Alexandria: The Capital of Memory
To those who asked, I said I went back to touch and breathe the past again, to walk in shoes I hadn’t worn in years. This, after all, was what everyone said when they returned from Alexandria—the walk down Memory Lane, the visit to the old house, the knocking at doors history had sealed off but might pry open again The visit to the old temple, the visit to Uncle So-and-so’s house, the old school, the old haunts, the smell of the dirty wooden banister on days you almost glided downstairs on your way to a movie. And then, of course, the tears, the final reckoning, the big themes: the return of the native, the romance of the past, the redemption of time. All of it followed by predictable letdowns: the streets always much narrower than before, buildings grown smaller with time, everything in tatters, the city dirty, in ruins. There are no Europeans left, and the Jews are all gone. Alexandria is Egyptian now.
As I step onto the narrow balcony of my room at the Hotel Cecil and try to take in the endless string of evening lights speckling the eastern bay, I am thinking of Lawrence Durrell and of what he might have felt standing in this very same hotel more than fifty years ago, surveying a magical, beguiling city—the “capital of memory,” as he called it, with its “five races, five languages … and more than five sexes.”
That city no longer exists; perhaps it never did. Nor does the Alexandria I knew: the mock-reliquary of bygone splendor and colonial opulence where my grandmother could still walk with an umbrella on sunny days and not realize she looked quite ridiculous, the way everyone in my family must have looked quite ridiculous, being the last European Jews in a city where anti-Western nationalism and anti-Semitism had managed to reduce the Jewish population from at least fifty thousand to twenty-five hundred by 1960 and put us at the very tail end of those whom history shrugs aside when it changes its mind.
The Alexandria I knew, that part-Victorian, half-decayed, vestigial nerve center of the British Empire, exists in memory alone, the way Carthage and Rome and Constantinople exist as vanished cities only—a city where the dominant languages were English and French, though everyone spoke in a medley of many more, because the principal languages were really Greek and Italian, and in my immediate world Ladino (the Spanish of the Jews who fled the Inquisition in the sixteenth century), with broken Arabic holding everything more or less together. The arrogance of the retired banker, the crafty know-it-all airs of the small shopkeeper, the ways of Greeks and of Jews, all of these were not necessarily compatible, but everyone knew who everyone else was, and on Sundays—at the theater, in restaurants, at the beach, or in clubs—chances were you sat next to each other and had a good chat. My grandmother knew Greek well enough to correct native Greeks, she knew every prayer in Latin, and her written French, when she was vexed, would have made the Duc de Saint-Simon quite nervous.
This is the Alexandria I live with every day, the one I’ve taken with me, written about, and ultimately superimposed on other cities, the way other cities were originally sketched over the Alexandrian landscape when European builders came, in the middle of the nineteenth century, and fashioned a new city modeled after those they already loved. It was this Alexandria I came looking for—knowing I’d never find it. That did not bother me. For I had come not to recover memories, nor even to recognize those I’d disfigured, nor to toy with the thought that I’d ever live here again; I had come to bury the whole thing, to get it out of my system, to forget, to hate even, the way we learn to hate those who wouldn’t have us.
I am, it finally occurs to me, doing the most typical thing a Jew could do. I’ve come back to Egypt the way only Jews yearn to go back to places they couldn’t wait to flee. The Jewish rite of passage, as Passover never tells us, is also the passage back to Egypt, not just away from it.
Until the mid-1950s, Jews had done extremely well in Egypt. They had risen to prominence and dominated almost every profession, and they were among the major financiers who brokered Egypt’s passage from a European to a national economy, serving as important conduits for foreign investors. Jews managed a significant share of Egypt’s stock exchange and owned some of the biggest banks and almost all the department stores; the country boasted the greatest number of Jewish multimillionaires in the Middle East. Jews, though very few in number, held seats in the Egyptian parliament.
These were, for the most part, observant Jews, but in a cosmopolitan city like Alexandria, where overzealous piety was derided and where friendship was almost never based on creed, many of these Jews were quite relaxed when it came to religion, particularly since most of them, educated in Catholic schools, tended to know more about the religions of others than about their own. Seders, I remember, were rushed affairs; no one wanted to inflict Passover on Christians who happened to be visiting and had been induced to stay for dinner.
Following the Israelis’ 1948 defeat of the Arabs, anti-Semitism rose sharply in Egypt, and there were some deadly incidents in the wake of the war. Matters became worse after 1956, when Israel joined forces with France and England in a tripartite attack on Egypt after Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. British and French residents of Alexandria were summarily expelled from Egypt, as were many Jews; everyone had assets, businesses, and properties seized by the state. Aunts and uncles, friends, grandparents, some of whom hadn’t been expelled, read the writing on the wall and left within a few years of the 1956 war, abandoning everything they owned. Most settled in Europe, others in America.
Some, like us, simply waited, the way Jews did elsewhere when it was already too late to hope for miracles. We saw the city change and each year watched European shop names come down and be replaced by Egyptian ones, and heard of streets being renamed, until—as is the case now—I didn’t know a single one.
The only street whose name hasn’t changed is the waterfront road known as the Corniche, al-Corniche, a thick bottleneck mass of tottering loud vehicles emitting overpowering gas fumes.
I try to rest both arms on the balustrade outside my hotel room, as I’d envisioned doing on receiving the glossy brochure with the Cecil’s picture. But the small, Moorish/Venetian-style balcony is entirely taken over by a giant compressor unit; it’s impossible to maneuver around it. Bird droppings litter the floor.
Two men are speaking in Arabic downstairs. One is telling the other about his very bad foot and his pain at night. The other says it might go away. They don’t know how surreal mundane talk can seem to someone who’s been away for thirty years.
On the main square facing the hotel stands the ungainly statue of the Egyptian patriot Sa’ad Zaghlul, one leg forward in the manner of ancient Egyptian statues, except that this one wears a fez. I used to pass by here every morning on my way to school by bus.
Beyond Sa’ad Zaghlul is a villa housing the Italian consulate, and farther yet is the city’s main tramway station and to its right the Cinema Strand, all unchanged, though worn by age. To my right is Délices, one of the city’s best pastry shops. It hasn’t moved either. Nothing, I think, is unfamiliar enough. I haven’t forgotten enough.
Across the bay sits the fortress of Kait Bey, its ill-lit, brooding halo guarding the Eastern Harbor. The fortress is said to occupy the site of the ancient Pharos lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Some say that the fort was built with stones taken from the old lighthouse itself. A French archaeological company has been commissioned to dig here. The area is cordoned off and considered top secret.
Not far from the dig lies the Western Harbor, which the ancients used to call the Harbor of Safe Return, Portus Eunostos, from the Ancient Greek eu, meaning good, safe, and nostos, meaning return. Nostalgia is the ache to return, to come home; nostophobia, the fear of returning; nostomania, the obsession with going back; nostography, writing about return.
So this is Alexandria, I think, before shutting the window, feeling very much like Freud when, in his early forties, he had finally achieved his lifelong dream of visiting Athens and, standing on the Acropolis, felt strangely disappointed, calling his numbness derealization.
I look at my watch. It is one in the afternoon New York time. I pick up the telephone to call America. After a short wait, I hear my father’s voice. In the background, I make out a chorus of children, mine probably—or is it the clamor of a school recess down his block?
“How is it?” he asks. I describe the view from my window.
“Yes, but how is it?” he presses. What he means is: has it changed, and am I moved? I can’t find the right words.
“It’s still the same,” I reply. “It’s Egypt,” I finally say, all else failing.
Each year the city sees many ex-Alexandrians return and wander along its streets. Like revenants and time travelers, some come back from the future, from decades and continents away, A.D. people barging in on B.C. affairs, true anachronoids drifting about the city with no real purpose but to savor a past that, even before arriving, they know they’ll neither recapture nor put behind them, but whose spell continues to lure them on these errands in time. The Portuguese have a word: retornados, descendants of Portuguese settlers who return to their homeland in Europe centuries after colonizing Africa—except that they are African-born Europeans who return to Africa as tourists, not knowing why they come, or why they need to come again, or why this city that feels like home and which they can almost touch at every bend of the street can be as foreign as those places they’ve never seen before but studied in travel books.
The first thing I want to do tonight is roam the streets by myself. The downtown shops are still open, and people are literally spilling out into the streets, an endless procession of cars going up the rue Missallah (Obelisk), renamed rue Saffeyah Zaghlul after the patriot’s wife. The same stores stand in exactly the same spots, the same pharmacies, bookstores, restaurants; and everywhere the unbroken chain of shoe stores and third-tier haberdasheries with wares dangling over the sidewalks, and always that muted spill of lights which reminds me of Cavafy’s nights and Baudelaire’s Paris. I manage to recognize the Gothic-Venetian window sashes of an old restaurant. When I walk into Flückiger’s, the pastry shop, and tell the cashier that I am just looking around, she smiles and says, as she must have done to hundreds like me, “Ah, vous êtes de nos temps,” as if time could ever belong to anyone. Do I want to buy cakes? I shake my head. “They’re still the same. We’re still Flückiger,” she adds. I nod. One would have thought that I shopped there every day and had stopped now on my way from work, only to change my mind at the last minute. The idea of eating cake to summon my past seems too uncanny and ridiculous. I smile to myself and walk out through the beaded curtain. It hasn’t changed either. Nor have the buildings. They are far more beautiful than I remember, the architecture a mix of turn-of-the-century French and floral Italian. But they are also grimier, some of them so rundown it’s impossible to tell how long they’ve got. It’s no different with cars here. Many are rickety thirty-plus patched-up jobs, part rust, part tin, part foil; soldered and painted over with the sort of Egyptian ingenuity that knows how to preserve the old and squeeze residual life out of objects which should have perished long ago but whose replacement will neither come from abroad nor be manufactured locally. These are not really cars but, rather, elaborate collages of prostheses.
I turn right and walk into a murky street that used to be called rue Fuad. Next to the Amir Cinema looms a strange, large structure I have never seen before. It is the newly dug-up Roman amphitheater I’ve been reading about. I ignore it completely and turn left, where I spot Durrell’s pastry shop, and walk down a narrow street, where I find the Cinema Royale and, right across from it, the old Mohammed Ali, now known as the Sayyed Darwish Theater, the pride of Alexandria’s theater elite.
And then it hits me. The Mohammed Ali is my last stop tonight; I now have nowhere else to turn but the Hotel Cecil. To my complete amazement, I have revisited most of my haunts in Alexandria in the space of about eight minutes!
Once on the crowded streets again, I walk the way I have come, along the edge of the sidewalk, my eyes avoiding everyone else’s, my gait hurried and determined, everything about me trying to discourage contact with a city that is, after all, the only one I think I love. Like characters in Homer, I want to be wrapped in a cloud and remain invisible, not realizing that, like all revenants, I am perhaps a ghost, a specter already.
The next morning, I head out on another exploratory walk. But in fifteen minutes I have already reached Chatby, the very place I was meaning to see last. This is where most of the cemeteries are located. Perhaps I should pay a visit to my grandfather’s tomb now.
I try to find the Jewish cemetery, but am unable to. Instead, I head in a different direction and decide to visit my great-grand-mother’s house. As soon as I near her neighborhood, I find myself almost thrust into the old marketplace. It, too, hasn’t changed since my childhood. The pushcarts and open shops are still in place, as is the unforgettable stench of fish and meat, and always the screaming and the masses of people thronging between stacks of food and crates of live chickens.
I could go upstairs, I think, once I reach the building on rue Thèbes, but people are watching me fiddle with my camera, and someone actually pops his head out of the window and stares. I decide to leave. Then, having walked to the next block, I change my mind and come back again, trying to let the building come into view gradually, so as to hold that magical moment when remembrance becomes recovery I am resolved not to be intimidated this time and make my way straight to the main doorway.
A woman appears with a child in her arms; she is the caretaker’s wife; the caretaker died a few years ago; she is the caretaker now. A man also shows up. He lives on the street floor, he says in English, and has lived there since the early fifties. I tell him I, too, lived here once, at number 15 He thinks for a moment, then says he doesn’t remember who lives there now. I tell the caretaker that I want to knock at apartment 15. She smiles and looks at me with suspicion. She is thinking. “Sit Vivi,” she says, Mme Vivi. I am almost on the verge of shaking. Vivi was my great-aunt. “They left,” she says. Of course they left, I want to shout, we all left thirty years ago! “May I knock at the door?” I ask. “You may,” she replies, with the same smile, “but no one is there.” When will they be back? She looks at me with a blank stare. No one has occupied the apartment since.
I know that if I push the matter and tip her well, I might persuade her to show me the apartment. But the thought of a dark apartment where no one’s been for three decades frightens me. Who knows what I’d find creeping about the floor, or crawling on the walls. It’s all well and good for a German to go digging for the ghost of Troy or sifting through Helen’s jewels. But no Trojan ever went back to Troy.
When I point to the elevator and ask her whether it still works, she laughs. It had died long ago. And she adds, with inimitable Egyptian humor, “Allah yerhamu.” May God have mercy on its soul.
I step into the main courtyard and look up to our old service entrance: I can almost hear our cook screaming at the maid, my mother screaming at the cook, and the poor maid’s heartrending yelp each time the tumor on her liver pressed against her spine. I am trying to decide whether I should insist and ask to be taken upstairs, or perhaps she could show me another apartment in the same line. I see a cat playing in the foyer; next to it is a dead mouse. The caretaker does not notice it. Even the man from the first floor doesn’t seem to notice, doesn’t care.
I know I’ll regret not insisting, and also that this is typical of my perfunctory, weak-willed attempts at adventure. But I am tired of these ruins, and the smell of the old wood panels in the foyer is overpowering. Besides, this is how I always travel: not so as to experience anything at the time of my tour, but to plot the itinerary of a possible return trip. This, it occurs to me, is also how I live.
Outside, I spot an old woman with a shopping basket; she looks European I ask her whether she speaks French. She says she does. She is Greek. I am almost ready to tell her about my entire life, everything about my grandparents, my mother, our apartment that has never been lived in since the day we left so many years ago, and all these ruins scattered everywhere, but I break in mid-sentence, hail a cab, and ask to be taken to the museum—by way of the Corniche, because I want to see the water.
The Corniche always breaks the spell of monotonous city life, the first and last thing one remembers here. It is what I think of whenever I sight a beckoning patch of blue at the end of a cross street elsewhere in the world. The sky is clear and the sea is stunning, and my cabdriver, who speaks English, tells me how much he loves the city.
The Graeco-Roman Museum was where I would come to be alone on Sunday mornings in 1965, my last year in Alexandria.
I pay the fee and, as usual, rush through the corridors and the quiet garden, where a group of Hungarian tourists are eating potato chips. The Tanagra statuettes, the busts of Jupiter and of Alexander, the reclining statue of a dying Cleopatra, all these I pass in haste. There is only one thing I want to see, a Fayoum portrait of a mummified Christian. I linger in the old, musty room. The painting is exquisite indeed, more so than I remember. But I am astonished that this bearded man looks so young. There was a time when he was older than I. Now I could almost be his father. Otherwise, nothing has changed: I’m standing here, and he’s lying there, and it’s all as if nothing has happened between one Sunday and the next.
I want to buy his picture in the museum shop. There are no postcards of Fayoum portraits. I want to buy E. M. Forster’s guide to the city, but they haven’t had it in a long time. I ask whether they have any of the Durrell books. They haven’t carried those in a long time either. There is, in fact, really very little to buy. And very little else to see. I have seen everything I wanted to see in Alexandria. I could easily leave now.
An entire childhood revisited in a flash. I am a terrible nostographer. Instead of experiencing returns, I rush through them like a tourist on a one-day bus tour. Tomorrow I must try to find the cemetery again.
Outside the museum, I am reminded of my grammar school nearby. I remember coming here in high school hoping to pay a quick visit to my old school and getting lost instead. I know I’ve strayed into the once-affluent Greek neighborhood. But I also know that I’m lost exactly where I lost my way thirty years earlier. The thought amuses me. I used to come here for private English lessons twice a week. I remembered the teacher, and her sumptuous home, and the luxurious china in which I, at the age of seven, would have to drink tea. I remember a poem by Wordsworth, the dim-lit living room with many flowers and perfumes, and my father coming to pick me up after tutorial, discussing books with her. I would sit and listen, and watch them talk, as other guests kept arriving.
I thought I recognized her building and decided, why not, Mademoiselle Nader might still be there. I look at the names on the mailboxes, but there is no Nader. I see the name Monsieur et Madame E. Nahas and assume they are Syrian-Lebanese. Perhaps they might tell me where she lives. As I am ascending the stairs, I happen upon a name on a brass plate; it’s the name of a very old school friend. I ring his bell. The Filipino maid speaks good English; I explain I used to know her employer. He is in Europe, she replies. She shows me into a living room streaming in daylight. I sit on the sofa and scribble a note for him, leaning over to the tea table. Then I hand it to her and ask whether she knows of a certain Mademoiselle Nader. Never heard of her. I say goodbye and continue climbing the stairs until I’ve reached the Nahas residence. They’re not home either, and their maid has never heard of the Naders. A delivery boy, who happens to be coming up the stairs, seems to remember something and asks me to knock at another apartment. An old woman, speaking impeccable French, says that of course she remembers Marcelle Nader, whom she calls Lola. Lola died two years ago, totally alone, impoverished, and broken-spirited. Her family had lost everything during the mass nationalizations of 1961. She and her sister would rent out rooms in their large home, but even then, that hardly constituted an income. When her sister left for Switzerland, Lola was forced to give private lessons to businessmen who, it seems, had other things in mind but who settled for English the more she aged. In the end, she sold her apartment to, of all people, my old school friend downstairs. I hadn’t recognized the apartment at all. Perhaps it was on the same sofa and at the same tea table that I’d learned English.
Turb’al Yahud, Alexandria’s Jewish cemetery, is located at the opposite end of the Armenian cemetery and lies only a few steps away from the Greek Orthodox. Farther down the quiet, dusty, tree-lined road is the Catholic cemetery. Magdi, a native Alexandrian who is employed by the American school I attended as a child, swears that Turb’al Yahud must be somewhere close by but can’t remember where “I come here only once a year—for my mother,” he explains, pointing to the Coptic cemetery not far along the same road.
Magdi double-parks and says he will ask directions from the warden of the Armenian cemetery. We have been driving around for more than two hours in search of my parents’ old summer beachside home, but here, too, without luck. Either it’s been razed or it lies buried in a chaos of concrete high-rises and avenues built on what used to be vast stretches of desert sand. Soon Magdi comes out, looking perplexed. There are, as it turns out, not one but two Jewish cemeteries in the area.
“Which one has a gate on the left?” I say, remembering my very early childhood visits to my grandfather’s grave four decades ago. “That’s the problem,” says Magdi, drawing on his cigarette. “Both have gates to the right.”
I am dismayed. I can situate the grave only in relation to the left gate We decide to try the nearest cemetery.
Magdi starts the car, waits awhile, then immediately speeds ahead, leaving a cloud of dust behind us. In a matter of minutes we have parked on a sidewalk and ambled up to a metal gate that looks locked. Magdi does not knock; he pounds. I hear a bark, and after a series of squeaks, a man in his early fifties appears at the door. I try to explain in broken Arabic the reason for my visit, but Magdi interrupts and takes over, saying I have come to see my grandfather’s grave. The warden is at a loss. Do I know where the grave is? he asks. I say no. Do I know the name, then?
I say a name, but it means nothing to him. I try to explain about the gate to the left, but my words are getting all jumbled together. All I seem to remember is a pebbled alleyway that started at the left gate and crossed the breadth of the cemetery.
The warden has a three-year-old son wearing a very faded red sweatshirt bearing the initials CCCP—not unusual in a place where ancient relics come in handy. Their dog, fleeced from the neck down, has a large bleeding ulcer on his back.
“Oh, that gate,” the warden responds when I point to another, much smaller gate at the opposite end of the cemetery. “It’s locked, it’s never been used.” Indeed, the gate at the end of the alleyway looks welded in place. I am almost too nervous to hope. But I pick my way to the end of the path and, having reached the area near the left gate, climb over a wild bush whose dried leaves stick to my trousers, turning with a sense of certainty that I am trying to distrust, fearing the worst.
“Is this it?” asks Magdi.
I am reluctant to answer, still doubting that this could be the spot, or this the marble slab, which feels as warm and smooth to the touch as I knew it would each time I rehearsed this moment over the years. Even the name looks dubious.
“Yes,” I say, pointing to the letters, which I realize Magdi can’t read.
The warden knows I am pleased. His son trails behind him. A fly is crawling around his nose. Both of them, as well as the warden’s wife, are barefoot, Bedouin style.
I take out my camera. Everyone is staring at me, including the warden’s ten-year-old daughter, who has come to see for herself. It turns out that no Jew ever visits here. “No one?” I ask. “Walla wahid,” answers the daughter emphatically. Not one.
There are, it occurs to me, far more dead Jews in this city than there will ever again be living ones. This reminds me of what I saw in a box at the main temple earlier this morning: more skullcaps than Jews to wear them in all of Egypt.
The warden asks whether I would like to wash the tombstone. I know Magdi has to go back to work; he is a bus driver and school ends soon. I shake my head.
“Why?” asks the warden. “Lazem.” You must.
I have lived my entire life outside rituals. Now I am being asked to observe one that seems so overplayed and so foreign to me that I almost want to laugh, especially since I feel I’m about to perform it for them, not for me. Even Magdi sides with the warden. “Lazem,” he echoes.
I am thinking of another ritual, dating back to those days when my father and I would come on quiet early-morning visits to the cemetery. It was a simple ritual. We would stand before my grandfather’s grave and talk; then my father would say he wished to be alone awhile and, when he was finished, hoist me up and help me kiss the marble. One day, without reason, I refused to kiss the stone. He didn’t insist, but I knew he was hurt.
I pay the warden’s family no heed and continue to take pictures, not because I really want to, but because in looking through the viewfinder and pretending to take forever to focus, I can forget the commotion around me, stand still, stop time, stare into the distance, and think of my childhood, and of being here, and of my grandfather, whom I hardly knew and scarcely remember and seldom think of.
I am almost on the point of forgetting those present when the warden appears, lugging a huge tin drum filled with water. He hoists it on a shoulder and then splashes the dried slab, flooding the whole area, wetting my clothes, Magdi’s, and the little boy’s feet, allowing the stone to glisten for the first time in who knows how many decades. With eager palms, we all go about the motions of wiping the slab clean. I like the ritual. Magdi helps out silently, but I want it to be my job. I don’t want it to end. I am even pleased that my clothes are wet and dirty.
I still can’t believe I was able to find my grandfather’s grave so quickly. Memories are supposed to distort, to lie. I am at once comforted and bewildered.
In the distance I can hear the tireless drone of Alexandria’s traffic, and farther off the loud clank of metal wheels along the tramway lines—not obtrusive sounds, for they emphasize the silence more—and I am reminded of how far Grandfather is from all this: from all these engines; from the twentieth century; from history; from exile, exodus, and now return; from the nights we spent huddled together in the living room, knowing the end had come; from our years in cities he had never visited, let alone thought some of us might one day call home. Time for him had stopped in the early fifties on this dry, quiet, secluded patch of dust that could turn into desert in no time.
I look around and recognize famous Jewish names on tombstones and mausoleums. They, too, like my grandfather, were lucky not to have seen the end. But they also paid a price: no one ever comes here. The opulent mausoleums, built in Victorian rococo, were meant to house unborn generations that have since grown up elsewhere and don’t know the first thing about Egypt.
“Are you happy now?” I want to ask my grandfather, rubbing the stone some more, remembering a tradition practiced among Muslims of tapping one’s finger ever so gently on a tombstone to tell the dead that their loved ones are present, that they miss them and think of them. I want to speak to him, to say something, if only in a whisper. But I am too embarrassed. Perhaps this is why people say prayers instead. But I don’t know any prayers. All I know is that I cannot take him with me—but I don’t want to leave him here. What is he doing here anyway? In a hundred years, no one will even know my grandfather had lived or died, here or elsewhere. It’s the difference between death and extinction.
I pretend to want to take another picture and ask Magdi, the warden, and his family to pose in front of one of the palm trees, hoping they will stay there after the picture and leave me alone awhile. I can feel my throat tighten, and I want to hide the tears welling up inside me, and I am, once again, glad to cover my eyes with the viewfinder. The warden’s daughter comes closer. She wants a picture by herself. I smile and say something about her pretty eyes. I give her father a good tip.
Everyone thinks it’s been a good visit. Perhaps all cemetery visits are.
On my last evening in Alexandria, I and a group of young teachers from the American school have gathered at a pizzeria to celebrate someone’s birthday. We’ve parked on a narrow alleyway, halfway on the sidewalk, exactly where my father would park his car. Everyone at the party orders pizza, salad, and beer. It occurs to me that we might easily be in Cambridge or New Haven.
By eleven the party breaks up. Before getting into the car, we take a stroll toward the Church of St. Saba. The streets are very dark, and after spending time in the American bar, I am suddenly confronted with the uncanny thought that we are, after all, very much in Egypt still. Maybe it’s the alcohol, but I don’t know whether I’m back in Egypt or have never left, or whether this is all a very cruel prank and we’re simply stranded in some old neighborhood in lower Manhattan. This, I realize, is what happens when one finally comes home: one hardly notices, and it doesn’t feel odd at all.
Later that night, as I’m looking out from my balcony, I think of the young man from Fayoum, and of the young man of fourteen I used to be back then, and of myself now, and of the person I might have been had I stayed here thirty years ago. I think of the strange life I’d have led, of the wife I would have, and of my other children. Where would I be living? I suppose in my great-grandmother’s apartment—it would have fallen to me. And I think of this imaginary self who never strayed or did the things I probably regret having done but would have done anyway and don’t wish to disown; a self who never left Egypt or ever lost ground and who, on nights such as these, still dreams of the world abroad and of faraway America, the way I, over the years, have longed for life right here whenever I find I don’t fit anywhere else.
I wonder if this other self would understand about him and me, and being here and now and on the other bank as well—the other life, the one that we never live but conjure up when the one we have is perhaps not the one we want.
This, at least, has never changed, I think, my mind drifting to my father years ago, when we would stop the car and walk along the Corniche at night, thinking of the worst that surely lay ahead, each trying to give up this city and the life that came with it in the way he knew how This is what I was doing now as well, thinking of the years ahead when I would look back to this very evening and remember how, standing on the cluttered balcony at the Cecil, I had hoped finally to let go of this city, knowing all the while that the longing would start again soon enough, that one never washes anything away, and that this marooned and spectral city, which is no longer home for me and which Durrell once called “a shabby little seaport built upon a sand reef,” would eventually find newer, ever more beguiling ways to remind me that here is where my mind always turns, that here, to quote this century’s most famous Alexandrian poet, Constantine Cavafy, I’ll always end up, even if I never come back:
For you won’t find a new country,
won’t find a new shore,
the city will always pursue you,
and no ship will ever take you away from yourself.
And then I remembered. With all the tension in the cemetery that afternoon, I had forgotten to ask Magdi to show me Cavafy’s home. Worse yet, I had forgotten to kiss my grandfather’s grave. Maybe next time.
FALSE PAPERS Copyright © 2000 by André Aciman All rights reserved No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews For information, address Picador, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N Y 10010