May Hawas’s compelling—and funny—essay “How Not to Write about Cosmopolitan Alexandria” exemplifies how to write about Alexandria. Hawas critiques how others have written about the city, its history, and its representation in literature. In Alexandria, like other Mediterranean and post-Ottoman port cities—and like port cities everywhere—goods and ideas are exchanged between and among a diverse, multi-national assortment of individuals. Alexandria’s diversity has been immortalized in literature. The most enduring and influential of these works, Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, romanticizes the places where this diversity of humanity mixed—from seedy bars to grand mansions—constructing his narrative upon longstanding myths of an Alexandria once great and now in ruins.
In the first three decades of the 20th century, foreigners and non-Egyptian residents in Alexandria accounted for about one quarter of the population. Within a decade of the 1952 Revolution, the vast majority of foreigners, as well as the residents who were neither Arab nor legally Egyptian, had left the city. Whether one sees the number of foreigners and non-citizen residents living in Alexandria as proportionally significant or disproportionally represented in the literature about the city depends on one’s perspective. Hawas divides scholarly writing on modern Alexandria into two camps, the “nostalgic cosmopolitans,” who blame nationalism—mainly Egyptian Arabo-Islamic nationalism, but some will concede the role of other parochial nationalisms—for the dispersion of Alexandria’s non-citizen residents in mid-twentieth century, and “anti-nostalgic cosmopolitans” who blame everything on colonialism. She also identifies an emerging group, the “angry cosmopolitans,” who embrace the revolutionary spirit of 2011. Hawas calls for an activist cosmopolitanism—a cosmopolitanism engaged with the present and grounded in the past, stripping away both nostalgia and ideological formations that distort historical narratives.
I agree with Hawas’s characterization of the state of the field, as well as her insights into what is missing from recent scholarship on the city. Hawas implores scholars to address the present state of decay, neglect, and unregulated development. She also advocates for a scholarship that maps the root causes of these problems. While I concur with Hawas that such scholarship is necessary, I also read in Hawas’s writing a frustration with literature (metaphor, fiction), leaving little space for her own discipline (and mine)—literary study—in her call to action.
Hawas’s essay is framed by Lawrence Durrell’s metaphors, in which, she claims, academic discourse about Alexandria has been mired. For the “nostalgic cosmopolitans” Durrell’s work frames a discourse of loss and longing; for the “anti-nostalgic cosmopolitans,” his writing exemplifies colonialist discourse. I see in Hawas’s efforts to cast off Durrell’s metaphors a deeper suspicion of metaphor, of fiction, of literature—to say nothing of literary studies. Hawas, for example, offers an impassioned plea for scholars to turn their attention to new migrants and refugees in Alexandria, what she calls “cosmopolitanism in action.” Hawas concludes her appeal with a telling turn of phrase: “Do we dismiss the realities of the new migrants until they too turn into fictions we can fight over in the academy?” (my italics).
A politics of the present need not exclude literature. “Fiction” need not be a dirty word. In what follows, I make a case for paying attention to “fictions.” Those of us in the academy who argue over fictions have much to contribute to “a cosmopolitanism in action.”
Beyond her suspicion of fiction and metaphor, Hawas privileges a scholarship of the present that favors the research methods of the social sciences—represented by the work of the “angry cosmopolitans”—over the humanities—represented by the nostalgic and anti-nostalgic cosmopolitan camps. However, Hawas does map out a role for historical research. She offers particular praise for Will Hanley’s recent book, Identifying with Nationality, which traces the emergence of the notion of nationality in the late 19th century through its importance as a legal category into the first two decades of the 20th century. Hanley’s impressive work documents a history of nationality as a legal category, anchored in an archive of court records, and thus effectively provides terms for understanding how long-time residents came to be identified as foreign. Like Hawas, I too find Hanley’s work compelling. But, I am also interested in interrogating other forms of identity and affiliation that contest the category of nationality. What makes writing about cosmopolitan Alexandria so engaging for me is not just its history of diversity, but the slipperiness of identity—in Hanley’s terms, the “overlapping affiliations”—reflected in its literature and films. I am interested in imprecise, inconsistently applied terms like—mutamassirun (Egyptianized foreigners), ibn al-balad (salt-of-the-earth native son), khawaga (foreigner), and, yes, cosmopolitan.
A discussion of literary Alexandria need not be restricted to the “Holy Trinity of Durrell, Cavafy, and Forster,” nor to the politics of the colonial. Nor must a discussion of the rich body of literature about Alexandria in Arabic and in other languages amount to tokenism. What about works of literature that reflect a different set of political concerns sidelined by the narrow focus on nationalism and anti-colonialism? What about Fausta Cialente’s reckoning with the political division of the Italian-Alexandrian community between the supporters of Mussolini and the anti-Fascists in The Levantines (1963)? What about the Turkish-Muslim-Jewish character in Yitzhak Gormezano-Goren’s Alexandrian Summer (1978) who ultimately fails to transcend the conflicting forces within himself—a metaphor for the demise of coexistence and the rise of separatism? Indeed, in what I see as a failure at the present moment to imagine the possibility of these particular overlapping affiliations, the English translation of Alexandrian Summer omits the fever-dream scene where the character envisions achieving the desired unity of his conflicting identities, an excision adopted in a new edition of the novel published in Hebrew. As teachers of literature we can provide correctives to such failures of imagination by introducing a broad range of works to a new audience, and to the unpopular or unimaginable ideas they reflect. As scholars of literature, we can critically engage with works that demand we look beyond the terms of debate between nostalgics and anti-nostalgics who continue to argue over the comparative evils of nationalism vs. colonialism.
Looking beyond Durrell, we see that political activism and anti-colonial protest feature prominently in Egyptian representations of Alexandria. In addition to its association with the cosmopolitan-colonial past, Alexandria was also a site of revolution, protest, and anti-colonial resistance. Popular demonstrations in Alexandria helped launch the Revolution of 1919. In 1952, King Faruq signed his abdication papers in Ras el-Tin Palace in Alexandria, and he departed the country from its port. In 1956, Gamal Abdel Nasser announced the nationalization of the Suez Canal during a speech delivered in Alexandria’s Manshiyah Square.
In Youssef Chahine’s semi-autobiographical film An Egyptian Story (1982), the protagonist—Chahine’s alter ego—joins a protest against the British-engineered palace coup of 1942. The scene opens with period newsreel footage of an Egyptian anti-colonial demonstration, cutting to the staged scene of protesters approaching the British Military Headquarters. This demonstration is not directed at the British barracks in Cairo situated on the banks of the Nile. Nor does it take place in the Suez Canal zone. As the protesters approach the barracks, the camera pans to show the crashing waves of the Alexandria shoreline. The setting is unmistakable. With his slingshot, our valiant hero launches two well-aimed projectiles, knocking out the top two commanding officers. An Egyptian Story aims to reestablish Chahine’s credentials as a politically engaged filmmaker, a status his detractors had questioned following the release of Alexandria… Why? (1979), a cosmopolitan nostalgia film. The protest scene in An Egyptian Story establishes Chahine’s anti-colonial activism in his youth, before he became a filmmaker, just as it inscribes Alexandria’s role in the anti-colonial struggle.
Novelist Edwar al-Kharrat also writes about public protests and underground political activism in 1940s Alexandria. In Girls of Alexandria (1990) diversity is found not in the elite clubs and cafes, but rather in the poor districts. The novel depicts the collective political engagement of Alexandrians across religious and national affiliations. This group of activists publish a communist newspaper, and participate in political demonstrations that are met with deadly force. The cell ultimately breaks up when many of its members are forced to emigrate. Kharrat’s underground activity—like that of his protagonist—came to an end with his imprisonment. Kharrat’s writing reflects a nostalgia for this politically engaged cosmopolitanism. But his nostalgia does not preclude continued activism. Kharrat remained politically engaged, resisting both colonialism and parochial nationalism, through his involvement with the Afro-Asian Peoples’ Solidarity Organization and Afro-Asian Writer’s Association.
Hawas disparages anti-nostalgia cosmopolitans for framing everything with a critique of colonialism. As she notes, they’re not wrong, but their focus on the continued aftereffects of European colonialism ignores other causes of Alexandria’s present-day problems. I contend that engagement with the intertwining of Alexandrian cosmopolitanism and colonialism can inform, and not merely eclipse, cosmopolitan agency in the present.
This point was brought home for me in 2003 during the lead-up to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. A group identifying itself as the Iraqi government in exile lobbied for restoration of cosmopolitan Iraq through imperialist intervention. Kanan Makiya, a key advocate, articulated a vision of a “non-ethnic federalism” steeped in nostalgia for Iraq’s own cosmopolitan (and colonial) past. Following the U.S. invasion and the toppling of Saddam Hussein, they wanted the U.S. to oversee the implementation of this neo-colonial cosmopolitanism—effectively a new mandate system. We all know how that turned out.
I am not suggesting that detailed knowledge of the history and politics of the relationship between colonialism and cosmopolitanism was necessary to oppose the war—millions of people around the globe took to the streets in an effort to prevent the invasion. But for me, my writing about cosmopolitan Alexandria informed my opposition to the war, and shaped how I talked about it on my campus. Elucidating the intersection of colonialism and cosmopolitanism of the past can inform resistance to neocolonialism in the present.
As it happened, I was scheduled to participate in an international conference held at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina on the eve of the 2003 Iraq War. This experience brought home another point, one of Hawas’s central claims. Studying cosmopolitan Alexandria affords insights into the intersection of the colonial and cosmopolitan, but equally important are the challenges of the present, shaped by decades of neglect, corruption, suspicion, and oppression. The UNESCO-funded library, a Mubarak era showpiece, had formally opened with much fanfare five months earlier. The library and the associated convention space were bureaucratically isolated from the intellectual life of the city and from Alexandria University, located right across the street. News about events held at the library did not reach the public—the Alexandria-based writers I spoke to were not aware that an international literature conference was being held in their city. I also recall a conversation with an exasperated conference participant, a faculty member at the University of Alexandria who had expended a great deal of effort trying to get permission for her students to attend the conference. Bureaucratic barriers walled off the free exchange of ideas between the institutions.
On March 20, when American-led coalition forces attacked Iraq, protests broke out in Egypt’s cities, including on the campus of Alexandria University. The police response to the protests also had the effect of further isolating the library and university from one another. Students were permitted to protest, but only on campus. The previous year a student-led protest in solidarity with the Palestinian Intifada had spilled out of the Alexandria University campus onto the city streets. Police fired on the protesters, killing one student, Muhammad al-Saqqa, and injuring many more. I watched as caravans of riot police arrived and surrounded the campus, sealing off the student protest from the rest of the city. From the library plaza, I could hear only muffled sounds of students demonstrating. I recalled this experience as I read Hawas’s frustrations with the limited realms for resistance in contemporary Alexandria. Rephrasing Hawas’s argument, in addition to freeing ourselves from the self-imposed, walled-off debates in the academy, we must also resist repressive regimes that quash—or wall off—opposition.
In addition to calling on scholars to overcome self-imposed and bureaucratically-imposed limits on intellectual inquiry, Hawas advocates for a scholarship that “speaks for the current Alexandrian cesspit, this polluted, over-populated and corrupt city of waste.” Nael Eltoukhy captures this sense of disillusionment in his irreverent, humorous, dystopian novel Women of Karantina (2013). Neither representative nor realistic, this novel, set mostly in the future, skewers all the sacred cows, from Alexandrian Cosmopolitanism to Salafism.
Early in Women of Karantina, Alexandria is presented as a site of resistance to authority, both national and municipal. Interweaving fact and fiction, Eltoukhy masterfully infuses the struggles with significance and simultaneously subverts the rhetoric of resistance. Chief among the protests is the popular response in Alexandria to the murder of Khaled Said at the hands of the Alexandria police in 2010. After mentioning the protests that set the stage for the 2011 popular uprising that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, the novel reels off other, more mundane, sites of popular resistance to authorities, like demonstrations against new transportation regulations and against a smoking ban. In one case, protestors attempting to save a villa from destruction on “aesthetic, historic, and architectural merits” cast their efforts to stop the bulldozer in grand rhetoric. The narrator, however, deflates this rhetoric, dismissing all the protesters’ achievements as “spin or symbolism: dramatic, stirring scenes, rather than actual victories.”
Inserted in the midst of this litany of protests, the narrator digresses to identify Alexandria as a cosmopolitan city, “at least, that is what it was before the revolution of July 1952, which was followed by the systematic expulsion of foreigners from Egypt.” (29) Waxing poetic in exaggerated terms, he punctures the twin rhetorics of “glories past” and the “wretched present.”
The real site of nostalgia in the novel is not the grand architecture of cosmopolitan Alexandria, but the shambles of Karantina. In the inter-war period, the neighborhood had housed a British barracks which, following the 1952 revolution, the government repurposed as a housing project. The narrator upholds the neighborhood’s rampant crime, gangsterism, and drug use as acts of resistance: “anarchic practices” that “were able to take on the conservative, and sometimes Wahabi, values of the Alexandrian middle class.” The novel celebrates the poor residents of this neighborhood for resisting “the allied forces of the authorities and encroaching fundamentalism.” Sticking it in the eye of anti-colonial nationalism, the anti-fundamentalist sentiment of these celebrated residents of Karantina had, during the inter-war period, led them to inform on members of the Muslim brotherhood—their own countrymen—to the British authorities.
El-Toukhy writes that when the governor razes the shambles of Karantina in the early 2000s, “The inhabitants were scattered to the winds, but in their hearts, they still carried the legend of Karantina and their dream: an anarchist Alexandrian society dead set against the powers that be.” This nostalgia for anti-authoritarian Karantina sets the stage for a future of petty conflict and senseless violence—nostalgia turned violent.
Reading literature—teaching literature—can be a political act, and I don’t just mean reading explicitly political literature, or works by imprisoned writers, although that is important too. Based in the U.S., I find that teaching Arabic literature—in Arabic and in translation—in the face of anti-Arab and anti-Muslim sentiment has felt like a modest political intervention. With the rise of populism, there has also been a rise in writing and teaching about coexistence and cosmopolitanism. Suspicions about the affiliations of cosmopolitan subjects are not just relegated to the past—not in Egypt, nor in the U.S., where a year ago a White House senior advisor tossed off the word “cosmopolitan” as a hostile epithet. The long history of foreign powers intervening on behalf of minorities in the former Ottoman lands, driving a wedge between groups and raising suspicious about the minorities’ loyalties, underpins the Coptic Church’s longstanding refusal to identify as a “minority” in Egypt.
May Hawas calls for an academic discourse that addresses the “terrifying inevitability” of the quotidian in which “history is continuously destroyed.” This is an admirable goal. But I reject the implication that to address inequality, failed governance, and decaying infrastructure, we must deny the power of literature, or abdicate the discipline of literary studies. Literature in all its genres—published or performed—remains a crucial voice. Street theater and poetry play important roles in popular protest movements. Long-form print works, even those with a limited readership, give us new tools for understanding our world, opening up imaginative possibilities with a potential for lasting impact. To fully embrace the activist spirit of Hawas’s essay, we must continue reading and writing about writing about Cosmopolitan Alexandria.
Cialente, Fausta. Ballata Levantina. [in Italian] Milano: Feltrinelli, 1961.
———. The Levantines. [in English] Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963.
Goren, Yitzhak Gormezano. Alexandrian Summer. New York: New Vessel Press, 2015. https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/cornell/detail.action?docID=2005725.
———. Kayits Aleksandroni. [in Hebrew] Tel Aviv: `Am `oved, 1978.
Hanley, Will. Identifying with Nationality: Europeans, Ottomans, and Egyptians in Alexandria. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017.
Kharrāṭ, Idwār. Girls of Alexandria. [in English] London: Quartet Books, 1993.
———. Yā Banāt Iskandarīyah: Riwāyah. [in Arabic] al-Ṭabʻah 1. ed. Bayrūt: Dār al-Ādāb, 1990.
Mabro, Robert. “Alexandria 1860-1960: The Cosmopolitan Identity.” In Alexandria, Real and Imagined, edited by Anthony Hirst and M. S. Silk, 247-62. Aldershot, Hampshire; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004.
Packer, George. “Dreaming of Democracy.” New York Times, 2 March 2003.
Schemm, Paul. “Egypt Struggles to Control Anti-War Protests.” Middle East Report (2003). Published electronically 31 Mar. http://www.merip.org/mero/mero033103.
———. “Sparks of Activist Spirit in Egypt.” Middle East Report (2002). Published electronically 13 Apr. http://www.merip.org/mero/mero041302.
Ṭūkhī, Nāʼil. Nisāʼ Al-Karantīnā: Riwāyah. [in Arabic] al-Ṭabʻah al-ūlá. ed. al-Qāhirah: Dār Mīrīt, 2013.
Ṭūkhī, Nāʾil. Women of Karantina. [in English
English, Old (ca. 450-1100)] Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2014.
 Robert Mabro, “Alexandria 1860-1960: The Cosmopolitan Identity,” in Alexandria, Real and Imagined, ed. Anthony Hirst and M. S. Silk (Aldershot, Hampshire; Burlington, VT: Ashgate, 2004), 248.
 Will Hanley, Identifying with Nationality: Europeans, Ottomans, and Egyptians in Alexandria (New York: Columbia University Press, 2017), 16.
 As this journal is targeted at an Anglophone audience, I am restricting my discussion to works available in English. All citations are from published English translations, and I have used the common English spelling of the authors’ names. I have also included the titles and the date of publication in the original languages.
 Fausta Cialente, The Levantines (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1963); Ballata Levantina (Milano: Feltrinelli, 1961). [In Italian].
 Yitzhak Gormezano Goren, Alexandrian Summer, (New York: New Vessel Press, 2015), https://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/cornell/detail.action?docID=2005725; Kayits Aleksandroni (Tel Aviv: `Am `oved, 1978). [In Hebrew]
 Haduta misriyya, Yousef Chahine, dir. (1982) [In Arabic].
 Iskandariyya..Leh? Yousef Chahine, dir. (1979) [In Arabic].
 Idwār Kharrāṭ, Girls of Alexandria (London: Quartet Books, 1993).; Yā Banāt Iskandarīyah: Riwāyah, al-Ṭabʻah 1. ed. (Bayrūt: Dār al-Ādāb, 1990). [In Arabic]
 George Packer, “Dreaming of Democracy,” New York Times, 2 March 2003.
 Paul Schemm, “Sparks of Activist Spirit in Egypt,” Middle East Report (2002), http://www.merip.org/mero/mero041302; “Egypt Struggles to Control Anti-War Protests,” Middle East Report (2003), http://www.merip.org/mero/mero033103.
 Nāʾil Ṭūkhī, Women of Karantina (Cairo: American University in Cairo Press, 2014); Nāʼil Ṭūkhī, Nisāʼ Al-Karantīnā: Riwāyah, al-Ṭabʻah al-ūlá. ed. (al-Qāhirah: Dār Mīrīt, 2013). [In Arabic]
 Ṭūkhī, Women of Karantina, 30.
 Ibid., 31.
 Ibid., 29.
 Ibid., 50.