HomeNewsboxAlexandria Journal: Remembering My Mother’s Alexandria

Alexandria Journal: Remembering My Mother’s Alexandria

But the changes were not enough. Alexandrians dug deeper into provincialism and their faith. In a city once famed for its European-style liberalism, the Muslim Brotherhood became a powerful force. The ultraconservative Salafi movement built its base. And on New Year’s Day in 2011, the city became the scene of some of Egypt’s worst sectarian violence between Muslims and Christians in modern history. The seeds of the Egyptian revolution were also planted here when, in June 2010, the police beat to death a 28-year-old, Khaled Said.

But shabby Alexandria, like the rest of Egypt, has seen little benefit from the revolution. The country is reeling under its latest repressive president and a tanking economy. The currency has lost half its value, and Alexandria has never felt so grim.

“I miss the old Alexandria,” Mahmoud Ghamrawi, 68 and a retiree, said as he sat at the coast and watched the sea with his 2-year-old granddaughter. “People feel like strangers in the city.”

My Alexandrian family is Muslim with Moroccan roots. My great-grandfather Abdul-Razak Mustafa was a senior customs official in a city built on port trading. My family says he had three chauffeur-driven vehicles when most people in the city had never set foot in a car. He studied in France and owned land in the old commercial district, a hunting lodge and a seaside villa.

This photograph shows my extended Alexandrian family in 1984 on the rooftop of our seaside villa at Agami beach, a once-upscale area just outside the city. My aunt Lola is at top left. She has her hand on my shoulder as I look down. Next to Lola is my grandmother Fayza.


My extended Alexandrian family in 1984.

Western literature romanticizes Alexandria’s belle epoque, which began in the late 19th century, when a mélange of Europeans, particularly Italians and Greeks, gave the city its cosmopolitan flair.

Lawrence Durrell, a British novelist and poet who wrote the “Alexandria Quartet” novels, captured how World War II began to bring the era to a close. By then, the time of foreigners in Alexandria was ending. Egyptian nationalism was growing, and Jews were viewed with suspicion as loyal to the country’s enemy, Israel. Europeans were seen as part of a foreign presence that had kept Egyptians down, and most Alexandrians with European roots and Alexandrian Jews left the city by the early ’60s.

Our fortunes faded with the city. My mother and all of her siblings, except for one sister, Lola, left for Cairo or abroad. I was born in Alexandria because my mother wanted to have a child in her hometown, years after she migrated to Australia. Weeks after I was born, we left. We returned for visits a couple of times during my childhood, and beginning in 1998, I visited nearly every year.

After always feeling welcome in the city, I felt like an outsider this trip. At one point a bus driver sneered at me and my colleagues when he heard us speaking Arabic without the local accent. “You aren’t from here,” he said. “Go back to Cairo.”


The impoverished Bahri district of Alexandria, near the sea.

Diaa Hadid for The New York Times

During this visit, I watched as couples strolled the pedestrian walkway by the seaside, known as the Corniche.

Bassam Abdu, 38, a fisherman, sat with his 4-year-old son. The sewage, garbage and overfishing were slowly choking his livelihood, he said, pointing at bags bobbing in the water.

Farther down the coast, a dead donkey had floated onto Stanley Beach, a small private city shore.


Stanley Beach.

Diaa Hadid for The New York Times

Two generations earlier, my mother and her siblings had sunbathed and water-skied here.


My aunt Lola, 10, at Stanley Beach in 1958.

My relatives sold their last seaside villa in the 1990s; it was in the Agami, once the summer playground for the city’s rich. It is now a sprawling quarter of Alexandria with unpaved narrow alleys that reek of sewage.


Agami’s look has changed so much that I was unable to find where my family’s villa had been.

Diaa Hadid for The New York Times

The city’s residents, including my aunt Lola and my extended family, are now overwhelmingly conservative Muslims.

Lamenting the lost Alexandria is a favorite local pastime, and my aunt Lola, now 67, is as wistful as anyone. Her apartment is decked with gilded wallpaper and faded tapestries of picnicking European ladies, and when she steps outside she sighs that she no longer recognizes the city. (My aunt requested that only her nickname be used because she wants to protect her children’s privacy.)

Yet the city still has its pleasures, like sipping tea into the night in a high-ceilinged seaside cafe, or walking around the medieval citadel. On a recent evening, women in face veils clip-clopped past on horses, raising posies of balloons as they posed for photographs.

The seafood in Alexandria remains a delight, a medley of the cultures that once converged here. In a nameless alley cafe, a woman grilled barley-coated fish over an iron drum-turned-barbecue. A wealthy couple snacked on gandofli, clams, in the Greek Yacht Club of Alexandria, where the moneyed jostle for a table overlooking the glistening harbor.


A view of the harbor from the Greek Yacht Club of Alexandria.

Diaa Hadid for The New York Times

There, old Alexandria still lingers. While having lunch, I noticed a table of French speakers in their 70s or 80s and asked where they were from.

“You are so ignorant,” a woman snapped. “We are from Alexandria.”

A sympathetic woman stood, identifying herself as Madam Zayat. She was of Greek and Syrian descent, she said, and a fourth-generation Alexandrian.

“I’ve been a member of Sporting for 52 years,” she said, referring to the sports club where old money — including my own family — meets for tea and sends grandchildren for horseback riding lessons. “We love Alexandria,” she said. “More than anything in the world.”

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