In this CairoScene exclusive, senior writer Moustafa Daly unearths the stories of Alexandria's few remaining Greeks and examines the social evolution that has led to their diaspora.
"When I'm visiting Greece, the sounds of Alexandria's corniche continue to echo in my ears; I can hear the horse carriages and the people. I cannot stay in Greece for long, I belong here," says Alexandria-based Greek teacher Paraskevi Damanidou, as she attempts to explain her special connection to the Pearl of the Mediterranean.
Born and raised in Greece, Damanidou was offered to relocate to Alexandria to teach in the city's only remaining Greek school in 1996. It was an easy YES given her lifelong fascination with the coastal city.
This city is still my home and I still consider myself Egyptian even if others don't see me this way. But this is no longer a place where I can live my life the way I want
Her ties to the city strengthened after she married the love of her life, an Egyptian man, and together, they had two babies. Now, more than twenty years later, a widowed Damanidou is making plans to retire in Alexandria. Her children are graduating college in a few years, after which they will probably move to Greece or elsewhere in the Western world. She, however, has decided to stay.
I'm Egyptian. I was born here, I was raised here, and I continue to live here until today. This is my home
The Greek school where Damanidou works is part of a wider complex that is the Greek Association of Alexandria, in the very center of Alexandria's downtown area. On the edges of the spacious multi-purpose facility, sits a nursing home for the community’s elderly occupied by senior women. While most of them have travelled the world and lived elsewhere for years, they all decided to retire in Alexandria, where they spent their childhoods. "My parents moved to Alexandria in the 1920s and gave birth to me here a decade later. Everything was different back then," Yoana says, an elderly Greek Alexandrian who is currently residing in the Greek Association's Elderly Shelter.
Alexandrians are not the same as they used to be. You can't truly be yourself here anymore if you're someone who looks or acts differently
Yoana, however, doesn't represent the majority of the once thriving and large Greek community, which dramatically declined from a peak of 75,000 in the early 20th century to less than a thousand today. Similar to their grandparents, the Greek Alexandrians today are still involved in business and trade.
At the turn of the 18th century, falling in love with Alexandria was also quite easy for its Greek migrants. Evading wars and devastation in mainland Europe, Greeks set sail to the port city of their ancestors seeking the peace and prosperity brought by then-new ruler of Egypt Mohamed Ali. In arts, trade, and business they excelled, with many of them pioneering industries that are still cornerstones of Egypt’s economy today. Other Europeans followed, making the city reemerge as the dynamic metropolis it had once been.
When I'm visiting Greece, the sounds of Alexandria's corniche continue to echo in my ears; I can hear the horse carriages and the people. I cannot stay in Greece for long, I belong here
In 1882, the Alexandrian Greek population amounted to 37,000, about half of the city's at the time. It wasn't, however, just the economy keeping the Greeks coming to Alexandria; the tolerant and open social dynamic of the city have turned it into a melting pot of cultures and arts well into the 20th century. "Alexandria was truly beautiful; the people were nice, accepting, and happy. Everything was clean and organised. I lived a very happy life in Alexandria and can't possibly imagine living elsewhere. Even now, after everything has sadly changed," Yoana recounts.
It wasn’t until the ouster of King Farouk in 1952 that the memories and heritage of Alexandria’s Greek community were scattered to the wind of change, one socio-political event at time, forever changing the face of Egyptian society. Soon after the establishment of the pan-Arab republic, Greeks, along with most of Egypt’s western communities, embarked on an exodus back to Greece, the rest of Europe and the US. At the same astonishing rate at which the community grew over a century before, the community quickly dwindling, leaving behind those who couldn't let go of the memories of what once was. "I'm Egyptian. I was born here, I was raised here, and I continue to live here until today. This is my home," Yolana's roommate, Eleftheria, says matter-of-factly.
Alexandria was truly beautiful; the people were nice, accepting, and happy. Everything was clean and organised. I lived a very happy life in Alexandria and can't possibly imagine living elsewhere. Even now, after everything has sadly changed
This utmost sense of belonging to Alexandria is not, however, shared by the youth of the community today. The wave of conservatism and pan-Arabism that has swept over Egypt has left young Greek Alexandrians feeling estranged in their own homes. One way tickets out of the country are what they're now collectively seeking. "I'm leaving to France in two days with no intention to return. I want to be able to live my life as I truly feel, like without the fear of exclusion or judgement I face in Alexandria today,” says 24 year-old Alexia, who had just graduated from Alexandria's University's Faculty of Engineering. “This city is still my home and I still consider myself Egyptian even if others don't see me this way. But this is no longer a place where I can live my life the way I want."
Having lived in a social bubble her entire life, Alexia didn’t really have a taste of the real world until she stepped foot in the Alexandria University campus. Her looks, accent, and wardrobe choices garnered her a lot of unwanted, though mostly harmless, attention in the typically conservative and male-dominated cadre of engineering in Egypt. "Alexandrians are not the same as they used to be. You can't truly be yourself here anymore if you're someone who looks or acts differently. Egypt is still the land of opportunity, and I could still come back if things change or if I just have enough," Alexia elucidates.
I want to be able to live my life as I truly feel, like without the fear of exclusion or judgement I face in Alexandria today
The struggle of Greek youth today can't be viewed separately from the wider identity crisis among Egypt’s young today. Decades of social degeneration and economic hardship have left Egyptian youth eager to set sail to new lands where social liberties and economic opportunities can be found in abundance. Add that to a rapid radicalisation rate among Egyptians today and the erosion of Alexandria’s Greek community starts to make a lot of sense. But before they packed their bags, lives, and picture frames and disappeared under the weight of time, they left behind stories, buildings, and memories that will always bear witness to the city's colourful cosmopolitan history.
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