Three chapters from the first half of Alaa Khaled‘s meditation on the city of his birth وجوه سكندرية (Dar El Shorouk, 2012) [Alexandrian Faces]. One of the most important figures in the development of the prose poem in Egypt he has written six poetry collections, the first published in 1990 and the most recent in 2012, as well as five collections of prose (including this book) and one novel, ألم خفيف كريشة طائر ينتقل بهدوء من مكان لآخر (Dar Al Shorouk, 2009) [A faint pain like a bird’s feather moving gently from place to place]. He is the co-founder and editor of أمكنة [Places], an independent literary magazine issued out of Alexandria and concerned with place and location, which was started in 1990 by Khaled, his wife Salwa Rashad and Mohab Nasr.
We walked to change the scenery
In the eighties and nineties the nights of Alexandria were pinched and gloomy. You’d sit with friends at coffee shops, sitting so long you grew restless and knowing nowhere else to go. We were a generation searching for another place, for a way to break through to the surface of life. During this period a degree of dynamism and vibrancy was supplied by the theatrical troupes, home theatre shows and experimental performances which came to Alexandria every year or so. They kept the cultural history and legacy of Downtown alive.
At infrequent intervals you would get to see classical ballet or modern dance performed at the Sayyid Darwish Theatre, which was to close its doors for many years thereafter, where the remnants of those aristocratic and foreign families would make an appearance with women clad in furs. For the week of the Alexandria Film Festival you’d hang about the cafes nearby the cinemas studying the film programmes pinned up in their doors or squeeze yourself into darkened stalls with an audience drinking in scenes that had not passed through the hands of a censor. State television, the other films shown in the cinemas and a moral sensibility left over from the sixties all worked together to temper and tame the images and ideas beamed out to the helpless viewer’s eye. For this week, Downtown and its cafes came to life; there was a sense of gathering excitement in the air. Sometimes the foreign cultural centres—their once effective role in the city’s cultural life reduced to the beauty of their buildings and the sartorial elegance of their employees and visitors, so that one felt that they, too, had been forgotten by their respective governments—sometimes these centres put on film weeks showcasing their directors: unique opportunities to see films that would be the subject of intense discussion among friends for weeks, even years, to come. There was another society, on the verge of dying out, whose existence was bound to these centres, to the parties and dinners at which the same faces were seen time after time: cornerstones of a cultural scene saturated in opportunism and superficiality.
Away from the centres it was rare to see a foreigner of either sex sitting at a Downtown café or walking in the street. On one occasion I was at the Crystal Café with a friend of mine and on the pavement across the road from the shore I saw a young foreigner walking along with a sleeping bag on his back. I gave my friend a look of bewilderment, envy and admiration. In that instant I wished that in place of that young man it was I who was strolling through God’s green earth, a sleeping bag on my back and in my heart a roll-call of the cities that lay ahead.
The Cinema Club at the Atelier d’Alexandrie played its part in injecting a little liveliness into those dull nights and would invite directors and actors from Cairo to come and show their films. For the first time I got to see these stars up close and felt that Alexandria was part of some other place full of stars and lights and cameras. Until the mid-eighties the Atelier refused to accept new members, content with the old crop who represented the Alexandria of the first half of the twentieth century.
Yet despite everything, these activities took place in isolation, incapable of attracting or helping define a generation that sat waiting in the cafes and at home.
Cafes and friends were the two poles during this period of Alexandrian history. We were offspring of a generation that had chosen to live out its life in the city where it had come of age. Artists and writers before us had travelled to Cairo if they were successful, but those who stayed behind in the city, captives of its maternal presence, took up jobs in fields far removed from the arts—or rather they were taken, by the city’s silence and its threadbare nights, constructing for themselves cocoons permeated by a sense of inferiority.
We were trying to escape this fate.
Our nights were spent moving between Al Hagg Saleh’s café, the Al Wataniya Al Kubra café and bar, the Crystal, the Bawabeen café, the cafes of Anfoushi, the Sheikh Ali bar and the Abdel Karim café next to the Sidi Gaber train station—like we were on a journey. Within and out of these cafes an alternative cultural life came into being, full of debate and fury. Walking the streets shaped an alternative culture by itself: in the observing of life and leisurely attempts to draw closer. This life was absent from the books we read and we wanted to bring it back. We documented this life in photographs. We’d click and click, picture after picture after picture, then off to find a good quality developer and printer for our black and white film. This random strolling, these scenes and snaps and images, created a visual memory for the life we led back then, this period of going astray, of searching for a window, a way, an idea.
Once, quite by chance, we stumbled across the Jewish cemeteries by Khartoum Square. We gave the guard a few pounds and for days he let us alone to document the gravestones, the dried flowers scattered across them, the images of the dead and the words that bade them farewell. We continued to drop in on death: to the Roman tombs in Kom Al Shaqafa, to the Greek graveyards in Chatby. Death was witness to many levels and layers of the city, a plurality that we could not see clearly in our daily lives.
Changing the scenery was important. We only walked to change the scenery.
Just as any new generation needs another place it also needs a medium in which to express its ideas. For us, poetry was that medium, with all its historical heft: its rebellious spirit, desire for change, ideas that complemented our ambitions. What concerned us was poetry’s portrayals of the individual, of his concerns, his paths to self-realization and his relationship with wider society. Even the imaginative imagery which occupied a prominent place in the poetry of previous generations saw its unreality grow washed out and come apart, to be replaced by the “scene” or “incident” or “story”. Writing took on this narrative aspect because it was produced as you walked along outside, amid people and their surroundings. In the end you were a part of them. It adopted this visual memory, this documentary approach to life. In other words there was a return to reality and personal experience as the two sources of inspiration for writing and the visual image was the common denominator between literature and life.
At that time you would come across photography exhibitions only rarely. The realities of daily life in Alexandria were absent from all mediums, whether writing or films both old and new. Fine art exhibitions and the artists’ groups and schools were another manifestation of activity and vitality, yet the art itself had neither the time nor the technique to keep pace with, or give expression to, the change that was taking place around it, because it contained other ideas that were its chief preoccupation. Maybe it was documenting the life of ideas: purging reality of all detail then viewing it through complex, abstracted and highly structured filters.
Alexandria had a strictly curtailed geographical presence in cinema. In Kamal Al Sheikh’s Miramar and The Quail in Autumn, both set in Alexandria of the sixties, the only parts of the city that are committed to film are Downtown and its Italianate streets and buildings. Films about the sea, summer holidays and honeymoons looked to other icons such as the old Beau Rivage and San Stefano hotels, which both became famous and remained symbols of the city even after they were demolished. Dawoud Abdel Sayyid’s film The Wasters was perhaps the first to show another side of Alexandria: the Alexandria of port and alleyway, of Sadat’s free-market policies, of its marginalized classes and their relationship with the changes and transformations taking place all about them. Alexandria was headed for great change.
It was in the mid-eighties, I remember. I was with my friend, the late poet Osama Al Danasouri and we were sitting with a group of older poets at the Amm Mahmoud café in Downtown. They were talking about poetry in this overwrought way and fighting about it. For the first time I heard accusations like “X stole Y’s poem” and “So-and-so’s a plagiarist”—and they were discussing their day-to-day business in classical Arabic; even their jokes were lent this staid, poetic quality. I was greatly astonished at this little community, the extent of their attachment to poetry and the obsolete language they used. Perhaps they looked eagerly forward to a future in which they were hailed as the kings of verse: I never heard anything of them again. They put me in mind of Dead Poet’s Society, despite the differences between the build up and final result—both in life and the film. But what both life and the film had in common was the spirit of poetry, the thing that led the film’s young hero to his death because it had become a weapon against patriarchal authority. As for these poets, the spirit that possessed them had been gutted of all risk of death or danger and was turned as tame as a pussycat.
Gamal El Dowali
At the back-end of the eighties a series of slogans, penned in a beautiful and skillful hand and signed Gamal El Dowali,spread across the walls of Alexandria. Most of them took a political line, satirizing, indeed actively despairing at, the state that Egypt found itself in. The homeland goes for how much a metre? – The Wholesale Homeland Clearance Sale – Gamal El Dowali for President of the Republic. Occasionally he would drop the satire to voice an equally despairing adoration of Leila Elwi… I love Leila Elwi. As far as most people were concerned Gamal El Dowali was something of a phantom, for they only ever saw his traces on the walls and suspected that his name was cover for a number of individuals who feared punishment or pursuit. Every time the city’s agencies removed the graffiti we’d find new slogans daubed over the new coat of paint in exactly the same place, as though he were pursuing these agencies in turn, watching and waiting. Gamal El Dowali roamed the city as if in a poem: I pictured him wandering along and then an idea coming to him and, in place of paper, writing on the wall before the thought evaporated. Graffiti carries an implicit sense of protest and resentment: it calls on others to bear witness to your despair, and likewise to your love. Gamal El Dowali’s graffiti was concentrated in the old neighbourhoods, around the university campuses, Chatby and Glim, and other areas where he must have pictured his intended audience. These neighbourhoods were home to a high proportion of university students as well as members of the newly wealthy and politically powerful classes to whom Gamal directed his messages and who were perhaps the reason—in his view—for the “homeland” being put on sale at knock-down prices. So smart, bitter and witty to pick up on this link between commerce and country, on the citizen’s conversion into a commodity to be sold and circulated.
In his declaration of love for Leila Elwi, in his butting heads with the authorities, there was a kind of defiance, a challenge to the authorities or to love. Actress and homeland were linked by the impossible: it was impossible that Leila Elwi should ever love him; impossible that he should ever be a respected citizen who enjoyed the love of his country. One-way love: how shallow it must have felt. Yet did Gamal El Dowali ever consider that Leila Elwi might have read what he wrote, if only once, or heard about it and that when she did the thought of this vagabond lover might have angered her or made her happy? Angry or happy, feelings would have formed in Leila Elwi’s heart, feelings for him and about him—hatred, admiration, disdain—and maybe that is what he intended to happen: that under cover of these slogans and public declarations, feelings of some kind should be conveyed and exchanged, even at a remove. The moment in which he writes on the walls is a moment in which he is speaking face to face, in public, either to Leila Elwi or to the nation, and passing them both a message that contains at least some of his unvoiced feelings.
As the years passed and the writing continued to appear on the city’s walls, Gamal El Dowali entered the collective consciousness. His gags and slogans might not have been taken seriously but the sheer weight of repetition left you waiting for the next one. He was like the village lunatic who can say anything without fear because he takes shelter beneath his madness. Then, all of a sudden, Gamal El Dowali appeared in person, and one familiar to supporters of Al Ittihad. During a basketball match, broadcast live on television, Gamal El Dowali took off all his clothes and climbed down onto the court in front of the crowd and the viewers sitting at home in front of their televisions: a performance he wanted everyone to see. His desire to show himself, to strip himself and others naked, far outmatched his ability to keep quiet and stay seated, just another anonymous fan in the crowd. Maybe he’d sensed some kind of conspiracy against the Al Ittihad team: supporters of regional sides regularly experience this essentially political emotion which leads them to hate a system that supports and backs teams from the capital. For years Alexandrian Al Ittihad was unique in its hostility to the regime, after the club’s presidency was taken over by Dr. Mahmoud Al Qadi, an icon of the political opposition during Sadat’s time in power. Al Qadi left parliament after Sadat dissolved it in response to the powerful political movement generated by a uniquely gifted group of opposition figures whose influence and popularity was never to be equalled.
At Hagg Saleh’s café in Camp Cesar I got to see “Captain Rio” up close, Al Ittihad’s most important supporter… after “Captain Beast”. He was always to be found in the company of a group of fellow fans discussing club news and mulling over the fine detail of backroom machinations. The bond of friendship that had developed between them was deeper than all other ties and there was an emotional pull to ball, green grass and club, stronger than the program of any political party: it was a mutually felt desire, which made supporting your side into an addiction that flowed with the blood in your veins. Gamal Al Dowali was one of the supporters who orchestrated the terraces, the kind whose talents only appear in a crowd. Formerly it was political leaders in their varying degrees who performed this front-rank role, and their talents, too, would only appear in crowds; only in crowds would they achieve self-realisation.
As Al Ittihad declined as a force in basketball, a sport whose golden age came during the eighties and nineties when the club would beat sides from the capital, and with the continuous setbacks suffered by its football team, maybe Gamal El Dowali despaired—the man who wrote of his club’s supporters (of its supporters, not its players): Al Ittihad’s Fans are Lords of the Land, honouring a public that had lost hope of victory and yet still loved their team.
Gamal El Dowali’s slogans disappeared from the streets and walls but have made a tentative return in recent years alongside Islam is the Solution, The Hijab, the Hijab, O Sisters and Boycott American Products. They no longer had their old impact and they became rarities to be sniffed out, concentrated in the area around his first love, Al Ittihad. With the passing years I’ve lost the desire to keep up with his news. Maybe he was still out there playing some new part but without feeling the need to advertise it: the unknown soldier, seated amid the crowds of supporters and calling out the traditional chant of his tribe: Al Ittihad! Al Ittihad!
The book and the sea
In Ramadan I like to walk along the Corniche. I choose the ideal time for that month, those hours between the afternoon and sunset prayers. On my way I encounter exercisers in all their many varieties: from those prompted by fasting to find a way to kill time, to those who structure their lives around exercise both during Ramadan and the rest of the year, then those who take up walking to find quietude: a peace that might open the gates of faith.
There is also a crowd sitting down facing directly out over the sea, their backs to the street and reading God’s Book. This always brings me up short, this phenomenon, one that is never so heavily subscribed as in Ramadan: everyone reading the same book with all their differences in education, age and understanding; with their differing degrees of intelligence and comprehension everyone believes in this book. It is a qibla for the imagination and consciousness of many, emitting invisible cords which bind human imagination and religious text together. The act of reading generates a sense of participation—you are reading and the other fellow is participating in this reading at a distance. The text is open before the eyes, hearts and understanding of others and is certainly capable of being interpreted by them. Though you are reading it alone, your faith in your own understanding is derived from your faith in these others, for this is a communal book.
The imaginary space in which you swim when reading God’s Book also becomes a locus of connection between yourself and the imagination of others. It manufactures a communal imagination. Every soul has a readable reference point located outside itself, in which it takes refuge and to which it is drawn. There, the soul sees its written image: it listens to it in times of crisis, converses with it, asks it for salvation, or tries extracting from it a promise of Paradise.
I believe that one of the goals of religions is to manufacture a notional centre for the collective imagination, a centre that generates specific emotions within its audience of believers. Despite the differences that divide individual humans there is a space created by religion (in which, with varying impact, it is joined by the arts, philosophies and great stories), a space for sensing, understanding and questioning: it facilitates communication and conversation at the level of quotidian concerns and feelings, and also at a deeper level of feelings and hidden symbolism. Every people has a book, and as the number of those who believe in it and read it grows, their understanding and the book’s ability to be universal and plural and to voice their concerns, grows too. For they are part of its makeup: without them sacred speech would hang suspended beneath the heavens and the earth.
I spent years sitting by the sea reading everything: poetry, novels and philosophy. On many a page a phrase would bring me up short, a sentence either beautiful or shocking or mysterious or complex and I would return it to the sea. I would return it to its primal image. Any book is but part of a perfect, unseen world. At the sea, two worlds stand opposed: the world of letters and the world of meanings. Any book carries much greater meaning than letters alone: the world of meanings, images and judgments—all of an immaterial nature—transmuted to a part of human memory. Any book is part of the universe, and at the sea every book returns to its universality, to the collective imagination in which we all meet.
My mother, God rest her soul, would always tell me, those times I’d chafe at her excessive kindness and tolerance: “Do the right thing then throw it out to sea…” Why the sea of all things? Was it because we lived in a city by the sea, or was it because the sea was the only thing capable of understanding and appreciating and accommodating this “right thing”, never letting it slip from its memory though others might forget? Here, the sea is your reward, because it will forever remember your kindness for you: forgotten actions have a place where they can meet; one of the mirrors of the collective imagination.
Why have all these people come to the seashore to read the Quran? Beyond doubt there is an unconscious sense on their part that the place is close to God. All places are close to God, but facing the sea we stand before one of the primal heroes of creation: water. This awe-inspiring quantity of water, this expanse: you feel that you are living through an instant of creation both new and old at once–and the story of creation is one of the pillars of God’s Book. Facing the sea, Quran in hand the reader returns in his imaginings to that ancient time, a time of creation and beginnings.