October 2015 Special Series: Egypt
If each city is like a game of chess, the day when I have learned the rules, I shall finally possess my empire, even if I shall never succeed in knowing all the cities it contains.
—Italo Calvino, Invisible Cities
Can you describe the mood of Alexandria as you feel/see it?
Aida is an old woman who sells flowers on the streets of Alexandria that nobody knows anything about. Her eyes are full of stories. She smokes a lot and doesn't talk much. We used to buy from her and give her extra money. I imagine her when she was young as a fatally beautiful woman, and somehow, in her own way, she still is, and certainly is in the eyes of writers. For me, Alexandria and Aida are quite alike.
What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?
The first time I was leaving Egypt for good, I was the only one who knew that I was not coming back. I was almost eighteen. I didn't want my father to drive me to the airport. I saw the tough man crying for the first time like a baby. I felt he knew what I had in mind. I cried, too, because I thought I wasn’t going to see him again. This scene was the reason I got into the habit of a few hours sleep, accompanied by frequent nightmares. This was the reason I decided to come back to, or at least spend most of the year in, Alexandria.
What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most of the city?
In the heart of Alexandria, there is a street called Al Nabi Daniel Street, (Al Nabi means prophet). Before entering the street, on the right hand side, is the ancient Roman Theater. But the most extraordinary detail that goes unnoticed is that it might be the only street on earth that has three houses of worship from three different religions (Islam, Christianity, and Judaism): the mosque Al Nabi Daniel, Saint Mark's Coptic Orthodox Cathedral of Alexandria, and Eliayahu Hanavi synagogue. Isn't it amazing?
What writer(s) from here should we read?
Cavafy, Stratis Tsirkas, Mostafa Nasr Ibrahim, Ibrahim Abdel Majeed, and Alaa Khaled.
Is there a place here you return to often?
The Latin and Greek cemeteries. It is a fantastic, serene area in the heart of Alexandria. The place is like an open museum. I often go there for long walks and sit there for hours reading.
Is there an iconic literary place we should know?
The Hellenic Foundation for Culture.
Are their hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?
The necropole! In Greek, it means “the city of the dead,” where the Greeks used to place the cemetery yard of the city on its borders. In the Greek and Roman times, there was one on the west side of Alexandria and another on the east side of it. I was raised near the western necropolis and now I live near the eastern necropolis. Each one of them is a different neighborhood, like two different cities.
Where does passion live here?
When it rains at night downtown and near the eastern harbor, Alexandria is magical.
What is the title of one of your works about Alexandria and what inspired it exactly?
“Mermaid,” about pure and tense nostalgia.
Inspired by Levi, “Outside Alexandria does an outside exist?”
There is no such thing when it comes to Alexandria.
As Cavafy said in his famous poem “The City”: “the city will follow you.”
Khaled Raouf is a researcher with a PhD in art history (Greek and Roman Classical period). A translator from English, Greek, and Italian into Arabic, he mainly translates modern Greek literature and most of his creative writing is in Greek. He has lived between Alexandria and Europe for nearly twenty years.