Tuesday, 6 December 2011

Egypt for the Egyptians

The following is a letter written by Michael Haag immediately after taking part in the Liquid Continent programme at the Bibliotheca (see here and here) at Alexandria in March 2011. The letter may hold some interest in the light of subsequent events.

As we travelled by train to Alexandria I was looking at the Delta landscape and noticed how built-up the villages had become since I first made that journey back in 1973. The villages have expanded and also the houses, once one and two storeys high, are now three and four. They consist of upright concrete pillars which have the spaces between them filled in with brick. Then arriving at the outskirts of Alexandria I saw the same, the city expanding, growing ever denser, the buildings exactly like the Delta houses, the upright concrete pillars filled in with brick, but instead of three and four storeys rising to ten and more. And that was as much 'architecture' as they had; the Delta has moved into Alexandria, the fellahin and their villages complete. I looked to see if any of these new structures owed anything to the wider world, to the Mediterranean; but nothing, nothing at all, only to the simplest Egyptian notions of a box to live inside.

I was alert to these things because the Liquid Continent event at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina was all about Alexandria and the Mediterranean, what the city supposedly shared with other cities round the Mediterranean's shores. Once upon a time the influence did come across that sea; you see it still where the older buildings stand along the Corniche and a few blocks behind, the architecture of the late nineteenth century and early twentieth. But now Alexandria no longer looks out to sea; it is being buried by the Delta mud.

Meanwhile other seaports flourish, cities like Barcelona, Piraeus, Genoa, Marseilles, Haifa – Haifa, for example, handles as great an annual tonnage as Alexandria but the population of Israel is only ten million while Egypt is over eighty million. When the 'foreigners' were pushed out of Egypt Alexandria collapsed. Anyone who wants to seek their fortune in Egypt these days must go to Cairo; Alexandria is a dead city unless one has a position at the university or the Bibliotheca. Cairo has energy which makes it less oppressive, but there is nothing my heart warms to there outside the marvellous Fatimid and Mameluke architecture of the medieval city. Luxor has turned into a factory for taking tourists on coach tours of tombs, and Aswan, once so dreamy, is overbuilt. 

My feeling about these recent events in Egypt is that whatever the demands for democracy, an end to corruption, etc, they also mean a lurch forward in the evolution of the Egyptian identity – the Egypt that looks inwards not out across the sea. Nationalism, populism, conformism, religiosity will be more important than secularism and liberalism. The 'new Egypt' may well be nothing more than a fresh assertion of the old. The country is already heavily Islamist; despite the views of the youthful Tahrir idealists and the Western media I think Egypt will become more so; the Islamists are likely to form a powerful bloc in Parliament, likely to hold several portfolios in the government if not the premiership itself; they are moving patiently in that direction.

View towards the site of the ancient Pharos.
When I first came to Alexandria nearly forty years ago you could still hear Greek music spilling out from caf├ęs and clubs along Sharia Safiya Zaghloul. That was how I began my talk at the Bibliotheca. The music was a reminder of the Mediterranean. But now the music is gone. Egyptians may shrug and say so what, but if they ask me what I think about Alexandria I can only say that I miss the wider world. I rather liked that waft of a foreign breeze. But then I am not an Egyptian. Egypt for the Egyptians, whatever that turns out to be.*

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* In 1877 Yaqub Sanu, an Egyptian-Italian Jew and a follower of the Islamic reformer Jamal el Din Afghani, founded a satirical newspaper with a nationalist bent and coined the slogan 'Egypt for the Egyptians'.