- Alexandrian Cosmopolitanism: An Archive by Hala Halim
Hala Halim argues that cosmopolitan Alexandria was a colonial imposition, one that lived by the “invented tradition” that it was heir to Hellenistic Alexandria. Hellenistic associations brought into play “a binary of Greek (read: European) versus barbarian (read: Egyptian/Arab/Islamic)” (54). All that was barbarian was depreciated; the history of the city was presented as unrelieved decline between the Arab occupation in 642 CE and its revival in the early nineteenth century. Nor could there be room for Egyptians in this refounded cosmopolis. When an Alexandrian is described as a cosmopolite, says Halim, “it is virtually always the case that he or she is non-Egyptian or at least of mixed descent—which betrays the extent of the collusion of this cosmopolitanism with colonialism.”
This Eurocentric Alexandrian cosmopolitanism has been supported and advanced, says Halim, by certain “canonical” texts by Constantine Cavafy, E. M. Forster, and Lawrence Durrell, and also by commentators such as Edmund Keeley, Jane Lagoudis Pinchin, and Robert Liddell who have accepted the canon “uncritically” (45). Moreover the same binary is applied today; commentators “reiterate their Eurocentric interpretations and duplicate the decline-and-fall narrative about Arabo-Islamic Alexandria as projected onto the post-independence Egyptian city” (277).
Halim’s aim is to expose what she sees as the underlying neocolonial realities in this canon. Also by treating Alexandria “in conjunction with other spaces, such as Andalusia, the Maghreb, the Syro-Lebanese eastern Mediterranean and Baghdad,” Halim intends “to steer [Alexandria’s] cosmopolitanism away from a Europe construed as its true North and indicate other(ed) intercultural coordinates” (55).
That is the argument. But it does not hold up. Egyptians are the first to say that Alexandria since the 1950s has been in decline. Explaining why he set his 1967 novel Miramar in Alexandria, Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz said that his characters, drifting and despairing Egyptians of the Nasser era, needed a setting that would reflect their moods. “Alexandria, a once great city that was sidelined by history and overshadowed by Cairo, was a perfect backdrop for them.” But Mahfouz also saw promise. “Alexandria is making a comeback with the resurrection of its Bibliotheca,” he said, referring to the modern Bibliotheca Alexandrina, inspired by the Library of Hellenistic Alexandria, which was inaugurated in 2002 (Mahfouz 2002). That view is supported by Ismail Serageldin, director of the Bibliotheca, who describes cosmopolitan Alexandria as having been “a great city by any standard.” His hope is that the new Library can “revive cultural activity in Alexandria and reverse the decline that had set in over the last sixty years” (Serageldin 2014). [End Page 449]
As for Halim’s remark that there was no room for Egyptians in cosmopolitan Alexandria, that is disproved by glancing at the membership of that most quintessential institution of the cosmopolitan city, the Royal Archaeological Society of Alexandria. “A society of various nationalities (Italian, Egyptian, British, French, Greek) but all Alexandrian whose aim was to protect, preserve and promote their city’s heritage,” to quote the 1993 booklet issued by the society as it celebrated its hundredth anniversary.
This same Archaeological Society supervised the second edition (1938) of Forster’s Alexandria: A History and a Guide, which he originally researched while he was a Red Cross volunteer in the city during the First World War and had published there in 1922. Forster’s guidebook takes up a significant portion of Halim’s study in which she condemns him for his “unmitigated racism against the Christians of Egypt”—this because Forster objects to the murder by black-robed Egyptian monks of the pagan philosopher Hypatia and their destruction of the “Daughter” Library at the Serapeum, calling them “a wild black army” and “ignorant” (140). She also accuses him of slighting Muslims by not paying adequate attention to the medieval period when the city enjoyed something of a revival as a transshipment point for the spice trade between the Far East and Europe. Halim might have understood Forster had she recalled what he wrote about guidebooks...