An Egyptian Notebook / Reincarnation of a poet
ALEXANDRIA, February - The eternal summer abruptly turned into winter, and rain began to lash the windshield of the VIP bus of the West Delta Company, which plies the desert route between Cairo and Alexandria.
ALEXANDRIA, February - The eternal summer abruptly turned into winter, and rain began to lash the windshield of the VIP bus of the West Delta Company, which plies the desert route between Cairo and Alexandria. It was a reminder that henceforth, this is not just Egypt, but a place that falls under the jurisdiction of the clouds of the Mediterranean and the forces of water. To the right and left of the road, which is built on a narrow ramp, lies Lake Mariot, dividing the desert to the south from the city to the north, which is somewhere on the far horizon. The water was rippled and wrinkled by the wind, rising in folds and then becoming smooth, like a myriad of transparent silk slips. Dimunitive islands of reeds rose in the deep blue and one could guess at the sound of the wind whistling between the stalks.
"Benny, look," my wife said, tapping the window: A boat was anchored among the reeds, and in it stood a man, knife in hand, and when he chopped off one of the stalks the boat rocked and a flock of birds burst out of the primeval landscape, like a scene from a painting of a royal hunt.
Inside the bus, on a screen above the driver's seat - which was decorated with a cascading wreath of plastic flowers (didn't Constantine Cavafy, the poet of Alexandria, write a poem about his love for artificial flowers?) - a video being run for the passengers (a feature film about the life of the late president Anwar Sadat) was about to end. We are the bad guys in this story, we are Pharaoh here and they are the ones who are being delivered, who are taking revenge on us in 1973 for the defeat of 1967.
At the Sidi Gaber station, which bears a slight resemblance to the old Tel Aviv central bus station, Alexandria greets us with rain. The city is indeed like Tel Aviv in the rain, rancorous and grumbling, old and ugly, wallowing in puddles of refuse. And what about the sea and the famous skyline of the bay? For that you have to travel six stops on Line 3 of the blue tram, to Ramel station. Then you get off and you see the sea and it's stormy and the promenade is deserted. It's the same sea and a promenade very much like the one we have in Tel Aviv. On the commercial streets there is the same familiar ugliness as on Allenby Street, though dotted here with large homes and luxurious palaces - including, immediately after the first intersection on Nebi Daniel Street, a magnificent synagogue behind a fence of black bars. Tel Aviv has its Hayarkon Street and London Garden and to its left the Dan Hotel? Well, here there is Saad Zaghloul Square and next to it the Cecil Hotel, so steeped in colonial memories. And not far from there, like Frishman Street running off Ben Yehuda, is Istanbul Street with its old-fashioned shops. And let's say we enter one of the shops and ask where the archaeological museum is, or the Brazilian cafe. Then, as in the Tel Aviv of yesteryear, when Hebrew had not yet overcome the mix of other languages, the salesman answers from out of the dusky interior in a sentence containing both "Inglish" and "francais" together.
We had come to see the new library that opened here a few months ago, the Bibliotheca Alexandrina, done in post-postmodernist style, designed by a Swedish architect and built with generous European funding on the symbolic ruins of the library that was burned down during the waning of antiquity by an incited Christian mob, for whom the library represented the vestiges of paganism that had to be uprooted and eradicated. Mistakenly, the Arab conquerors of the city are blamed for the conflagration. The grandiose new building unfolds down a slope of large glass windows, the lower edge of which seems to touch - thanks to special effects of a pyrotechnical and optical character - the waves of the sea of Alexandria. The interior is a vast, triangular space, representing the Pythagorean theorem or the inside of a shell or maybe half an empty pyramid. The vertical side is as high as a seven-story building and is grooved with symbolic alcoves intended to evoke the storage alcoves of the scrolls in the ancient library. There is plenty more symbolism in the building, too - like the wall facing the sea on which are engraved words in a host of the old and new languages of the world, including Hebrew. To what does this burden of symbols allude? And why is there such a megalomaniac library in this poor city, which doesn't even have the money to pay cleaners to sweep, once and for all, the floors of the cars on the blue tram, and thus get rid of layers of spittle, mud, cigarette butts and ticket fragments? Is the West again sticking a colonial wedge into a city to which it thinks it has a historical claim?
In plain language, it is disgusting to waste so much money on a building to store books instead of using it to feed the hungry or to buy, let's say, medicine for AIDS for the dying populations of Africa. And if the West wanted to establish a monument to the ancient library that went up in flames, wouldn't a small structure have been enough - on the scale of Micha Ullman's underground "empty library" in Berlin's Bebelplatz, a memorial to the Nazis' book-burning in 1933? Why is flamboyance so rooted in European architecture, and why has it not yet discarded the medieval idea of collecting things in closed fortresses for books, paintings, knowledge? (This question, incidentally, is answered by the protagonist of "Austerlitz," the book by the German writer WG Sebald, which I bought at the Cairo Book Fair and am now reading. The book's hero is a frustrated architect.)
So it was pleasing to see how Eastern nonchalance is already having its effect, moderating with humor the building's serious messages. Take, for example, a guard in a well-worn uniform whom we passed on the way to the main door. This guard has apparently been assigned to watch over the broad esplanade in front of the library. He placed his straw chair in the middle of the covered passageway leading to the entrance. Next to the chair is a box, for the teacup, and a tin plate left over from lunch, spread with sauce of ful on which lay the tail of a receding pita. And doesn't he also need a tattered rug for praying on? He does. And he speaks, the guard, in shouts with two maintenance workers who are walking across the monumental glass slope carrying a metal pipe. The pipe falls and rolls to the foot of the monumental wall on which are engraved the words in the world's languages, including, as noted above, Hebrew. Thus shall it be done, and rightly so, to symbol-laden buildings.
Sentries were posted in front of the entrance doors and blocked the way into the library, because today is Tuesday and on Tuesdays the library is closed. We came from so far - maybe we could go in anyway? The guards fingered the press card I gave them and passed it from hand to hand. The name Israel on it and the symbol of the seven-branched candelabrum made no impression on them whatsoever, either positive or negative. Until the automatic glass doors suddenly opened and two young women from the library's public relations department approached to ask what the argument was about. They introduced themselves and their names turned out to be Deena and Daliah! Deena and Daliah? The PR people of the library in Alexandria? It was as though I sprouted wings when Deena and Daliah, who had no idea what was so amazing about their names, signaled the guards to let us pass, and from a thousand plus several hundred years of the ashes of burnt books, the doors opened into the forbidden old-young library. Then Deena and Daliah opened more and more doors for us, to the rare manuscripts room, the Latin manuscripts, the Greek, the Islamic. Daliah, with Deena behind her, went with me into other inner rooms and pointed to a glass case in which, like Snow White asleep, was the death mask of Constantine Cavafy, from 1933, and by its side the manuscript of a Greek poem and the prayer beads this tremendous, sad poet used to hold, this poet who died half-unknown in this indifferent city, but who has by now so outgrown it that the city seeks to build itself up with his name.
Cavafy was an eccentric who sat in cafes and didn't care in the least whether his poems were published or not. Had it not been for the English writer E.M. Forster, who met Cavafy here and found in him and his homosexual poems a kindred spirit, and had it not been also for Lawrence Durrell of "The Alexandria Quartet," who knows whether this awesome poetry might have been consigned to the trash heap of oblivion.
If Daliah and Deena were so good as to do this for us, and if the West is the best guardian of poetry, I retract all the insults I hurled at it. Hurray for all your libraries, West. And hurray for its PR women, who bear, lightly as the wings of butterflies, Hebrew names and don't know it. When we parted from them at the door and they set off for home, I looked up at the cloudy sky. On the life of my press card, I saw there, mounted astride a sheep-fluffy cloud - I saw Yoram Bronowski, the one and only Hebrew translator of Cavafy: his first book of translations of the Greek poet was published at the very beginning of the peace with Egypt.
And you know, I wasn't in the least surprised to see Bruno on that cloud - he who was the editor of the "Culture and Literature" section of the Friday edition of Haaretz in Hebrew and was its barbed and tasteful Platonist until his death two years ago. Our previous meeting, the last of his life, was also in a library. It was in the one in his crowded flat on Gottlieb Street in Tel Aviv. He was sitting amid dozens of cartons of books that he had received as an inheritance from the owner of a Polish book store on Allenby Street, but he never managed to arrange them. When I came to visit he looked through one of the boxes for an illustrated edition of Mickiewicz's "Pan Tadeusz" that I needed for some reason or other, but he couldn't locate it.
Dusk had fallen. We walked along the boardwalk to Saad Zaghloul Square and had a cappuccino in the Brazilian cafe - a primitive model of an espresso bar that has stood here unchanged since 1929, defeating all its infant Tel Aviv counterparts. We entered the foyer of the Cecil Hotel and I photographed the salon, which is furnished in the style of the turn of the previous century, and in the hotel bookstore I bought a copy of "Alexandria, Past, Present and Future" in English, published by Thames & Hudson. Beneath a photograph of Cavafy on page 108 are these words about the poet by E.M. Forster: "Such a writer can never be popular. He flies both too slowly and too high. ... He has the strength (and of course the limitations) of the recluse, who, though not afraid of the world, always stands at a slight angle to it ..." I told myself that this could easily be the motto for "culture and literature," too, as Bronowski received it from Cavafy and passed on its spirit to those who follow him: not popular, but with the strength to stand against the world without fear, and at a slight angle.
Evening fell. We returned slowly, on the blue tram, to Sidi Gaber station. We asked a passenger where to get off and he accompanied us to the place we wanted. As he walked ahead of us, my wife nudged me to look at his shoes, which were larger than his feet by several sizes - he seemed about to lose them on the street at any moment. When we reached our destination he parted from us in fine English and shook our hands. "My name is Dr. Sharkawi," he said, and again, "Dr. Sharkawi," and he left. If he wasn't a reincarnation of Cavafy, I am a shoe.
(Second in a series)