Sublime Decadence; Richard Edmonds Explores a New Book Which Looks at High Society in 'Modern' Alexandria - and Its Hedonistic Delights

The Birmingham Post (England), July 15, 2010 | Go to article overview

Sublime Decadence; Richard Edmonds Explores a New Book Which Looks at High Society in 'Modern' Alexandria - and Its Hedonistic Delights


Byline: Richard Edmonds

Vintage Alexandria by Michael Haag (The American University in Cairo Press) Priced: pounds 35 Michael Haag's delectable photographs of old Alexandria take us back in time to this remarkable city in its pre-war days when poets and writers such as E M Forster bustled about its streets, when Constantin Cavafy produced astonishing poetry which reflected the decadence and exoticism of Alexandria where he lived and where Lawrence Durrell at the same time was chasing skirt like crazy while scribbling that 1950s literary shocker: The Alexandrian Quartet.

But this hazy city, wallowing in its own special amnesia is shown in Haag's book in rare photographs mostly culled from family albums but also including albumen prints, glass slides from an early century and old postcards of the kind you'd long to own.

Seen here as the 20s moved into the 30s are those wealthy Alexandrians who believed that their dream world of smart cars, beach resorts, sporting clubs, devoted servants not to mention pearls and diamonds galore, would go on for eternity with a benign King Farouk at its head.

The city was luxurious and always evoked its own glorious past which could include memories of the Roman occupation.

This is the city which Cavafy began to regard as his particular city and which he centred in some of the loveliest poetry the 20th century produced, much admired by W H Auden.

Alexandria was the great Hellenistic capital of the Ptolemies a couple of thousand years before and so had links directly back to Cleopatra and her fatal affair with Rome.

Standing as it did at a vital crossing point between east and west (and we can remember that the best families only spoke French to each other and not Arabic) Alexandria over time became the most splendid and wealthy of the cities along the Mediterranean Crescent.

The wealthy middle-class ladies, overweight and loaded down with jewelled knick-knacks, had the dark eyes, oiled hair and voluptuous smiles of the Greeks who knew Alexandria quite as well as they knew Athens. But they were all westernised. Outside their villas in the afternoon heat stood the latest 1920s cars with attendant chauffeurs in a fez.

Inside, the ladies and their intimates - effeminate men and women like themselves, sipped tiny cups of sweet coffee and demolished pyramids of that gorgeous sweetmeat, rahat-loukoum, which we call Turkish Delight.

It was a curious, chequered world they inhabited, gossipy, dangerous, callous and occasionally bitter. Where reputations were concerned they were frequently demolished by four stories knitted together by the ladies.

But the common bond was the Greek culture. This, after all, was the city of Alexander the Great of whom Cavafy wrote: "He was the best of things - a Hellene - mankind has no quality more precious.

But Alexander the Great, the man who gave the city its name, was, during the 1930s, just a schoolroom memory, a mere essay in a history lesson. By the time that Haag's photographs were going into the family albums, the city's great past was disappearing into the mists of time.

Lawrence Durrell spoke once of Alexandria women - women he had found sexually inspiring when he lived in the city. They were elegant - of French, Jewish or Greek origin. …

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