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Shadows of a vanished city.

An ode to the history of the cosmopolitan city, the recently released American University in Cairo publication "Vintage Alexandria: Photographs of the City 1860-1960" by Michael Haag is an eye-opening, nostalgic composite of haunting images of the city's fabled past.

The coffee table book of photographs and postcards follows the rise and fall of Alexandria's multiethnic population using images provided by the residents themselves. Flipping through over 150 photographs of the gilded age, it's hard to believe this is the same Alexandria seen today.

In the 1800s, trade and legal concessions by Mohamed Ali and the subsequent British colonization of Egypt created a favorable environment for foreigners to immigrate to Alexandria. Greeks, Italians, North African Jews and Levantine businessmen flocked to Egypt's former capital to settle the shore of the Mediterranean.

Taking advantage of the economic boom created by the newly opened port and thriving cotton trade, they brought their culture, art, and architecture, transforming the city into the Middle East's cosmopolitan hub until the Nasser's nationalization policies drove them out.

Haag's collection depicts an age gone-by, when communities lived side by side and transcended ethnic boundaries.

The photographs proceed chronologically from the 1870s and focus initially on the original inhabitants, traditional houses, souqs (markets), and fishermen mark the pages. Only 30 years later, scenes of the Alexandria life points towards the city's rapid development, photographs depict new European-esque streets lined with neoclassical and art nouveau architecture. The compilation of grainy images verges on quixotic, but Haag's pithy captions keep the book grounded.

When sights of the cityscapes start to become tiresome, Haag, just at the right moment, refocuses the sequence on portraits of the city's residents. The Greeks, Italians, Germans and British pose outside their homes or at garden parties. Children from all the ethnicities sit side by side in class photographs. Women dance and pose in flapper fashion. Haag's Alexandria exudes a past life of vigor and affluence.

Photographs from family albums are reproduced along with the owner's own scribbled notes, names, dates and descriptions, rendering the photographs even more antiquated, with the sloped, long hand, old-fashioned script and faded ink. There is only one image of working class Egyptians, sorting tobacco; the rest focus on the prosperous ethnic communities, primarily the Greeks.

Although at times the reoccurring themes of prosperity and gaiety of the rich seem surfeit, two images in "Vintage Alexandria" grip the viewer. The first is a series of three photographs of Muslim, Jewish and Greek friends at the home of Rose Ades in 1925, taken straight from a photo album. The women in the frames, all in calve-length skirts, laugh and clutch each other with the obvious ease of good friends. In today's world, images like these, exuding innocence and joy, tug at the heart strings of any viewer.AaAaAaAaAa

Another series of images portray visits to the beach, one of which Haag rightfully labels "style and informality on the beach at Alexandria." The scene is a cluster of revelers; in the foreground a woman languidly reclines on a man, her arm raised touching another man's bowtie. The ease and merriness of the scene, along with the sparse attire, is one that's missing from today's Alexandria.Aa

The chronologically arranged photographs flow seamlessly through the book. From World War I, the interwar period, into World War II and beyond, the book ends right before the 1960s, but Haag does not include any photographs of the foreign exodus from the city. After so many photographs of their lifestyle, it would have been interesting to see how these residents departed.

In his introduction, Haag explains that the book "above all shows the city through the eyes of Alexandrians themselves." And while Haag does an excellent job of documenting his self-proclaimed goal of focusing on the different communities and their lives in the cosmopolitan city, his commemoration of the privileged ignores a substantial portion of the city's residents during the years he has chosen to cover.

Foreigners made up around 25 percent of the population at the time, and while affluent Egyptians can be seen amongst the foreign crowd, the working class Egyptian or Bedouin is not afforded any space in the book. Thus, the collection shows Alexandria through the eyes of certain kinds of Alexandrians.

Overall, "Vintage Alexandria" is a powerful collection of images of the city's vibrant and glorious past, presenting a striking contrast between Alexandria in frames and the city of today. Haag's interesting captions impart enough history to educate, without verging on the pedantic; no easy feat when trying to summarize 100 years of a city's history.

Through well selected photographs, the book evokes a sentimental nostalgia for the past, and its pages deserve to be turned over and over as a testament to the historic city.AaAaAaAa

Published by AUC Press

Daily NewsEgypt 2009

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Publication:Daily News Egypt (Egypt)
Geographic Code:7EGYP
Date:Feb 19, 2009
Words:810
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