The message in Lawrence Durrell’s massive Alexandria Quartet is easy to make simplistic. The city, he might have said, is a whore. Cities, of course, especially when they prosper, or have any kind of long history, are often whores. From Balzac’s Paris to Camus’ Algiers and even Terry Pratchett’s Ankh Morpork: they’re all whores. Why Durrell needed 500 pages and even more metaphors to say this is a moot point. He does it so brilliantly, though, that the metaphors roll off the tongue, like, well, metaphors. The narrator reflects:
And yet, strangely enough, it’s only here that I am at last able to re-enter, reinhabit the unburied city with my friends; to frame them in the heavy steel webs of metaphors which will last half as long as the city itself –or so I hope. Here at last I am able to see their history and the city’s as one and the same phenomenon.
The city, then, can’t be grasped for the writer except through metaphor.
Academic scholarship on cosmopolitan Alexandria in the past two decades has famously divided into two camps. These might be called the “nostalgic cosmopolitanists” and the “anti-nostalgic cosmopolitanists”. Despite being ostensibly on opposite sides, this scholarship often seems a dialogue in double mirrors. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the discussion of Durrell.
For the anti-nostalgic cosmopolitanists, Durrell’s metaphor –the city is a whore– has been found wanting. It isn’t right for a white man to describe an Oriental whore, the issue not being in the whoring or the mimesis, but in Orientalism, in who performs the mimesis. Approving of Durrell, this view decides, is being complicit with colonialism. The city is a whore inasmuch as it was in the service of the Europeans –the natives, virtuously, didn’t seem to have much to do in this scenario except change the bed sheets and disappear down the rabbit holes of cosmopolitan Alexandrian history. These include the rabbit holes of Durrell’s own novel in which, the academic critique continues, “real” Arabs are marginal figures. Such academic discourses –high on nationalist euphoria and laden with righteousness– find it easy to write off Durrell’s characters as elitist (because “elitist” must be an accusation, even coming from elite academics) and European (although Durrell’s characters aren’t all European, and in any case because Europeans, it seems, shouldn’t feature in an Egyptian narrative except as hated colonizers). Had Durrell, with his well-placed satire of Egyptian bureaucrats in Mountolive, been of Egyptian nationality, the opinion would have probably been different. (Edwar al-Kharrat, for example, is approved by these scholars, whereas Durrell is not. Tellingly, when both novelists died, Alexandria didn’t publicly mourn either of them). As it is, the Quartet is found to be non-representative and the Durrell-approvers are hoist with their own Europhile petard.
A scholar like Halim, although she is not the only one who takes this view, spells it out:
Silenced in and excluded from this prevailing narrative of [nostalgic] cosmopolitanism are the Egyptians who constituted the majority of the city’s population and its labor force. An attendant lacuna, particularly in literary critical and broadly cultural studies, is the insufficient attention to the materiality of Alexandria, in the sense of the actual city and the class dynamics within it in relation to ethnicity. When an Alexandrian is designated a cosmopolite, it is virtually always the case that he or she is non-Egyptian or at least of mixed descent –which betrays the extent of the collusion of this cosmopolitanism with colonialism.
There follows a mention, again not unique to Halim, about Egypt’s “foreigners” who “left” Egypt in the sixties –though the unquestioned past simple is hers. In Halim’s account, Nasser’s “nationalization” (because if we call it what it was, that would be judging it too harshly) of assets belonging to the British and French (only the British and the French are mentioned, there’s nothing about the others) is even described as the “Egyptianization” of the economy, because apparently appropriation by a new ruling class is something very different from exploitation in the feudal system. So much for resisting complicit authoritarianism.
Today the legacy of the political and economic decisions of the 1960s lies before us. Despite the terrible political weaknesses and dangers that Egypt found itself in in the middle of the twentieth century, one wonders if the kind of political governance ceded to Alexandria post-1954 through which it ended up as some sort of provincial third cousin to Cairo was the only possibility. Surely some other mode of political governance could have given the city’s inhabitants some sort of political autonomy or self-determination in Egypt.
Neither camp, however, is interested in complexities.
The phrase Alexandria ad Aegyptum, for example, used to spot treacherous separatism by the anti-nostalgics and wishful separatism by the nostalgic camp, could be read more deeply and simply as a mode of city self-regulation and Mediterranean braggadocio. Similarly, the phrase “Hellenizing cultural mission,” used often by the anti-nostalgics, moves sweepingly over a thousand years of eternally repeating patterns of empire from pax Romana to pax Britannica into pax Hellenica. Empire in the pre-modern age should not be judged by the same moral yardstick as empire post-Enlightenment, and culture primarily becomes imperialist with the backing of military power, which the Greek state (itself occupied) did not have in modern Alexandria. Meanwhile, misuses of terms like “nationalism” and “internationalism” interweave the pigeon-holing of inhabitants according to a “nationality” (in this case, Egyptian), which was actually a legality whimsically and brutally decided through the first half of the century for people across the Eastern Mediterranean.
Historical fallacies about Egypt’s political economy of the time also beset these discussions, some of which themselves seem nostalgic of the Nasser period when Egypt seems to have had a louder internationalist bark than it does today. There is a double moral standard, however, particularly strong in the anti-nostalgic camp, in accepting the cultural process of Arabization/Islamicization in Alexandria (and the two, eventually, with Nasser’s initiative, became the same, whether we like it or not) at the hands of forcible re-structuring and hard power, but rejecting Alexandria’s hybridization through foreign investment and feudalism –as if Arabization/Islamicization was an inevitable political destiny and not a choice.
Above all, what is commonly repeated is that Durrell’s novels are unrepresentative.
An interesting political opinion on literature is implied here. A novel, it seems, has no duty except to be demographically representative. The assumption is perhaps, that a novel should resemble a tin of Quality Street: pleasing to everyone and heavy on the fudge.
Since politics, rightly, are going to be taken into consideration, what is most startling in these academic accounts is their own complicit silence: specifically, their refusal to show horror at the development of Alexandria’s situation in the past seventy years. This is a horror that needs to be shown. We can of course, continue to discuss (and criticize) the Holy Trinity of Durrell, Cavafy and Forster while sprinkling in some Arabic writings as representative quota. We can be the ‘new’ Arab cosmopolites. This Americanized-Arab cosmopolitanism, so reminiscent of a politically-correct quota system, holds no more ethical value, however, than the previous Europeanized-Arab cosmopolitanism. It is equally unrepresentative and equally unrealistic.
Seventy years of Egyptian sovereignty later: which camp speaks for Alexandria’s ruined infrastructure? Who can defend the death knell given to the city by Nasser and sustained by subsequent governments? Who speaks for the current Alexandrian cesspit, this polluted, over-populated city of waste?
With what kind of conscience, knowing Alexandria’s destroyed economic capacity, can we speak of 1960s Alexandria without acknowledging the devastating consequences of economic decisions taken in the 1950s and 1960s, such as taking over the banking sector, seizing the companies on the stock market, forbidding imports and foreign exchange (which dismantled the port as well as local factories based on imported materials like leather and paper), and seizing private property and siphoning it off to centralised government projects, thereby robbing the city of its livelihood?
There is no denying the imperative necessity of the welfare state, nor the importance of its massive expansion by Nasser in the 1950s and 1960s. Seventy years onwards, there is no denying either the inadequacies and dangers of the Arabized public education system and the public hospitals. In face of the lack or inadequacy of the state, non-state workers have historically always operated in Egypt to provide services for the the community. Yet the anti-nostalgic camp is the first to gloss over as minimal or self-serving the scope of public work of the various non-Arab and non-Muslim groups in Alexandria a hundred years ago, who created hospitals, schools, newspapers, and waqfs precisely because of the absence of a welfare state. Inevitably and necessarily, these institutions ended up operating well beyond the outreach of the communities’ immediate families.
Knowing the exclusionary norms of Egyptian citizenship and the operations of the deep state, how can we gloss over the violations of human rights, from freedom of mobility and legal representation to the freedom to own property and to seek refuge and residence, in Nasserite acts of expulsion, state-approved persecutions and appropriation? How can we, as we speak of cosmopolitanism, gloss over the censorship of the public sphere and the centralization of the media viciously launched by Nasser, which robbed the port city of its potential open-sea ability to resist what would be an onslaught of hyper-Arabized, xenophobic propaganda? Who speaks for the rerouting of capital to Cairo and the gradual choking of even the most minimal scope of action for Alexandrian enterprise under the centralization of the Egyptian state, and during which the children of Alexandria’s older families were –and there is no other word for it– dispossessed of a future?
The Durrell conceptualisation of Alexandria, that romantic, sensual, whoring Oriental by an ostensibly European sea, is neither known on a popular level, nor necessarily accepted by younger Alexandrian readers. It is no coincidence that Villa Ambron itself, in which Durrell lived, was torn down post-2011 (in spite of the few uncelebrated Alexandrians who bravely protested, as they have against other demolitions). The Quartet is simply alien in a city that has become grotesquely ugly. Although the negligence started decades ago, after 2011, the majority of the early-twentieth-century buildings were torn down and replaced with shaky high-rise buildings in the complete absence of real zoning laws, a phenomenon that can be described, to hijack a Durrell metaphor, as gang-raping the whore. Agricultural lands and marsh land, once on the outskirts of the city, have been filled and built up with hundreds of thousands of units, the majority of which are unlicensed. It is the first time in Alexandria’s living memory that the tall red brick buildings with unfinished facades so reminiscent of Cairo can be seen on the Alexandrian skyline. What academia can speak for Alexandria’s current ugliness, the latest mega project of which has been the construction of an oversized bridge in the centre of the city, placed like a second-storey over the corniche road, with high rises appearing on either side like some demented cement dystopia, in order, of all things, to build an underground parking lot, thus destroying an otherwise uninterrupted 20-kilometer Mediterranean waterfront? Aesthetically, a Mediterranean city (griminess and vicious seagulls included) is a thing of beauty. The sea is the seat of the sublime. It takes great skill to have brought the coastal city to this state of ugliness and economic incompetence. But the Egyptian state has done it, relentlessly and ruthlessly over decades. If the decisions of the 1960s had deprived older Alexandrian families of their future, the urban destruction of the city in the past six years has dispossessed Alexandrians of their history. From the so-called capital of memory, in seventy years Alexandria has become the capital of waste –and we can’t even blame anyone for bombing us, not even the US, which seems to have bombed everyone else around us at least once.
In short, we have no one to blame but ourselves –but academia isn’t really going there. Nor does the scholarship compare Alexandria to Mediterranean cities north and south of the sea, like Athens or the much wealthier Naples, which have their own share of nostalgic literatures (and anti-nostalgic academics) but who are also focusing on the history of their political problems and their angry youth. The academic discourse on cosmopolitan Alexandria, whether it supports breaking the egg from the pointed end or the round one, doesn’t seem fussed about accountability or action, just the representational quality of the literature.
On Metaphors and Incapability of Action
Nothing remains of Durrell’s Alexandria. Perhaps it never existed. Novels don’t claim to speak the truth. As Durrell had hoped, however, only the metaphors remain. Strangely enough, it is only in the pages of these fictions that the city can seem liveable. “Only the city,” Durrell tells us, “is real”. For the city’s more prosaic, real life inhabitants, metaphors and mimesis are inadequate, even unfamiliar –but they leave us, the children of Alexandria and the rest of the ruined cities of the Mediterranean– with a glimpse of the sea and a longing for other shores, a glimpse as equally familiar, breath-taking, and maudlin as our reality is repulsive.
In describing a city that was dying, the Quartet also gives us, in horrific hindsight, the inevitability of Alexandria’s fate for lack of shared political governance: our destruction, our extinction, our inheritance of loss. This Angel-of-history moment, although there is nothing angelic about it, along with a feeling of political impotence, can easily generate nostalgia. Nostalgia of course isn’t particularly effective, and the anti-nostalgic camp is completely right to criticize this.
A group of new writers has recently emerged whom we might call the “angry cosmopolitanists”. Styling themselves more as Young Turks, possibly because they glorify the spirit of January 2011 and, like most of Alexandria’s residents, are quite young in age, this group of writers and cultural workers have found Walter Benjamin particularly resonant. Unlike the other two camps, they depend on social media and group meetings to publish their work rather than on print publications and conferences, and often write or present in Arabic. Most of them would agree that literature on Alexandria of the first half of the twentieth century seems idealized and unreal, as if in the eighty years straddling either side of the twentieth century, there existed a magical paradise by the Mediterranean where time stood still. To long for a lost paradise that never existed, the Angel of history would need to be blind as well as helpless. In criticizing this blindness, both the anti-nostalgic camp and the angry cosmopolitanists are certainly justified. This doesn’t explain, however, why, for our angry cosmopolitanists, discussing Walter Benjamin, often with the backing of European grants, is keepin’ it real, while Lawrence Durrell is elitist and unrealistic.
Moreover, what no camp has come up with yet is how academic cosmopolitanism translates “on the street”, so to speak, (although the Young Turks are certainly interested in this) particularly with cosmopolitanism’s inherent premise of political secularism. Secularism here is defined, in the Egyptian manner, as religious pluralism or pluralist co-existence rather than a strict separation of religion and state. Already conservative, Alexandria will only increase in conservatism with the steady inflow of rural emigration and influx of Gulf income, that is, social mobility with no coherent legal structure of an open society. In a conservative city, academic cosmopolitanism doesn’t translate well into “cosmopolitanism of the street” because academic cosmopolitanism has no way to include the religiously conservative majority of the city. If directly condemning religious conservatism appears as discriminatory behaviour, refuting it in dialogue is nearly impossible, since there is no legal structure to ensure pluralism or civil liberties (there are only national plaudits about Egyptian pluralism). Schielke points out in an article, for example, that a Salafi would generally never be described as cosmopolitan by Alexandria’s academics. That may be a weakness of the cosmopolitanists, but it is also self-defence. The final test of cosmopolitanism is whether it remains pluralist once it turns into formal policy. The religious groups in Egypt, specifically the Muslim Brothers, supported by and nearest in line to whom are the Salafis, have not proved themselves to be pluralist policy makers, but they have, unlike the cosmopolitanists, found a majority vote.
Simply put: the city will remain conservative as long as there is no legal structure that guarantees pluralism. How to define the already existing pluralism when it does appear? Academically, one historian of cosmopolitan Alexandria has offered a solution. With his recent focus on the conflicts over nationality in police records, Will Hanley discusses the precise moments when national affiliation appeared as a problem for non-elite, non-Arab, and non-Muslim citizens, and thus has more sensibly than anyone offered an example of a cosmopolitan (specifically, legally pluralist) Alexandrian archive in the period from 1880-1917. By showing where the legal problems for full citizenship lie, there might be a future solution. For those who were not historically offered solutions, however, there is still nostalgia. We are back to Durrell.
In general, nostalgia isn’t useful. For lack of an alternative, however, it does have its uses. It isn’t art’s responsibility to give anyone reality. For that, what the Alexandrians may have needed in the past seventy years is an artistic public space for political action: the conjunction of politics and letters. The responsibility for providing political quotas can’t be placed on the art. The art will always be alien, even useless. Enter nostalgia: and the reason for the lingering longevity of these texts in the local domains they have ceased to represent. In the absence of clear political agency, the literature reminds those of us who can read the texts that we are here, we existed, that there is an inherent Mediterraneanness in this city of concrete walls by the sea. Our nostalgia is our resistance to a state we can’t reform. This is where the work of the nostalgic cosmopolitanists has actually been effective. Acting on the impetus to reclaim a hold on the shores of the Mediterranean, the past decade has witnessed a generating of paper histories, coffee table books, memoirs, and maps –piecemeal archives, all drowning in nostalgia. These are supplemented with documentaries in which the remaining handfuls of Greek-Egyptians, Italian-Egyptians, or Shawam-Egyptians all insist: we are here, we exist. All this has undoubtedly helped raise the generations of scholars on Alexandria who are even now rebelling against romanticised representations of the city.
Again, while the critique of nostalgia is vital, the problem is that to dismiss these stories of nearly extinct communities who have tenaciously hung on to their city of memory as being unrealistic, irrelevant or minor cases (their numbers instead should be an embarrassment to Egypt’s mainstay nationalist slogan of religious unity) is also to deny the reality –present or past– of a Mediterranean country. As war returns to the cities of the Eastern Mediterranean, new refugees remind us that high-scale expulsion, exile, persecution, and migration historically underlie the Mediterranean. Syrian migrants and refugees, who are relatively minimal in Egyptian figures (about 150,000 in 2013) are still easily visible, but they are not noted for having a presence in the city. This is cosmopolitanism in action. In other words, what is notable is how the newness of their presence has rubbed off so quickly. This new integration, historically characteristic of this region, is its saving trait of pluralism, and is crucial to oppose its equally traditional legal xenophobia. This deserves cosmopolitan attention (not least because of other refugees, such as those from Africa, who have not settled in as easily). Or do we dismiss the realities of the new migrants until they too, turn into fictions we can fight over in the academy?
Durrell Again and Again
It is thus no wonder that in a city where nothing seems constant, Alexandria’s literary fictions seem preferable to representations of reality. For residents who identify themselves consciously and historically as Alexandrians, those who have to spend more time in traffic than should ever happen for a city this size; those who are professionally educated but are disabled from seeking better means of livelihood; those who have to live with coasts that for reasons of political mismanagement are destroyed by the waste of endless hordes of people in summer, and those who have to live with flooded streets in winter; those whom the media has rarely covered in the past few decades because the large stations were centralized and moved to Cairo; those whose historic downtown will only be saved if the real estate can be rented out to globalized-mulch cafes or else it will be torn down faster than you can blink; those whose town council is rarely from Alexandria; those whose much vaunted port exists only as a shadow of its former glory (even in its new expanded version) and is used primarily to transport supplies to the factories of the “industrial zone” in Borg el Arab; those of us who know where the haunted house in Roushdy is (though that too was built up) and how the owner of Petros Café died and what happened to the bust on the front lawn of the Greek Hospital and when the best season for swimming in Agami is and how to spit a watermelon seed the farthest on the beach; those who know when to eat granita (winter, not summer), when to go for a walk (when it’s raining not sunny), what to order as mezze (Bsaria or Atherina, not peanuts); those who are trying to retain our link to the Mediterranean public space by the smallest, most insignificant acts of resistance such as sustaining a joggers movement along the corniche so more women can use it unmolested, or joining a divers’ club so more locals can use the water, or starting a Facebook group on Alexandrian scholarship so as to disseminate free knowledge among the Alexandrian public; for those Alexandrians, well, the city is a whore. We sleep with the whore and we are the whore. In our lack of political scope of action, our city is lost to us, and its fate is lost to us. As Durrell says, quoting the Arabic proverb: “Life is like a cucumber, today it is in your hand, tomorrow up your arse”. That randomness is all that is left us. Arab, Islamic, Cairene…all that medley is not our only history, except our history is continuously destroyed by the climate, both environmental and political. And no academic discourse about cosmopolitan Alexandria has emerged to express the terrifying inevitability of this quotidian.
 Lawrence Durrell, Justine (London: Faber & Faber, 2000) 101.
 Roughly divided: the nostalgics include works like those by Sahar Hamouda, Mohamed Awad, Michael Haag, Robert Ilbert, and Ilios Yannakakis. The anti-nostalgics include writings like those of Khaled Fahmy and Hala Halim. For an excellent wrap up of these debates and an urban understanding of contemporary Alexandria, see Samuli Schielke, “Where is Alexandria?: The East of the City and the Chinese Housing.” <https://samuliegypt.blogspot.com.eg>.
 See all of those in footnote 3, in addition to John Rodenbeck, “Alexandria in Cavafy, Durrell, and Tsirkas”, Alif 21 (2001) 141-60. <http://www.jstor.org/stable/1350026>.
 Hala Halim, Alexandrian Cosmopolitanism: An Archive (NY: Fordham UP, 2013) 22. See also Khaled Fahmy, “For Cavafy, with Love and Squalor: Some Critical Notes on the History an Historiography of Modern Alexandria”, Alexandria Real and Imagined, eds. Anthony Hirst and Michael Silk (London: Ashgate, 2004) 263-80.
 Elsewhere, Khaled Fahmy simply describes the “expulsions” as “unjustified”, much as if the whole thing was a passing incident, like losing one’s temper. What about British occupation? He asks. So there. See “The Essence of Alexandria”, Manifesta Journal online 14 < http://www.manifestajournal.org/issues/souvenirs-souvenirs/smell-alexandria-archiving-revolution-0#>. N.pag., d ston Zananiri, etc. 263-80; also, ng people who protested againstms.ribal bragging makes me point out is actually given over.
 Robert Ilbert, Ilios Yannakakis, and Jacques Hassoun, Alexandria 1860-1960: The Brief Life of a Cosmopolitan Community, d ston Zananiri, etc. 263-80; also, ng people who protested againstms.ribal bragging makes me point out is actually given over (Alexandria: Harpocrates, 1992).
 The best summary of all this younger work is Schielke’s article, which helpfully links to various pieces posted online. Some of these discussions also invariably converge in the Alexandria Scholars Facebook page <https://www.facebook.com/groups/AlexandriaScholars/>, which, tribal pride makes me point out, is actually given over to intellectual discussion, and not, like the Cairo Scholars page, dedicated to ads for real estate and shared rooms.
 I refer here particularly to work produced by organisations such as the Alexandria and Mediterranean Research Centre (ALEXMED), in the Library of Alexandria, whose list of publications <https://www.bibalex.org/alexmed/Publication/default.aspx?type=2> has been dwarfed by the major digitisation project of Alexandria’s archives by Centre d’Etudes Alexandrines (CEALEX: <http://www.cealex.org>) created by Jean-Yves Empereur.
 UNHCR, WFP and UNICEF report: <https://reliefweb.int/report/egypt/joint-assessment-syrian-refugees-alexandria-egypt-february-2013>.