E-Travels With E.Trules.....looking for larry 2, alexandria, Middle East, Scandinavia, Malaysia, Travelogue

« looking for larry 2, alexandria »

june 10-11, 1999


so now i'm on the 11:30 a.m. express to “alex”. alex--andria. pride of the conquering alexander the great in 333 b.c.. home of cleopatra. marc antony. julius caesar. seat of learning of the entire ancient world. western outpost in the islamic diaspora. home of muslims, christians, copts, jews. the sensual, worldly, convoluted, mysterious -- al-iskandariya.

but none of these are what brings me here. no, i'm here for one thing - for one man - only. lawrence durrell. and his great literary masterpiece, “the alexandria quartet”. i've read it at least three times, in various passings, the most recent being on last summer's pilgrimage to the greek island of corfu, where durrell lived and wrote for years, as well as entertained his literary mentor and my main man, henry miller. four books – “justine”, “balthazar”, “mountolive”, and “clea” - names of four of the books' protagonists - in sum, all contributing to the most intricate, ornate, richly satisfying literary analysis of love, passion, jealousy, politics, duplicity, and life that i've had the pleasure and challenge of reading. along with the enjoyment of his opulent and luxurious prose, what durrell offers in these books is a single story told from four points of view. after reading the first book, “justine”, the reader assumes what the author has told him is true. after all, that's what novelists do - reveal the truth - from their wise, literary, third person omniscience. isn't that what we learned in school? but no, durrell fractures the idea completely, having his next book reveal a completely opposing and contradictory view of the same events - justine's betrayal and sudden disappearance - from a second character's point of view. and then he does it again in the third book, then again in the fourth. finally, the reader is left with at least four versions of "the truth", trying to assemble and come to grips with the swirling, shattered mosaic durrell has so beautifully constructed. immense. delicious. sphinx-like. supremely and exhaustingly - satisfying.

that's why i've come here to alexandria. to see what remains of durrell's exotic, colonial, multi-faceted city of the 1930s and 40s. i already know i will be disappointed. i've heard from toute la monde that the glorious days of the city are long behind her. the great diplomatic embassies, the plush colonial hotels along the mediterranean's elegant corniche, the exquisite homes, the sophisticated and privileged denizens -- all are supposedly gone - long given way to the urban disrepair, the crowded grime and congestion of modern day islamic and independent egypt. but i have come anyway. i have to feast my eyes on durrell's alexandria, or what's left of it, searching for his alleyways of collusion, his bazaars of murderous revenge, his ballrooms of masked intrigue and duplicitous, unsparing love.

anthony, my clever american friend from jerusalem, has given me the name of a native alexandrian, someone he met on his trip to alex. i haven't been able to reach “nezim” by phone since my arrival in cairo, but this morning, at the train station, about ten minutes before my scheduled departure, i do. alright! another sweet synchronicity of travel.

the train is a quick, efficient but scenic hour from cairo to alex. heading north into the rich, wet, black-soiled nile delta, it feels like the countryside has been untouched by centuries. dark-skinned, white-clad neighbors are still tilling the soil, working their animals, and hanging their laundry on outstretched multi-colored clotheslines. between the two modern, chaotic urban centers lies the entire history of ancient and contemporary egypt – the nile, pharaohs, pyramids, alexander, cleopatra, seljuks, fatamids, sultans, pashas, kings, colonialists… and eternity. me, i'm just the silent, accidental tourist, wide-eyed and open-hearted, soaking it all up.

nezim is a thirty-eight year old, small-boned, sad-eyed egyptian in conflict with his own culture. the son of a wealthy international banker and his gold-digging, now-divorced ex-wife, he is a man of privilege and unknown direction. he lives with his dog, doby, in the old italian colonial center of alex, one of the very sections of the city that durrell's comfortable diplomats settled and developed. unfortunately, city planners have since built a busy train station about half a block from his grandmother's former villa, and the house rattles like a tin trap every half an hour - twenty four hours a day. nezim, being the loyal and responsible eldest son, has been stuck holding the bag. he waters the yard, answers the mail, and waits for the property to be sold. nervous from the constant train traffic, jaded by his western education in well-known universities in boston and montana, and resigned to the backwardness and incivility of his hungry, bottom-feeding neighbors and fellow countrymen, it looks like he has had, and perhaps will continue to have, a long wait.

he is, however, extremely generous. he invites me to stay with him as long as i want. and he insists on paying for absolutely everything. he and his "butler", mohammed, take me everywhere they can think of - by taxi. we visit the famous lighthouse at the rocky point where cleopatra eagerly awaited her roman paramour, marc antony. we see the greco-roman museum, the white marble roman amphitheater, pompey's pillar, another ornate and exquisite mosque at abu al-abbas. tiring himself, nezim sends me to the eastern beaches of king farouk's former summer retreat, montaza palace. one can feel the incredible decadence, vanity, and power of the last ruling egyptian monarch. it is said that farouk narrowly escaped his death by helicoptering away from the encroaching forces of liberation as they chased him into the crashing mediterranean.

the next morning, i take myself for a long and aimless walk, trying to soak up the life and breath of justine's formerly nefarious city. i don't have to wander very far before i find myself within the confines of an old coptic cemetery. it houses acres and acres of white and pink family tombs, high-crossed religious crypts and mausoleums, and rows and rows of outdoor, brightly covered funerary parlors. the grounds look like, at one time, they were sedulously planted and manicured, but now the tangled gardens are overgrown and forgotten, the clay flowerpots cracked and scattered in shards, and the day watchman comfortably collapsed into a deep slumber. hence, my absolute freedom to walk around and photograph this striking combination of past and present. the cemetery workers are friendly and warm, seemingly typical of day-laboring egyptians, and they smile and pose for my pictures.

i am once again speculating on the meaning of "coptic". i have read in books that it is described as a non-catholic form of christianity, indigenous to the cities of northern egypt. when the first ecumenical council of 325 AD divided christianity among five centers - constantinople, jerusalem, rome, antioch, and alexandria, coptic worship was supposedly already in place here in alexandria. justine's husband, nessim, a powerful but emotionally reserved banker, and his wild, horse-taming brother, narouz, were both copts. somehow linking pharonic and hellenic egypt, then draped and enveloped in the cloak of islam, the copts insist on the monophysitic nature of christ, have their own rituals and symbols, their unique architecture and funerary practices, yet still - remain a complete mystery to most outside their belief. like justine herself. like alexandria herself. while i feel like more like darley, durrell's astute but naive narrator in “the quartet”. the eternal outsider. forever baffled by his elusive and enigmatic lover. justine - the worldly jewess, sexual object of desire of the rich and powerful in coptic and islamic alexandria. a woman frighteningly at odds with her own history. a woman desperately and tragically unknown even to herself . justine - inscrutable, insoluble, unpossessable - ultimately no one's at all. like the city's greatest icon, the clandestine cleopatra - a woman, a city, a culture - veiling itself under layers and millennia of secrecy, religion, conflict, and accommodation.

in the afternoon, back with my host and his faithful servant, we are again benefactors of the great sea. however, where once ruled the mighty british navy, where perhaps at another juncture in history once oared wayward phoenicians on their journeys to and from ancient carthage, where once mighty pharaohs ruled the old and new kingdoms of the upper and lower nile for three thousand years, now sits a raggedly fleet of dilapidated blue and white wooden fishing boats, with dark-skinned smiling boys throwing themselves carelessly into the garbage-reeking port.

once again, it is my hosts, nezim and mohammed, who are in my complete service, asking me how they can, in any way, further edify and pleasure my visit to their once-great city. nezim decides we will take one of these run-down fishing boats on a cruise to nowhere, having bright-eyed mohammed arrange all the finer details with a local fishing crew. within an hour, we are scooped up from the pier and puttered safely out into the protected bay, finding ourselves eating deliciously pan-fried fish caught no more than half an hour before. it’s sensual. immediate. totally alexandrian. for the rest of the afternoon, we don’t really “sail” anywhere so much as we just sit, talk, and drink beer with our local crew, in the stagnant bay, as the relentless equatorial sun slowly makes its way towards the horizon. i get the sad but distinct feeling that there is simply nowhere to go. at least not for nezim and mohammed on this typically cloudless and aimless day in alexandria in very post colonial egypt, just one year before the dawn of the twenty first century.

but as i enjoy the beauty and serenity of the fine afternoon created solely for my delight, i can not help but marvel at the way the fisherman casually throw their paper plates, plastic forks, beer bottles, and fish bones into the helpless sea. i look back to the shore and see a few more reckless boys throw themselves happily into this ocean of garbage. and the combination of the two activities, the throwing of, and the swimming in, this sea of garbage, strikes me as such a fitting and sad metaphor for the distance the great city has fallen - and for the dilapidation it has undergone since the sophistication and finery of durrell. not that he wrote only about the lives of upper class businessmen, diplomats, and society woman. he didn’t. his prose was full of the smell of the marketplace and barbershop, the stench of the shouk and bazaar, the sweat of horses and humans, the semen and blood of sex and revenge. but now his once great city, that of cleopatra, antony, and caesar, seemed more than anything, lazy and impotent. almost unaware of her own stagnation and disrepair. a run-down historical relic, although far from extinct, also far from her glory and beauty.

all this i knew before i came. just as on the island of corfu, i could barely find a citizen who recognized the name, “lawrence durrell”, nor find his once muscular writing studio and home that had now been turned into the touristic “white house” restaurant and pensione, here too, in alexandria, lawrence durrell and his exotic, sensual city, were now nothing but two more antiquated and near meaningless names in the city’s rich and unsparing past. except, of course, for literary pilgrims such as myself, this hungrily-wandering and eternally romantic new york poet/con.

oh, my kind and generous friend, nezim; oh, my sad and fallen literary treasure, alexandria, i wish you a clement and gentle -- adieu.

oh yes, and goodbye and a bientot, my literary hero, larry durrell.