Monday, 19 August 2013

Lawrence Durrell's Egypt

Handprints to avert the Evil Eye.
Yesterday, Sunday, for the first time in over 1600 years they did not say mass in Minya, a largely Coptic Christian town in Upper Egypt.  Muslim Brotherhood supporters of ousted president Mohammed Morsi destroyed the ancient monastery of the Virgin Mary at Degla just outside Minya, including the three churches within it.  For the safety of their lives, Minya’s Christians cancelled services in all their remaining churches in the town – click here to read the article in the Egyptian press.

A month ago I posted Lucette Lagnado’s article about Lawrence Durrell’s Justine.  After writing about the impression the novel made on her, Lucette had some thoughts on the way Alexandria and all Egypt had changed since the 1930s and 1940s, the period covered in The Alexandria Quartet. 
I have found myself wondering what Durrell would have said about Egypt today, where the tolerant, inclusive society he depicted has been almost utterly obliterated. In his time, beauties of every nationality—French, Greek, Italian, Armenian, Egyptian-Jewish and Egyptian-Muslim—would preen in their bathing suits along ‘the sand beaches of Sidi Bishr’, as he calls one popular seafront enclave. These days, the foreigners and Jews are gone, and women who venture to the public beaches must go into the water covered from head to toe.

Could Durrell ever have envisioned such a dark destiny for his city—for all of Egypt? ‘Jamais de la vie’, I can hear him reply.
Jamais de la vie was the name of Justine’s perfume, a fragrance that pervades the Alexandria of Durrell’s Quartet – the name means ‘never’.  But though Lucette may not realise it, Durrell’s use of the phrase carries the doomed sense of ‘nevermore’.  And that already tells you the answer.  As the further three volumes of the Quartet make clear, Durrell saw that dark destiny for Egypt coming.
Young women on the beach in Alexandria in the 1930s.
Alexandria was the ‘unburied city’; there was ‘the dusty, deathward drift of the place’.  ‘Unaware that their mother city was dying, the living still sat there in the open street, like caryatids supporting the darkness, the pains of futurity upon their very eyelids.’  These mood descriptions came from Durrell’s direct awareness of a change overcoming the country while he was there during the Second World War. No longer an Egypt looking out across the Mediterranean to the wider world, but an inward looking place where nationalism and religion were combining in a toxic mix that would persecute differences and minorities and drive the old cosmopolitan world into the sea. 'It was out of this varied and dying ferment that Larry invented his Alexandria Quartet', said Gwyn Williams, a friend of Durrell’s from those times.

In particular Durrell was made aware through conversations with his Alexandrian friend Gaston Zananiri (a Christian Syrian whose family had lived in Egypt over four hundred years) of how the religious exclusivity of political Islam would lead to authoritarianism.  ‘Islam transposed into a political movement’, Zananiri told Durrell, ‘can easily become a sort of oriental fascism’. 

In the way of things in Alexandria, Zananiri’s mother was Jewish.  In fact many of the people Durrell knew in Alexandria were Jewish.  The house where he lived was owned by a Jewish architect who lived downstairs.  Durrell’s Alexandrian girlfriend was Jewish; Eve Cohen was her name, and she was a model for the character of Justine; she later became his second wife. 

At the heart of the Quartet is a political thriller about a Palestine conspiracy in which some Egyptian Copts are working against the British to help the Jews establish an independent state of Israel as a bulwark against the total Islamisation of the Middle East.  The leader of this Coptic conspiracy is the wealthy Alexandrian banker Nessim Hosnani, a Christian who has married Justine, who is Jewish. Here he tells her for the first time about his secret activities. '"Yes, Justine, Palestine. If only the Jews can win their freedom, we can all be at ease. It is the only hope for us, the dispossessed foreigners."  He uttered the word with a slight twist of bitterness.'  
A Coptic funeral in Mohammed Ali Square, Alexandria, early twentieth century.
Of course Nessim as a Copt is not a foreigner.  The Copts are Egypt’s Christians – Egypt was a Christian country until the Arab invasion in the seventh century, in fact a majority of Egyptians remained Christian until at least the thirteenth century when they were overwhelmed by continuing and violent Muslim persecution and many converted to Islam, but even today around ten percent of Egyptians are Christians (Copt, or the Arabic Qibt, comes from the ancient Greek for Egypt, Aegyptos), and it is the Copts who can trace their ancestry back to pharaonic times and claim to be true sons of the Nile, the real Egyptians. 

But Egypt in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries did have a significant ‘foreign’ population.  Many of these were Muslims from North Africa, from Syria and Palestine, Turkey and the Balkans, from Sudan and Arabia – but because they were Muslims they were not regarded as foreigners.  

Baudrot on the Rue Fuad was a favourite watering hole of Durrell's during the war.
Also there were many Jews; some families had been there since before the Arab invasion; in Alexandria Durrell mixed with Jews who could trace their ancestry back to at least the advent of the Fatimids in the tenth century.  Other Jews came from Iraq and Syria or from Algeria and Tunisia, Jews who had lived in lands that fell to the Muslim conquests.  But for all that Egypt was their home, the Jews tended to be educated and progressive and outward looking, and they looked upon the Mediterranean as a sea they shared with Europeans and welcomed its influences and seized its opportunities. 

This meant that Egypt’s Jews were often lumped together with other ‘foreigners’, those Greeks and Italians mostly, and other Europeans whose families had lived there for generations and whose ancestors were recruited to Egypt in the nineteenth century by the rulers of the country with the idea that they would bring their expertise, their capital, and help develop and modernise Egypt, which they did. 

Many Copts found themselves in a similar situation; while entirely Egyptian, they also shared in that wider world, and because of that – and simply because they were Christian, not Muslim – they were discriminated against, marginalised and sometimes open to violent persecution and attack.
Greeks on the beach in Alexandria, 1930s.
In the Quartet Durrell described the atmosphere among these communities of Copts, Jews and ‘foreigners’, their growing sense of 'isolation from the warm Gulf Stream of European feelings and ideas. All the currents slide away towards Mecca'. 

The Jews of Egypt were driven out of their country in the 1950s as Durrell was writing his Alexandria Quartet.  When he wrote about Nessim and the Copts, Durrell was thinking about the Jews.  In fact it was to disguise that he was writing about Jews – Jews whom he knew intimately and wanted to protect – that Durrell wrote about his Palestine conspiracy as though it involved Copts. There were some, such as the American critic Kenneth Rexroth, who found the notion that Copts and Jews should enter into a conspiracy absurd but also ‘dangerous’ and bordering on ‘malicious’ – as though Durrell would be to blame if his story provoked outbreaks of violence against the Copts.

But as it happens, and even without Durrell’s help, the turn of the Copts has come.  When you start persecuting one people, there will be another people next in line.  First the Jews, at least some of whom could trace their roots in Egypt back to before the Arab conquest, were driven from the country; now the Copts, descendants of the true Egyptians of pharaonic times, are being attacked, killed and driven from their country by the Muslim Brotherhood – that same Muslim Brotherhood described in some quarters of the Western media as ‘moderate’ and ‘pro-democracy’, but otherwise known as a racist and persecutory organisation with a long history of political and religious violence and assassination, and interested in the devices of elections merely to impose absolute sharia law on Egypt.

In the year that the Brotherhood’s Mohammed Morsi served as president of Egypt and packed the administration and the legislature with Brotherhood stooges, and also attempted to pack the judiciary and impose a Brotherhood constitution, and announced a decree that placed him entirely above the law – giving him more absolute power than ever Mubarak or even Nasser had – in that year of ‘moderate’ and ‘pro-democracy’ activity by Mohammed Morsi during which his Muslim Brotherhood openly turned against Egypt’s Christians, murdering them, burning their churches, destroying their businesses, killing their livestock, throwing them out of their houses, a hundred thousand Copts fled their ancient homeland as refugees.  

Sandro Manzoni visits the school for Coptic children in Minya in March 2013.
I have received some photographs today.  Sandro Manzoni, an Italian engineer originally from Alexandria, has been involved in a charity to provide an education to Coptic children at Minya in Upper Egypt.  The top photograph shows Sandro and his wife visiting the school in March.  The bottom photographs show the charred ruins of the school after it was attacked by Mohammed Morsi’s Muslim Brotherhood on 14 August this year. 

On 14 August 2013 the Coptic school is burnt down by the Muslim Brotherhood.
Destruction caused by the Islamist supporters of Mohammed Morsi.
‘We have seen the best and last of the Middle East’, Durrell wrote to a friend after leaving Alexandria in 1945.  He did not expect conditions to get better.  He was nearly unable to take Eve; from 1938 Egypt would no longer grant citizenship to Jews and Eve found herself a stateless person; only after Durrell tried ‘every wangle known to man’ would the authorities issue her with a laisser passer

Towards the end of the Quartet Durrell looks back on the city which is already lost. ‘I feel it fade inside me, in my thoughts, like some valedictory mirage — like the sad history of some great queen whose fortunes have foundered among the ruins of armies and the sands of time!’