Saturday, October 08, 2005

Leaving Africa, from my book ZARAFA:

At Alexandria the sea is ever changing -- turquoise shallows and purple depths and vast outer blue that turns dark green when the wind roughens it too choppy to reflect the sky, silver gray under clouds and patched with golden columns of sunlight -- constant only in its immensity and, after the snaking current of the Nile, violently alive. Incoming swells explode into rainbows against the limestone fortress of the Mamelukes at the entrance to the harbor. The light, too, is mercurial, moody without the solid heat of the desert. Arabic sounds different here, and faces change as Egypt turns Greek.

After the overwhelming fact of the Nile -- where the heat and the landscape and fifty centuries of history confirm the irrelevance of any particular life -- Alexandria is a physical and emotional relief, a beautiful and confusing letdown. Body and eyes no longer suffer, and the mind no longer searches in awe for the shelter of a detail -- momentary shade, a drink, some small living touch like the green monkey climbing that other Zarafa's neck [painted in a tomb at Luxor] 3,500 years ago.

The magnificent ordeal of a journey down the Nile is over, but Alexandria is strangely melancholy. Time passes here on the human scale, fleeting and never exactly recurring. Depending on the light, the foursquare Mameluke fortress between mild harbor and wild ocean changes from tawny to glaring white, a sand castle only five centuries old. Instead of the desert mirage that taunts with its vision of Muslim paradise, rainbows disappear here with the breathing rhythm of the sea. The traveler from the south is reluctant to proceed, homesick for immortal things.


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