Last night I met a friend from years ago. We were, once more, all over again, not knowing what our bodies remembered, almost new to each other. As though nothing bad had happened.
And then again tonight, from across the table, our drinks between us, I noticed –
“What’s that ring on your finger?”
“It’s interesting you ask.”
Somewhere in some place away from home and by the water, the daughter of a madman.
When I swim into the sea in Alamein something happens to the horizon and it turns purple. Daydreaming on a deck chair at the edge of a white beach, this infinity, it seems to me, is very obviously blue. But when I make my way in, despite the relative insignificance of my shifting position in so far as the larger scheme of things, the mere act of my looking at it with most of my body under water somehow changes its colour.
As it turns out, this is a text about madness and the Mediterranean. It was not meant to be a text about madness. I had thought it a text about time. And if anything, then about memory and the Mediterranean. That is to say, about the telling of time. But in writing I realise that every attempt to make meaning of the Mediterranean, or to make meaning of matter, so to speak, is nothing but a means by which to ward off madness, to keep it at bay.
There are many monuments to memory along the desert-coast landscape of Alamein, where in 1942 one of the harshest offshore battles of World War II was fought. These are official structures that stand amidst half forgotten fragments of that same past. Besides the war museum, the Commonwealth cemeteries, the German and Italian memorials, all of which dot this bizarre barren sci-fi-like terrain, there are also minefields, where the Bedouin take their livestock to graze. Deactivation has been difficult due to desert winds. Even till some years ago a child kicked what she thought was a tin can and lost a leg.
There is word while we are there of airplane wreckage discovered further off in the depression. The caretaker of the German war graves, a friend of Malak’s, who informs us of this, is carrying a Reichsmark in his wallet, a souvenir from the crash site. He takes it out, tosses it in the air, heads or tails, offers it up. He mentions that commemoration is around the corner, with plans for the last of the veterans to visit. We look to find that an eagle with a wreathed swastika has become unburied from beneath the sand. It catches a glint of the midday sun, as it sits on the palm of his hand.
All this is in the vicinity of that beach, with its boom boxes and beer cans, babes in bikinis and boys in block coloured shorts, that beach where just about everyone wants to be.
That we cannot take the car inside to the Italian mausoleum is somehow significant. We park and walk up, through an archway, along an unpaved road, lined with flowers. Ra is right above us and he sends me an image from trench poetry, the heat and the horror, lying on the ground. At the end of the stretch stands a solitary structure. It looks octangular, and some 30 metres tall. As an act of architecture it seems to be completely aware of its capacity to command. We step inside. Imagine that everything is white.
They had to search for the bodies before they built this thing, all of five thousand two hundred and something of them. Even when they were unidentifiable by name, and have thus come to be remembered as IGNOTO, they were identified by nationality, probably by course of uniform. Somehow with a sense that the past is always present with us, and somewhere in the rift between death and meaning, someone seems to find the strength to salvage that which is already lost, and mark a place —perhaps on some occasions more than others— to memorialise what may as well remain unknown unto oblivion.
When we step back out, we take a stairway, circling slowly around the tower, to the other side, everything still white, reach a landing, there’s a railing, our hands rest, we lean forward, breath in, the sweet breeze, look up, the bright sky, exchange a glance, search for words, to mutter our amazement, the moment that is on our backs, as we take in this expanse that lies there, beneath us, the sea, its entirety, is at our feet, we are but little as we are large.
At the end of the third century B.C., in the city of Alexandria east of Alamein, a legend of a library was born. It “sprang from our hope to vanquish time” as “a monument intended to defeat death” at a moment “when stories [had taken] on the shape of books.” Under the patronage of the Ptolemaic kings, the Library of Alexandria “revealed a new imagination that outdid all existing libraries in ambition and scope.” As per a decree “any book arriving in the port of Alexandria was to be seized and copied, with the solemn promise [seldom kept] that the original would be returned.” The books in the Library came this way via the water and were soon known as the “ships’ collection”. Most likely the Library was lodged in a building known as the Museion, or the House of Muses, in the precincts of the royal neighbourhood, its face to the sea, unique to history, the only site in the world to have committed itself “to record everything that had been and could be recorded, and these records were to be digested into further records, an endless trail of readings and glosses that would engender in turn new readings and new glosses.” Ultimately, the Library of Alexandria “was a place where memory was kept alive… where the universe itself found its worded reflection.”
Then one fine day the Library of Alexandria disappeared. It went away from view without leaving behind a single image of what it might have looked like. “The Library that wanted to be the storehouse for the memory of the world was not able to secure for us the memory of itself,” … or so the story goes that we don’t know exactly how the story went.
Early in 2012, library.nu—the .nu suggestive of new, an online and expanding collection of over 400,000 downloadable books, also disappeared. And all the mornings after, all around the world, when its readers started to wake up, in the cases where they had even slept, they found that it was gone. Infuriating as it is, to endure the logic that governs the economy of knowledge under which we live, we can tell the way—a cease and desist order—that this one went. And while there is no doubt in no one’s mind that the digital library will find even newer forms, immaterial, yet very real, from which to surface, for a moment there, we were made to feel, like we’ve been made to believe before, as if the virtual too can vanish.
According to Fernand Braudel, “Of all the commonplaces about the Mediterranean in which literature abounds, that it is ‘a sea within the measure of man’ is one of the most deceptive.” This most famous of French historians first set eyes on the Mediterranean from the coast of Algeria, when, in 1923 at the age of 21, he moved there to take up a post as a history teacher in a grammar school. It was his feeling —and it remained his feeling— that the sea itself, the one we see and love, is the greatest document of its past existence.
In the preface to the first edition of The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II, Braudel sets up the limitations of his discipline not only against what he perceives to be the latitudes of the novelist’s, but also on account of the insurmountability of the historical entity that is his object of knowledge. Ideally perhaps one should, like the novelist, he writes, have one’s subject under control, never losing it from sight and constantly aware of its overpowering presence. Fortunately or unfortunately, he goes on, the historian has not the novelist’s freedom. In order to keep good measure, he then calls on his readers to approach his book with their own memories and to bring to it their own visions of the Mediterranean so as to add colour to the text and to help him in conjuring up the vastness of the age-old sea.
Of the six years that Braudel was detained towards the end of World War II, he spent the last four in a special discipline camp at Lübeck for enemies of Germany. It was during this second phase of his captivity that he wrote the first draft of his monumental work, relying not so much on the few books he had, as on his prodigious memory of his pre-war researches. Conditions of indefinite confinement, such as his might have been, are conditions enough to drive one insane, for they have the capacity to exterminate time as we know it, rendering it both potentially and actually endless. Braudel however was reasonably happy amid all sorts of dissidents, reading, writing, working on a small plank in a room shared with twenty prisoners. Instead of assuming alienation he redeemed time, as one must, in order to survive it, and by thus refusing to serve it, he carried on regardless, as if he were free, when in fact he was not. This kind of mastering of the present in the same instance as denying its very physicality demands a suspension that involves delusion-as-dissent. Its like one need behave a bit crazy to keep from going crazy.
When turned back onto itself in this way, “prison time implies a qualitatively different conception of historical possibility and political agency” and it is very much in the due course of his experience of it that Braudel came to offer the twentieth century “a whole new way of looking at the past, [one] in which the historian recreated a lost reality through a feat of historical imagination.” In some sense the transformation of his thought as it ensued while he was doing time still remains a mystery, and yet in some other sense a mystery not. The Mediterranean was, for him, a work of contemplation, and somewhat paradoxically to his own insistence of its absolute immensity, it served as “his escape into a world he could control and whose detailed realities he could believe in with greater ease than the artificial world of prison life.”
Take once upon a map, the same sea, a different coast, a kingdom or a colony. Take the bloody eve of a nation, during the dregs of revolution.
There was a man, the father of this daughter, belonging to a political party in what was becoming a religious republic. Call it a Communist party, in an Islamic republic. Or for that matter, in a Socialist democracy—it could as well have been some other way around.
The same sea. A different coast.
He was part of a secret order of banned books, and everything that that implies. All he knew, or so it said, was the man above him, and the one below. He would meet with them, but only one at a time, then with the other, two by two, in pairs.
And so these books, passing hands, entered homes. He loved these things, I’ve come to think. They were the stuff that made him be, the who he was.
Until one day, no more came: no more signs, no more calls, no more hands, no more books. Just bad news.
A wave of arrests and the mindlessness of mass executions, that were taking place in the stadium, or in the square.
And so this man was left with what he did not know, but had to conclude: that they had come for the man above, for the one below, closing in, that he was next.
And to his car he took his books and piled them up. And to the coast he took his car, his car of books. Drove all the way into the sea, the tide was low. Then got back out onto the shore and there he stood.
* * *
This version of Don’t Drink the Sea Water as it appears in the Winter 2013 issue of ArteEast Quarterly is the first published iteration of an on-going text.
All images courtesy Malak Helmy, from Chapter 3: Lost Referents of Some Attraction, video, 2012.
Lost Referents of Some Attraction is a new chapter in a series of works titled Records from the Excited State – an ongoing project that conducts an analysis of biological and social rhythms of a site of leisure on the coastline of Egypt.
Nida Ghouse is a writer born to Bombay.
Malak Helmy is an artist based in Cairo.
The writer would like to thank her collaborators Lina Attalah and Laura Cugusi of Take to the Sea with whom she swam and sailed in still and storm through many of these thoughts. She is also grateful to Sebastian Lütgert for his insights and insurgencies on the internets, to Malak Helmy for all things Alamein, and to Lawrence Liang for his sense of the seismic, for his love of the library.
 Alberto Manguel, The Library at Night, (Yale University Press 2008) pp 19, 32 & 24
 Ibid. p. 22
 Ibid. p. 24
 Ibid. p. 25
 Ibid. pp 25, 26 & 28
 Ibid. p. 24
 Ibid. p. 15 & 27
 Fernand Braudel, The Mediterranean and the Mediterranean World in the Age of Philip II (University of California Press 1995) p 355
 Dylan Rodriguez, as quoted by Avery Gordon in a lecture titled Social Death and Doing Time (Cairo 2010); all references in the text to prison time are indebted to and inspired by Gordon’s work
 Oswyn Murray, in the introduction to Fernand Braudel, Memory and the Mediterranean (Vintage Books 2002), p. xiii
 Ibid. p xii (emphasis mine)