Thirty years are nothing in the life of a city, especially if it happens to have been founded 332 years before the birth of Christ, as was Alexandria. For me, 30 years are a lifetime. I left Alexandria when I was 20 years old, to settle in a kibbutz, before the creation of the State of Israel. Only in my dreams did I see myself going back. Suddenly, my dreams come true. I am back in Alex.
The first signs, coming by the desert road from Cairo, are new to me: immense tracts of green fields, reclaimed from the desert. Then the mallahat, the bitter lakes and swamps where I used to shoot ducks on Sundays. There is not a single gun in sight, but the radar grids, slowly rotating above thick earthen ramparts, tell of SAM missles keeping watch. Peace is here, thank Allah, but the finger is still on the trigger.
To the left, the jagged skyline of a city rises beyond the swamps. I try to identify familiar shapes, in vain -- the smokestacks, the skyscapers have all sprouted in my absence. Suddenly, we are in midtown. The street names are new -- Hurriya (Liberty), Gumhuriya (Republic), Tahrir (Liberation) -- but the streets are old. Older and smaller than I recall.
That's the central railway station. Unchanged. Red bricks and a huge public garden. But where is Kom el-Dik? Where is the ugly, squat hill, with its ugly, squat barrakcs, housing the military police detachment of His British Majesty's forces? The symbol of foreign domination should be here, to my right, but it's gone. The sun has set over the British Empire, and instead of Kom el-Dik there is a gaping hole in the earth, 30 feet deep. The city's ancient Grego-roman theater, more than 2,000 years old, has been unearthed and gleams in its white marble glory.
The car turns into Nebi Daniel Street, named for the lion-taming prophet. The great synagogue Eliahu Hanavi is in this street. I don't need my eyes, memory guides me. Here it is, with its high wrought-iron gate, its court, the large, sweeping marble stairway. To the left, tucked away from view, the shaded courtyard where boys and girls used to meet on high holy days to flirt, tell risque jokes, set rendezvous. In the shadow of God's imposing house, it was much easier for us boys to meet the well-bred and chaperoned daughters of Alex's bourgeoisie.
It's imposing, all right. Bigger and more imposing than any synagogue in Israel. Big and empty. Only 150 Jews still live in Alexandria, of the 30,000 of my youth. Some 30 of them are here to greet us. I go looking for the seat that had been my father's in this synagogue. Third row, first seat on the center aisle, as befitted a respected businessman. Here it is, though, without the oval brass nameplate. It's a solid walnut seat. Why does it rock all of a sudden? Why have my eyes betrayed me? Tears flow, as I sit on my father's seat . . .
I go up to the alcove that houses the Torah scrolls and pull aside the heavy screen. Gold and silver filigree flashes in the dark. I am alone with the holy scrolls. With them and with the memory of my father and of old Rabbi Ventura and of my bosom friend Yitzhak who settled with me in a kibbutz and in 1948 went into combat against the Egyptian army and did not come back. A phrase from a barely remembered prayer wells up within me: "You are all alive today . . ."
We head for Montaza. The red-brick wall, with its crenelated arabesque turrets, is as imposing as of old on its wooded clifftop. King Farouk's old palace is open to the public, its gardens a popular park. The great gate is open.
The first and only time I had passed those gates was in 1943. My father had been invited by a friend, Osman el-Mahdi Pasha, commander of the Royal Guard, to visit Montaza. On the eve of my departure from Tel Aviv last week my mother showed me a letter grown yellow with age, bearing the royal crown of Egypt. A letter that Osman Pasha had written his friend, excusing himself for being unable to accompany him to the train that would take him from Alexandria to Tel Aviv. "I am sorry to see you leave our beautiful Valley of the Nile," Osman Pasha had written, "but I am also happy, because you are going home, to your people's homeland. Au Revoir, Inshallah. If God wills." At the outbreak of the Free Officers' revolution, in 1952, Gen. Osman el-Mahdi Pasha was chief of staff of the Egyptian army. He died a few years ago.
His shadow accompanies me this Sunday across the parks of Montaza. The lawn is not as well kept as it had been, but it isn't as sinister either. Families picnic in the park, children run and shout with joy. At the top of the hill -- the Palace itself, undergoing repairs. A large "F" decorates its front. F for King Fouad. F for King Farouk. Both gone, like the British conquerors.
Luxor, 600 miles up the Nile. Its name in Arabic means "the castles" -- an obvious reference to the fantastic ruins that are everywhere. From the moment you set foot, a time machine grabs hold of you and whisks you to the time of the pharaohs and the Old Testament, and back again to the present. The past is everywhere. The city itself is nothing but a product of Thebes, the all-powerful capital of antiquity. Amenhotep, Thutmosis, Ramses, Ikhnaton, Tutankhamen, Nefertiti -- you name them. They have all gone through here, leaving their mark for you to admire, unbelieving.
We spend a few hours visiting the ruins of Karnak, with its avenue of ram-headed sphinxes, its towering walls covered with hieroglyphs and scenes of warfare and worship, the lotus-stem pylons that scape a sky of purest azure. Our guide takes us to see the outer wall of the temple that Pharaoh Seti I built to Amon-Ra, some 1200 years before Christ. One part shows Labanese workmen cutting down the lordly cedars for Seti's temple, Seti attacking Bedouins in the Land of Canaan, laying siege to the fortress of Yenoam beyond the crocodile-infested canal that separates Egypt from Asia. Our guide, Salah Radi, explains each scene, then takes us to the other part of the wall. "You'll find it much more interesting," he says.
The bas-reliefs here are about 350 years younger than those of Seti I and they show Pharaoh Shishak, founder of the Libyan dynasty, celebrating his triumph over Rehobaom, King of Judea, son of King Solomon. "Do you remember what the Bible says of this battle?" asks our guide.
I am ashamed I don't, but I've looked it up since. And here is how the Good Book (Chronicles II, 12) describes it:
"And it came to pass, that in the fifth year of King Rehoboam, Shishak king of Egypt came up against Jerusalem, because they had transgressed against the Lord. With twelve hundred chariots and threescore, thousand horsemen, and the people were without number that came with him out of Egypt: the Lubims [Libyans], the Sukiims and the Ethiopians. And he took the fenced cities that purtained ot Judah and came to Jerusalem . . . and he took away the treasures of the house of the Lord, and the treasures of the king's house; he took all. He carried away also the shields of gold which Solomon had made."
And here we are, looking at Shishak leading Hebrew slaves back to Thebes, and with them the treasures of the house of the Lord and the treasures of the king's house. Radi, who until now had talked to us in English or in Arabic, whispers in fluent Hebrew: "Those old accounts of wars and prisoners of war are now settled."
I am stupefied. Salah bursts into hilarious laughter.
"Where did you learn Hebrew? In the army?"
"Yes," he answers, greatly amused. "In the army. Your army. I was a prisoner of war in 1956. I spent seven months in a camp in Israel. You see, brother Shalom, there was a time when we Egyptians brought Jewish prisoners of war with us to Luxor. Then there came a time when you took sons of Luxor as prisoners of war in Israel. Now it's over. No more wars, no more prisoners. Let's exchange tourists, lots of tourists."