lady painting


Oct 2010 Journal

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Lost cities of the Mediterranean

BBC Radio 4 recently broadcast as its Saturday Play The White Chameleon, Christopher Hampton’s semi-fictional dramatisation of his childhood years in Alexandria, which came to an abrupt end with the Suez crisis of 1956. The play is a moving account of a ten-year-old child’s affection for a wonderfully colourful city and its engaging inhabitants, set against the background of the final ebbing away of the British Empire.

The play revolves around the boy Christopher’s relationship with the family servant Ibrahim, who runs the household with a disarming combination of loyalty and fondness for the family’s drinks cabinet. Ibrahim’s attachment to the Hamptons transcends the politics of the time, which pitted the militant nationalism of Nasser’s Egypt against the remaining strongholds of British power in the country. In the end, Britain’s ill-judged Suez adventure, aimed at toppling Nasser and reclaiming the Suez Canal, succeeds only in destroying the last bases of British influence in Egypt, and at the same time severs the links between the Hampton family and the faithful Ibrahim. Christopher is sent back to school in England and his parents are expelled from Egypt.

The principal lost world is not that of British imperial grandeur, for which Hampton has scant regard, but an Alexandria that was a melting-pot of Mediterranean cultures, languages and nationalities: Egyptians, Greeks, Jews, Maltese, Italians, French, Armenians and Lebanese, with a Sahib class of British. Alexandria before 1956 was one of those luminously polyglot, multicultural cities dotted round the coastline of the eastern Mediterranean that have, one by one, been reduced to monocultures by the spread of nationalism.

A multi-ethnic city like Smyrna, where Greek, Jewish and Armenian communities lived amidst the majority Turks, became the Turkish city of Izmir after the triumph of Turkish nationalism in the wake of the First World War. Salonika, once a city composed of Jews and Greeks in equal numbers and ruled by Turks, became a monoculture when the occupying Germans deported the Jews to the death camps during the Second World War; but it had started to become a Greek city when it came under Greek rule in 1912 and was exposed to Greek nationalist intolerance of other ethnic identities. A similar process has affected such legendary names as Antioch and Aleppo and, to a large extent, Istanbul (which had been Constantinople for a millennium and a half), as well as Beirut.

Copts, Kurds, Circassians – they all had their place in the fertile amalgam of the Levant. But above all the cities of the eastern Mediterranean provided a place where Jews could mix freely with other groups and make their own particular contribution to the multicultural richness of the whole. The Alexandria of Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet (1957-60) or E. M. Forster’s history and guide to the city (1922) would be unimaginable without the communities of Jews and Armenians, whose presence gave the city its own inimitable charisma – now displaced in the name of a charmless Egyptian nationalism. London was fortunate in attracting some of Alexandria’s Jewish community after their expulsion from Egypt in 1956.

The great Alexandrian poet C. P. Cavafy, a Greek, created his mythical visions of Ithaca and Alexandria in the city of his birth. Now, after the events that dispatched the young Hampton back to a dreary and xenophobic Britain, myths like Cavafy’s are all we have left to remind us of the vanished cultural multiplicity that gilded the Mediterranean past.


Anthony Grenville

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