Tahrir and the Poetry of Witness

The Utopians of Tahrir Square: Dr. Anba Jawi and Catherine Temma Davidson

Introduction by Catherine Davidson

The Utopians of Tahrir Square contains poems from 28 young Iraqi poets whose work responds to the protests for human rights that took over Baghdad’s Tahrir (Freedom) Square in 2019. Bringing these poems to life in English was the product of a long collaboration that began on a rainy night in London, during the height of the protests. Anba Jawi, a writer from Iraq who was a regular member of our poetry class at Exiled Writers Ink, came to the group with a heavy sadness. Eyes red, missing sleep, she had been following the protests on Facebook night after night, full of  frustration and grief.

Anba Jawi

Youthful protesters had been gathering by their thousands, setting up barricades and taking over a disused parking structure they called the Turkish Restaurant, after a real restaurant that had once been housed at the top. They were standing up against the sectarianism, corruption and cronyism that had infected Iraqi politics in the wake of the American invasion. They called themselves the generation of the 2000’s. They had transformed an urban desert into a kind of vibrant, protest festival, with lectures, music, dance, painting, song – and poetry.

So many of them are poets, Anba told me. And they’re killing them.

This is what had been keeping her awake. Security forces surrounding the protests had responded with tear gas and rubber bullets. Hundreds of protesters had been killed, and thousands more injured.

Anba Jawi, a writer from Iraq who was a regular member of our poetry class at Exiled Writers Ink, came to the group with a heavy sadness. Eyes red, missing sleep

I asked Anba whether she would consider translating and sharing some of the poems. She said yes, and asked if I would help. Our project led first to a live reading in December 2019, connected by video to Tahrir Square and broadcast via Facebook to more than 1000 people around the world, and ended this month with an English language collection published by Palewell Press, drawn largely and with permission from an anthology published in Iraq.

Tahrir Square Iraq, So many of them are poets, Anba told me. And they’re killing them. photo by Ziyad Matti

The poets range from well-known and established writers, some of whom published multiple books, to those just starting out – putting together their first collections or having only begun to publish on-line. Their poems bear witness to a unique moment in Iraqi history, when an uprising for human rights nearly transformed a country, and almost certainly changed the lives of all who joined it. That flash of history was not unique to Iraq. In fact, as Gideon Rachman pointed out in the Financial Times, 2019 saw many similar uprisings take place around the world – from as disparate places as Chile, Iran, Hong Kong, Lebanon, Bolivia, Algeria, Sudan, and Venezuela.

Recognising their importance, Anba and I felt a strong compulsion to bring these poems to life in English. She would do the first version of the poem, then we would look at it together and discuss each line, each word. Our discussions often took us down side alleys and byways of both languages until we agreed on a word that could sing as well in English as it had in the original. Now the book has been published, we share an overwhelming feeling of relief to be passing on the gift we had been given.

I think that sense of relief is part of the nature of witness poetry, and it is worth considering, briefly, what that means. Not everyone will have heard this term, one that is becoming more common in discussions of poetry from around the globe that tries to document state violence, and the human resistance to it. Yet around the world and throughout time, witness poetry has been important.

Demonstrators in Tahrir Square, Baghdad, photo Ziyad Matti

The 2014 edition of the Norton Anthology, Poetry of Witness is a thick volume, tracing this tradition in the English language. The book begins with Thomas More in the 1500’s, writing against the tyranny of Henry VIII and ends with the Kashmiri poet, Agha Shahid Ali, writing from exile in America about the disintegration of his multicultural, multilingual country. As long as there has been collective trauma, there have been poets who have felt compelled to narrate it – not only for their own sense-making, but out of a belief that a poem might make it out from the battlefield and into the hearts and minds of the rest of the world more easily than any other art form.

In her introduction to the collection, American poet Carolyn Forché talks about witness poetry as an act of faith in the ethics of otherness. A witness poet writes to capture an act of violence, a moment of resistance, a protest, an injustice, out of a faith that language can connect us through time and space to the other who will mark, notice, record and ultimately make meaning out of what seems senseless, brutal and implacable.

Forché retells the story of Anna Akhmatova, the Russian poet, who lived through the persecutions of the Stalin era. Her husband was disappeared, and her son taken away to prison. The story goes that she was standing in line with the mothers and wives who waited by the prison walls for news of their loved ones, and was asked if she could write about the experience, and she said she could. Although Akhmatova had to burn her poems after they were memorised by her friends, she wrote out of faith that they would find their way out of her time and space to the listening ears of a wider world.

The great Russian poet and acmeist, Anna Akhmatova

Akhmatova was right, although she could not have really known how far and wide her fragile words would have flown. Her poems have outlasted the particular Ozymandias of her era.

Poetry is the most minor of art forms in the popular imagination, yet it seems uniquely suited to the task of bearing witness. Like a feather, it can slip through prison bars, travel on the lightest of winds, land far away smelling like cordite, singed at the edges, but still able to speak a truth that resonates inside us.

The first poet in our collection, Safa’a Al Sarai, uses this very metaphor. Safa’a was born in 1993 in Baghdad. From an early age, he was involved in protesting the Iraqi regime. He was a poet and a painter, who also completed a degree in computer science. Like many of his generation, he was unable to find work, despite his evident qualifications. He had managed to secure a position, finally, two weeks before he was killed by a direct hit of a gas cannister to his head.

Poetry is the most minor of art forms in the popular imagination, yet it seems uniquely suited to the task of bearing witness

Safa’a’s poem appears in our book with permission of his brother. In it, he writes about a naïve generation that “loaded vows” on the “wings of doves”, promises that were like “letters written on paper made of fear.” At the end of the poem, he calls on his companions to “keep going”; to “go on.”

Safa’a appears as a figure in many of the poems; after his death, he was named by the BBC as one of five iconic faces of protest in 2019, and even today, he can be recognised in posters, street art, t-shirts and banners, with his soulful eyes and Christ-like beard.

Safa’a was a long-standing campaigner, but some of the poets write about being taken by surprise by the force of their own response to this moment. Maytham Radi, an electrical engineer and one of the most widely published poets in the collection, writes about the moment when a life of conformity breaks into resistance: “Living in a city of yes/speaking as if I yes/and laughing like yes”, a safety “smashed and shattered in the form of no”: “a small no/a no that dreams when the world steps on him, it will cause some tiny pain.”

The youngest poet in the collection, Fouad Al-Hassan, was born in 2001. A member of the Yazidi community currently living in a refugee camp, he writes about what it might be like to live in a “normal” time, something as unimaginable, in reality, as changing his name.

“What if my name were other than Fouad/I mean what if I were a normal person?/Someone who doesn’t think about death/before sleeping, any more than Azreal would?” His images are heart-breaking in their seeming simplicity: “What would happen if rain fell on us/instead of the veil of rifle bullets?” What if is a question about how history has robbed a generation of their futures. Yet the act of writing is still an act of faith in that future.

In her essay at the end of the book, Anba writes about how moved she was by the young women in the collection. We have translated multiple poems from six remarkable young women. They represent a cohort that faced a double jeopardy in participating in the protests. While women were particularly targeted for assault or kidnapping, they were also often under strict orders from family members not to get involved or leave the house. They went out anyway – and dared to write about it.

Nour Darwish, an Arabic Language graduate who was unemployed at the time of the protests, recounts sneaking out against her parents’ wishes to bring apples to young men on the barricades. There is no doubt that the sense of being together in a moment of collective change and history-making was also intense and powerful, akin to the sensation of falling in love. Strangers supported each other, offering free medical care, food and books. “Tuk Tuk” drivers offered lifts or carried the injured away from the front lines.

In an interview with Anba, Nour described herself as “scared and happy” to be with other protesters “sharing this extraordinary time.”

Nour’s poem, Small Eyes Heave describes the young demonstrators with surreal, vivid images: Their feet move on their own/Walking in the street/Entering dirty hospitals/In new, ripped jeans…. Her last two lines mix vulnerability and defiance together: They have small shoulders/Mother/Shoulders that eat their backs while dancing.

Sama Hussein, the talented young poet

The final poem in the book belongs to Sama Hussein, a talented young writer who gathered most of the poems and was a key supporter behind the scenes. Born in 2000, she is still a student, but at the age of 19 has already published her first collection. The speaker in Sama’s poem imagines a time in the future when I will not carry a banner and protest/I’d rather carry a rose and perfume. God was wise, she writes when he made Iraq a male/to love him the way a girl loves doll’s houses.

Patriotism animates many of these poems – Iraq/the homeland/mother country – patriotism and solidarity. These are not poems of a generation that has been crushed; they are idealistic, hopeful, not cynical.

Sadly, as we know, Covid shut down the streets in most of the world. State violence and oppression has not ceased. While the protesters in Chile turned over their Pinochet-era constitution and the country has elected a new, young President, elsewhere, there are fewer signs of lasting change. Things seem as if they may be getting worse. Despite the creativity and energy of the protesters in Lebanon, the collapse of the currency has been followed by an exodus of those with enough mobility to flee. In Iraq, the President resigned but the young poets Anba knows report fears of being hunted down and disappeared while the eyes of the world are turned elsewhere. In the two countries where I hold citizenship, the US and the UK, civil rights also feel under threat.

Yet, if anything, this book reminds us that young people are born with hope, and will continue to demand a better world from those who have failed them.

Catherine Davidson is a dual UK/US citizen who grew up in LA and lives in London. Her novel based on stories about Greek mother and grandmother, The Priest Fainted was a New York and LA Times notable book of the year.  She has won awards for her poetry in both countries. She teaches Creative Writing at Regent’s University and is the former Chair of Exiled Writers Ink, an organisation the supports the voices of refugee writers. Most recently, she has published The Orchard with Gemma Media, a novel about genocide, family and apricot jam.

The Utopians of Tahrir Square is a collaboration with Dr. Anba Jawi, a writer born in Iraq who moved to the UK to complete her PhD in Geology at UCL. In 2004, she was honoured with an MBE for her services to the refugee sector. She publishes in Arabic and English; a chapter from her novel, The Silver Engraver, was included in the TLC Free Reads Anthology in 2019.

Extracts from Alexandria Adieu

Published in London by Gilgamesh Books in Autumn 2021

In his powerfully evocative new book, Alexandria Adieu, the veteran Fleet Street foreign correspondent, historian and author, Adel Darwish, has written the memoir of his birthplace: Alexandria.

Alexandria is not simply an Arabic, or a Greek city, an Egyptian city, it is much more. Alexandria is a hauntingly beautiful, complex and cosmopolitan Mediterranean city. In the 455 pages of this magnum opus, Darwish explores the complex facets of Alexandria’s character. In Alexandria Adieu, Darwish shares his eyewitness account of life in Alexandria between the Second World War and 1960. During this time, Darwish witnessed the exodus of 100,000 Alexandrians and the sad demise of many of the city’s great institutions and traditions. Ars Notoria is privileged to be able to offer you an extract, a preview of Alexandria Adieu.

By Adel Darwish 

The drive from Burg el-Arab, where I landed at night, to the civilised Royal Alexandria took an hour and a half rather than the ten minutes or so from Nuzha Airport, where I had arrived on a previous visit a decade earlier. The journey took me through what more closely resembled Afghan villages than the Alexandria I knew. Perhaps it was symbolic of how quickly Alexandria was moving further from herself. Nuzha, which had served the city for over seven decades during her cosmopolitan epoch, was shut for renovation in 2011, when the military who were in charge of the country set the election rules and criteria that empowered the Islamists, enabling them to easily take over. Burg el-Arab, originally an RAF airbase where Churchill had lunch with its commanders before the Battle of Alamein in 1942, is far away from the city, both geographically and culturally. The airport’s name was alien, associated with Bedouin culture rather than Alexandria’s European ethos. Nuzha–European in design, layout and service–did for twentieth-century Alexandria what Muhammad Ali’s harbour expansion had done for the nineteenth-century city, strengthening her links with Europe and underpinning modernity. The conceptual contrast between the two airports symbolised the regression of Alexandria. Alexandria, which had held out to the last breath before falling into the hands of strangers who never understood her culture, deceived me on my long interval visits into believing that my Hellenistic city would, by some miracle, survive the ugliness crusade of the barbarians who might have been on Cavafy’s mind when he asked, ‘Why this sudden bewilderment, this confusion? Why are the streets and squares emptying so rapidly,…?” when the city was ‘waiting for the barbarians’.[1]

‘Alexandria is slipping through our fingers’, my father repeatedly warned when noticing the city’s post-war decay, from broken chandeliers in building hallways to the ugliness creeping into fashion, manners and architecture – and then the accelerated demographic bleeding out, when Alexandria was shedding her children in the late 1950s and throughout the 1960s.

Apart from the central part where mostly Italian architects rebuilt modern Alexandria, 200 years ago, nothing remained today which resembles the great city I left behind in the 1960. The cosmopolitan Alexandria of the belle époque that was immortalised by the quills of a trio of men of letters. Alexandria’s poet Constantine Peter Cavafy (1863–1933) who was the soul of the city, the English historian, essayist and novelist Edward Morgan Forster (1879–1970), the curator of Alexandria in Alexandria: A history and A Guide, and Lawrence Durrell (1912–1990), her soloist storyteller in The Alexandria Quartet. They introduced the modern reincarnated de facto city-state to the twentieth century-world’s readers: Alexandria, the magical; romantic; exotic; hedonistic; and, as many lately like to claim, mythical cosmopolis.  

Alexander the Great, who founded Alexandria

Few, if any, metropolises can claim a status of cosmopolis like Alexandria can. She experienced two golden ages, making her one of history’s wonders. Her first golden age – following her laying out in 332 BC by Alexander the Great’s architect, Dinocrates – was as the intellectual capital of the Classical ancient world and the seat of culture, medicine, philosophy and science under the Ptolemies (323–30 BC) – ruling over Egypt, Cyprus, Jordan all around the Mediterranean from geographical Palestine to the Adriatic coast, and Libya to the west – followed by the Roman period (30 BC–619 AD).

The second golden age, that of royal Alexandria, was as the largest port in the eastern Mediterranean in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, under Muhammad Ali’s dynasty (1805–1953).

Only if you had grown up in the reincarnated Alexandria (1810–1970) and knew her sites, ancient and modern, could you understand her multiple cultures. If you had roamed her Dinocratian streets and moved inside her circles, dived within her layers and vaulted her fences – which were not physical barriers but cultural, intellectual, ethnic and philological boundaries – you would have discovered that you, like me and like Alexandria herself, were a hybrid and a mongrel of numerous cultural and ethnic genes. Alexandrians might belong to one ethnic group or another; in reality, they were like the city herself in the mindset of daily life and trade. Like Durrell’s character Justine, Alexandrians were neither entirely European nor fully Levantine – nor Egyptian nor African nor like any other assemblage or single, racially hegemonic Mediterranean group. Each one of us was, in a way, an individual mini-biological clone of the city, a minuscule model of Alexandria – and we Alexandrians collectively, in our similarities and diversities, were also a group-Alexandria: a ‘we-Alexandria’.

we Alexandrians collectively, in our similarities and diversities, were also a group-Alexandria: a ‘we-Alexandria’.

In a geographical, ethnographical, historical and cultural sense, Alexandria was an island, surrounded by water except for a tiny narrow link to Africa’s land mass, and with an invisible (cultural) umbilical cord connecting her to Europe. Her bubbling inner soul always wanted her to break away and drift with the Mediterranean currents, gliding to where she had been conceived by Greek gods and philosophers, to finally snuggle into Europa’s bosom.

Alexandria was founded in the fourth century BC by Macedonians, not by Egyptians or their Persian rulers (the Thirty-first Dynasty). She flourished into the capital of the Hellenic world and its seat of learning for 1,000 years until the Arab invasion. The seventh-century turmoil sent her into another millennium of decline and hibernation; the colonial Arab rulers neglected Alexandria, letting the Canopic branch of the Nile west of the city silt up and dry. In her ‘second coming’, in the nineteenth century, Alexandria’s population grew from just under 5,000 in 1798  to 800,000  during the Second World War, of whom over 500,000 were non-Nilotic migrants.

The modern city-state of Alexandria was not built by the Arabs, the Mamluks, the Ottomans or Egypt’s British ‘protectors’ (1914–22), but by the Alexandrians themselves in all their racial multiplicity and religious diversity.

Bacus tram, El-Ramleh-1918, from a postcard

Tramway el-Ramleh: a Ride into History

Running from Victoria Terminus east to Gare de Ramleh, the iconic tram was a living organ in Alexandria’s body. The Ramleh tram was an institution, a ride into the history of Alexandria, her growth and development over 150 years – not only in the spheres of culture, arts, engineering, architecture and archaeology but also in commerce, business and military affairs.

The original tram arrêts names marked chapters of Alexandria’s 3,000-year history. Soter was named after Ptolemy I, who oversaw Alexander’s dream of building the great city and started on the lighthouse and the magnificent Bibliotheca Alexandrina. Appropriately, Soter was the stop for both the Greek Community Club and University College of Arts and Classics. Known as the ‘stilettos-campus’ because its female students, who competed in fashion and in showing leg, outnumbered male students by three to one, it also had one of the university’s best-known cafeterias. The indoor buffet, with its three-sided ceiling-high glass windows, had a well-stocked bar serving varieties of wines, spirits, cocktails and the famous Alex ice-cold Stella. Soter was also the arrêt for one of the city’s true icons: Casino de Chatby, a 1920s end-of-pier restaurant and café by day and entertainment restaurant at night. French musicians and singers like Louis Charles Augustin Trenet (1913–2001) and Maurice Chevalier (1888–1972) performed there.

West of Soter was Lazarietta (originally Lazaretto, meaning ‘isolation from contagious infection’), where the first health quarantine was built by Muhammad Ali. Arrivals to Alexandria were to quarantine before travelling inward. Some 400 metres east of Soter lay Arrêt Dinocrates, named after the architect whose 332 BC plan for Alexandria became a blueprint for modern town planning. Without chalk, he improvised the use of barley grain to mark roads and the angles of crossroads, competing all the while with seagulls swooping down to eat them. At the time, some said it was a bad omen; others said, a sign from the gods that the great city would nourish and sustain the whole planet. Three kilometres east, the tram travels 300 years ‘forward’ into Bain Cleopatre although in reality she never bathed there. In all, two tram stops, a plage, an urban quarter and several Alexandrian landmarks are named after history’s most glamorous queen, whose mind exceeded her beauty, charm and (alleged) seductiveness. Cleopatra, the wise and much-loved ruler who introduced festivals, parades, leisure and enriched knowledge.

Only in cosmopolitan, kaleidoscopic Alexandria could you have a tramline with stops carrying such historical, geographical and economic names

Between Bain Cleopatre and Dinocrates stops, the tram passes Chatby, named after a Muslim saint from Andalucía and the location of three landmarks. At the University Littorie Campus on Rue Plato, the other best-known university cafeteria stood by the Art Deco swimming pool. Named after its founder, the modernist Regie Scuole Littorie the project was entirely funded by the Mussolini government. It was opened in 1933 by King Victor Emmanuel III and turned into a military hospital for the allies during The War, but seven years later was bought by Alexandria University. Chatby is also the arrêt for Al-Ittihad, the Alexandria United sports club (established 1914). The AUFC has become inseparable from the twentieth-century Alexandrian identity since Alexandrians hold AUFC in their hearts like Liverpudlians cherish Liverpool FC.

Opposite the club on Rue Plato’s western side, there is a large plot extending south to Rue Abukeir and west to Arrêt Soter. It was home to several connected cemeteries with tombstones of different ethnicities telling the story of Alexandria: a Greek Orthodox cemetery and museum, Armenian Orthodox graves, Greek Catholics, Armenian Catholics, Eastern Orthodox graves around the Coptic church of Mar Gerges (Saint George) and a military war memorial near the Anglican cemetery. Latin Catholics, Syriac Catholics and Jews all lay in a harmony and peace that didn’t always exist during their lives.

On the northern side of the tram tracks, opposite the cemeteries, stands Collège Saint-Marc, one of Alexandria’s top elitist boys’ schools. It was established in 1928 by the sixteenth-century Catholic order, the De La Salle Brothers, and among the school’s graduates are some internationally recognised names: Dodi al-Fayed (1955–1997), the late Princess Diana’s death-partner; and former Egyptian foreign minister and Arab League secretary-general Dr Esmat Abd-el-Meguid (1923–2013). The next stop, Arrêt Camp de Cesar, served the university stadium and college of civil engineering on the highest hill before approaching Old Alexandria, where Octavian pitched his camp in the summer of 30 BC after defeating Mark Antony and the Egyptian fleet a year earlier at the Battle of Actium (2 September, 31 BC). This is also an arrêt for the iconic Lycée Français d’Alexandrie school for girls, established in 1909 by the Mission laïque française.

‘the barracks searchlights crisscrossed the city’s skies along with others from five hills around Alexandria, searching for Luftwaffe bombers’

A kilometre northeast of Bain Cleopatre, the tram screeches its way back into the twentieth century. The track arches, hugging the coast as it passes the tram-maintenance works before stopping at Mustaf Pasha Army Barracks. This military installation was founded in the mid-nineteenth century by one of Muhammad Ali’s officers who went to America to serve there and later returned. During the Second World War, the barracks searchlights crisscrossed the city’s skies along with others from five hills around Alexandria, searching for Luftwaffe bombers.

The Ramleh tram tracks continue for another nine kilometres eastwards, running between 500 and 70 metres back from the coastline – the widest gap at the east end of the barracks and the start of a fashionable quarter full of large villas, including the British ambassador’s summer residence. Arrêt Rushdy Pasha is named after Hessein Rushdy[*] (1863–1928), Egypt’s eleventh prime minister (1914–19) and the location of his massive summer house. Rushdy’s French-born wife, Eugenie le Burn-Rushdy, was one of the pioneering Egyptian feminists, joining Egyptian women like Huda Shaarawi (1879–1947), the daughter of a speaker of parliament. The movement’s early impact was mostly intellectual.

The tracks reach their closest point to the Mediterranean at Arrêt Laurent. Édouard Laurent was a nineteenth-century industrialist and philanthropist who built a school, local housing and a mosque, and donated to local public services. Rue Laurent led to Plage Laurent, marking the start of the famous golden sandy plages of Sidi-Bishr, where Cleopatra’s bath really was located – four kilometres northeast of Arrêt Sidi-Bishr in a sand-rock island. The last queen of Egypt used to bathe in a small lake inside the rocks of an island 650 metres off plage Miami’s sands.

Other tram stops were named after people who contributed to Alexandria’s history, wealth and built realm. Zizinia was named after the dynastic founder, Count Stephen Zizinia (1794–1868). Zizinia epitomised the complex and nebulous identity of cosmopolitan Alexandrians. He was born in Chois, arrived as a slave from Greece with Ibrahim Pasha after the 1822 Massacre of Chios. Ibrahim promoted Tsisinia (Zizinia); he later acquired French citizenship while conducting business in Marseilles.[2] He became Belgian consul but was also elected president of the Greek community in Alexandria, and invested in and contributed to Alexandria as an Egyptian national building his city. Comte Menandre de Zizinia (1832–1907) constructed the Ramleh district bearing his name, building a theatre in 1862–63. Teatro Zizinia on Rue Rosette (later Rue Fuad) was designed by Italian architect Pietro Avoscani (1816–1891), who emigrated to Alexandria in 1837. Only in Alexandria could a slave become army officer, a consul general (later ambassador) and a minister.

Zizinia Senior also erected a church in 1863 dedicated to St Stephen, giving its name to the famous iconic Hotel San Stephano, which in turn gave its name in turn to another tram stop.

The stop before San Stephano, Arrêt Mazloum Pasha, was named after Ahmed Mazloum (1878–1928), who was chief justice of les tribunaux mixtes and twice speaker of the Egyptian parliament, a minister of justice (1893–4) and finance minister (1894–1908). His large residence, built in 1898 by Lasciac, opposite the tram stop, was donated by his to house the Alexandria College of Fine Arts. Proceeding southwest on another branch of the tramway el-Ramleh an arrêt carries the name of Nestor Gianaclis. He was the founder of a cigarette factory for exports, with a world trademark. Gianaclis, who came to Alexandria in 1864, revived the almost dying viticulture that had started in 3000 BC, expanded vine growing after spending 18 years searching for the perfect soil.[3] He started new vineyards in 1882 using ancient Egyptian vines, and founded modern wine distilleries using thousand-year-old recipes.

The tram terminates at Victoria, where Victoria College is located. Named after the famous British queen in 1900, it became known as the ‘Eton of the Mediterranean’. Many celebrated names were to be found among Victoria graduates: King Hussein of Jordan (1935–1999); Omar Sharif (1932–2015); Youssef Chahine (1926–2008); Tsar Simone-II (Simone Saxe-Coburg-Gotha) of Bulgaria (b.1937); the Palestinian- American scholar Edward Said (1935–2003); British mathematician Michael Atiyah (1929–2019); and the Egyptian-Israeli-Swiss inventor of the open-architecture model, Gilbert de Botton (1935–2000).

The southern branch the tram-track went through open areas  of sand dunes, palm trees and bulrushes on the edge of swamps around the newish quarters dominate the landscape near Victoria. To the west – towards central Alexandria, where the tram-track branches at Sporting’s – you are in early twentieth-century Europe. Arrêt Sporting’s services both the plage and a residential area to the north and, to the south, the racecourse and sports club (founded 1890) including tennis, squash and cricket facilities.

A kilometre south is Arrêt Ibrahimiyah, named after Muhammad Ali’s great-grandson, Ibrahim Rifaat Pasha (1855–1932(, who developed the area, drained its marshes, and modernised the quarter, which was established by Greek migrants in the 1820s.

Ibrahim Rifaat was a traveller, and his book Mira’at el-Harmaine (The Holy Shrines’ Mirror) was the earliest detailed geographical description of Arabia, its western coast, the Nagd mound, Mecca and medina, as well as customs and the culture of the people there. He also added detailed maps and photographs in later editions.[4]

Other tram stops’ names – like Bacos (Bacchus), the Roman god where Colonel Gamal Abd-el Nasser was born in 1918 ; or Sidi-Gaber, referring to a saint’s shrine – were associated with folkloric myth without much historical evidence. Glymenopoulo stop was named after the wealthy Greek-Alexandrian family who built a hospital and founded charities, and was also associated with an iconic plage. Carlton, Fleming, Buckley, Saba Pasha and Schultz were named after engineers who constructed the tram network or contributed to the areas carrying their names, and most were committee members of the late nineteenth-century semi-independent elected  belediye, the richest  municipality in the region.

Only in cosmopolitan, kaleidoscopic Alexandria could you have a tramline with stops carrying such historical, geographical and economic names: a Roman Caesar, the ancient world’s top architect, a Ptolemaic king, the last Egyptian queen, a British queen, warriors and travellers of different races and faiths, Egyptian pashas and prime ministers, English gentlemen, a Belgian consul, Muslim and Catholic saints of both Egyptian and European background, and a Roman god of wine. ••

[*] In some reference books it is written Hussien, and/or Roshdy. 

[1] From Cavafy’s 1898 poem ‘Waiting for the barbarians’, C.P. Cavafy: Collected Poems (Translated by Keeley, Edmund and Sherrard, Philip), Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 1975.

[2] Reid, Donald Malcolm, Whose Pharaohs?: Archaeology, Museums, and Egyptian National Identity from Napoleon to World War I, California University Press, reprint, Los Angeles, 2003, pp. 150–1.

[3] ‘The History and Heritage of Gianaclis Wines in Egypt’, Cairo 365, 11 November 2010 edition.

[4] Rifaat, Ibrahim, General, Mira’at el-Haramine, Travels in Higaz (Arabic), Amiri Publishing and Printing, Cairo, 1925.

Adel Darwish

Adel Darwish has been a distinguished figure at the press gallery at the House of Commons through some of the most tumultuous political upheavals of the modern age. His reporting an analysis have informed literally millions, both across the Middle East region and internationally, and he is a regular feature across news channels the world over. Adel Darwish is the political editor of World Media, Middle East News and The Middle East Maggazine

Alexandria Adieu is available for preorder from Gilgamesh Publishers

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