Retrospection as an act of regaining a present
The Finney Statue in the Antoniades Gardens - Courtesy: Mahmoud Khaled

Christodoulos Panayiotou has given much thought to Cyprus and Egypt, and the parallels between his hometown of Limassol and Alexandria. He came to Egypt often as a kid on a boat from his island, across the Mediterranean and up the Nile to Cairo, where they would dock and he and his family would go on day trips and buy touristy things.

Alexandria feels different than other places in Egypt, more Mediterranean, he says, possibly because it’s freed from the weight of the pharaonic monuments. Because it is also free from most of its emblematic Ptolemaic symbols, the lighthouse, the library, he calls it the “city of loss” and says this is not a bad thing since he really doesn’t like nostalgia.

The Cyprus Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale showed Panayiotou’s Two Days After Tomorrow at a new backstreet location, in the oldest surviving part of a building that dates back to the eleventh century. When I went, I overlooked the entrance passageway twice before finding it. Curator Omar Kholeif had selected Panayiotous’ proposal from more than 70 submissions and today, the closing date of the biennale, I will reflect on their collaboration’s expert craftsmanship and relevance to the complex context of representing Cyprus by discussing Mahmoud Khaled’s two-day happening Postponed Dates on a Disappearing Coast in Alexandria last week, which marked the project’s end.

Kholeif says he wanted to ask how Cyprus acts as a gateway to the Global South, as a port of entry to multiple imaginaries. This is in keeping with his use of the leverage he has gained working in more dominant cultural hubs (formerly London, now Chicago) to shift focus onto more alternative centers of cultural activity. This approach continued for Postponed Dates on a Disappearing Coast. Kholeif wrote that he and Panayiotou carried on developing the idea of how the pavilion could “function against and through and within multiple temporal and spatial zones” to devise a program that began in Venice that drifted out into the Mediterranean.

Khaled was chosen and once the collaboration solidified he invited Magda Magdy, a Cairo-based writer, translator, researcher and curator, to assist. Together they invited an audience to examine the pavilion’s discursive concept of time through an examination of Alexandria and to follow Khaled’s biography as an artist in his hometown by exploring sites frequented by Alexandria University’s fine art department.

The first site was a villa and gardens commissioned by Sir John Antoniades, a wealthy businessman and once president of the Alexandrian Greek community, as a miniature version of the Palace of Versaille in 1860. An exclusive address for the social elite, the Antoniades Gardens later hosted historical events like the signing of the Anglo-Egyptian Treaty in 1936 and the founding of the Arab League a decade later. The vast property has belonged to the state since the Nasserist era. Its nicer artifacts have been dismantled and are now stashed away in the offices of upper management at the Bibliotheca Alexandrina.

Khaled explained that year after year the fine arts students are sent here to draw the remaining statues, some of which are anatomically ambiguous to the point where a truthful depiction guarantees a bad grade. Artist and MASS Alexandria graduate Nourine Shenawy, who attended the faculty a few years after him, laughed off the idea that there that could be nuanced thought behind the recurring choice of location. Since working with nude models is not an option, students are sent here to draw humans and to the zoo to draw animals, she said, it’s that simple. We strolled around the garden, as described beautifully by Ilka Eickhof, and Hanaa Safwat pointed out that several of the sites in the garden were featured in Khaled’s 2014 solo exhibition Painter on a Study Trip at Gypsum Gallery in Cairo.

Khaled gathered us around a statue of a cherub riding a dove in a basin of green-brown water that is dedicated to Oswald Finney, an Alexandria-born Englishman who by the 1930s was one of the richest men in the port city. Heir to his father’s Alexandria Commercial Company, Finney became a major player in cotton export and local textile manufacturing. He owned newspapers and an insurance company in Egypt, was director of the Mina al-Basal stock exchange, and headed the company that surveyed and laid out the master plan for what became Rodah Island, the southern part of Agouza, and Dokki in Cairo. (Dokki’s Midan ‘Vini’ is named after him and Al Sad Al Aali used to be called Rue Finney.) His widow Josa donated their European tapestries to the V&A museum in London, also in memory of her husband.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

We took turns climbing through a broken window of the former royal greenhouse behind Finney’s statue. There, poet and novelist Alaa Khaled — who has said of Alexandria, “It might not be the brain, but it is certainly the soul [of the nation]” — read from his 2012 book Alexandrian Faces, which recalls encounters with unique characters from the city. The story the author shortlisted and Mahmoud Khaled and Magdy ultimately chose is about a local legend named Gamal El Dowali, who sprayed a series of signed, beautifully written slogans around Alexandria in the late 1980s and 1990s, despairing at the state that Egypt found itself in.

Alexandrian Hicham Ezzat, who grew up during that time and first encountered graffiti through Dawali’s work, recalls that he was like an anonymous superhero, but also a bit creepy. The access Dawali gave himself to these public spaces was so out of the norm that it was mind-blowing, and nobody knows anything about him except that he disappeared from Alexandrian street life as abruptly as he appeared.

After a short drive we entered the zoo, still within the 48 hectares of the Antoniades property. Most outdoor cages were empty, some broken into or out of, and the doors to the snake house were shut, lights off. It made for an eerie sight but a soothing thought. We didn’t see more than captive birds until we were atop the zoo’s tower, from where a zebra could be spotted, a few ostriches and many free-roaming cats. A roar thundered across the grounds in regular intervals but didn’t seem to be coming from the single lion we looked down upon in its compound.

On this tower with its panoramic view, Magdy performed excerpts from Haruki Murakami’s 1985 short story The Elephant Vanishes, in which an elderly elephant and its keeper disappear without trace. She chose it in reference to an elephant named Karima who died at the Alexandria zoo in 2012 at the age of 63, “and because it also poses questions relating to the absurd state media, authority, power dynamics and above all the concept of captivity.” A debate flared up among the group about human zoos and anthropomorphized animals, criminals acts done to animals and animals tried in court.

This marked the end of the first day and we went to have a vegetarian meal at Mohamed Ahmed, named after the man who as a teenager took over a street food cart from a Jewish family in the 1950s and over time built the business into a modest bustling restaurant that has the best ful and tamiyya in town.

We started the second day at the Cavafy Museum, an apartment where the Alexandria-based, ethnically Greek poet Constantine P. Cavafy (1863-1933) is presumed to have lived. Its carefully conserved living spaces all feature paintings and drawings of the poet made by different people and dozens of his books in their original Greek and in numerous translations are laid out in glass showcases. Khaled explained that although this location isn’t on the syllabus for the fine arts faculty, it holds a central, if not an iconic role for the cultural scene, especially practicing artists.

Cavafy Museum.jpg

Cavafy Museum

© Christodoulos Panayiotou

Starting in Cavafy’s bedroom and following a choreography through the other rooms, twins Ahmed and Mohamed Kassem performed a reading of Susan Sontag’s essay Against Interpretation (1966), which Magdy later writes to me, “sparks up debates about the nature of art and how art should be interpreted, and then Sontag refutes that in the end with her famous statement ‘in place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art’.” Magdy said she immediately envisioned that having this text, written by a woman, read performatively by twin brothers in Cavafy’s apartment, would add another layer to the gender undertones she and Khaled wanted to play with. I found keeping up with the brothers distracting and missed parts of the text as we shuffled from room to room, but it was an unexpected way to experience Cavafy’s legacy. I was embarrassed that I hadn’t known of his work before and was increasingly looking forward by the final performance, where Cavafy would feature once more.

Cavafy Museum.jpeg

Cavafy Museum

© Mahmoud Khaled

Next our microbus took us out to Mina al-Basal, the “port of onions,” named in reference to an earlier industry of agricultural exports to Istanbul. This industrial area was built along Alexandria’s western port and is also the site of the old stock exchange once directed by Finney, along with warehouses, a large bank and stretches of housing built for cotton laborers during the industrial heyday pre-1952.

After 1952, the local manufacturing of cotton shifted to the Delta, near agricultural land, and today the district is in various stages of decay. These warehouses have not been in use since raw cotton stopped being exported by European companies. Khaled said that for his generation Mina al-Basal is forgotten except by art students, who are sent there because it is considered a romantic subject for artworks depicting broken windows or the abandoned train station that can be seen from a bridge.

The open structure and autobiographical nature of Khaled’s project inspired us to share anecdotes and made for excellent conversations. Standing on a littered bank of the Mahmoudeya Canal, we looked across the water at the dilapidated industrial buildings with their unique modernist style. Christodoulos said modernism arrived in Cyprus through industrial architecture, rather late in comparison, adding that parts of Limassol are now undergoing intense gentrification as they are rediscovered through nostalgic studies. “The way we historicize my city is through studying the history of the bourgeoisie. They started to revisit their industrial past, not through the history of labor, nor through the history of the people who worked there, but through their ownership.”

The only part of the Mina al-Basal area that seems to flourish is an informal outdoor market between the streets and the abandoned buildings. Khaled compared it to Cairo’s Friday Market, where just about anything can be bought and in almost any condition. We drove through in our bus and pointed excitedly at furniture, household items and clothing, but there wasn’t enough time to stop and explore on foot.

We soon reached another waterfront destination, one with a postcard view. Our group exited the bus on the busy corniche and went down to the surf, past the cluster of huts of the Al Anfoshy workshops that specialize in handmade wooden boats. We loitered around the beach, picking up rocks, avoiding syringes and broken glass. A dozen brightly painted two-person fishing boats lay docked on the shore. Local writer Mariam Boctor took a seat under the hull of a much larger boat and we joined her as she performed Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters To A Young Poet. Magdy explained to me that Khaled chose this text for its universal message that could also be addressed to young artists, filmmakers or curators.  

In the evening, for the final event of both Khaled’s Postponed Dates on a Disappearing Coast and Panayiotou’s Two Days After Tomorrow, we arrived at the Greek Cultural Center, a grand building with interior elements like mismatched theater scenery. The lights were dim and our echoes bounced off the checkered floor, red Doric columns and sweeping marble staircase.

Greek Culture Center Alexandria.JPG

Greek Center Alexandria

Our group had grown by a few students of the center’s Greek language program, and we gathered on the stairs to hear Khaled and Panayiotou perform five of Cavafy’s poems, chosen by Panayiotou and read by him in their original Greek, in tandem with Khaled in Arabic translation, including Days of 1903:

I never found them again — all lost so quickly…
the poetic eyes, the pale face…
in the darkening street…
I never found them again — mine entirely by chance,
and so easily given up,
then longed for so painfully.
The poetic eyes, the pale face,
those lips — I never found them again.

We ended the evening with grilled fish, overlooking a harbor.

Madgy wrote me that she had been avoiding Alexandria lately, that her relationship with her hometown had turned into something of a love-hate situation, but that the two days of the project had felt like a reconciliation. Khaled also said that it brought him back to the city’s fresh energy, which is significant because he is working on projects related to almost all the locations. “The success of anything here means more than the success that I can taste or experience anywhere else,” he added.

On the first day, Safwat mentioned that it was unusual for an artist to lay bare source material the way Khaled did with his show Painter on a Study Trip, and the same goes for this project. On the second day, artist Amy Arif compared the two projects and considered that the two years between them were crucial because Khaled’s voice went from condemning and critical to something more accepting. To me, Postponed Dates on a Disappearing Coast felt like an exercise in generosity, a meticulously planned web of cross-references that expanded from the personal to the universal and back again.

When I told Panayiotou that I’m nostalgic about everything, he replied that he’s nostalgic about everything too, which is why he doesn’t like nostalgia. Letting the past go, without judgement, was a recurring theme throughout the two days and this relates to Panayiotou’s admiration of Cavafy, whom he called the greatest philosopher of cessations. “He had such a beautiful way of looking at the past. He always wrote about this moment of change, but as moments of loss and how we should be ready for them. When Cavafy wrote the ultimate poem of Alexandria, The God Abandons Antony, he didn’t choose to write about Alexander the Great. Instead, Cavafy wrote about Antony, who is the last emperor, the man who bids farewell to the city. He writes it in such a beautiful way, as if you should always be ready to leave — and this is how retrospection becomes an act of regaining a present.”

When suddenly, at midnight, you hear
an invisible procession going by
with exquisite music, voices,
don’t mourn your luck that’s failing now,
work gone wrong, your plans
all proving deceptive — don’t mourn them uselessly.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
say goodbye to her, the Alexandria that is leaving.
Above all, don’t fool yourself, don’t say
it was a dream, your ears deceived you:
don’t degrade yourself with empty hopes like these.
As one long prepared, and graced with courage,
as is right for you who proved worthy of this kind of city,
go firmly to the window
and listen with deep emotion, but not
with the whining, the pleas of a coward;
listen — your final delectation — to the voices,
to the exquisite music of that strange procession,
and say goodbye to her, to the Alexandria you are losing.

Poems translated by Edmund Keeley/Philip Sherrard.

Alexandra Stock 

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