What Has Alexandria To Do With Cairo?

"I do not like Egypt much—or rather, I do not see it, for Alexandria is cosmopolitan."  
E.M. Forster (Letters, #152)

"I have believed that one is either a Cairo person—Arab, Islamic, serious, international, intellectual—or an Alexandria amateur—Levantine, cosmopolitan, devious, and capricious."  
Edward Said ("Cairo and Alexandria")


Cairo, with its effervescent Tahrir, has by synecdoche assumed the position of Egypt itself in the global consciousness. Lost in the tumble of the news cycle, save for the occasional story offering echoes of the revolution and its aftershocks, is Egypt’s second city, Alexandria. This is hardly surprising. Alexandria, in the latter half of the twentieth century, had become a sort of memoirist’s backwater, a series of strategic and political blows making an epithet of Lawrence Durrell’s once complimentary designation, “the capital of memory.” But a reversal of fortune seemed in order for Alexandria in Mubarak’s waning years, with the arrival of what was pitched as Egypt’s premier cultural institution: the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, completed in 2002 with substantial support from UNESCO. 

In reviving the ancient library, the Mubarak regime chose Alexandria as the site of its lasting intellectual imprimatur, a salvo against the city’s decades of growing irrelevance. This monument to Egypt’s participation in global culture seemed an improbable project for a government that conjured foreign specters to silence pro-democracy critics. But as the aging François Mitterrand built his Bibliothèque Nationale, so too would Hosni Mubarak restyle his legacy—a man of letters in Air Force epaulettes.

Befitting the many deaths of its ancient forebear, Ptolemy II’s universal library, the revived Bibliotheca experienced a troubled birth. The idea was first floated in the mid-1970s, at a time when dedicating millions of dollars to a new library seemed a Pyrrhic exercise. A former professor at Cairo University, alma mater of the Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, once told me that for a time in the 1970s, the university library’s book purchases were funded out of the building’s sanitation budget. But the project gained steam through the eighties, finding support from Mubarak and his wife, Suzanne. After an international design competition won by the Norwegian firm Snøhetta, construction began in 1998.

Covering the project in a 2000 New Yorker article titled "Resurrecting Alexandria," Alexander Stille, drunk on Durrell, doted on the city's lost golden age. In his retro-reverie we found the Mediterranean capital again a cosmopolitan jewel, with the internationally-backed library hoping to anchor its renaissance. For Stille, as for Edward Said, this Alexandria, signified by its lapsed international grandeur, never properly belonged to Egypt of the East. Rather, it was a cultural and intellectual entrepôt, originally cast into that role in the time of the Ptolemies. Cairo itself, Egypt's political capital, ceded ground on cultural matters to Alexandria's glittering intelligentsia. This all changed with the revolution of 1952. At its pre-revolutionary height, the foreign population of Alexandria comprised 200,000 of the city’s 600,000 inhabitants. Nasser's regime quickly centralized power in Cairo and, in a fit of Arab-socialist experimentation, appropriated foreign-owned businesses and extinguished the expatriate presence.

But unlike the New Yorker’s Stille, nostalgia for the era of pseudo-Parisian Alexandria was a source of consternation for Edward Said. It was a reminder that all too often, in the absence of a true national patrimony, a bourgeois desire for a glimpsed and forgotten heritage is nurtured—even if it was only tenuously theirs to begin with. Memoirs set in Alexandria have formed a subgenre of their own, often authored by Westerners who had spent time growing up in the city, feeding on the romantic table-scraps of Durrell, Forster, and C.P. Cavafy. The seduction of this nostalgia is apparent—recalling Alexandria’s multilingual newspapers, 16 in all, evokes the vitality of what was lost.

* * * * *

On a recent afternoon in Cairo, a major figure from the secular left recounted to me his struggles in dealing with Egypt's Islamic-tinged cultural provincialism. "My daughters are sopranos. I sent them to the best schools in Europe, but I cannot possibly explain this to the man on the street," he strained, his hand resting on a Macbook Air. At face value, this dilemma, and the struggles Mohamed ElBaradei encountered when Facebook images of his daughter in a swimsuit emerged, reveals a cultural problem that runs deeper than the recent Islamist revival. Between the misplaced nostalgia of yesteryear's Alexandriaphiles and the present Islamic-tinged xenophobia one can unfold a deepening civil catastrophe. This is the endpoint of a cultural gauntlet initiated by the militant-nationalist ethic (set against the war with Israel) that crushed the liberal arts, the failed pan-Arabist flirtation in the 1960s, then the long march of authoritarianism and its Islamist opponents that began under Sadat and came into its own with Mubarak.

Egypt’s present upper-class, whose culture can properly be called global, sends its children to American and international schools, then off to university abroad. It is the upper middle class, having traditionally formed a bedrock of cultural patronage, that is in question. This group has for many years retreated to the crumbling remains of once-great colonial clubs, most prominent among them Cairo's Gezira Sporting Club and the Alexandria Sporting Club.

Last month, on a crisp evening characteristic of Alexandria’s coastal clime (E.M. Forster: “Only the climate, only the north wind and the sea remain as pure as when Menelaus, the first visitor, landed upon Ras-el-Tin, three thousand years ago…”), I attended a lecture at the Alexandria Sporting Club, in which Saad el-Din Hilali, a scholar from Cairo’s Islamic Azhar University presented a defense of human rights and democracy at the club’s Squash Center. The audience, unlike the philosophizing crowd at, say, the literary Café Riche in Cairo, was dominated by veiled women, who often expressed assent via vigorous head-nod. But the idea itself of secular cultural praxis as the foundation of liberal democracy never crossed the topic of discussion. For Hilali, liberal democracy was reduced to a series of banal platitudes about human rights. It’s easy to sound like a democrat when you’re advocating the punishment of rapists, but much harder when defending the sanctity of blasphemy and apostasy.

* * * * *

Although the recent threat to Egypt’s creative and intellectual energies has come from below, with the grassroots emergence of Islamism, the original threat came from above: the state itself. In a 2005 visit to the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, I attended a forum on “The Future of Democracy in Egypt,” hosted by the law professor and future opposition party founder Osama Al Ghazali Harb. The conversation was tepid, although many people expressed abstract frustration with “the system.” Even though the session wasn’t (openly) recorded, everyone tiptoed around calling into question even the peripheral legitimacy of Mubarak's leadership. The Bibliotheca, with its assurances of independence, wasn’t a haven for unbridled criticism. In structuring the library as a unit of his Executive office, Hosni Mubarak avoided the hazards associated with institutions dedicated to thought and inquiry.

Things hardly got better. In 2008, Farouk Hosny, Egypt’s longtime culture minister and Mubarak lackey, venomously offered—in a session of Parliament, no less—that if there were any books by Israeli authors at the Alexandria library, “I will burn them myself.” A year later, with the library’s collection moldering in the low hundreds of thousands (out of a capacity of 8 million), Hosny entered the electoral contest for the chairmanship of UNESCO, the institution that originally backed the library. In a thrilling moment for the critics of cultural internationalism, he made it to the fifth round.

Today, in the post-revolutionary landscape, the Muslim Brotherhood has made numerous assurances of its support for free expression—but the recent censorship of popular films has put that narrative into question. And beyond the crooked lexicon of politics and policy we find some troubling underlying beliefs. In discussing the cultural agenda with some Islamists, I have on several occasions heard parroted, as if by appeasement, the falsely reassuring example of the Caliph Omar, who suspended Sharia law in a time of hardship and famine. The sinister implication is, of course, that open minds need only start worrying once bellies are fed. It is therefore not without cause that much of Egypt’s creative class has been up in arms. Last week in Cairo, an amalgamated group representing Egypt’s creative class formed the “Egyptian Creativity Front” to face the possibility of an Islamist retrenchment against free expression.

* * * * *

An early diagnosis of the cultural impact of the dual legacy of political repression and Islamist resurgence was developed by the Syrian writer Kamal Abu Deeb, an Oxford-educated poet and critic. Writing optimistically in a 1988 essay entitled “Cultural Creation in a Fragmented Society,” he argued that the eventual disintegration of state oppression and the ebbing of Islamist influence will usher in a culturally prosperous era:

"Arab culture has been dominated for centuries by ideology and authority. This domination turned cultural creation into an instrument for both ideology and authority or an instrument for one fighting against the other… There has not been a single period when a state of free search dominated the culture: a search for alternatives, for freedom of creation—of personal interaction with the world and interpretation of reality, of offering individual answers to the deeper questions facing humanity, both within society and, in a sense (maybe not very accurately) outside society, e.g., questions of a metaphysical nature."

So we return to the idea of Alexandria. The only true blueprint extant of this cultural openness, or at least its closest analog in modern Egyptian history, is the city in the first half of the twentieth century. Although its most productive and well-known auteurs then belonged principally to the West, the city has nonetheless since served as a muse for a generation of Egyptian novelists. This is a dynamic Alexandria: from the crumbling decadence conjured by Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz in his Miramar, with its dissection of Egypt’s socio-political and religious tensions set in a colonial pension, to the authoritarian city subverted by Syrian-Egyptian author Albert Cossery’s anti-establishment slackers and pranksters in The Jokers.

When the Institut D’Egypte, with its priceless Napoleonic manuscripts, burned in Cairo, it was the Bibliotheca’s Dr. Ismail Serageldin who was placed in charge of the recovery. With hopes dashed for the only other pretender to the role of Egypt’s cultural steward, deposed antiquities chief Zahi Hawass, done in by his coziness with the old order, eyes are increasingly turning to Alexandria. Recent institutional turmoil at the library, covered in these cyber-pages but ignored in the rest of the English-language press, should bring a measure of pause. But the possibility for an Alexandria-led revival is hardly foreclosed. In conjuring the positive memories of the cosmopolitan Alexandria of old, a possibility for regenerating a properly Egyptian eon of freedom is opened up.

The idea itself of cultural memory was (aptly) introduced by the Egyptologist Jan Assmann, who authored the seminal Das kulturelle Gedächtnis (Cultural Memory and Early Civilization). Citing the French sociologist Maurice Halbachs, Assmann later wrote that it was “the object of religion to maintain the remembrance of a time long past through the ages and without allowing it to be corrupted by intervening memories.” Here we find a key to the dual impulses governing culture in Egypt today: the Islamists’ yearning for medieval Baghdad, and the shattered nostalgia of the aging cosmopolitans. Both are unreasonable creeds in their own right, but only the latter, tempered by some hard realities, bears meaningful possibilities for the future. The key point isn’t to eulogize the lost romance of Alexandria, but rather to remember the framework of cultural freedom that allowed it to exist in the first place.

The scale of history provides us with a useful perspective for assessing where Egypt's society stands. Half a millennium elapsed between the Magna Carta and the French and American Revolutions. Yet in re-appropriating Alexandria’s lost cosmopolitan ethic, Egypt may be able to make up for lost time. With illiteracy rates placing the country in the top ten worldwide, it makes sense to render Alexandria, the seat across time of Egypt's most ambitious libraries, the mascot of a new revival. There are some encouraging signs. In a recent interview, the newly-appointed head of the National Library, Zein Abdel-Hadi, said, “We should build libraries in every part of Egypt… bread should be mixed with letters.” 


Mostafa Heddaya


N.B.: This article follows an investigation of the state of secular politics in Egypt, and references a post in our Sideshow blog reporting on recent developments at the Library of Alexandria. The original version was posted on 1/25/12, and slightly revised to reflect recent events on 2/2/12.