fragments of the white city by the sea

words & images paola garcia

In 2011, I fell in love with the city of Alexandria while reading a book: The Alexandria Quartet, by British writer Lawrence Durrell. Justine, the first volume, is narrated by an unnamed, struggling Irish writer and schoolteacher who lives on a remote Greek island. He tells of his time spent in Alexandria and of his tragic romance with Justine—a beautiful, rich, mysterious Jewish woman who is married to a wealthy Egyptian Copt named Nessim.

I found myself going over certain passages of Justine again and again and constantly dreaming of “the bride of the sea,” as some affectionately call Alexandria. I imagined myself waking up in the Cecil Hotel, the setting of many of the book’s scenes, and opening my bedroom’s French doors. I imagined myself stepping out onto a white balcony to bask in the turquoise splendor of the Mediterranean, and then later writing at a mahogany desk, as Durrell must have, and staring out at the sea for hours, when the words did not come. Alexandria became magical in my imagination, and thus a strong urge to be in that city came upon me.

I began making my plans to visit Egypt right in the midst of the post-revolution bedlam that the country was experiencing in 2011. Although the US government had issued one of its travel advisories, cautioning Americans to avoid the country entirely, I had to see Alexandria, the White City by the Sea, and did not want to wait. I disregarded these warnings, inspired by poetry and a sense of adventure: “In the great quietness of these winter evenings there is one clock: the sea. Its dim momentum in the mind is the fugue upon which this writing is made.” It was the right decision and the best trip of my life.

Egypt is not an easy country and, on a trip like this, things can either work perfectly or go terribly wrong. I traveled to Egypt alone, but felt confident that I would meet great people there. I knew many Egyptians back home in New York, and was familiar with their culture, and, most importantly, with their music. Luckily, my intuition was right and, from the moment I landed in Cairo, where a friend of a friend picked me up at the airport, to the last moment of my two-month stay, Egyptians I had never met before took care of me with a degree of warmth and friendship that I did not know existed.

Because I had fantasized for years about going to Egypt, when I finally got there it felt surreal, like being in a dream. To say that Cairo is chaotic and vibrant is an understatement. There is nothing quite like it. The first thing I noticed in the streets of Cairo was the incessantly loud noise coming from the merciless beeping of car horns, people yelling at one another over the traffic madness, and the loud, modern Egyptian music shrieking from the car speakers that were competing with the Vespas blasting the classical hypnotic melancholy songs of Umm Kualthoum.

Ehab, who picked me up at the airport, knew that I loved Arabic music and had prepared a mix for me, with plenty of Amr Diab, Nancy Ajram, and other such trendy singers. I felt elated, driving through the night and into the lights of Cairo, blaring music to its air like the rest of the locals. Despite the long flight, Cairo filled me with enormous amounts of an almost electric energy. I could not stop smiling, singing, or dancing in the car; to Ehab’s surprise, I actually knew most of the songs.

My new friends in Cairo had told me that I would be able to see Alexandria in two to three days, and had expected me back quickly. To their surprise, weeks later, I was still in “Alex.” Yes, Cairo is the queen of cities, massive and endlessly fascinating, but Alexandria has a charm and magic that deeply penetrated my soul. Alexandria is poetry. It has the sea and its famous Corniche, which borders the Mediterranean and is crammed with fishermen, regular citizens, girls in fuchsia hijabs, peasants renting out their brightly colored boats to tourists, and idle men smoking and catcalling foreigners and locals alike. Not to mention its impressively modern library, which I visited every morning. But most importantly: Alexandria has the ghost of Constantine Cavafy, a Greek poet I greatly admire.

In the early to mid-1900s, Alexandria was home to many poets and writers, such as E.M. Forster, who had attempted to unveil the city’s secrets and its different historical periods to the reader in his Alexandria: A History and a Guide. But it was Cavafy who was at the center of Alexandria’s heyday. And it is thanks to Cavafy that Lawrence Durrell wrote his brilliant Alexandria Quartet, since Cavafy insisted that Durrell write about the city.

I had booked my stay in Alexandria at the Cecil Hotel, which represented to me the now-defunct opulence and cosmopolitanism of Alexandria’s glorious past, which was still palpable in its streets and in the wilting magnificence of its architecture. The Cecil was built in 1929, and its ornate but now tarnished beauty evoked images of luxurious travels by train, jazz music, and elegant cocktail hours in the 1940s at Monty’s Bar. This hotel seemed to be frozen in time, which is exactly what I was hoping for. The grand mirror, now rusted, where Justine and her lover, Arnauti, locked gazes in Durrell’s novel, still remained in the Cecil’s lobby, and even its original wood-paneled elevator was still in use, bringing passengers up and down inside its baroque, wrought-iron cage.

The hotel is located in Saad Zaghloul Square, home to the Opera House, which is well preserved despite being basically out of commission. Right outside of the Cecil, there are “hantour” [horse carriage] drivers warmly greeting you and asking to drive you around the city in their old-fashioned style. I recommend accepting; it is a necessary part of experiencing Alexandria. In this Square, there are also a few cafes that are a local source of pride because they are important “characters” in Naguib Mahfouz’s novel Miramar.

The first place I visited in Alexandria was, of course, Cavafy’s home, which is now a museum. To my surprise, almost nobody I asked knew where it was or that it even existed. When my friend Andre and I finally found it, we met the caretaker of the museum, Mohammed Said. He showed us around Cavafy’s home, which was plain and quite empty, with little art and spartan decorations. A few books remained on the shelves, some of which were copies of Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet and E.M. Forster’s Alexandria: A History and a Guide. There were also some manuscripts of Cavafy’s sensual poetry, which I photographed for my best friend, a Peruvian poet who also loves his work. Mohammed Said was knowledgeable and passionate about Cavafy’s life and verses, and complained to us about the fact that Cavafy’s relatives, with help from the Greek government, had taken most of the valuable books, manuscripts, and even furniture back to Greece. Said was disappointed because he said that Cavafy loved Alexandria more than Greece, and that this action by the Greeks was wrong. He was also upset that the only people who visited the museum were Greek tourists.

Because Cavafy was gay and much of his poetry is erotic, and given the strong Salafi presence in Alexandria, it is not surprising that little to no attention is given to Cavafy’s life and work. As Daniel Williams points out, “perhaps it’s the inevitable fate of a poet who viewed Alexandria as less of a real place than a stimulating figment of the mind.”

This view that Cavafy had of Alexandria is contagious, and one can sense it in Durrell’s writing also: Alexandria as an imaginary city. During my weeks there, I, too, began to think of Alexandria as a state of consciousness, as the stage for the many ghosts and eras that are still alive in my mind, and generally, as a dream, rather than a real place. There are coexisting and seemingly bottomless levels to Alexandria’s reality: This city is hundreds of cities in one. But, it also gives the eerie impression of not really existing. Each day spent in its streets, amidst the light of its people’s eyes, the smell of fresh fish, and its orange sunsets by the Stanley Bridge strengthened my conviction that, regardless of the number of visits, I may never truly know Alexandria (there are too many Alexandrias to know) because the layers of this city are as deep as the ocean.

***

You tell yourself: I’ll be gone
To some other land, some other sea,
To a city far lovelier than this
Could ever have been or hoped to be—
Where every step now tightens the noose:
A heart in a body buried and out of use:
How long, how long must I be here
Confined among these dreary purlieus
Of the common mind? Wherever I look
Black ruins of my life rise into view.
So many years have I been here
Spending and squandering, and nothing gained.
There’s no new land, my friend, no
New sea; for the city will follow you,
In the same streets you’ll wander endlessly,

The same mental suburbs slip from youth to age,

In the same house go white at last—
This city is a cage.
No other places, always this

“The City”
—Constantine Cavafy

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