of Cavafy. You must. You can find five collections of Cavafy’s poetry available in English. Cavafy’s tone of voice is eminently translatable. His magic moves into English without difficulty. His poems must also exist in French, I presume. Don’t they ?”
Mrs. Costantinides looked at me and after a short pause, her voice low and confidential, she said, ” He lived and died here without speaking two words of correct Arabic. Nevertheless he is by definition a true Alexandrian. You will agree, Mr. Dupont, that many foreign residents of Paris are Parisians by their behavior, style and contribution to the life of the city, without being French. Similarly, Cavafy was a Greek Alexandrian who loved our city and has immortalized it in its poems. By the way, he is also considered in Greece the first poet of modern Greek literature.”
I did not dare ask if Mrs. Costantinides considered herself Greek, Alexandrian, American or Pharaonic. She probably was a mixture of all four. I ventured to add, “Come to think of it, I now remember having read several references to Cavafy in Lawrence Durrell’s ‘Alexandrian Quartet.'”
At that point we were joined by an elderly gentleman who must have spent hours in trying to look young and sexy. He had an air of unreliable charm about him. My French nose recognized Christian Dior’s Eau Sauvage – a no nonsense aftershave. He wore an Armani suit with a dashy tie, which drew compliments from Mrs. Naoum. He was introduced to me as Mahmoud Ramzy Bey.
“I heard you referring to Lawrence Durrell, Mr. Dupont,” said Mahmoud Ramzy Bey. “Do you recognize Alexandria as the city he described in his novel?” His question drew laughter from our two ladies. Egyptians tend to laugh a lot, and it is not always obvious why they do so.
“Durrell must have loved Alexandria,” I ventured to say, adding, “Because of his love and fascination for the city he tended to embellish everything. A poet in love with a city.”
“Not at all, my friend,” said Ramzy Bey. “Durrell hated Alexandria. He found it boring. In his correspondence with Henry Miller, after he had been posted as Press Attaché in Alexandria in 1944, he called it ‘a smashed up, broken down, shabby Neapolitan town. A melting-pot of dullness.’ He complained that there was no music, no art, no real gaiety, and no subject of conversation except money. He said to Henry Miller, ‘if one could write a single line of anything that had a human smell to it here, one would be a genius.'”
Mrs. Costantinides asked, “How do you explain then, the masterpiece which his book represents? It was not possible to write in such poetic terms, if he really hated the place!”
“True,” said Ramzy Bey, ” either because he was a genius or because he altered his vision of the city with time. The city changed him.”
Mrs. Ferghaly who had joined the group and listened to the latter part of the conversation said, “But, Durrell completed his book fifteen years after leaving Alexandria. He spent much of the intervening period in Greece, Argentina, Yugoslavia, Cyprus and France. It is not exactly Alexandria that changed him. He grew older and matured in so many different places under so many different influences. His Alexandria is an artificial, poetic and brilliant monument. An exotic illusion. Certainly a work of genius. Nonetheless his Alexandria remains an artificial construction.”
Mrs. Naoum, who had been silent up to now and who did not seem to have any literary inclination, surprised us by adding, “The Egyptian writer, Edouard Al-Kharrat, who wrote so much on Alexandria is also of the opinion that Durrell knew very little of the city and its people. Al-Kharrat, in his many lectures and publications, shows that Durrell’s Quartet is not really about Alexandria.”
“In any case,” I said, ” many foreigners around the world know Alexandria only through the eyes of Durrell.” After a pause I asked, ” What other contemporary writers wrote about the city ?”
Mrs. Ferghaly, Mrs. Naoum, Mrs. Costantinides and Ramzy Bey delivered, in a chorus, a litany of names, “Ungaretti, E.M. Forster, Fausta Cialente, Cavafy, Leslie Croxford, Gaston Zananiri, Robert Solé, Mohamed Hafez Ragab, Jacques Hassoun, Naguib Mahfuz, Stratis Tsirkas, and others.”
At this point Sharifa came and asked me to accompany her in the second lounge where she wanted to introduce me to some nostalgic gentlemen who were discussing ‘the good old days of Alexandria.’
“Which were the good old days?” I asked.
“They refer to the period when the city was truly cosmopolitan,” she said. “Throughout British colonial rule and beyond Independence until the 1956 Canal war. Some refer to this period as the “golden age.” Some glorify it and some condemn it.”
“And how do you feel about it, Sharifa ?” I asked.
“Well,” she said, “To praise that period uncritically like most foreigners who used to live here do can seem like an apology for colonialism. Like everything else this period had its good points and its negative ones. ”
The second lounge was resolutely ostentatious. Sharifa pointed at a glass cabinet which contained a collection of glasses that had belonged to King Farouk. On the wall, a beautiful clock, which seemed to have been taken right out of Versailles, had given up marking the passage of time. Mrs. Ferghaly had thus stopped aging. Conversations in this lounge were louder, the room echoing with voices that would have graced the Cairo Opera House.
A first group of men, looking self-satisfied, were talking money: a little real estate here, a little merger there, interlarded with laughter . One of them, whom everybody called Nagi Bey, struck me as suffering from being abnormally rich. A man whose life must have been dedicated to the table and based on a dolce far’niente philosophy. He dropped names and dollars all over the place. While some were drinking a locally manufactured soda, known as Azouza Spathis , he indulged with enthusiasm in Royal Salute whisky.
The men of the second group were all in their sixties. They were referred to as khawagat – an Egyptian title, slightly derogatory, given to non-Arabic foreigners. These khawagat talked mostly in French or English, sprinkled with words of Arabic, Greek or Italian. At times, it became for me an exercise in tightrope walking, just listening to them.
Having introduced me, Sharifa asked the group to tell me about old cosmopolitan Alexandria. The first to speak was Mr. Ricardo Manzoni. Puffing at an impressively sized double Corona, he explained that Alexandria had been inhabited until the early sixties by different ethnic and religious communities that co-existed and intermingled, mostly in the upper echelons of society. These communities had imparted on the city a cosmopolitan stamp which was gradually fading away. He explained that each community – Greek, Italian, Jewish, Armenian, Syrian, French – had its own newspapers, schools, hospitals, orphanages, churches, homes for the elderly, cemeteries, basket-ball teams, clubs, and theatrical groups. They all kept their cultural identity and, at the same time, acquired a certain overall Alexandrian characteristic. Upper-class Egyptians sent their children to these foreign schools to acquire a good education and a European veneer.
I asked what this overall Alexandrian characteristic was. Mr. Khoury said,”Entrepreneurship, hospitality, sense of humor, joie de vivre, energy and ambition, a little bit of snobbery, a strong interest in Europe, an acute ignorance of real Egypt, and a common language : French, with a strong Alexandrian accent.”
They all giggled, approving the description. I asked, “Was Alexandria a real melting pot? ”
“Not really,” said Mr. Kazarian, “communities did not melt completely. They did not forget their language or lose their culture, but they acquired a certain local flavor. You could always tell that Mr. Benakis and Mr. Theodorakis were Greek, that Mr. Dentamarro was Italian, and that Mr Papazian was Armenian. But you could also tell that they were all Alexandrians.”
I asked with some surprise, “Didn’t everyone speak Arabic?”
“The khawagat were notorious for speaking poor Arabic,” said Mr. Khouri. “In France or in the States, immigrants with poor knowledge of the local language cannot occupy influential positions in the country. In Alexandria the economy was at the time in the hands of this cosmopolitan crowd which may have been there for two, three or more generations without absorbing much of the local culture.”
After a short pause I commented, ” The Alexandrian melting pot was, therefore, different from the American one. In the States, after one generation you can only tell the original nationality of a person by his name. Otherwise they all look and act as Americans”
“Perhaps that is no longer true,” added Sharifa. ” I understand that integration is now gradually changing in the States where the communities tend to keep their original culture as well.It is becoming more like in old Alexandria.”
Mr. Manzoni added, “Because the new immigrants in the United States originating from Asia or Latin America have roots in cultures, which are far removed from the local one,they find it more difficult to ‘melt’ than the earlier Europeans. The more foreign the culture the more difficult the melting.
“And what about the Jewish community of Alexandria?” I asked.
After a long silence, Mrs. Rassim, with a Greek accent which did not match her Egyptian name, said, “It is a historically known fact that a large Jewish community lived in Alexandria without interruption since the founding of the city in ancient times. After the creation of the state of Israel, they began to leave. Nowadays there are no more than a dozen families left. They had their journal, la Tribune juive, their hospital, their schools. It was a very wealthy and influential community. Their names were Baron de Menasce, Riso-Levy, Toriel, Rolo, Aghion, Chamla, Cicurel, Hannaux…”
Mr. Kazarian, who had been eyeing the buffet through the open door of the dining room, concluded this exchange by saying, “For radical nationalists, this cosmopolitanism was the unwelcome symbol of a foreign influence which, together with King Farouk, was responsible for all the evils of Egypt. Every problem that could not be blamed on the corrupt King was the fault of the foreigners. Nasser put an abrupt end to it all. Cosmopolitan Alexandria was soon gone with the wind.”
Mrs. Ferghaly passed by, inviting us to the dining room saying “Et-fadal, Et-fadal.” The dining room was elegantly decorated in those quiet colors that age gracefully. At the sight of the Buffet, Mr. Kazarian, who admitted to be incurably gluttonous, made small humming noises of contentment. The servants made several appearances carrying loaded trays with a juggler’s dexterity. There was more food on the table that could possibly be eaten by the whole Egyptian Army! I silently prayed my patron Saint to ward off indigestion.
Sharifa came to my rescue and explained what those exotic dishes were. Mrs. Ferghaly noticing that, according to local etiquette, her guests were pretending to hesitate to approach the buffet, encouraged them to eat. On the insistence of their hostess, they gladly did so. I understood that it was definitely not advisable to make hogs of ourselves, at least not from the very start. No matter what, I knew that I was close to gastronomical ecstasy.
I sat with Mrs. Rassim, Mr. Manzoni and Ramzy Bey at one of the small tables and talked some more while tasting at a variety of dishes, some of which I liked and some I found rather surprising. Mrs. Rassim said, “Mr. Dupont, it is so difficult to picture what Alexandria was in the old days. My mother used to tell me that a Greek Catholic family of Syrian origin, the Zoghebs, who had settled in Alexandria sometime towards the turn of the 19th century, lived in a style that has probably disappeared from the surface of the earth. Count Patrice de Zogheb held operas and ballet performances at his roof-top apartment in Safia Zaghlool street. Bernard de Zogheb composed plays and operas which were performed in French in a country which, you must remember, was a British colony!”
Gradually the conversation moved to politics and eventually landed on the undermined ground of fundamentalism. I did not think the subject agreed too well with the food and drinks but I listened carefully, avoiding entering into any discussion. I did not have the necessary ammunition. At one point, Ramzy Bey asked me, “What do you think about all this, Mr. Dupont?”
My friend Isaac Benzakein had once told me, “If some day you are stuck with a question to which you cannot, or do not, wish to reply, remember you can always turn your answer into another question.” I had often found this piece of advice very useful.
So I said, “This problem has always intrigued me. Why do you think fundamentalism is spreading?”
Ramsy Bey said, ” Because fundamentalism, which is a rejection of western values and codes of behavior, offers reasons to cope with the hardships of life and provides a spiritual refuge from uncertainty concerning the future and infuses a sense of dignity in each of the faithful.”
Mrs. Rassim said that it also promises a better lot for everyone in the life after death and Mr. Manzoni added, “It also offers an alternative to the failures of other ideologies, such as Capitalism and Marxism.”
Mrs. Ferghaly came back with more goodies. Everyone said “Sofra daiman,” which means ‘may your table always be thus.’ Our hostess gave the standard reply, “Bil’ hena wal shifa,” which I was told means ‘to your happiness and health.’
It was getting very late. We found faithful Zaki at the door and took a last ride along the seashore to the hotel. At that time of night, buildings looked cleaner and in a more reasonable state of repair. One should always visit Alexandria by night! I told Sharifa that I had found this mission particularly enriching. I thanked her for her support. I had learnt so much and knew there was so much more to learn.
Somehow I was leaving with a heavy heart; I already felt a little nostalgic. In my heart of hearts I also felt guilty to have prevented Brigitte, Françoise and Aunt Lilly to come along. They would have been thrilled. But after the ‘battle of Leningrad’ I would have had to fight the ‘battle of the Pyramids.’ Well, perhaps I will have to take them along on mission one last time before my forthcoming retirement. Inchaalah!
Copyright © 2000 by Jacques Tocatlian
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