Monday, 17 October 2011


Vinous cafe has the air of a mausoleum. Two people sit leagues apart at separate tables. Its high ceilings, art nouveau mirrors and empty carved glass cabinets give the impression of an English country house waiting for new occupants to move in. Its last Greek owner died several years ago, and its Egyptian owner can't afford to return it to the thriving cafe and patisserie it once was, despite the nostalgic charm of its interior   On the corner of Nabi Daniel street and Tariq-al-Horreya, Vinous  is ideally situated to catch the late night audiences of the nearby Opera House and the Arts Creative Centre, formerly a private club.  All of them were frequented by Durrell and were within a short walk from his office at the British Council in Seios Stias street.   

He was a regular Vinous customer. Surrounded by empty chairs and tables, I  imagine him  staring out into the busy streets, mining  material for the four novels about the city and its inhabitants that he would not write until he  left. An open notebook lies  beside his  Turkish coffee. His companions would have reflected the cosmopolitan character of the city - Greeks, Egyptians,  Greeks, British, French, Italian, Armenian,  Jews - all of them recreated in his four novels. 

Durrell drew inspiration from his immediate neighbourhood, Midan Saad Zaghlul. It remains the entertainment heart of Alexandria with cinemas, the Opera House, restaurants and busy coffee houses.  It was a small world, boundaried by  several streets in the heart of the city.  His main artery both in life, and in the Quartet, was Nabi Daniel street which ran through  what  was once a thriving  Jewish quarter.

"At that epoch, George Gaston Pombal, a minor consular official, shares a small flat with me in the Rue Nebi Daniel. He is a rare figure among the diplomats in that he appears to possess a vertebral column."
Alexandria Quarter/Justine

Durrell, did in fact, live in Nabi Daniel street, but no one knows where. Neither do we know for  sure, if, like the narrator in the Quartet,  he was shaved every morning in a  Babylonian barber's shop on the corner of Nabi Daniel Street and Sesostris Street. If so, was the barber anything like the odious Mnemjian - a dwarf 'with a violet eye that has never lost its childhood.'?

'....every morning Pombal lay down beside me in the mirrors.  We were lifted simultaneously and swung smoothly down into the ground wrapped like dead Pharoahs, only to reappear at the same instant on the ceiling, spread out like specimens. White cloths had been spread over us by a small black boy, while in a great Victorian moustache-cup the barber thwacked up his dense and sweet smelling lather before applying it in direct, considered brush strokes to our cheeks. The first covering complete he surrendered his task to an assistant while he went to the great strop hanging among the flypapers on the end wall of the shop and began to sweet the edge of an English razor.'

What might have been Mnemjian's barber shop, is now a small garish  shop selling cameras and mobile phones.

The Arts Creativity Centre, is a pillared masterpiece that was once a private club frequented by E.M Forster and Durrell. I stand across the road from the building. Painted cream, it makes the surrounding buildings appear more  dingy and neglected  than they already are.  Once a royal palace, the Centre  now promotes contemporary arts in Alexandria and houses a theatre,  art galleries, cinema and library. Above the passing traffic I can see the building's terrace, where Durrell and Forster first met. Forster was a Red Cross volunteer in Alexandria during the First World War. At first he did not like  the city.....“what had begun as an outpost turned into something suspiciously like a funk-hole." He made his peace with it when he fell in love with a tram car conductor and  began  researching for Alexandria: A History and a Guide.  In a later preface to  the guide  Durrell wrote:

'The book has an added appeal for me because it was a work of exile. I understood that E.M. Forster had been marooned in Alexandria by the first World War, as I had been by the second. In wartime, with all its confusions and despairs it is more than ever necessary for the artist to keep his spirit alive and his writing-machine well-oiled and in practice; and this is what the book stands for -- the survival values of an artist far from home. It is also a work of deep affection and a noble monument raised to this most haunting of cities.'
Durrell's old British Council office

Walking directly down the busy  Nabi Daniel Street,  Durrell would head for  the Hotel Cecil overlooking the sea front. There he sat with  Forster and Noel Coward (when he was in town), gazing out to sea. There was no  wide road in front of the hotel then, and no traffic  to obstruct a view of the Mediteranean and the harbour.   The narrator of the  Alexandrian Quartet and the beautiful and mysterious Justine  could walk directly onto the beach in the dark and make love, unaware of her approaching husband. Not any more.They'd have to dice with death to cross the four lane road, climb over a sea wall and drop six feet onto a wrack of concrete blocks.

The Hotel Cecil is now The Sofitel, and a thorough refurbishment has taken away what Vinous has managed to retain. The Montgomery bar is a dark wood lined nod to  General Montgomery. In the hotel he plotted  the Allies last stand against Rommell  in North Africa.   Durrell had not yet arrived in Alexandria.   The only indication that he  ever did, is his words. 
I accompanied Al Zaharaa Adel Awed on her  literary tour of Alexandria:

Saturday, 15 October 2011


'Leaving them there, fitted so clumsily together, I stepped laughing out into the street once more to make a circuit of the quarter which still hummed with the derisive concrete life of men and women. The rain had stopped, and the damp ground exhaled the tormentingly lovely scent of clay, bodies and stale jasmine. I began to walk slowly, deeply bemused, and to describe to myself in words this whole quarter of Alexandria for I knew that soon it would be forgotten and revisited only by those  whose memories had been appropriated by the fevered city, clinging to the minds of old men like traces of perfume upon a sleeve: Alexandria, the capital of memory.'
Alexandria Quartet/Justine

Tuesday, 11 October 2011


 Beneath a full moon, a crown of Coptic Christians gather outside Alexandria's library to protest at the previous night's violence. Egypt has had its Black Sunday - 26 dead in Cairo following confrontations between Christians, Muslims and the military. There was fighting too, in Alexandria, the heart of Coptic Christianity. 

The bloodshed  occurred just over a week after the burning of a Coptic Christian church in southern Egypt. Christians and some Muslims had gathered together in a peaceful protest  demanding equality and protection of Coptic places of worship.On the evening of the violence 

I had been due to meet Ahmed at Sidi Girbir station, but he had called to say, "Don't come. It's dangerous here." In the background I could hear shouting and sirens. He hung up. I walked home past  people gathering  to watch  their Revolution unravel on the television.

 The next day  Ahmed tells me how he attended what started out as a peaceful rally outside Sidi Girbir station. “There were mainly Christians, but plenty of Muslims in support.’ he says. ‘Some young boys suddenly started throwing stones and it turned ugly. Afterwards I went to my sisters. I didn’t feel well. I woke up in the morning  and saw  what had happened in Cairo. I’ve been feeling bad all day.”

He is unusually subdued and doesn’t want to go to the library to photograph the demonstration, even though it just across the road.   “I feel ashamed. I don’t know what to say to the Christians. We tried to protect them, but failed. This is very bad  for Egypt.’

His phone rings and he is suddenly animated. “Lets go to the demonstration” he says, snapping the  moon.  When we reach the library the Christians have gone. Ahmed makes a call. “My friend is coming. I met him last night at the demonstration. He’s a Christian.”
Imeen  meets us at the petrol station. He drifts out of the shadows clutching a mobile. After greeting him, Ahmed turns to me and says, “I don’t trust him. Do you? He says his brother was killed in Cairo last night.”

For someone who has just lost a brother, Imeen is unnaturally nonchalant. And why is he in Alexandria? Ahmed might be right. ‘He’s from Upper Egypt, they always  say prayers immediately after a death, but he says they haven’t done this  yet for his brother.  If they don’t pray it means they are waiting until they have revenge.’

According to Imeen’s sources, the demonstration has moved to a church in Mencheya district. “They are going to fast in protest,’ Ahmed says. We spend an hour looking for the church. Imeen evaporates into a side street.  Ahmed walks ahead, mobile pressed to his ear with one hand and  combing his hair with the other.

“I’m going to the Cap d’Or for a drink,” I insist, desperate to escape the traffic, noise, and dust.  We step into another world – French boudoir almost – full of memorabilia from Alexandria’s own Belle Epoque.  A large man stands at the bar with a bling crucifix. Ahmed calls him over. Francis is a Catholic.  “It’s a conspiracy,” he says. ‘The military want to cause trouble before the elections. They want an excuse to delay them and keep the Emergency Laws in place so they can control us. This is not about Christians and Muslims. We live very well together. But now, now it is dangerous. “ 

He says he has heard  that bodies were being thrown into the Nile by the police . Ahmed looks as though he will burst into tears.

When we leave, we pass Francis sitting alone in his shop. He makes and sells school uniforms and is surrounded by  shelves of gingham blouses, white shirts, and  maroon cardigans. He waves at us, and I suddenly want to rush over and cover his crucifix.  It makes him look vulnerable.

Ahmed’s phone rings and we are off again. “I am meeting a friend. We meet up nearly every day  for discussions, but in secret places.  You never know who’s around.”

We wade through rubbish (Alexandria’s dustmen are on strike) and into a small haven of grass and palms away from the city centre.  Couples and groups of women cluster in the darkness. Ahmed walks  around waving  his arms and calling out to his friend. We head towards   the sound of someone whistling.  Abdul is sitting on a bench with a glass of tea, smoking a cigarette. He is tall,  and his eyes are red rimmed and anxious. He is probably in his late twenties.  He invites me to sit on the bench as  if I am a guest in his home.  

Abdul worked as a business development consultant until the Revolution. “I had my own office. It was a good job. But after the revolution the business went bust. Now I work for the Revolution. For freedom, bread and justice. I’m not in any party, but I support the liberals.”
He  wasn’t interested in politics until 25th January. ‘Now, it’s my life.’ 

I am beginning to understand that for many Egyptians, the Revolution has  birthed an inner revolution.

“You know Pink Floyd’s The Wall? That’s where we are now,” Abdul says, and together  we  sing an offkey rendering of, ‘We don’t need no education…teacher, leave the kids alone.’

A tea lady  collects Abdul’s glass. Ahmed orders more tea. ‘Her son has just been jailed for five years by the  military. He’s 21.”  Arabic pours from the tea lady as she tells Ahmed that her son was charged with trying to burn down a police station. (All the police stations in Alexandria were burnt down during the revolution.)

“His friends got away, and he was caught. But he swears he is innocent,” she says.

“He’s a civilian. He shouldn’t have been   tried in a military court,” Abdul says, and mutters ‘Dogs of war’ under his breath. He does this often .

We sip our tea staring up at the moon. “Israel’s Massod  and the military are behind this together,” Abdul says. Ahmed nods his head vigorously. “No one cares about the poor people and how they are suffering. But we won’t allow them to take the Revolution from us. Never.”

We sit in silence for a long time until Abdul whispers into the night.

'Dogs of war.'

Monday, 10 October 2011


Alexandria’s demonstrations keep popping up all over the place. Ahmed can’t keep up, and is clearly exhausted. HIs camera remains in his pocket while we watch a small group of young men punch the air with their fists and call for an end to military rule. “The trouble with this country,” he says, “is sex.”
Has he been reading my mind? You can’t help thinking about sex in Alexandria.

There is an erotic charge to the city, which Durrell inculcated in all four of his books that make up the Alexandria Quartet.

“Alexandria is a town of sects and gospels. And for every ascetic, she has always thrown up one religious libertine – Carpocrates, Anthony – who was prepared to founder in the senses as deeply and truly as any desert father in the mind.”

In today’s moral climate, sex is no longer the wanton creature of Durrell’s time. The seductive arts are stifled and desire has created its own distorted path in a country where  women are held responsible for male desire, and female virginity holds the honour of an entire family. The charge of unmet desire spins upon the axis of the intact hymen.

Ahmed’s eyes follow a passing girl. She wears a hijab, but her jeans and top are tight. He sighs. “Girls breasts are bigger these days. When I was young they were smaller. It’s because of the Israeli’s and vegetables.”

Not for the first time, Ahmed has rendered me speechless.

“Israel is the best in the world for fertiliser and agriculture. They are the experts. They are involved with the fertiliser and seed companies. We buy from them, but the stuff they give us has hormones in it, or is out of date. The Israeli’s are making Egyptian breasts bigger. Even men are getting breasts these days. “

Mohammed, a student, does not have breasts, but as a testosterone charged 22 year old, he realises he has to find an outlet. He boxes, jogs and tries not to stand too close to his fellow female students. “The only way to have sex is to get married. Many of my friends – men and women - have married just to have sex . They can’t stand it any longer. This is not a good foundation for marriage. “

In Egypt, men must buy an apartment for his bride. She buys the furniture. These days, few people can afford it. Hormones are impatient: boys and girls make out at night under the concrete slabs that line the city’s sea wall. Hymens are surgically replaced.

My landlady is a retired Madam and former prostitute. She travels from Cairo to collect her rent. Prostitutes are said to own half of Alexandria. “I have drunk, smoked and fucked too much,” she says. Her frankness is unexpected and shocking, especially as she is covered in a black hijab and long coat . “The man who owns the café downstairs is married.He came to me. I knew what he wanted. I said, 'I don’t want to fuck you, I can fuck myself.'

She once had seven girls working for her. “You can find every vice here, but it is hidden. You have to know where to find it. If there is a market, it will be catered for. I made a lot of money. Alexandrian men like sex too much. I bought property. But I am not happy. “

Isabelle, a French friend, has fallen in love with Cherif, a handsome Egyptian. They want to make love, but they can’t find anywhere to be alone together. As Public Displays of Affection (PDAs) are a criminal offence, she is too nervous to hold his hand in public, even though some couples do.  Unable to afford his own accommodation, Cherif continues to live with his parents. Even as a European she is not allowed to have an Egyptian man in her hotel room unless she is married to him. In desperation, she rented an apartment for a month so they could be together. After their first night, the landlord knocked on the door and asked if Cherif was her husband. She said, no, and he asked Cherif to leave immediately. They packed their bags. They now go for midnight walks along the Corniche, checking out the concrete slabs.
"No wonder people get aggressive and irritable and ill," Isabelle says. "I've come out in spots."

“Sometimes I wish I was gay, “ Mohammed says, “I could have as many men as I want visiting my room at home. I could even walk down the street holding a man’s hand. A lot of men have sex with men because they can’t have sex with women. Perhaps women do the same.  Or, we use pornography, which is not good. What we need is a sexual revolution.”