How many of your favorite haunts are going to survive 120 years? Would you be able to recognize your neighborhood in a century? I reflected on these questions when, in May, I flew to Alexandria in search of traces of the Greek-Egyptian poet, C. P. Cavafy (1863-1933), who had spent most of his life there. Collecting information for a biography, I wanted to get a sense of where he had lived and worked, the cafes he had frequented, and the streets he had walked on.
Cavafy’s apartment, my first stop, has been converted into a museum and contains some of his furniture. His office of employment is part of the majestic Metropole Hotel on the Alexandrian waterfront, or corniche. On the ground floor of the Metropole, I visited the “Trianon” restaurant, where Cavafy often dined amidst its art nouveaux splendor.
From there it was only about five minutes back to his house, the Orthodox Church where his funeral was held and then still further to his grave, where, according to one of the guards, a woman comes from Cairo each month to lay fresh flowers.
But the “Billiards Palace,” where he spent much of his time, is long gone along with the cinema, “Rialto,” and his favorite bookstore. Much has disappeared.
Life does go on, however. Next to the hospital where Cavafy died, and around the corner from his house, now stands the “Apollo” gym with huge posters outside of bulging men. What would Cavafy, the poet of homoerotic desire, have made of this irony? But he would have had a hard time recognizing his neighborhood.
It is easy to be nostalgic in Alexandria, to yearn for the literary city created by Cavafy, E. M. Forster, Lawrence Durrell, Naguib Mahfouz, Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, Edwar al-Kharrat, Robert Liddell, Stratis Tsirkas, and Harry E. Tzalas. Writing of the elegant Rue Rosette, today Rue Fouad, Forster said, “it wants to be smart and of a Parisian smartness. Eternally well-dressed people driving infinitely in either direction.”
A visitor can become disenchanted by the crumbling facades, the pollution, and the loss of the city’s multicultural past, when up to the 1950’s it was home to thousands of Greeks, Jews, Italians, Syrians, French, and Lebanese. Alexandria today (like Izmir and Thessaloniki – two other multiethnic cities of the Mediterranean) has become largely monocultural. To mourn the passing of this ethnic diversity has been a trope for westerners who have written about this city and who can’t reconcile today’s poverty and congestion with past grandeur.
We forget, however, that this cosmopolitanism did not accommodate the bulk of the Egyptian population. Cavafy himself knew little Arabic. While his poetry treated Alexandria like a modernist poem, a utopia of “faultlessly beautiful” young men, it was blind to the actual city. “And naked feet unheard of in your verses,” wrote the English poet, D. J. Enright in his “To Cavafy, of Alexandria.”
Most Europeans had very little to do with the Egyptian masses. But then when do intellectual or economic elites mix with the lower social orders? Do they do so in today’s Columbus, Istanbul, Lagos, or Quito? We blame Cavafy’s Alexandria for practices of exclusion we tacitly accept in our own lives.
Is this cosmopolitanism really dead today In Alexandria? I used to think so until I went there and experienced the vestiges of ethnic and religious mixing and an openness to the Other. Emblematic of this attitude was Zahraa, who spent two days showing me around the city, including – much to my surprise – the house of Daphne du Maurier, where she had made initial sketches for Rebecca. Her family has been in Alexandria for seven generations, with her various grandparents being of Greek-Sudanese, Turkish-Moroccan, and Judeo-Greek background.
Sitting with her in the tranquil courtyard of the Orthodox Patriarchate of Alexandria, I spoke with a priest who ministers to the Orthodox faithful in Mali, Burkina Faso, Sierra Leone, and Ghana. A Jordanian Bedouin and fluent in Arabic, Greek, and English, he argued passionately — via a video on his phone — that no one is ethnically or racially pure. His life’s mission has been to embrace the Other as someone different from oneself.
And when we climbed up the two flights of stairs to Cavafy’s house afterwards, Mohammed, who has been the keeper of the museum for 25 years and who has taught himself Greek and English, also promoted this perspective. He wanted to be known as Mohammed Cavafy, to show that the Greek and the Egyptian, Muslim and Christian could coexist, that Alexandria was a “hybrid,” as Durrell said in Justine. When I asked people what Alexandria means today, they pointed to this peaceful interaction among communities.
This sense of mutual coexistence was forced upon me one evening. Looking for a restaurant along Salah Salem St., I felt someone yanking my arm into a shop. Feeling generally safe in the city, I was startled by this act of violence and tried to pull away. But when I turned around to look at my assailant, I saw the smiling grin of Mahmoud, my barber.
I had appeared in his shop the day before, pointed to my hair and made scissor-like movements with my two fingers. Not knowing Arabic, I sat silently in the chair until he asked awkwardly “where from?” When I answered “Younan” (Greece), I could see his face beaming in the mirror. Then he tried to explain, I think, that his grandfather was Greek. At one moment he blurted out the only Greek he knew: “S’agapo” – I love you.
I understood that he wanted to link us with this powerful phrase. Without the self-consciousness and worldly knowledge of the priest at the Patriarchate, he too strived for moments of global empathy.
So did the architect who was described to me as the city’s last cosmopolitan. On the eve of Ramadan, this cultivated and humane man, who has struggled to preserve the city’s architectural past, invited me to dinner. In his sumptuous villa, filled with objects and art of the city’s past, I met people who represented the ethnic and religious mixing of the Mediterranean. In their sixties and seventies, they were a connection to Cavafy’s world, speaking primarily Arabic but easily switching to English or French and a few in Greek.
Amongst them was Georges a product and symbol of this Mediterranean crucible. To my astonishment, his grandmother had actually known Cavafy, even though she had disapproved of him, probably because of his homosexuality. When she discovered that young Georges had been reading Cavafy’s poetry in school, she dismissed it curtly, saying “c’est abominable!” On my last evening I met Georges in the Greek Athletic Club for a final conversation about Cavafy and about Lawrence Durrell whom he met one morning at the famed Cecil Hotel.
Before sitting down at our table, Georges pointed across the field to his former school, built in the late-nineteenth century by the Greek community. Largely empty, it had only a handful of pupils now.
After our meal we rode the tram back to the Metropole Hotel, the tram that Cavafy and his friends used to take to the Casino in Ramleh (now torn down for a new Four Seasons Hotel), the same tram-line where E. M. Forster met Mohammed, his first and only passionate love who died in his early twenties. It was hard not to be melancholic – Mohammed’s premature death, the probable closure of the Georges’ school, the demise of the Greek community, the dilapidation of once-grand architecture. So much loss.
Yet the streets around us were filling up with people celebrating the end of the day’s fast. The cafes and restaurants, empty the whole day, were suddenly alive. The Athineos restaurant, refurbished and modernized, was beckoning another generation of Alexandrians. While it was not the place Cavafy frequented, it used the name nevertheless and served similar food, along with hamburgers, its neon sign projecting Greek words!
Nostalgia is our reaction to rapid social change, expressing our desire to return back to a time we imagine as happier and more innocent. Cavafy’s cosmopolitanism was an ideal we cannot recreate. But neither should we dismiss it, as many are want to do, because of its imperfections and injustices.
In a week when Isis terrorists had butchered scores of Coptic Christians in Upper Egypt and when Trump withdrew from the Paris Accord on climate change, we ignore this model of coexistence at our peril.