Khaled al-Khamissien

Khaled al-Khamissi | Photo: Nurettin Cicek, Frankfurt Book Fair

Khaled al-Khamissi | Photo: Nurettin Cicek, Frankfurt Book Fair

Kara Deniz

Kara Deniz, December 1975:
How could I ever forget the name? For nearly a year, it spun through my head daily. I had accompanied my aunt to the Turkish travel agency on Mustafa Kamil Square, where at the time it was possible to book the tickets for a cruise on the Kara Deniz. The lady from the travel agency had explained to us that the ship would embark from Alexandria on 4 July and then call at the ports of Naples, Genoa and Marseille. We reserved one passage each for my aunt, my sister and me. From that day, my sister and I waited expectantly for July to finally arrive. Almost every day we dreamed of that Turkish word, which – we knew this much by then – meant “Black Sea.” Why a ship by the name of “Black Sea” should actually cruise the Mediterranean Sea that we Arab-speakers called the “White Sea”? It was quite clear that the Turks wished to express that the water of the rivers and seas flow together sooner or later, like the blood in our bodies. I was thirteen years old at the time, my sister was eight. It was our first journey to Europe. Until then, I was familiar with Europe mainly through the French teachers and the French curriculum at our school, and, of course, from books. I can still remember clearly that a young French teacher just that year had given us the assignment of compiling Egyptian adages and translating them into French. He wanted to attempt to find a French equivalent to every Egyptian adage. We were quite surprised when it turned out that there was a more or less identical counterpart for almost every Egyptian figure of speech in French. When I went on board the Kara Deniz with my aunt and my sister, I was utterly convinced that all the talk of the huge differences between the inhabitants of the countries to the north and the south of the Mediterranean Sea was absolute nonsense.

Naples, 1976:
Before we went ashore in Naples, a young Italian carabiniere boarded the Kara Deniz to give us passengers an earful of warnings to be very careful. It was apparently a daily occurrence for tourists to be robbed in broad daylight in Naples. We had barely trod upon solid ground when we landed in the middle of a mass rally by Italy’s communist party. I can well remember the face of the young protester who handed me a red rose. All of Naples was a red sea of flags and banners. At some point we encountered someone who called to us in broken French, “Injustice is everywhere, as far as the eye can see!”

Marseille, 1976:
I had imagined Marseille differently. And bigger, somehow. We came across miserable looking workers and sailors everywhere. How far this harbour city was from splendid Alexandria, the comely mermaid of the Mediterranean! What a contrast! Why, for heaven’s sake, had our teacher told us Marseille was the most beautiful city in southern France? As I was asking directions, I had a brief conversation with a worker. He told me that most of the labourers in Marseille lived in poverty.

Marseille, 2006:
Thirty years later: I remembered Marseille differently. Smaller somehow, as well. How far away shabby Alexandria was from this swank city! What on earth had happened over the past thirty years? How could it be that we in Egypt were moving more and more into the Middle Ages at dizzying speed while the Europeans were steering exactly in the opposite direction at the same speed? How could Alexandria have mutated from a dazzling metropolis into a backwater hick town, meanwhile old man Europe cured itself of the deep wounds of the Second World War and awoke to a flourishing life? How could it be that we – once again – were unspeakably standing in our own way? And why did I suddenly see Europe no longer merely as a continent of poets and philosophers, of architects and scientists, but increasingly also as a continent of savvy politicians who hungered for world domination?

Paris, 2008:
I was in Paris when the Iraqi journalist Muntazer al-Zaidi threw his shoes at then US President George W. Bush during the meeting with Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. I learned about the shoe attack that evening in the television news on France 2. A French reporter described Muntazer al-Zaidi as a “Shiite journalist” – he did not use the word “Iraqi,” no, he had to call him “Shiite.” No idea how this French reporter should know Muntazer’s religious tenet so accurately. Perhaps he could see down to the bottom of his soul... I heard that Muntazer al-Zaidi was a communist sympathizer. I really know nothing at all about him, but I can hardly imagine that he ever called himself a “Shiite.” So, why did the French reporter use this label? Without realizing it, European journalists (and the same applies for some writers) in general fall prey to the treacherous temptation to use well-worn generalizations and long-outdated imperialist phrases.

Cairo, 2011:
During a dinner with friendly writers and poets, at some point we began talking about our personal relationship with Europe. As it turns out, the majority of Egyptian intellectuals appear to be at a loss when it comes to this topic. For 400 years the Europeans have tirelessly been waving the banner of enlightenment. And yet, bursting with self-satisfaction, they have never eschewed imperialism in word or deed. One of my friends found this rather confusing. “Europeans constantly use these ugly expressions that suggest Europe’s central role. Middle East, for instance, or Far East. East, seen from where? And the middle from whose viewpoint? Or far?” Apparently, one of my other friends said, Europeans are entirely occupied by their own view of the world, which they have upheld for 300 years in their conviction that their roots lie solely in Greek and Roman antiquity. They constantly speak of the huge difference between Europe and the “other” continents, yet in the same breath of equality between peoples. Just as stubbornly, the European media disseminate their value judgements about the rest of the world. The latest are terms like “Islamic world,” “Middle East,” “Arabic world,” “North Africa,” “Orient” and many other catchwords devoid of meaning. But don’t anyone dare call their continent the “Christian world” or similar! Europe is and remains Europe. And Europe is and remains the centre of the world.

Alexandria, 2013:
I am looking at the Mediterranean Sea from the new library. A Norwegian engineering office designed the building. I am quite enraptured by the simple beauty of the clear, streamlined lines. The January sun is shining. Next to me, a group of young people is discussing the present situation. An energetic young woman chimes in, loudly vents about Morsi’s visit to Germany. It’s deplorable that such a earnest nation as Germany would receive a head of state who comes from the orbit of a terrorist group. She means the Muslim Brotherhood. Her standpoint astonishes me as well as the fact that the other young people appear to agree with her wholeheartedly. They apparently see Europe as some kind of international moral watchdog. Another young woman speaks up. She looks strikingly like my grandmother. Well, except for the hairstyle perhaps, which is about a hundred years apart from my grandmother’s. But otherwise the similarity is really uncanny. It could be that my imagination is simply running wild again. It’s always the same when I am in Alexandria. My grandmother always shows up somewhere. Then I am thinking about how she told me about her encounter with the Italian engineer who, back in the early twentieth century, supervised the construction work on the Corniche... But then my grandmother disappears suddenly from my mind’s eye when a young man loudly declares that the tensions in Egypt are getter ever worse, that he no longer wants to be part of the machine that drums ideas from faraway times and places into people and that he would soon begin a new life on the other side of the Mediterranean whether the people there like it or not.