I get a fair few visitors from the Arab world to this site, from Egypt as one might expect given the setting of the Alexandria Quartet but also from other countries including the United Arab Emirates and Qatar.
Anyway, I wanted to offer non-Arabic speakers a glimpse at recent comment and writing from the Arab world about Lawrence Durrell and the Alexandria Quartet, particularly around the Durrell Centenary celebrations.
This is hardly a comprehensive study, just a quick snapshot over a few posts. This post will focus on Egyptian views of Durrell.
In 2010, the Dar al-Shorouk publishers in Cairo issued a new edition of the Alexandria Quartet in Arabic, translated by Fakhri Labib. This article announces the new editions, and gives a biography/ bibliography of Durrell and explains that after the Quartet Durrell was considered a leading English-language writer like Henry Miller and James Joyce. The article describes Justine as being set in Egypt “during the British occupation” of Egypt.
From the Misr el-Mahrousa cultural magazine, April 2012
“لورانس داريل” يضع الإسكندرية فى قلب المشهد الثقافى الغربى
The piece, by Hassan Ibrahim, is called:Lawrence Durrell puts Alexandra at the heart of the Western cultural scene. It focusses on Alexandria, saying that the Egyptian city is a “fascinating and fabulous enchantress” perched right the heart of the Western cultural scene as Durrell’s centenary is celebrated.
The books of the Quartet were translated into Arabic starting at the end of the 1950s and in the 1960s, according to Ibrahim. The most famous of the translations was that by Fakhry Labib [whose translation was used in the 2010 re-editions mentioned above].
Ibrahim notes that Durrell was born in India, was of Irish descent and his works were full of the “spirit of place”; in this context Alexandria was “a dream and a symbol in so far as it was a love song and a desperate search for redemption in a vulgar world”.
The article also discusses some recent interpretations of the Quartet, particularly Sam Jordison’s in the Guardian.
Ibrahim focusses a lot, as one might expect, on the role of Alexandria in the Quartet and looks at various critics’ comments (including Arab critics) about whether Durrell really knew the city well, and whether his depiction of the city was truthful. Ibrahim also compares his work to that of other writers’ works set in Alexandria, including Edwar al-Kharrat.
Al-Kharrat, a Coptic Christian and Alexandria native, was a member of the influential Sixties Generation of Egyptian writers, and who claims to have depict Alexandria in a realistic way. In a 1999 interview with Banipal magazine, Al-Kharrat has said that Durrell’s work made him angry:
The background to both my books published in English, City of Saffron and Girls of Alexandria, is Alexandria, the city I grew up in. To a certain extent, every writer, from Shakespeare to Tolstoy, is bound to be autobiographical. Both of these two novels I wrote before Lawrence Durrell wrote The Alexandria Quartet and when I read his work I was very angry. He was so absolutely out of touch with the Alexandria that I knew – he was biased, he saw a different Alexandria altogether. I hesitate to use a word such as ‘untrue’, but its scope, in a literary sense, its images of excitement, of prettiness, have nothing to do with Alexandria. Durrell didn’t live in any contact with the people of Alexandria, only with the ‘foreignised’ upper class, in their own way an imagined and fabricated part of society.
It’s a shame that in the West people consider Alexandria is Durrell and Durrell is Alexandria. Some years ago, a Lawrence Durrell Conference took place in Alexandria and one of the organisers invited me to give the keynote speech. They were flabbergasted by what I said, and when I finished there were a few seconds of absolute silence before the hall exploded with applause. Of course, they all opposed what I’d said, but they recognised that I had something to say. A very heated discussion followed . . .
Ibrahim also mentions Ibrahim Abdel Meguid, who is said to have “frequently invoked Durrell” in his novel No-one Sleeps in Alexandria, which is set in the same time and place as Durrell’s Quartet. This is Hala Halim on No-one Sleeps:
Must one begin a review of a novel on Alexandria with a nod towards Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet? No, it is not written that one should pay such (unwarranted) homage; and indeed this beginning is not meant as homage. Nor is it the fact that Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid frequently invokes Durrell, not least in the epigraph on the first page, as well as in two of the epigraphs to the chapters, that makes a nod towards Durrell necessary. Rather, it is the manner in which Abdel-Meguid’s novel “dialogues” with Durrell’s. Set, like The Alexandria Quartet, during the Second World War, Abdel-Meguid’s No One Sleeps in Alexandria re-inscribes into the literary city, in the same historical period, Egyptian Alexandrians whom Durrell had more or less reduced to the Coptic, aristocratic figures of Nessim and his family, and Hamid, Darley’s sufragi
(Misr el-Mahrousa is a cultural magazine published by Egypt’s Ministry of Culture and its aim is to provide material on a broad spectrum of Egyptian and Arab culture, for an audience within Egypt, the wider Arab world and even beyond.)
(I will add more later.)