Is there an Arab Mediterranean?
By Raphael Cormack
One of the first things I heard after moving to Athens was the sound of construction across the street. Between the banging and sawing came the unmistakable tones of Egyptian Arabic: “estana, ya ‘am!” It was a small reminder that, despite the rhetoric of Fortress Europe and the efforts to mentally separate southern Europe from North Africa, Greece and Egypt are almost neighbours. Could the Mediterranean be seen as a link between the continents of Europe, Africa, and Asia rather than the border – the graveyard – it is now?
When I arrived in Greece, I began reading the accounts of several Egyptians who visited Athens in the 1930s (in lockdown, travel writing is a welcome escape). The interwar years were a golden age for travel writing in Egypt and the Middle East in general; scores of new books arrived to tell Arabic readers about the increasingly connected world. The most prolific of these writers was Mohammed Thabet, a schoolteacher who spent his summer holidays traveling the world and then publishing detailed accounts of his trips. But there were many others besides him, and Greece was a common destination.
The almost universal leitmotif of their accounts of trips to Greece was the immediate connection they felt to this country on the other side of the Mediterranean. Some explained this in historical terms. One travelling Sheikh, Muhammad Sulayman, who published letters from his trips to Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Saudi Arabia as well as Greece, tried to establish a link between the two countries going back millennia. He told his readers, for example, about the debt that many classical Greek writers, including Plato and Herodotus, owed to Ancient Egypt. He also pointed out that the mythical founder of the Greek city Argos had been an Egyptian, Danaus, so Egypt had been there at the birth of Greek civilization (a claim originally made famous by 19th century scholar and travel writer Rifa’at al-Tahtawi who called Egypt “the mother of Greece”).
But most Egyptian travelers did not give their readers grand historical narratives, they were more struck by the personal interactions they had in Greece. When Tawfiq Habib, known by his pen-name “the aged journalist” (al-Sahafi al-‘Ajuz), went to Greece he could barely walk down the street without being accosted: “I never felt a foreigner in the land of Zeus and Diana … I walked down the street in a tarbush and this respected headgear [al-tarbush al-muhtaram] was always an invitation for an enthusiastic welcome and for people to start talking to me in Arabic.” One day he went to the Benaki museum (itself established by a Greek-Egyptian) and as was he about to leave the galleries one of the guards accosted him in Arabic. The friendly museum employee told the aged journalist that he used to be a waiter in the Obelisque Bar on Wish al-Birka street, at the center of Cairo’s nightlife district. “We talked about Ezbekiyya and its old golden age”, he wrote wistfully in his account.
Throughout the late 1930s, this “aged journalist” dedicated several of his “on the margins” columns in al-Ahram newspaper to his trips in Greece. He talked about the warm welcome he received, about an evening spent in a café in the seaside district of Athens, Palaio Faliro, eating fish and listening to Oum Kalthoum records, obligingly put on the café’s owner. He was even shocked to find copies of the very newspaper he published these columns in, on sale on the newsstands of Athens.
In the 1930s, the managing editor of al-Ahram, Mahmoud Abu al-Fath, wrote his own series of articles about his trip to Greece. It focused more on the high politics of the state than on random encounters with waiters from seedy bars in Cairo, but he too was struck by how much Egyptian culture was present in Greece, largely due to the large number Greeks who had been born or lived in Egypt. He was particularly impressed with the founding of a Hellenic-Egyptian Association in Athens, which counted some of Athens’ elite among its members and proudly told readers that Pangiotis Aristophron, a wealthy architect and amateur archaeologist who had been born in Alexandria, flew an Egyptian flag above his house on national holidays and to commemorate important events.
The travelling Sheikh who had recalled the long historical links between Greece and Egypt also received an enthusiastic welcome in Greece. “So often, as I was walking in the streets, people would come up to me and say ‘ya ustaz. Sir, sir…’ Then, when I stopped, they would wish me peace and happiness and ask about Egypt, the Nile, and the king. People would let me know that they used to live in Egypt and left a little while ago, but that they were dying to return.”
All the accounts I have read of Egyptians traveling to Greece are full of stories like this. The history of Greeks in Egypt is well known but it is not often told from the other side — Egyptians who went to Greece. When the “aged journalist” was in Athens he hinted at something of an Egyptian community: academics, politicians, and more. While in Greece, I am hoping to probe these stories even further and investigate the lives of the Egyptians who spent time in the country.
It is often asserted that Arabic speakers did not really have a sense of a united Mediterranean — that they did not consider themselves to have many links with the countries on the Northern coast. But travel writing like this hints at a different story, one where different connections are possible. The border between “Europe” and the outside is artificial — like all borders, of course — and largely ahistorical (or, at the very least, based on an extremely restrictive view of history). These travelers from the 1930s suggest the possibility of a more open future. Even now, Arabic literature in Athens is starting to blossom and a number of talented writers, including Rana Haddad and Carol Sansour, are based in the city. Others (including Isabella Hammad) come through often.
It goes without saying that there are geopolitical forces at play in this whole situation that cannot be easily overturned. There is a whole global system committed to the idea that there are “rich” countries (of which Europe is a part) and “poor” countries (of which much of the Arab world is part), and many individuals invested in keeping it that way. Changing my viewpoint of the Mediterranean is not going to change the fact that when I go to the Aliens Bureau, my passport grants me easy entry, while hundreds of others are forced to wait in the street outside. Nor is it going to change the global circumstances that Egyptians (and many others from countries east of Greece) are considered “cheap labor” in Europe.
Clearly, reimagination alone is not going to alter any of this. But looking through these stories written by past travelers can do something important: it can remind us that the state of the world, as it is today, is neither natural nor eternal. Things can change. Throughout history people have moved and Europe has not always been a fortress. It has not even always been “Europe.”
Raphael Cormack has a PhD in Egyptian theatre from the University of Edinburgh and is currently a visiting researcher at Columbia University. He is an award-winning editor and translator and has written on Arabic culture for the London Review of Books and elsewhere. His Midnight in Cairo is forthcoming March 2021.
The author thanks Tony Gorman for directing him to some of these sources.