In the old days, Alexandria bustled with non-Muslims: now they are all gone
Without their Jews and other minorities, the Maghreb and Levant are today dull places. Islam is king on a field of corpses, laments Mark Steyn in this National Review elegy for the death of the cosmopolitanism of the Arab world:
Some years ago, for a telly documentary, the BBC sent the novelist Lawrence Durrell back to Alexandria, the setting of his eponymous Alexandria Quartet, his “prose poem to one of the great capitals of the heart.” Durrell had lived in Egypt during the war years, and did not enjoy his return. “The city seemed to him listless and spiritless, its harbor a mere cemetery, its famous cafés no longer twinkling with music and lights,” wrote Michael Haag in Alexandria, City of Memory. “His favourite bookshop, Cité du Livre on the rue Fuad, had gone, and in others he found a lamentable stock.”
Only on the Western fringe of the Ummah, in a few Moroccan redoubts, can you still discern the flickers of the way it was. Otherwise, to anyone who knew the “Muslim world” of the mid–20th century, today’s Maghreb and Levant are dull places, drained of everything but Islam. And Durrell was returning in 1977: Another third of a century on, and Alexandria’s stock is even more lamentable. Indeed, his cast of characters would be entirely bewildering to contemporary Alexandrians: an English writer (of course), a Greek good-time girl, a homosexual Jew, a wealthy Copt. In the old days, Alexandria bustled with Britons, Italians, and lots and lots of Greeks. All gone. So are the Jews, homo- and hetero-, from a community 50,000 strong down to some four dozen greybeards keeping their heads down.
I got an e-mail a year or so back from the great-grandson of Joseph Cattaui, a Jew and Egypt’s finance minister back in the Twenties: These days, the family lives in France — because it’s not just that in Egypt a Jew can no longer be finance minister, but that in Egypt a Jew can no longer be. Now, in the absence of any other demographic groups to cleanse, it’s the Copts’ turn to head for the exits — as in Tripoli and Benghazi it’s the blacks’. In the once-cosmopolitan cities of the Arab world, the minority communities are confined to the old graveyards, like the rubbish-strewn Jewish cemetery of broken headstones, squawking chickens, and hanging laundry I wandered through in Tangiers a while back. Islam is king on a field of corpses.