Bon Voyage, Neil Durnan

In William Dalrymple’s exceptional From the Holy Mountain, the author reports on the fading remnants of Eastern Christendom, retracing the spiritual travels of a sixth century monk from Constantinople through Anatolia and the Levant, across the Sinai, and down the Nile Valley toward the Great Kharga Oasis in Upper Egypt. After passing through present-day Israel & the Occupied Territories for several distressing & depressing chapters, Dalrymple and his account re-emerge in Alexandria, and repose in the sweet washed-out nostalgic air that that city has on special offer.

After the incessant tensions and hatreds of Israel, the glib self-righteousness of the settlers and the bleak despair of the Palestinians, Alexandria feels refreshingly detached from the troubles of the Middle East; indeed it feels detached from the Middle East altogether. The cafes with their baroque mirrors and gleaming tables have a vaguely French or Viennese air to them, while the facades or the townhouses with their stained tempera and shuttered windows are strikingly Italianate. …Always something of a European expatriate exiled on the coast of Africa… its art deco buildings still intact but emptied of the men and women who built and owned them, a city ‘clinging to the minds of old men like traces of perfume: Alexandria the capital of Memory’.

The author sits, writing in the first-floor breakfast room of the old Metropole Hotel on Saad Zagloul Square, where downtown meets the seaside, just a block or two from where Neil & I used to spend our weekends.

Pale warm winter sun streams in through the open shutters; outside you can hear the rattle and clang of the trams and the clip-clop of horse-drawn cabs passing up the Grand Corniche. The sky is clear, the wind is high, and beyond a shivering screen of palms the Mediterranean stretches out into the distance…

Ah, my human heart can see it now! And the heart’s memory can feel again how the sharp, clear Alexandrian morning will give way to a blanched midday and unfurl into a languid, heady dusk—like the one hovering beyond Baudelaire’s balcony:

Lovely the suns were in those twilights warm,
And space profound, and strong life’s pulsing flood

At this sky-painted hour in Alexandria, Neil & I would pour a pastis or two, pull the hotel armchairs up to our Juliet balcony, and profess necessary things about the Mediterranean: “look at that”, “that’s what I’m talking about”.

But the nights woke the real action—when the clip-clop of horse-drawn cabs found accompaniment in the clickety-clack of dominoes dancing on tables and the twin-twinkling of two light dice tumbling on backgammon boards. Night music!

Once night fell in earnest we’d hit the streets and, employing established methods of urban geomancy, we’d piece together a café crawl: Smoke a shisha and play a few rounds of dominoes at that warehouse-like café with the good lemonade; hit up the classy “wooden” café on the corniche to play some backgammon until the old men reading newspapers take over your game with unending advice; make the rounds to that semi-busted place with wicker chairs on astroturf in hope of running into the good hawkers peddling Gauloises and Al-Aqsa pocket-watches; and on and on and onward.

But eventually we’d end up at this little late-night dive dubbed “The Black & White” (for its checkerboard tiling scheme) and grab a table on the sidewalk patio away from the hissing TVs. The dozen or so two-person tables were covered in carpet (to grip the game boards), the domino boards were sprinkled with sand (to help the dominoes slide), and the floors were dappled with sawdust (to make it easy to sweep up Neil’s spilt tea, presumably). It was here that you could play some serious sports, filling up tiny chalkboard after tiny chalkboard with the hash marks of gentlemanly contest.

For those who like to hang out & make jokes, dominoes is a parlor game that has a lot going for it. For friends who play together a lot, the game’s simple routines can morph into amusing rituals, and the recurring patterns of play soon animate certain moves & pieces with particular significance; the pieces in particular adopt little identities, leading to a litany of funny terms & nicknames. Like a friendship in miniature, player-partners slowly build up their own inside jokes, jargon, and etiquette. [Egyptian Sports Professionals like Bronton, Frogcheck, and Franzo know this well.] On those many successive stays in Alexandria the game became a world unto itself, the site of endless riffing & laffs, the joy of rehearsing something you’ve perfected.

Eventually the hour arrives when it’s too late to sensibly drink another tea, smoke another shisha, or start another round. Ideally this realization arrives before the muezzin’s dawn call comes down from the minarets, pinging you with the guilty feeling that the pious have started their productive days, while you are still up playing sports in a cloud of fruity smoke. It is time to settle the bill and float back to the Hotel Crillon with heads buzzing off several hours of Arosa tea and apple nicotine. My memory of these trips home, funny-stumbling down the dark seaside alleys, has a definite soundtrack. It was a song that played in our regular rotation in those days: Edith Piaf’s “Polichinelle”. The song has a ludicrous opening, like drunk popeye sailors stumbling around the wharf. (Do those hokey woodblocks perhaps represent the clacking of dominoes?) Ahh, but after a minute or so the circus soundtrack is joined by a lush wave of strings and the song’s sentimentality blooms. Not that I get sentimental, mind you!

***

Home of the Library and the Lighthouse, Alexandria was the scholarly capital and greatest port city of the classical world—Queen of the Mediterranean. At the hub of trade routes between Africa, Asia, and Europe, it was here that Euclid refined geometry, Eratosthenes measured the diameter of the world, the Old Testament was translated into Greek, and Marc Antony eloped to kiss & die with Cleo. “She is undoubtedly the first city of the civilized world,” wrote Diodorus of Sicily in the first century bce, “certainly far ahead of the rest in elegance and extent and riches”. Yes, true. But we just liked hanging out.

Have fun back in the motherland, Neil. Hopefully, we’ll come visit you soon.

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