Field Trip from the Capital of Memory: El Alamein

Reading notices of the 70th anniversary of the Battle of El Alamein took me back to my job of teaching in Alexandria—the Alexandria—twenty years ago. 1992 was the 50th anniversary, and “everybody” came to Egypt’s northern coast for the commemoration. My main reading about the battle had been in Olivia Manning’s captivating Levant Trilogy, though Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet alludes to the battle too.

(The Alexandria Quartet! One of the most wonderfully strange series of novels ever produced, it is set in and around the Alexandria of the 1940s: not just a physically and historically actual Alexandria, but also and more importantly an imaginative one. The aptly named character Mnemjian calls it the Capital of Memory, echoing the treatment also used by E.M. Forster in his Alexandria: a History and a Guide, published in the 1920s. The Alexandria Forster calls up was more a memory than an actuality, and indeed everywhere one turns one does as much imagining and remembering as actual seeing. History lies beneath every surface of land and water. My colleague the Dean went scuba diving among submerged ruins that were later determined to be Cleopatra’s palace. The Cleopatra.)

Having gone to the battleground with some friends, I decided to take a load of students there and to camp overnight at the nearby lip of the Qattara Depression. It was early spring, and I guessed that we would have fair weather. We had the supplies we would need for a basic or primitive camping trip, including water, for the site was bone dry. There is nothing relaxing about taking students on a trip, pace the uninformed teacher-bashers who say that it is nothing but babysitting; but I felt confident that we could have an interesting and entertaining overnighter.

The morning of the trip dawned, but it was unexpectedly very hot. This was a potentially serious wrinkle in the plans not just because of the limited water supply but also because a sudden change to hot weather in spring sometimes signals the appearance of a khamseen wind. One of the famous Mediterranean winds, the khamseen is known on the Italian side of the Mediterranean as the scirocco, the South Wind of Norman Douglas’s lovely book about the fictional island of Nepenthe. The scirocco can be so strong as to reach hurricane force, carrying dust from the Libyan Desert as far as Italy and France.

A friend and I had been caught in a dust storm in Saudi Arabia one time, having to drive a kilometer or so in wind so heavily loaded with sand and dust that the driver could not see the edge of the road from his seat, and could barely see over the hood. I had to lead the car, walking through airborne dust so thick that it sheeted off my clothes and scattered in ribbons to the ground. The distance from the coast road to the lip of the escarpment is some tens of kilometers, which I did not want to take at a dusty walk. And what about those hurricane winds? I didn’t want to be sandblasted either.

But we decided to take off, I telling the students that if the sky took on the threatening white glare we associated with an imminent khamseen, we would turn around and come back. At the moment, the sky was blue and cloudless. The first part of the drive, though the city, was familiar to us all: neighborhoods named Caesar’s Camp (“Caesar never camped here,” Forster tartly informs us) and Cleopatra (“Cleopatra never lived here”). Our route westward through the city followed the route of the ancient Canopic Road through a neighborhood known two thousand years ago by the Greek letter Delta, though no Hellenistic ruins were visible. Not far from our road lay Alexander the Great Street, which passed the site of the new Alexandria Library, then under construction but now completed. Everyone has heard of the old Alexandria Library, destroyed in the seventh century. Its site was apparently a little due south of where we crossed the center of town. We passed the building identified as Nessim’s palace in the Alexandria Quartet, though it is now a bank, not a private house. We passed the café where Darley met Justine—dark in ancient red velvet curtains. The students, having read Justine (Durrell’s, not Sade’s), knew what these places were.

We passed through the chaotic resort city of Agami, about which a friend had said, “There is not a single beautiful building in the entire city.” I couldn’t prove her wrong. Once west of Agami we passed fig plantations and then found ourselves in (generally) open desert. On our left at one point was an old tower called Borg al-Arab, which is, or is not, a replica of the ancient Lighthouse, depending on whom you talk to. Also in that area is Abu Mena, the Lourdes of early Christendom, where pilgrims from around the region would come hoping for a cure while taking its waters. The site is now in ruins. A nearby monastery still holds a community of Coptic Christian monks, not quite as isolated as the austere monasteries of Wadi Natrun (Sodium Gulch, named after its salt pans).

As we moved into the open desert, we became aware of a strange atmospheric phenomenon. Over the Mediterranean Sea to our right, the sky was a brilliant blue; but over the brown desert to our left the blue took on a light beige tinge from the desert below, and was less brilliant than the sky to our right. The division between the two skies was pronounced. The coastline, which was often in view, consisted of brilliantly white marl and white sand; the ocean was an incredibly vivid light electric blue, and even the waves’ foam had a pale bluish cast.

Not long afterwards we came to the village of El Alamein, which gave the battle its name; and then we found the battlefield monuments of the German, Italian, and British Armies. It was hard to believe the tens of thousands of casualties in the battle, and hard to believe the extensiveness of the cemeteries there. The students decided that the most beautiful and stylish monument was the Italian, while the German monument was most likely to last through many khamseen winds.

We turned left onto Betrol Road (Arabic does not include the letter P) leading to an oilfield on the other side of the battleground near the Qattara Depression. I told the students that we would stay in the car while traveling through the battleground because not all the land mines from the “Devil’s Gardens” had been removed, and the “Gardens” were still a deadly menace. The reason Field Marshall Montgomery had chosen this ground on which to challenge Rommel was that the Depression, inaccessible to tanks, confined the action to a controllable segment of the coastal plain.

The heat with which the day had begun was even greater now, and the students were imagining themselves under this wide hot sky being shelled and strafed. It was a sobering drive.

The Qattara Depression appears suddenly and seemingly out of nowhere. The horizon “approaches,” but it is actually the lip of an escarpment where the land falls away for hundreds of feet to Africa’s second-lowest point. The drop is sudden and unmarked. We stopped and got out.

The eroded cliffs showed shoals of fossilized sea creatures by the thousands. The students wanted to “explore,” and though I was not keen to scramble down a rocky cliff in hot sunny weather, I obliged them. We took water bottles. The exploration was draining, and I called a halt soon after it began because one of the students was looking as if heat exhaustion might come on. We slowly clambered back up to the lip of the escarpment and looked out towards the south. The sky was a brilliant painful white, and I recalled the Saudi dust storm and Chapter 50 of Gibbon:

“[A] boundless level of sand is intersected by sharp and naked mountains; and the face of the desert, without shade or shelter, is scorched by the direct and intense rays of a tropical sun. Instead of refreshing breezes, the winds, particularly from the south-west, diffuse a noxious and even deadly vapour; the hillocks of sand which they alternately raise and scatter, are compared to the billows of the ocean, and whole caravans, whole armies, have been lost and buried in the whirlwind.”

I noticed while thinking of this passage that a southwest breeze was rising and decided that we had better abort the camping trip. I was confirmed in that decision by the alarming inroads the students were making in our water supply after our hot climb up the escarpment. Though disappointed, the students brightened when I promised that we would stop at a beach on the way back for swimming (“sea-bathing,” Durrell calls it). The surf on the beach had a gentle break softened by the offshore wind that had chased us northward; but nothing diluted its brilliant color.

As it turned out the north coast and Alexandria got only a light dusting instead of the four-day sandblasting one can sometimes experience, but I was not sorry to curtail the trip. We had had the sight of the patriot graves, we had had a chance to see a land’s end that fell into a seeming nothingness, we had had a taste of Gibbon’s fiftieth chapter, and we had washed it all away with some bracing body-surfing. No, we hadn’t washed it all away because the memory remains with me and with them even as we read this week’s accounts of the battle.

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