Pompey’s Pillar, dating back to 297 AD, stands on a hill at the center of the city.
Addressing the summons to Alexandria
KRIPOTKIN - Alfred A. Yuson (The Philippine Star) - March 4, 2019 - 12:00am

On the road at 7 in the morning on our fifth day of the week-long Cairo Literature Festival, we settled in the van with our breakfast boxes, keening in anticipation of our fated visit to Alexandria: “the capital of memory.”

Marking a quick hour was a halfway pit stop of a roadside attraction, a strip mall where we found good coffee. I took my first shot of an Egyptian cat cakewalking on the edge of an outdoor couch. It was a calico, and I was convinced that our tri-colored Bolen back home had stalked me in a feat of teleportation.

I forgave myself the extravagant conceit. Fabled Alexandria lay in wait, just an hour more, its lifetime summons about to be finally addressed.

Entry into the Mediterranean port city wasn’t too encouraging. A main avenue had been torn up for several kilometers, consigning vehicles to tight traffic on the pockmarked outer lanes. But the excavation for an extended tunnel had been given up, so that the pits were now being filled in for flattening back to its former state.

Backhoes and other deconstruction equipment greeted us as we crawled through the mess. It all seemed as if the visions of Alexander the Great, the Ptolemaic kings, C.P. Cavafy and Lawrence Durrell were all being turned into shambles.

The author Krip Yuson literally rests on a book at the main reading room of Biblotheca Alexandrina.

But we eventually cleared the obstacle course and reached the first optional landmark: the catacombs of Kom El Shoqafa, a historical archaeological site. We passed up on the ticketed entrance to the former necropolis.

The next stop engaged us for an hour. Right on the heart of the city was a hill that featured Pompey’s Pillar, a triumphal Roman-era Corinthian column in granite, heralded by sphinxes and ground displays of gargoyles and other antiquarian remnants. Dating back to 297 AD, the site had once been part of the Serapeum temple that had also served as a secondary repository of books that spilled over from the Great Library.

Also of gratifying interest was the Citadel of Qaitbay, a 15th-century fortress at the mouth of the Eastern Harbour on the Mediterranean coast. The massive structure was erected by Sultan Qaitbay, also known as Muhammad Ali of Egypt, on the exact site of the famous Lighthouse of Alexandria, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Side attractions were an adjunct Museum of Fish, rows of souvenir stalls, and troops of disciplined schoolchidren linked by arms on shoulders in single-file march out of the citadel.

What we thought would be a quick lunch break became an extended if memorable repast in what was touted as one of the best restos in the harbor area. An array of appetizers with airy bread preceded milky clam soup, grilled sea bass, fried sea bream and a spicy seafood casserole with plump prawns, squid and fish cubes. We were told that everything served was the freshest catch from the Mediterranean Sea, another plus for Alexandria.

The new library showcases 120 human scripts carved into its granite façade.

But we had to rush through our remaining hours to make it to our must stops: the reincarnated library and Cavafy’s house. 

Of stunning achitecture, the capacious complex that is the ultramodern Bibliotheca Alexandrina enraptured us as we had envisioned, albeit not thoroughly given our limited time. Another regret was that I hadn’t brought along any of my books besides two poetry collections I still had to read from when we rejoined the Cairo festival.

Malaysian poet and novelist Bernice Chouly and Singaporean novelist Suffian Hakim had the foresight to bring extra copies of the books, which were accepted as donations to the Bibliotheca, to add to its current million books housed in the main reading room covering 20,000 square meters on eleven cascading levels.

There’s enough shelf space for eight million books, while the complex also houses a conference center, specialized libraries, several museums and art galleries, a planetarium, and a manuscript restoration laboratory.

Conceived in 1974 and completed in 2002 with support from UNESCO, the tourist draw is seen to have revived the ancient Library of Alexandria. It was engrossing enough just to admire the main façade of gray Aswan granite inscribed with characters from 120 different human scripts.

Inside the main reading room topped by a slanting glass roof, I celebrated my presence by planting my butt on one end of a carved wooden facsimile of a book with its pages open, offering Shakespeare’s Sonnet VI.  

Guarding the Mediterranean coast is the 15th-centrury Citadel of Qaitbay.

Our last quick stop was at the Cavafy Museum, just for selfies beside the plaque by the front door of an apartment where the Alexandria-born (1863) Greek poet had lived on the second floor. It was enough to recall lines from his popular poem “The City”: “You won’t find a new country, won’t find another shore./This city will always pursue you.”

Other quotes replayed themselves as we started on the drive back — lines from Lawrence Durrell’s The Alexandria Quartet, specifically from the first volume, Justine: “A city becomes a world when one loves one of its inhabitants.” Then, also from Justine: “There are only three things to be done with a woman. You can love her, suffer for her, or turn her into literature.” 

Back in Cairo, the next evening had us joining the concluding poetry reading, together with Egyptian poets who read the translations into Arabic of our poems, and whose own poems we read the English translations of. There we turned our women, and men, and our relations with either or both, into literature.

Once again I must thank Mohamed El-Baaly, Andrea Pasion-Flores and the NCCA for enriching my memory with magical days in Cairo and Alexandria. Meanwhile, I look forward to Alexandria poet Abdelreshim Youssef’s completion of his translation into Arabic of my first novel.  

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