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Experiencing Alexandria: The city as text and context part II

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I reflect on the city and how we see it, how we experience it and how we relate to it

The design of the interior of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina inspires to discover all the richness the library holds (Photo by Thoraria Abou Bakr)

The design of the interior of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina inspires to discover all the richness the library holds
(Photo by Thoraria Abou Bakr)

 

By Ismail Serageldin

Thinking and writing are quintessentially solitary endeavours. In that plenitude of solitude that the learned mind can bring, where one reflects on things that people living unexamined lives pass by with unseeing eyes:  I reflect on the city. The city and how we see it, how we experience it and how we relate to it.

 

Cosmopolitanism of the Recent Past

If Alexandria was not at the centre of learning and knowledge in the middle ages, it certainly was to revive and acquire an important position in the 19th century. As Egypt started its drive towards modernisation under the dynamic leadership of Mohamed Ali Pasha, Alexandria became the most modern cosmopolitan city in Egypt, and it acquired that status thanks to countless foreign communities.  It became the intellectual capital of Egypt for many decades, seeing the birth of cinema and theatre, of many newspapers and literary journals in many languages. It inspired artists and poets. It was that magical Alexandria that Cafavy  and Ungaretti  would call home, and about whom visiting artists from Ukrainka  to Durrell  would write eloquently.

 

This modern Alexandria, lasting from the 1820s to the 1940s, would define for many the quintessential cosmopolitan city. Communities of Greeks, Syrians, Italians, French, British, Armenians, Turks and Arabs co-existed, and all were considered Egyptians. Christians, Muslims and Jews intermingled.  We would lunch together at the Syrian club and dine together in the Greek club. They had a multiplicity of newspapers and produced novels, plays and films in multiple languages. The mosaic of diverse cultures was overlain by social networks that criss-crossed political movements and parties.

 

The foreigners of Alexandria organised themselves into communities, each one electing its own president, and providing for its members with schools, hospitals, clubs, houses of prayer, charity organisations and newspapers. This system led to the unique experiment of Alexandrian cosmopolitanism: under the unifying Egyptian flag there existed a microcosm of the world. People of all races and denominations lived in one city, each speaking his language, celebrating his own feasts and observing his own rituals. Yet they all lived together as one people. Their identities did not dissolve in a melting pot, nor did they live in isolated self-imposed ghettoes. They kept their languages and traditions, but shared the common spaces of the city and its activities. They intermarried, shared each other’s feasts, and spoke each other’s languages. Each was an Italian, Greek, Egyptian, Armenian or Jew, but all were Alexandrians.  Alexandria was an exciting, vibrant place to be.  It inspired artists of all types, and generated an important body of literature.

 

Today, that Alexandrian cosmopolitanism has been lost. For the city … it was to remain a chapter in the text of Alexandria’s unique character. An image of the city as a stellar example of such tolerance and diversity, of the marriage of eastern and western cultures, that was celebrated in prose and poetry and shames us who have to cope with the intolerance and bigotry that pervades our societies today.

 

The centralised socialist state triumphant

 

Yet that recent past is also part of the myth of Alexandria. For even I who am now in the autumn of my life, cannot remember any of it except through stories of parents and grandparents. Today more than half the population is under 25 years of age, and has no memory of any of the formative events that serve as markers of my life where vivid memories start with the 1950s and Alexandria was then largely a place where the Cairenes came to spend their summers by the sea. Indeed, the beauty of the city is very much present in these memories of the 1950s and even into the early 1960s when Egypt would take a turn towards state-sponsored socialism, banning much of private initiative and centralising all decisions in the hands of government, building a powerful centralised state, with its intrusive bureaucracy, backed by its repressive machinery.  From there the long slide into ugliness and indifference would start.

 

Socialist government-sponsored building was inevitably drab and ugly. It failed to honour the past or to allow the quirky individuality and variety that private endeavours created. It failed to provide the social justice or the significant improvements that the poor sought, as with its centralised bureaucracy the citizen was gradually stripped of his or her role in the city. The city as agora, as space for freedom of expression was stifled. The city as construct of a social order and a vibrant living organism was asphyxiated by the bureaucracy, the inevitable growing bureaucracy with its alienation, its inefficiencies, its petty criminality and its negligence. True, in Egypt, the bureaucracy is as much the heir of the Egyptian scribe of five millennia ago, the scribe whose impressive statue sits in the Louvre, as it is the heir of the administrative apparatus of the modern state. But it is coupling the inheritances of these genealogical precedents with the centralising tendencies of the socialist states of the 20th century, along with their ubiquitous police, repression and oppression that brought out the worst into what was a different kind of city. Yes it had enormous differences between wealthy and poor classes but it was partly redeemed by its creativity and diversity. The centralised state destroyed the national voices and the nationalist rhetoric drove out the ethnic diversity that made Alexandria special.

 

The invisible city

 

Yet, beyond the imaginary city of dreams and lore that informs and shapes the text that becomes our background and context for the images we confront, there is another amazing reality that we have to consider. There is another city, a real city that remains invisible to almost all of those who live in and visit the city of Alexandria that is covered by that text and context. Invisible to the inhabitants of the city of tourists, traders and citizens proud to call themselves Alexandrians, descendants of the innovators who made of Alexandria the capital of intellectual work in Egypt for much of the 19th century and even a little bit of the 20th. That invisible city is the city of the poor – the 50 plus slums that have emerged in the very fibre of the city in the last sixty years or so, as the population swelled, the port grew in importance and petrochemical industries flourished.

 

Many of the workers, and their families, came from these slums and then retired at night to their homes. Mostly it is the poor who live and work on the fringes of the visible city who are the inhabitants of this invisible city. Invisible, by the inability of most inhabitants of the visible city to identify any features of that other, invisible city. They do not know the main crossing points, the marker buildings or shops, they do not go there, and as a result, they know of its existence, and intellectually accept that it is there, but allow it to remain in some sort of a hazy background, where the features are not apparent. A creature lost in the fog of willing non-recognition.

 

The two cities live cheek by jowl, but almost never formally meet. The poor, when they come into the city of books and trade, are there almost at a sufferance. Few wonder where they came from and where they go. If you asked someone, “That person who cleans your windshield at the traffic light, or who tries to sell you a pack of paper handkerchiefs … have you ever wondered where they come from? Where they go to at the end of the day when they retire?”  “Out there,” is the best most of us could do, with the tug of conscience imposed by the recognition of how unsatisfactory that answer is.

 

The real Alexandria

 

It is difficult to think about these realities and hark back to the Alexandria that once was or that we would wish her to be. But as I stated at the outset, we all hold images of the city and read a text of the city as a collage of images, an interplay of mirrors and windows in which we see ourselves and see others.

 

In fact, the mirrors and windows do more than define the city or the narrative text we take as context for the new. People in every society are captured and defined by these mirrors and windows fashioned by intellectuals, artists, the media and the politicians…They define the relationships between the society and the rest of the world, and also define the relationships between the different parts of the society in a single country. Even if they choose to turn away from looking at themselves in those mirrors that show them in an unflattering light, they cannot resist the windows, even – or maybe especially – those within our own society: those on the inside want to look out, while those on the outside want to look in. For all their transparency, windows both separate and attract … For we truly want to see the options we refuse to pursue, or those that we were not allowed to pursue… we want to know what lies on the other side of the door we never opened.

 

The many links between the physical, the social, and the economic combine to create a powerful composite image of the city. It is always an incomplete image, blurred around the edges, with dark shadows that keep the mythical protrusions apparent while unsavoury reality lurks in the penumbra, barely visible in the shadows. In the hard light of reason, analysis and scholarship some of the obscurity is lifted, and all the injustice, destitution and latent anger can be observed as the veil of darkness and shadows is lifted. But that effort simply reminds us of additional dimensions of that which we call our city. It does not become itself the text, nor do these fleeting images replace the multi-faceted image we compose with our mirrors and our memories, any more than an occasional visit to the slums will suddenly make the invisible city visible and incorporate it into the texture of the mental text which provides us with our context for viewing the city we know and love.

 

The veil of the powerful shadows is seldom penetrated by the light of analysis because that analysis, consciously and sub-consciously, weaves into the texture of the images we see reflected in the mirrors we have created, and the evolving text and context of the city as we see it. But the illumination of insight comes like an occasional distant flash of lightening that shows, for an instant, what is behind these shadows. Such flashes of lightening occurred when the elections of 2010 gave the ruling party a monopoly in parliament, when the arrogance of the state policing apparatus and the concomitant alienation of the people reached new heights, while our rulers remained insulated and cut off from the pulse of the city. The flashes of lightening occurred when hundreds of thousands of youth began to respond to the cyber-based call for solidarity with a young Alexandrian who died in Alexandria while in police custody; and again when the self-immolation of a young street vendor in Tunisia sparked the downfall of Tunisia’s rulers and started the Arab Spring.

 

These flashes of insight showed us a difficult reality:

There is anger in our hearts

There is frustration in our lives

There is violence in our streets

Incompetence in our institutions

Hesitation in our decision-making

Corruption in our highest offices

Aimlessness amongst our youth, and

Anxiety among our elders …

 

There is desolation for many of those who look to religion to bring peace and solace into their lives, as politicised religion, divisive and full of hate, edges out the compassion and caring at the heart of our beliefs.

 

But, above all, there was a rejection of a society who lived in fear – pervasive fear. Fear of authority, fear of straying from the conventionally accepted, fear of the new, the untested, the unknown. But no more, for now the people were no longer afraid. They refused to be afraid and re-appropriated power from those who had so long wielded it.

 

The streets filled with people. People who had been banished from the agora of old, and there was no more aeropagus at which they could speak with freedom and impunity. The streets became the agora, and the people re-appropriated the space of freedom of the aeropagus and their cries became a contemporary aeropagitica for a new order, a new form of expression.

 

And in an exalting moment, youthful demonstrators surrounded the Library of Alexandria with a human chain, and not a stone was thrown at it, while ten blocks away the government house was totally destroyed. They wrapped the library – their agora, their aeropagus – in a large national flag. They painted it as the fourth pyramid on a spontaneous mural.

 

But change, real change does not come easily. Weeks would drag into months, months into years, and joyful participation in the political process would give way to disappointments and economic hardship. And the unfolding reality in Alexandria – and in all of Egypt – brings some to despair. But there is no despair in the bosoms of those who dare to dream.

 

Envoi

 

The text and context of Alexandria is not frozen. New sentences are being added to that text every day. A whole new chapter is being written right now, not least by the rebirth of the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, the new Library of Alexandria and its daring gamble that it can revive cultural activity in Alexandria and reverse the decline that had set in over the last sixty years. The 25 January Revolution and its aftermath is writing a new chapter with its massive demonstrations of  unprecedented people power, that brought the residents of the invisible city with the rest of Alexandria’s citizens into a common enterprise. It showed that nothing is impossible if you believe in the beauty of your dreams.

 

But politics is but a single facet of the reality that makes a city. The physical reality of the city has been neglected in these years of turmoil coming on top of a half century of decline. The city is today a mere shadow of its former glorious self. But what was achieved time and again in its history can be achieved again. It is very much a call to action for those who can read both text and context, those who can see the present, remember the past and imagine the future. Those who are not willing to accept the ravages that neglect, greed and corruption have wrought. Those who would recreate the city of learning of old, the city of tolerance and creativity of our grandfathers, those who would build on the momentum of people power to generate the space of freedom that creative talents require, those who would by their actions write a new chapter in that ever-changing text which becomes the context of the new.


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