The novels are set both before and during WWII in Alexandria, one of the exotically multicultural cities with which the English fell in love. The Alexandria of those years, not so long ago, was “chaotically cosmopolitan,” says Derbyshire; “Five races, five languages, and a dozen creeds,” as Durell describes it in one of the novels.
Then it all changed. Durell returned to the city in the late 1970s and found a different place indeed. No longer palpably multicultural, he found the place, per Derbyshire, “a monochrome shadow” of its former self. By then, most Westerners had left, Christians were repressed, and non-fundamentalist Muslims had fallen in line.
Derbyshire says that “The Levant was rather rich in these commercial, cosmopolitan cities until modern nationalisms purged them.” But I must quibble with him here. I think Islamic fundamentalism has done it all in -- not pan-Arab nationalism per se but the intolerant, violent anti-Western religious fervor that has taken hold of the Muslim world. The multiculturalism that thrived under a benign and guiding British hand, in Egypt and elsewhere, was gone. In the post-war decolonization fervor, people all over the Third World thought they could do better for themselves without the Brits. History, at least up till now, has proven them quite wrong.
Photo is of King Farouk (ruled 1936-1952) of Egypt, a Westernized, non-fundamentalist Muslim; like the late Shah of Iran, just the kind of Muslim ruler the West thought everyone could do without. The West was wrong. It's been all downhill since American complicity in Farouk's overthrow and its fecklessness during the Suez crisis.