Letter from Alexandria: Grasping for the past, falling into the future


I grew up in Athens hearing my neighbors talk about Alexandria as their dream city. Finding a family that did not have half of its members related to Alexandria in one way or another was as hard as going into a Greek café and ordering Turkish coffee.

Those who lived in Alexandria dreamt of going back if only for a cup of tea in the Athenios or a sunset walk along the Corniche, and those who didn’t thrived on memories of their compatriots; they nourished along the years an idyllic image of this city that offered a peculiar combination of authenticity and diversity.

I belonged to the second group and, like them, I couldn’t wait to set foot in the Bride of the Mediterranean, yet unlike them I was the proud citizen of the country that embraced this jewel and, therefore, was never susceptible to those nostalgic fits and the melancholy that accompanies them. Turns out nostalgia comes in so many different shapes.

When Jewish Alexandrian writer André Aciman released his memoir Out of Egypt, he was not only telling the story of his and family’s “exodus” from their birthplace at the time when his likes were no longer wanted at the city that once housed the largest Jewish community in the world, but he was also speaking on behalf of all those who lament the loss of the Alexandria they have either seen or dreamt they would see.

The once cosmopolitan city which had for decades been home to Greeks, Italians, Armenians as well all Egyptians of all faiths and denominations, the center of the Hellenistic civilization and the seat of one of the world’s most venerated ancient wonders, and the hometown of the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy, is no longer any of those. Forget about the Pharos, the Roman amphitheatre, the necropolis, and the catacombs and never mind the Bibliotheca Alexandrina—the old or the new—for now Alexandria is all about two totally different things: mosques and churches.

For some strange reason Alexandria was thought to have remained different from other Egyptian cities, so while Islamic fundamentalism and sectarian tension were starting to gain ground in different parts of the country, there was always hope that Alexandria had all what it takes to emerge unscathed. Maybe it was its history of religious tolerance and multicultural coexistence, maybe it was the popular concept that port cities, owing to their location, are always less prone to those inland prejudices that result from too little exposure to the outside world, and maybe it was just a last straw that we all needed to cling to… well, a straw is a straw, after all.

While nothing has remained of the polyglot society Alexandria once was except restaurant signs and some street names, and even though increasing conservatism had started taking over the city whose beaches were once the destination of vacationers from all over Egypt, how ugly things turned was still utterly shockingly and absolutely unbelievable. I had personally thought blind fanaticism had left Alexandria since the killing of Hypatia. Nothing wrong with admitting that you were naïve… rather stupid!

“I Was Blind but Now I Can See” was a play performed at the Saint George Coptic Church about a Christian student who converts to Islam and is later bullied by the same Muslims who paid him to convert when he decides to go back to Christianity. The CDs of the play are rumored to have been sold in the neighborhood. Muslims demand an apology; the church issues none… to the Bastille, citoyens!

The attempt by Muslim protestors to storm the church in retaliation for the staging of a play that “defamed Islam,” and whose only proof of existence was a sensational story run in some tabloid, served to reveal the unfortunate fact that Alexandria is not immune and that the last fortress of coexistence in a country that has been swiftly eaten up by extremism had actually fallen… and with it fell all our hopes at regaining our old selves.

When 2011 was inaugurated with the blast that hit the Two Saints Church, also in Alexandria, that fortress was buried six feet under the ground. When the revolution toppled the regime that was always charged with sowing the seeds of sedition between Muslims and Copts to guarantee a conflict-ridden population that is too drained by strife to challenge its power and with the honorable contribution of Alexandrians to this historic achievement, much of the fortress’s rubble was unearthed and seemed ready for reconstruction.

Seems it was too soon to jump to such idealistic conclusions. Tuesday night’s clashes, which broke when thousands of Christians took to the streets in protest of the attack by Muslim fundamentalists on a Coptic church in Cairo, alerted us to the fact that the ailment of this beautiful city is far from cured and that the wound is much deeper than we had thought and that we have to stop thinking of Alexandria as a special case because it is not. In fact, it all depends on how you define “special.”

For me, yesterday’s incidents were not that shocking and wouldn’t be for most Egyptian if they just went back in time a little bit and thought of another piece of news that had unfortunately gone unnoticed or was intentionally overlooked by the media and the state. A few weeks ago, social networking Websites and a couple of independent newspapers and private satellite channels reported that Salafi groups in Alexandria distributed flyers ordering female residents of the city to wear the head scarf on going out and threatening to “assault”—some said “kill,” others said “burn with acid”—women who did not comply.

Regardless of the fact that a senior Salafi cleric from Alexandria dismissed those reports and stressed that his group only uses peaceful means of preaching, letting this pass makes us accomplices in the crime and holds us accountable for the darkness Alexandria is slipping into. Suppose we believe that these reports were totally baseless, what about the posters put in several neighborhoods in Alexandria with unveiled women surrounded by insects and fiery statements condemning all those who dress “indecently”?

This is the same city where 15 years ago I saw women in their bathing suits sitting next to their “decently clad” counterparts on the beaches of Alexandria. This is also the same city were now you can see the “us and them” look from eyes peeping behind a black face-veil and you can’t help asking yourself, “How does she see me?”

It is indeed very intriguing that the most liberal of Egypt’s cities has now become one of its most conservative and I sometimes think it is the former that led to the latter.

A city as diverse and multicultural as Alexandria was an ideal battleground for all those who took it upon themselves to eliminate “vice” and promote “virtue” and erasing a centuries-long history of tolerance and coexistence was the only way to do so. I am not going to go about babbling again about the role the regime played in fostering such bi-polar animosities throughout its 30 years of “leave them breathless” policies because this has now become quite ipso facto.

I would rather trace the whole thing more than 50 years back when the post 1952 Revolution regime embarked on what seemed like a purging campaign that might have had Jews as its main target, yet by doing so managed to undermine the basic social structure upon which Alexandria was based. Whether on purpose or unintentionally, the Nasser government established a direct link between the creation of the state of Israel and the presence of Jews and acted accordingly, announcing, “All Jews are Zionists and enemies of the state.”

As Jews, born and raised in Egypt, suddenly became a threat to national security and consequently expelled and having their property confiscated, the first nail was driven into the coffin of Alexandria’s religious and ethnic makeup. The disappearance of the Jewish community in Alexandria heralded the city’s fall as a model of diversity and shortly thereafter other communities followed, not necessarily because they were persecuted or kicked out, but simply because it was no longer the friendly homeland it had once been. The black-and-white era had begun and their “grey” identity had no place in it.

They are gone, but the purge is not over… only the target changed. And don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the Coptic community is the only opponent because all Egyptians who strive for a civil state are. It is a long process of alienation that ascribes to the same dichotomy promoted by former regimes and that aims to alienate any party considered “other,” be that Copts, Seculars, Leftists, moderate Muslims… you name it!

When and if this happens, can we blame the Mediterranean if it divorces its once-beautiful bride and all-time beloved?

(Dr. Sonia Farid, a Cairo-based writer at Al Arabiya English, also teaches at Cairo University. She can be reached at: [email protected])