Vinous cafe has the air of a mausoleum. Two people sit leagues apart at separate tables. Its high ceilings, art nouveau mirrors and empty carved glass cabinets give the impression of an English country house waiting for new occupants to move in. Its last Greek owner died several years ago, and its Egyptian owner can't afford to return it to the thriving cafe and patisserie it once was, despite the nostalgic charm of its interior On the corner of Nabi Daniel street and Tariq-al-Horreya, Vinous is ideally situated to catch the late night audiences of the nearby Opera House and the Arts Creative Centre, formerly a private club. All of them were frequented by Durrell and were within a short walk from his office at the British Council in Seios Stias street.
He was a regular Vinous customer. Surrounded by empty chairs and tables, I imagine him staring out into the busy streets, mining material for the four novels about the city and its inhabitants that he would not write until he left. An open notebook lies beside his Turkish coffee. His companions would have reflected the cosmopolitan character of the city - Greeks, Egyptians, Greeks, British, French, Italian, Armenian, Jews - all of them recreated in his four novels.
Durrell drew inspiration from his immediate neighbourhood, Midan Saad Zaghlul. It remains the entertainment heart of Alexandria with cinemas, the Opera House, restaurants and busy coffee houses. It was a small world, boundaried by several streets in the heart of the city. His main artery both in life, and in the Quartet, was Nabi Daniel street which ran through what was once a thriving Jewish quarter.
"At that epoch, George Gaston Pombal, a minor consular official, shares a small flat with me in the Rue Nebi Daniel. He is a rare figure among the diplomats in that he appears to possess a vertebral column."
Durrell, did in fact, live in Nabi Daniel street, but no one knows where. Neither do we know for sure, if, like the narrator in the Quartet, he was shaved every morning in a Babylonian barber's shop on the corner of Nabi Daniel Street and Sesostris Street. If so, was the barber anything like the odious Mnemjian - a dwarf 'with a violet eye that has never lost its childhood.'?
'....every morning Pombal lay down beside me in the mirrors. We were lifted simultaneously and swung smoothly down into the ground wrapped like dead Pharoahs, only to reappear at the same instant on the ceiling, spread out like specimens. White cloths had been spread over us by a small black boy, while in a great Victorian moustache-cup the barber thwacked up his dense and sweet smelling lather before applying it in direct, considered brush strokes to our cheeks. The first covering complete he surrendered his task to an assistant while he went to the great strop hanging among the flypapers on the end wall of the shop and began to sweet the edge of an English razor.'
The Arts Creativity Centre, is a pillared masterpiece that was once a private club frequented by E.M Forster and Durrell. I stand across the road from the building. Painted cream, it makes the surrounding buildings appear more dingy and neglected than they already are. Once a royal palace, the Centre now promotes contemporary arts in Alexandria and houses a theatre, art galleries, cinema and library. Above the passing traffic I can see the building's terrace, where Durrell and Forster first met. Forster was a Red Cross volunteer in Alexandria during the First World War. At first he did not like the city.....“what had begun as an outpost turned into something suspiciously like a funk-hole." He made his peace with it when he fell in love with a tram car conductor and began researching for Alexandria: A History and a Guide. In a later preface to the guide Durrell wrote:
'The book has an added appeal for me because it was a work of exile. I understood that E.M. Forster had been marooned in Alexandria by the first World War, as I had been by the second. In wartime, with all its confusions and despairs it is more than ever necessary for the artist to keep his spirit alive and his writing-machine well-oiled and in practice; and this is what the book stands for -- the survival values of an artist far from home. It is also a work of deep affection and a noble monument raised to this most haunting of cities.'
|Durrell's old British Council office|
Walking directly down the busy Nabi Daniel Street, Durrell would head for the Hotel Cecil overlooking the sea front. There he sat with Forster and Noel Coward (when he was in town), gazing out to sea. There was no wide road in front of the hotel then, and no traffic to obstruct a view of the Mediteranean and the harbour. The narrator of the Alexandrian Quartet and the beautiful and mysterious Justine could walk directly onto the beach in the dark and make love, unaware of her approaching husband. Not any more.They'd have to dice with death to cross the four lane road, climb over a sea wall and drop six feet onto a wrack of concrete blocks.
The Hotel Cecil is now The Sofitel, and a thorough refurbishment has taken away what Vinous has managed to retain. The Montgomery bar is a dark wood lined nod to General Montgomery. In the hotel he plotted the Allies last stand against Rommell in North Africa. Durrell had not yet arrived in Alexandria. The only indication that he ever did, is his words.
I accompanied Al Zaharaa Adel Awed on her literary tour of Alexandria: email@example.com