In Egypt, Nostalgia on the Menu

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Photo by Maggie Schmitt


I'd like to speak of this memory,
but it's so faded now--as though nothing's left--
because it was so long ago, in my adolescent years.
A skin as though of jasmine...
that August evening--was it August?--
I can still just recall the eyes: blue, I think they were...
Ah yes, blue: a sapphire blue.
-Constantine P. Cavafy

As anyone who has read my contributions to this website will have quickly perceived, I am susceptible to a certain strain of Mediterranean nostalgia. I'm not alone in this. There's a whole literary canon founded on the longing for a Mediterranean society, for that old, weird Mediterranean in which Arabic, Greek, Turkish, Hebrew, Armenian, Spanish, Serbo-Croatian, and a dozen other languages and half-languages all jumbled together and rubbed elbows in ports and markets.

That sea of stories washing from one coast to another, pouring down from the Ebro and the Danube, the Dnieper and the Po. That continuous circulation connecting the African deserts to the highlands of Central Asia in an ongoing transit of things and tales, before borders chopped that world to pieces and geopolitics infected it with nationalism and economic dependence. A cosmopolitan sea, a bookish sea, a disorderly and generous sea.

To sip a glass of (surprisingly tasty) Egyptian wine on the restaurant's broad terrace overlooking the fishing port is no doubt a welcome break from the city's clamor.

And so it will come as no surprise that I am smitten with Alexandria, a city which has made its name on nostalgia, always being rebuilt in the image of its own bygone self. Like so many of the great port cities, its not what it was: the Jews have nearly all gone, the Italians, too; the Turks left long before. Of the ancient city nearly nothing still stands, and the grand old houses of the early 20th century are largely in shambles. But the spirit of a cosmopolitan city somehow persists in the cheerful and ecumenical hubbub of the Anfushi neighborhood, the genteel patisseries of Saad Zaghloul square, the bent heads of scholars in the spectacular new library.

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Photo by Maggie Schmitt

And the Greek clubs. Alexandria was born a Greek city and was one of the capitals of the Hellenic Mediterranean until the 1950s. The Greek population is now much reduced, but maintains its own cultural institutions, among them a handful of notable restaurants and cafés.

One of these, at the tip of the port, is the posh Santa Lucia, just upstairs from the Greek beach club and marina. The restaurant was first opened in 1932 and served all the illustrious artists and politicians of the era, from King Farouk to Aznavour. After several decades of decline, in 2005 it was completely renovated in anticipation of a future international tourist boom. The boom has not come about, but the restaurant still fills up, largely with wealthy, liberal Egyptians who order truly astounding quantities of food from the very complete Greek menu.

To be quite honest, the food is good but less good than the cheap street food to be found in the alleys of Anfushi, right around the corner: fried marinated fish, stuffed calamari, spicy clams or kebabs served on tin plates or wrapped up in newspaper. But to sip a glass of (surprisingly tasty) Egyptian wine on the restaurant's broad terrace overlooking the fishing port is no doubt a welcome break from the city's clamor. While I have my reservations about sharing my nostalgia with the tourism industry, I admit I'm glad to see the Greek club spruced up and affirming its place in the city's shifting landscape.

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Maggie Schmitt is a freelance researcher and translator based in Madrid.  She is currently working on a book called The Gaza Kitchen with Laila El-Haddad. Learn more at gazakitchens.wordpress.com.

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