Bernard’s travels (3): Alexandria

Corniche Avenue

Some places are so beautiful they need no publicity: Venice, Siena, Amsterdam.

Some are so awful even tourist campaigns cannot win over visitors. Some years ago I visited the Faroe Islands. Soon after I returned, there was a publicity campaign, promoting them as ‘Europe’s newest tourist destination.’ I was amazed: I had found them dark, cold, wet, the very opposite of appealing, with a population practicing a narrow-minded Calvinism.

There are places whose appeal has fluctuated. One such is Tipasa, on the Algerian coast. It appealed to the Phoenicians, then the Romans, then after almost two millennia of obscurity, to the French. I visited it in 1963, shortly after the war of independence. It was exhausted, drawing breath for the next round of savagery that followed the brief peace. Now I hear it has the makings (again) of a Mediterranean resort, with a new museum to house the Roman artefacts.

Alexandria is like that. It was home to two of the seven wonders of the ancient world: its lighthouse and its library. The lighthouse went centuries ago, but in recent years the library has been re-born. It has also been home for limited but significant period, to two of English literature’s major figures: EM Forster and Lawrence Durrell.

Forster arrived in Alexandria during the First World War, at the age of 36, working for the Red Cross by attempting to put soldiers involved in the conflict in touch with their relatives. He stayed three years. He had a love affair with Mohammed el Adl, a tram conductor, and wrote a curious book, Alexandria: a History and Guide, not published until 1922, and not always particularly easy to find subsequently. However, its value is still recognised; Tauris Parke published it in paperback in 2014. It includes an invaluable introduction which Lawrence Durrell added in 1982.

Durrell himself arrived penniless in the city in 1941, having narrowly avoided capture by the German army in Greece. He became the British Government’s Information Officer and started work on what was to become his masterpiece, The Alexandria Quartet: Justine, Balthazar, Mountolive, Clea. Durrell’s Alexandria’s population included a heady mix of nationalities, ethnicities, sexual and religious identities, producing a colourful narrative. They are to some extent drawn from real life and the Alexandria of Durrell’s time must have been an exciting place to inhabit.

Durrell’s return to the city in 1977 was a dispiriting experience. Arabic was spoken universally: previously speaking four languages was not uncommon for businessmen. Posters and advertisements were similarly universally in Arabic. Cafes were dull and the harbour, ‘a mere cemetery.’ Once again Alexandria has sunk into oblivion.

My own experience some forty years after Durrell’s return confirmed these impressions. The magnificent corniche road, several miles long, around the sensational bay, is in effect skin deep: a few yards behind, the buildings universally shoddy, with featureless design. The city lacks sparkle. Historical monuments look scruffy. The new library’s splendid modern exterior is not matched, according to a recent informant, by its content. The English section is dominated by books you would find in an airport shop. All is not lost: for those who choose not to visit, Michael Haag has written a marvellous book, Alexandria: City of Memory (Yale University Press 2004) which combines history (including literature), the city’s present state, and many rare and brilliant illustrations. Save the airfare and pop into your local bookshop!