[ilds] ILDS Digest, Vol 29, Issue 9_Letter from Egypt - On Beaches, Intolerance Wears a Veil_DANIEL WILLIAMS

Sumantra Nag sumantranag at gmail.com
Fri Aug 14 06:01:55 PDT 2009

DANIEL WILLIAMS' Letter from Egypt raises certain questions.

Sobhi Saleh, a Brotherhood member of Parliament is qouted: "Alexandria needs ?stable? community values, he insisted. Sensuality, if it means sexuality, is not part of the social equation."

I see a conflict between the disappearance of an European Alexandria and the increasing presence of an Egyptian Alexandria, based on a modern Arabic ethos, where an ultra-conservative and restrictive force - now recognised the world over -making its heavy presence felt. 

I have always been a great admirer of Lawrence Durrell's prose as it expands in its sounds, colours and its complexities in The Alexandria Quartet. It resounds with an inner poetry - never forget Lawrence Durrell as a poet. 

Over the years, however, I have come to see the point of Edward Said when he referred to the triviality of subject matter in Durrell's Alexandria Quartet [at his lecture in Beirut (?) - I forget the context but remember the assessment]. I have often felt that Lawrence Durrell's heightened prose - at its peak in the Alexandria Quartet in my opinion - was wasted on a kind of glorification of habitual and often seedy sexual activity which was difficult to extricate from the forceful romanticism of his work. This seediness associated with the writer has been expressed in the last poem on Lawrence Durrell displayed in a recent post and written by an ILDS Discussion Forum member.

In the swimming pools in hotels and clubs in India, women would have to swim only in proper swimming gear. But one would have to deny many traditional Indian women their own sense of dignity and their pleasure in swimming, if swimming in the traditional Indian 'saree' in a village pond or a river or the open sea, were to be looked upon as a caricature of unacceptable conservatism. During specific festivals large numbers of Indian women also take holy dips in sacred rivers in India fully clothed in their traditional apparel. On the beaches of Goa in western India - widely frequented by western tourists and largely treated like other western seaside destination - traditional Indian families also swim in the sea with their womenfolk in their traditional apparel. 

Take the following observation: "The Alexandria of lore emerged as a major 19th-century transshipment  port with Europe, celebrated by Arab, Egyptian and Western writers  as a cosmopolitan paradise where sailors mingled at cafes with  exiles from Syria and Greece, businessmen from Italy and,  eventually, women in sun dresses." 

The question is - "a cosmopolitan paradise" for whom? 

And consider: "In  Alexandria ? a storied town of sensuality and openness ?..." 

"...openness.." and its loss one can one can understand and deplore. But what is a "storied town of sensuality..." An open bazaar of sex? Why should a great historical city be stamped or recognised only by such a quality?  

I can fully sympathise with the fear of extreme and narrow conservatism and its destructive forces. These forces can be seen in other cultures too and they are resisted. It is a growing conflict encountered in different settings. But Alexandria celebrated as a "storied town of sensuality..." or " a cosmopolitan paradise where sailors mingled at cafes with  exiles from Syria and Greece, businessmen from Italy and,  eventually, women in sun dresses...". What is one to make of the phrase "..eventually, women in sun dresses..."???!!! This is far too reminiscent of the offhand, rather cheaply colonial phrase from the opening chapter of 'Justine': "The sexual provender which lies to hand is staggering in its variety and profusion." And the grander sounding "..Alexandria was the great winepress of love..." or "...there are more than five sexes and only demotic Greek seems to distinguish among them." 

There is also the observation that, "There, as in other Egyptian urban centers, the Brotherhood provides health care, subsidized food and social services for the poor."

In the Alexandria Quartet, the poverty and shabbiness in Alexandria are represented as background content for description but the sympathy for poverty is ambiguous - as many have observed, Lawrence Durrell was in many ways a "colonial" by temperament and this quality emerges in his writing. In the "post-colonial" setting of today, looking after the poor will be a central commitment and more important than the preservation of a haute-cosmopolitan setting. 

While the now common forces which seek to impose a narrow order and conformity on Alexandria, arise as a threat, surely the obsession with Lawrence Durrell's former residence in the city or the symbolic importance of Cavafy (and his "shabby loves") or E.M. Forster must also be moderated as Alexandria's claims to twentieth century culture. 

Sumantra Nag

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Subject: ILDS Digest, Vol 29, Issue 9

>> Letter from Egypt
>> On Beaches, Intolerance Wears a Veil
>> Published: August 11, 2009
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