Edward Said on Cavafy in Alexandria
In his Reflections on Exile, Edward Said has a lovely elegiac essay called Cairo and Alexandria, which is an ode to Cairo and a eulogy for Alexandria. I love the bits that follow (and especially sympathise with the fear of consulates disappearing):
Her loneliness convinced me that Alexandria was in fact over: the city celebrated by European travelers with decadent tastes had vanished in the middle 1950s, one of the casualties of the Suez war, which drowned the foreign communities in its wake. One of the few meaningful glances of the old Alexandria is a little quasi-monument to Cavafy, the great Greek poet and a former Alexandrian resident, that exists more or less secretly on the second floor of the Greek Consulate. The British travel writer Gavin Young had advised me before I left to go to the consulate and ask to see the Cavafy room, but at the time I hadn’t paid much heed. Since Alexandria boasts no easily available telephone directory (another sign of its abandonment), I was left to fend for myself when I finally recalled the conversation. It took half a day to find the consulate, though it stands right across from the University of Alexandria Medical School in Chatby, a section of the modern city about a mile west of Montazah.
The consulate clerk, a cross Greek woman with better things to do than to speak to unannounced passerby like myself, told me I couldn’t expect to come in just like that. When I asked why not, she was slightly taken aback, and then more amiably suggested that I come back in an hour. I didn’t leave, for fear that the consulate might disappear; I parked myself on the staircase with the Keeley and Sherrard translation of Cavafy’s poetry. After an hour I was shown to a spacious room in which the Cavafy memorial reposed, unused, unvisited, unconsulted, mostly uncared for. In the bookshelves there were about three hundred volumes of French, English, and Latin works, many of them annotated by the poet, all of them handsomely bound. In the center of the room were several glass cases exhibiting manuscripts, correspondence between Cavafy and other writers (including Marguerite Yourcenar),first editions, and photographs. The bright young Egyptian attendant told that the small group of chairs and tables came from the Pension Amir, Cavafy’s last home in Alexandria. Other visitors to the city have reported that when they went to the Pension Amir, they were approached with offers from people who had “Cavafy furniture” to sell, so one cannot know whether the pieces of greek Consulate belonged to the poet or not. Nevertheless, the memorial’s melancholy situation, hidden away in a city that has no other recollection of one of the greatest poets of our century, corresponded perfectly with what I had already discovered: that those few parts of Alexandria’s colonial past which have not disappeared completely have been consigned to decay.
I returned to Cairo by train the next day.