Whatever happened to Alexandria?

 If Lawrence Durrell despaired at the Alexandria he revisited in the 1970s, how much more despairing would the author be if he saw the city as it is today? Cairo-born Lucette Lagnado shares her thoughts in the Wall St Journal after re-reading Durrell’s ‘Justine’, the first novel of ‘The Alexandria Quartet’:

Twenty years after he published “Justine,” the first novel of his Alexandria Quartet, Lawrence Durrell returned to the city of his obsession.

The signs of decay were everywhere, but he fixated on one small but telling change: The colorful movie posters he had loved, showcasing films in numerous languages, were now exclusively in Arabic. Where was the multilingual, multicultural society he had chronicled so painstakingly and poetically?

It was 1977, a quarter-century after the revolution in Egypt that toppled a king. After years of military rule, Alexandria’s cosmopolitan culture was almost completely gone.

According to Durrell biographer Michael Haag in his book, “Alexandria: City of Memory,” the novelist found the city “listless,” declared that it had sunk “into oblivion” and was depressing “beyond endurance.”

 Were Durrell to return again now, he might despair even more. Two years after the Arab Spring precipitated another revolution, Egypt has seen a repressive Islamist government followed, again, by military rule. And just a few weeks ago, a young American Jew was murdered in Alexandria, which had once been a beacon for a mix of cultures, religions, outsiders and the young.

For Durrell’s Alexandria was an exotic city where Jews and Europeans existed alongside Muslims, and where there were constant interactions between the cultures and religions. His characters, especially his lovely protagonist, she of the “somber brow-dark gaze,” mirrored Alexandria in all its complexities—its elegance and searing poverty, its ancient Arab ways and modern European mores.

Justine was the essence of Alexandria, its “true child…neither Greek, Syrian, nor Egyptian, but a hybrid.”

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Lucette Lagnado: When Jews fled Arab lands

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