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?
The city now is in a turbid mood—tones of dust coming from buildings and falling one after another on the front of monster trucks destroying the city. The streets of Alexandria are unknown to me now since the older buildings were demolished and replaced by ruins waiting to be high-rises with distorted glass fronts.
What is your most heartbreaking memory in this city?
The Egyptian Revolution of January 2011. The day that was called “The Friday of Anger.” I was afraid, running away from surreal thug gangs that we were expecting at any moment. Or the memory of shooting bullets that I smelled from an experienced cop's gun on the top of the police department. I saw a fire from a distance and quickly knew where it was coming from: the old palace now used as government building was burning down under the watch of the armed forces. I remembered the only and the first time I went there as a visitor with some friend to meet the governor, hoping that he would support us financially for a literary magazine we would later publish with our little money. I stood a long time looking at a huge painting—”Alexandria” by the Great Egyptian painter Mahmoud Said—in front of the stairs. I felt that day like the characters of the painting pulled me in . . . and for many years I've been chasing this painting. And while an army officer was shouting, advising me to change my direction, I walked out onto the parallel street. The air around had a smell of burning colors and the wide sea that Mahmoud Said had painted was unable to save the lives of his little fragile characters.
What is the most extraordinary detail, one that goes unnoticed by most of the city?
Alexandria was built as a checkerboard, a few longitudinal streets intersected by many cross streets. This city is a great labyrinth and has left us many tales. Behind each street, there are tons of alleys and lanes. While walking one day on Street No. 8 in Karmuz, I discovered that if you turn suddenly, you find a small alley called “The Romans,” which leads to other streets with similar names—“The Persians” and “The Arabs.” At the end of each street is a small, winding street that leads to “Nile Street,” which brings you back to Street No. 8.
What writer(s) from here should we read?
There are a lot of writers who have been attracted by Alexandria, whether or not they are natives. But in the last twenty-five years, many have not solely written about Alexandria, except the novelist and short story writer Mustafa Nasr. You can find him walking in the streets or sitting in a coffee shop or at the book market. If you really want to know Alexandria, you must to read Mustafa Nasr.
Is there a place here you return to often?
Downtown Alexandria: there is the central railway station building right in the middle of the most famous square of Alexandria, Mahatet Masr, or “Egypt Station.” There is a coffee shop nearby, the High Ground. In the early morning, I go there to watch life begin from above. Pies and cheap food vendors, shoeshines, waifs who just woke up in the park, and migrant workers sitting on the pavement that leads to the railway station, in a long line, holding their hammers; others running to catch the suburban trains which bring women farmers from villages near Alexandria carrying their goods to start a long day chasing a few dimes.
Is there an iconic literary place we should know?
Coffee shops are the literary icons of the city; they are intimate places that are used by intellectuals to face the central official policy of the state. El Crystal is by the seaside. Al Bawabeen is on the most aristocratic street. Syam, in the popular entrance of the city. Bacus, by the tram in the local market where the migrants from the countryside live. Al Hendy, in the most hidden part of the city—it’s an adventure to reach it, you have to go through the most commercial neighborhoods of Alexandria. Khafagy, with its glass frontage, looks out at Mex street which leads to the western gate where Napoleon’s ships stood, unable to enter the city. And Elba, where I'm writing these words right now at four a.m.
Are their hidden cities within this city that have intrigued or seduced you?
Towards the end of the seventies, there was an accident that people talked about for many years. There was a couple walking on Fouad Street, one of the oldest streets in the world. Its ancient name was Canopus, and the ground opened and swallowed the wife. Archeologists say that modern Alexandria lives upon its grandmother, the ancient Alexandria, and one of holes of the ancient city lay down with an open mouth and swallowed the poor wife. Beneath my city sleeps my other city embracing its history.
Where does passion live here?
The sea that extends all along the thin line of the city. It sleeps every night on the dreams of the Alexandrians and wakes up spreading tender hopes across the sky of the city.
What is the title of one of your works about Alexandria and what inspired it exactly?
“Al Rahma Street”— a short story about one of the streets of Karmuz, close to where I live. Before the construction of taller buildings, I used to see Pompey's Pillar from the Roman Period, which is beside the Cemetery of the Al Amoud or “Cemetery of the Pillar.”
Behind Pompey's Pillar there is Al Rahma Street, parallel to the cemetery’s wall; it runs until the heart of the neighborhood. Al Rahma means “mercy,” though it is one of the most dangerous streets in Alexandria—supposedly the northeast corner of the kingdom of drugs.
I wrote this story because I was amazed by this street, which represents everything here: the kindness, violence, and mercy. I was leaving the mosque by my house when I saw a funeral followed by a few people. When I asked who the deceased was, they told me a poor man who had no family so they were on their way to bury him in a pauper’s graveyard along with all the strangers, waifs, and the poor who can’t afford a burial. To reach the tombs, we had to go through Al Rahma Street, all the way to its end. That’s how I ended up walking the entire street.
Inspired by Levi, “Outside Alexandria does an outside exist?”
Out of Alexandria, hope remains. A hope heading south or north, east or west. On the western borders of Alexandria, the Bedouins are always ready to start a journey through the tough desert, where immigrants hope to arrive safely at the borders of Libya. In the north of Alexandria, the anchored, messy boats are the only hope for young people who wish to reach shores carrying people to Europe. And in the southern part of the city, the trains that transport people who move to Cairo with no return.
Maher Sharif is a playwright, poet, short story writer, storyteller, cartoonist, visual artist, book designer, actor, and believer in goodness.