False Papersby Andr? Aciman
Essays on memory by the author of Our of Egypt
"We remember not because we have something we wish to go back to, nor because memories are all we have. We remember because memory is our most intimate, most familiar gesture. Most people are convinced I love Alexandria. In truth, I love remembering Alexandria. For it is not Alexandria that is/p>/b>/i>… See more details below
Essays on memory by the author of Our of Egypt
"We remember not because we have something we wish to go back to, nor because memories are all we have. We remember because memory is our most intimate, most familiar gesture. Most people are convinced I love Alexandria. In truth, I love remembering Alexandria. For it is not Alexandria that is beautiful. Remembering is beautiful."
Celebrated as one of the most poignant stylists of his generation, André Aciman has written a witty, surprising series of linked essays that ponder the experience of loss, moving from his forced departure from Alexandria as a teenager, through his brief stay in Europe, and finally to the home he's made (and half invented) on Manhattan's Upper West Side.
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By André Aciman
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2000 André Aciman
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Alexandria: The Capital of Memory
To those who asked, I said I went back to touch and breathe the past again, to walk in shoes I hadn't worn in years. This, after all, was what everyone said when they returned from Alexandria—the walk down Memory Lane, the visit to the old house, the knocking at doors history had sealed off but might pry open again The visit to the old temple, the visit to Uncle So-and-so's house, the old school, the old haunts, the smell of the dirty wooden banister on days you almost glided downstairs on your way to a movie. And then, of course, the tears, the final reckoning, the big themes: the return of the native, the romance of the past, the redemption of time. All of it followed by predictable letdowns: the streets always much narrower than before, buildings grown smaller with time, everything in tatters, the city dirty, in ruins. There are no Europeans left, and the Jews are all gone. Alexandria is Egyptian now.
As I step onto the narrow balcony of my room at the Hotel Cecil and try to take in the endless string of evening lights speckling the eastern bay, I am thinking of Lawrence Durrell and of what he might have felt standing in this very same hotel more than fifty years ago, surveying a magical, beguiling city—the "capital of memory," as he called it, with its "five races, five languages ... and more than five sexes."
That city no longer exists; perhaps it never did. Nor does the Alexandria I knew: the mock-reliquary of bygone splendor and colonial opulence where my grandmother could still walk with an umbrella on sunny days and not realize she looked quite ridiculous, the way everyone in my family must have looked quite ridiculous, being the last European Jews in a city where anti-Western nationalism and anti-Semitism had managed to reduce the Jewish population from at least fifty thousand to twenty-five hundred by 1960 and put us at the very tail end of those whom history shrugs aside when it changes its mind.
The Alexandria I knew, that part-Victorian, half-decayed, vestigial nerve center of the British Empire, exists in memory alone, the way Carthage and Rome and Constantinople exist as vanished cities only—a city where the dominant languages were English and French, though everyone spoke in a medley of many more, because the principal languages were really Greek and Italian, and in my immediate world Ladino (the Spanish of the Jews who fled the Inquisition in the sixteenth century), with broken Arabic holding everything more or less together. The arrogance of the retired banker, the crafty know-it-all airs of the small shopkeeper, the ways of Greeks and of Jews, all of these were not necessarily compatible, but everyone knew who everyone else was, and on Sundays—at the theater, in restaurants, at the beach, or in clubs—chances were you sat next to each other and had a good chat. My grandmother knew Greek well enough to correct native Greeks, she knew every prayer in Latin, and her written French, when she was vexed, would have made the Duc de Saint-Simon quite nervous.
This is the Alexandria I live with every day, the one I've taken with me, written about, and ultimately superimposed on other cities, the way other cities were originally sketched over the Alexandrian landscape when European builders came, in the middle of the nineteenth century, and fashioned a new city modeled after those they already loved. It was this Alexandria I came looking for—knowing I'd never find it. That did not bother me. For I had come not to recover memories, nor even to recognize those I'd disfigured, nor to toy with the thought that I'd ever live here again; I had come to bury the whole thing, to get it out of my system, to forget, to hate even, the way we learn to hate those who wouldn't have us.
I am, it finally occurs to me, doing the most typical thing a Jew could do. I've come back to Egypt the way only Jews yearn to go back to places they couldn't wait to flee. The Jewish rite of passage, as Passover never tells us, is also the passage back to Egypt, not just away from it.
Until the mid-1950s, Jews had done extremely well in Egypt. They had risen to prominence and dominated almost every profession, and they were among the major financiers who brokered Egypt's passage from a European to a national economy, serving as important conduits for foreign investors. Jews managed a significant share of Egypt's stock exchange and owned some of the biggest banks and almost all the department stores; the country boasted the greatest number of Jewish multimillionaires in the Middle East. Jews, though very few in number, held seats in the Egyptian parliament.
These were, for the most part, observant Jews, but in a cosmopolitan city like Alexandria, where overzealous piety was derided and where friendship was almost never based on creed, many of these Jews were quite relaxed when it came to religion, particularly since most of them, educated in Catholic schools, tended to know more about the religions of others than about their own. Seders, I remember, were rushed affairs; no one wanted to inflict Passover on Christians who happened to be visiting and had been induced to stay for dinner.
Following the Israelis' 1948 defeat of the Arabs, anti-Semitism rose sharply in Egypt, and there were some deadly incidents in the wake of the war. Matters became worse after 1956, when Israel joined forces with France and England in a tripartite attack on Egypt after Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal. British and French residents of Alexandria were summarily expelled from Egypt, as were many Jews; everyone had assets, businesses, and properties seized by the state. Aunts and uncles, friends, grandparents, some of whom hadn't been expelled, read the writing on the wall and left within a few years of the 1956 war, abandoning everything they owned. Most settled in Europe, others in America.
Some, like us, simply waited, the way Jews did elsewhere when it was already too late to hope for miracles. We saw the city change and each year watched European shop names come down and be replaced by Egyptian ones, and heard of streets being renamed, until—as is the case now—I didn't know a single one.
The only street whose name hasn't changed is the waterfront road known as the Corniche, al-Corniche, a thick bottleneck mass of tottering loud vehicles emitting overpowering gas fumes.
I try to rest both arms on the balustrade outside my hotel room, as I'd envisioned doing on receiving the glossy brochure with the Cecil's picture. But the small, Moorish/Venetian-style balcony is entirely taken over by a giant compressor unit; it's impossible to maneuver around it. Bird droppings litter the floor.
Two men are speaking in Arabic downstairs. One is telling the other about his very bad foot and his pain at night. The other says it might go away. They don't know how surreal mundane talk can seem to someone who's been away for thirty years.
On the main square facing the hotel stands the ungainly statue of the Egyptian patriot Sa'ad Zaghlul, one leg forward in the manner of ancient Egyptian statues, except that this one wears a fez. I used to pass by here every morning on my way to school by bus.
Beyond Sa'ad Zaghlul is a villa housing the Italian consulate, and farther yet is the city's main tramway station and to its right the Cinema Strand, all unchanged, though worn by age. To my right is Délices, one of the city's best pastry shops. It hasn't moved either. Nothing, I think, is unfamiliar enough. I haven't forgotten enough.
Across the bay sits the fortress of Kait Bey, its ill-lit, brooding halo guarding the Eastern Harbor. The fortress is said to occupy the site of the ancient Pharos lighthouse, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Some say that the fort was built with stones taken from the old lighthouse itself. A French archaeological company has been commissioned to dig here. The area is cordoned off and considered top secret.
Not far from the dig lies the Western Harbor, which the ancients used to call the Harbor of Safe Return, Portus Eunostos, from the Ancient Greek eu, meaning good, safe, and nostos, meaning return. Nostalgia is the ache to return, to come home; nostophobia, the fear of returning; nostomania, the obsession with going back; nostography, writing about return.
So this is Alexandria, I think, before shutting the window, feeling very much like Freud when, in his early forties, he had finally achieved his lifelong dream of visiting Athens and, standing on the Acropolis, felt strangely disappointed, calling his numbness derealization.
I look at my watch. It is one in the afternoon New York time. I pick up the telephone to call America. After a short wait, I hear my father's voice. In the background, I make out a chorus of children, mine probably—or is it the clamor of a school recess down his block?
"How is it?" he asks. I describe the view from my window.
"Yes, but how is it?" he presses. What he means is: has it changed, and am I moved? I can't find the right words.
"It's still the same," I reply. "It's Egypt," I finally say, all else failing.
Each year the city sees many ex-Alexandrians return and wander along its streets. Like revenants and time travelers, some come back from the future, from decades and continents away, A.D. people barging in on B.C. affairs, true anachronoids drifting about the city with no real purpose but to savor a past that, even before arriving, they know they'll neither recapture nor put behind them, but whose spell continues to lure them on these errands in time. The Portuguese have a word: retornados, descendants of Portuguese settlers who return to their homeland in Europe centuries after colonizing Africa—except that they are African-born Europeans who return to Africa as tourists, not knowing why they come, or why they need to come again, or why this city that feels like home and which they can almost touch at every bend of the street can be as foreign as those places they've never seen before but studied in travel books.
The first thing I want to do tonight is roam the streets by myself. The downtown shops are still open, and people are literally spilling out into the streets, an endless procession of cars going up the rue Missallah (Obelisk), renamed rue Saffeyah Zaghlul after the patriot's wife. The same stores stand in exactly the same spots, the same pharmacies, bookstores, restaurants; and everywhere the unbroken chain of shoe stores and third-tier haberdasheries with wares dangling over the sidewalks, and always that muted spill of lights which reminds me of Cavafy's nights and Baudelaire's Paris. I manage to recognize the Gothic-Venetian window sashes of an old restaurant. When I walk into Flückiger's, the pastry shop, and tell the cashier that I am just looking around, she smiles and says, as she must have done to hundreds like me, "Ah, vous êtes de nos temps," as if time could ever belong to anyone. Do I want to buy cakes? I shake my head. "They're still the same. We're still Flückiger," she adds. I nod. One would have thought that I shopped there every day and had stopped now on my way from work, only to change my mind at the last minute. The idea of eating cake to summon my past seems too uncanny and ridiculous. I smile to myself and walk out through the beaded curtain. It hasn't changed either. Nor have the buildings. They are far more beautiful than I remember, the architecture a mix of turn-of-the-century French and floral Italian. But they are also grimier, some of them so rundown it's impossible to tell how long they've got. It's no different with cars here. Many are rickety thirty-plus patched-up jobs, part rust, part tin, part foil; soldered and painted over with the sort of Egyptian ingenuity that knows how to preserve the old and squeeze residual life out of objects which should have perished long ago but whose replacement will neither come from abroad nor be manufactured locally. These are not really cars but, rather, elaborate collages of prostheses.
I turn right and walk into a murky street that used to be called rue Fuad. Next to the Amir Cinema looms a strange, large structure I have never seen before. It is the newly dug-up Roman amphitheater I've been reading about. I ignore it completely and turn left, where I spot Durrell's pastry shop, and walk down a narrow street, where I find the Cinema Royale and, right across from it, the old Mohammed Ali, now known as the Sayyed Darwish Theater, the pride of Alexandria's theater elite.
And then it hits me. The Mohammed Ali is my last stop tonight; I now have nowhere else to turn but the Hotel Cecil. To my complete amazement, I have revisited most of my haunts in Alexandria in the space of about eight minutes!
Once on the crowded streets again, I walk the way I have come, along the edge of the sidewalk, my eyes avoiding everyone else's, my gait hurried and determined, everything about me trying to discourage contact with a city that is, after all, the only one I think I love. Like characters in Homer, I want to be wrapped in a cloud and remain invisible, not realizing that, like all revenants, I am perhaps a ghost, a specter already.
The next morning, I head out on another exploratory walk. But in fifteen minutes I have already reached Chatby, the very place I was meaning to see last. This is where most of the cemeteries are located. Perhaps I should pay a visit to my grandfather's tomb now.
I try to find the Jewish cemetery, but am unable to. Instead, I head in a different direction and decide to visit my great-grand-mother's house. As soon as I near her neighborhood, I find myself almost thrust into the old marketplace. It, too, hasn't changed since my childhood. The pushcarts and open shops are still in place, as is the unforgettable stench of fish and meat, and always the screaming and the masses of people thronging between stacks of food and crates of live chickens.
I could go upstairs, I think, once I reach the building on rue Thèbes, but people are watching me fiddle with my camera, and someone actually pops his head out of the window and stares. I decide to leave. Then, having walked to the next block, I change my mind and come back again, trying to let the building come into view gradually, so as to hold that magical moment when remembrance becomes recovery I am resolved not to be intimidated this time and make my way straight to the main doorway.
A woman appears with a child in her arms; she is the caretaker's wife; the caretaker died a few years ago; she is the caretaker now. A man also shows up. He lives on the street floor, he says in English, and has lived there since the early fifties. I tell him I, too, lived here once, at number 15 He thinks for a moment, then says he doesn't remember who lives there now. I tell the caretaker that I want to knock at apartment 15. She smiles and looks at me with suspicion. She is thinking. "Sit Vivi," she says, Mme Vivi. I am almost on the verge of shaking. Vivi was my great-aunt. "They left," she says. Of course they left, I want to shout, we all left thirty years ago! "May I knock at the door?" I ask. "You may," she replies, with the same smile, "but no one is there." When will they be back? She looks at me with a blank stare. No one has occupied the apartment since.
I know that if I push the matter and tip her well, I might persuade her to show me the apartment. But the thought of a dark apartment where no one's been for three decades frightens me. Who knows what I'd find creeping about the floor, or crawling on the walls. It's all well and good for a German to go digging for the ghost of Troy or sifting through Helen's jewels. But no Trojan ever went back to Troy.
When I point to the elevator and ask her whether it still works, she laughs. It had died long ago. And she adds, with inimitable Egyptian humor, "Allah yerhamu." May God have mercy on its soul.
I step into the main courtyard and look up to our old service entrance: I can almost hear our cook screaming at the maid, my mother screaming at the cook, and the poor maid's heartrending yelp each time the tumor on her liver pressed against her spine. I am trying to decide whether I should insist and ask to be taken upstairs, or perhaps she could show me another apartment in the same line. I see a cat playing in the foyer; next to it is a dead mouse. The caretaker does not notice it. Even the man from the first floor doesn't seem to notice, doesn't care.
I know I'll regret not insisting, and also that this is typical of my perfunctory, weak-willed attempts at adventure. But I am tired of these ruins, and the smell of the old wood panels in the foyer is overpowering. Besides, this is how I always travel: not so as to experience anything at the time of my tour, but to plot the itinerary of a possible return trip. This, it occurs to me, is also how I live.
Outside, I spot an old woman with a shopping basket; she looks European I ask her whether she speaks French. She says she does. She is Greek. I am almost ready to tell her about my entire life, everything about my grandparents, my mother, our apartment that has never been lived in since the day we left so many years ago, and all these ruins scattered everywhere, but I break in mid-sentence, hail a cab, and ask to be taken to the museum—by way of the Corniche, because I want to see the water.
The Corniche always breaks the spell of monotonous city life, the first and last thing one remembers here. It is what I think of whenever I sight a beckoning patch of blue at the end of a cross street elsewhere in the world. The sky is clear and the sea is stunning, and my cabdriver, who speaks English, tells me how much he loves the city.
Excerpted from False Papers by André Aciman. Copyright © 2000 André Aciman. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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