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!

Bernard’s Travels (2)

In November 2018 I was at Bellapais Abbey, near Kyrenia, Northern Cyprus. It was my third visit. My first had been 61 years ago. My year in Cyprus (1957-8) in the British Army had been unlike any other of my life. I kept a diary and filled a photographic album. I was tanned and had learned to swim. I overheard more obscenities in that one year than in all the others of my life. I had my own Sten-gun and was licensed to use it to kill people in certain circumstances. All the time I was myself in danger of being killed.
Cyprus at the time was a dangerous place for everyone. EOKA, a terrorist organisation dedicated to union with Greece, had started killing, and the army had retaliated. The Turks, who made up 20 percent of the population, were understandably not impressed. The two populations had never mingled on any scale. Very few Cypriots spoke both Greek and Turkish. Opinions and actions quickly polarised. 
Like most Mediterranean islands, Cyprus had a history of occupation by outside forces: Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, everyone had come and conquered. The British were the latest, given Cyprus as part of a deal at the Congress of Berlin in 1878. So my role was in the army of occupation, at a time when the British Empire was well into its dissolution. At the other end of the Med, the French were hanging on (at an even greater cost) to Algeria. In Cyprus 492 Cypriots and 142 British people were murdered between 1954 and 1958. These deaths in Cyprus raised its profile from a sleepy backwater to world news.
At this time the British Army was incredibly naive in its standing on the global stage. It had yet to learn the lessons of the 30-year-long “struggle” in Northern Ireland. It not only failed to understand what was going on, but had no appropriate language to describe the events. Its response was a largely brutal one of facing violence with violence, with a far greater force of men, but out of its depth facing guerrilla operations. Back in the UK, politicians had to deal with a largely unsophisticated and uninformed electorate which resented the loss of colony after colony. In the words of US Secretary of State Foster Dulles, Britain had “lost an empire and failed to find a role”.
My tiny role in these events was largely as a helpless, ignorant spectator. When I was sent to Cyprus, I received no political briefing on the reason for my presence there. Those in charge of us knew little better. In the words of the officer commanding a road block I manned “Use your common sense”.
Let me return now to Kyrenia and introduce Lawrence Durrell. His brilliant book, _Bitter Lemons_ for the first time revealed to the English-speaking world the subtlety of the emotions behind the conflict, as well as the political pressures that had brought it about. He was recruited in a master stroke by the British government as their Information Officer; effectively head of their PR. _Bitter Lemons_ is his account of how he set about this job. Durrell was Irish and didn’t like the Brits very much. He did like the Greeks and one of a handful of Greek speakers in the service of the British government during its 80-year occupation of the island.
He bought a house in Kyrenia and made local friends in including Kollis, the Custodian of Bellapais Abbey, whose photo is included in the early editions of the book. I met Kollis and the man who took over Durrell’s job, whose marvellous conversation I have sadly forgotten – but it was a wonderful contrast to the unremitting coarseness and obscenities of everyday army language.
Bellapais Abbey is enjoying good times. The main room has been restored and at the time of my last visit was hosting a month-long music festival. Heaven only knows how they cope with the parking!
Bellapais’ happiness and prosperity is reflected across Cyprus as a whole, both in my last visit, taking in Larnaca and Paphos, and in the previous one to the north. One new dimension is the development alongside tourism of archaeology, which has expanded rapidly in recent decades. The Cyprus Museum in Nicosia is clearly worth a visit.
A more recent development still is the growing influence of Russia: one of the newest hotels is named ‘Odessa’, presumably as it is marketed largely in Russia. Russians and the Russian language pop up everywhere. How many poorly paid Cypriot employees are there working in the British bases? The security issues must be a nightmare.
The division of the island following the Turkish invasion in 1974 is held on all sides to be a disaster, and many personal accounts concern genuine loss of homes and property. But the two groups of Greeks and Turks have never enjoyed much real integration, and now both appear at peace within their borders. A further happy dimension is the apparent peaceful relations they enjoy in Britain.