Alexandria and Mine
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.
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.
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.
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.
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…"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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'."
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.
WEEK: MEETING JAYA BHADURI
(R) thedailystar.net 2004