by Ruchira Paul
“And suddenly I knew, as I touched the damp, grainy surface of the seawall, that I would always remember this night, that in years to come I would remember sitting here, swept with confused longing as I listened to the water lapping the giant boulders beneath the promenade … I wanted to come back tomorrow night, and the night after, and the one after that as well, sensing that what made leaving so fiercely painful was the knowledge that there would never be another night like this… not this year or any other year… I had caught myself longing for a city I never knew I loved.”
The city was Alexandria, Egypt, the year 1964 and the person thinking the thoughts, a thirteen year old boy whose family was about to depart from the city the next day – for ever. André Aciman’s Out of Egypt is an enchanting memoir that draws from history, childhood memories and probably a bit from the author’s imagination. I recently re-read the book after a gap of more than a decade and found it just as absorbing as it had been the first time.
Out of Egypt recounts the story of the author’s extended family, Sephardic Jews with their footprints in many parts of Europe and the Middle East – Italy, France, Germany, Syria, Turkey and finally, Egypt. The large, loud, colorful clan was polyglot (Aciman’s two grandmothers spoke to each other in six different languages), contentious, sharp of tongue and at times snobbish. Even after three generations in Egypt, they hadn’t learnt to speak Arabic well except to communicate with the baker, the butcher and the domestic help in a pidgin version. They considered themselves French, Italian and German although most arrived in Alexandria via Constantinople. Used to seeing their fortunes wax and wane, Aciman's great uncles were forever ambitious and optimistic that the next financial scheme was bound to strike gold. To that end they tirelessly utilized their social and political connections, a bit of chicanery and if the target was a family member with means, arm twisting. Their sisters and the women they married were by turn shrewd, neurotic, theatrical, acid tongued and in times of crises, generous and supportive. In the midst of many near disasters and real catastrophes, the whole family rallied to help each other. By the time the book ends, several older family members had died and others were scattered through Europe and America. The events after WWII and the burgeoning nationalistic fervor made Egypt an inhospitable place for its non-Muslim residents.
Spanning a period from the early 20th century to the 1960s, the book is about people who led vibrant lives that were at times placid and prosperous and at others, rudely upended by political upheavals and societal changes that they did not always foresee and at other times chose not to see – the end of the Ottoman Empire, the two world wars, the Holocaust, the creation of a Jewish homeland in Israel and the dismantling of European colonies in many parts of the world including Egypt. The Alexandria that Aciman’s grandfather brought his family to was diverse, cosmopolitan and according to the author’s telling, idyllic and very beautiful. Egyptians – Muslims and Coptic Christians, Greeks, Armenians, Jews and Europeans lived there, interacted in public for commerce and social events and each group had a private world they could retreat to which mostly excluded others. The inner circle in the story is the author’s large family – great grandmother, two sets of grandparents, great aunts and uncles, cousins and of course, his parents – a cerebral critical father and a beautiful, loving, high spirited deaf mother. The second concentric ring of his early life comprised the family’s numerous servants and employees, mostly Egyptians, tutors and governesses with whom the young André spent a lot of his time. All of them left him with a life time of memories. Beneath all the joys and sorrows, was the lingering doubt about belonging, not fitting in, suspicion of other cultures and an atavistic fear of uprooting and persecution. During turbulent times one of the aunts liked to remind others that “Jews lose everything twice in a life time.” The insularity lent a sense of security as well as anxiety. While “home” became a shifting uncertain concept at times, even amidst great material success and comfort, the Jewish identity was an anchor that weathered many storms. Towards the beginning of the book the author describes a visit to England as an adult to meet with Uncle Vili, the most flamboyant, conniving and opportunistic of his grandmother’s brothers, who takes great pains at affecting an English lord-of-the-manor lifestyle. In a mysterious passage in that chapter Aciman and two cousins stop before the uncle's bedroom door at night to listen in on the octogenarian's bedtime ritual, a ritual if you guess correctly, will strike you as both poignant and unsurprising.
André Aciman was born in 1951, a few years after the world wide tumult wrought by WWII, the break up of European empires and the rising nationalism in Arab countries, fueled partly by the hostility towards the newly minted nation of Israel. Out of Egypt unfolds mostly during this period of uncertainty for European and Middle Eastern Jews. Egypt, under President Nasser experienced the growing Arabization of the country and nationalization of private assets, non-Arab businesses being the early targets. The Aciman family watched anxiously as friends and strangers left Egypt voluntarily and by government edict. Among the principal characters, Uncle Vili, an entrepreneur of dubious credentials was the first to leave hastily with a pre-packed suitcase in the middle of his mother’s centenary celebrations. Others followed, packing the content of their household in a few suitcases at short notice, sometimes only twenty four hours. The Suez War of 1956 in which Israel was among the participants, put Egypt on edge, heightening its suspicion of foreigners and Egyptian Jews. Expulsions and seizing of assets became commonplace and anti-Semitism rose sharply. Citizens were alerted of air raids by knocking on doors and shouts of Taffi Al Nur – Arabic for “Turn off the lights.” During the war and other uncertainties, the entire clan came to huddle together in the large apartment of the family matriarch, the author’s great grandmother, sometimes for weeks. Taffi Al Nur was a portent of things to come – the future of Jews in Egypt was dimming. Threatening phone calls late at night, tailing of family members on the streets and casual scorn became increasingly common practice. Despite that Aciman’s father, a successful businessman, was determined to stay on in Alexandria and did so for several years after many others had left, trying to fit in – teaching his son Arabic, even considering conversion to Christianity at one point – in order to deflect the suspicions of the authorities. By 1964, it became clear that there was nothing he could do to continue living a normal unmolested life in Egypt. The lights had indeed been turned off on their lives in their adopted home. Yet the author recalls those dark black-out nights of lengthening shadows in candle light with great fondness when the grown ups bickered and reassured each other in hushed voices and dinners were served in the dark. Not appreciating their fears, the child felt secure in close proximity to adults – a comforting cocoon formed by having his whole family under one roof, before they all scattered.
The best memoirs are not just about history, chronology or cataloguing of events. What matters is whether readers can relate to the narrator’s experiences, no matter what time, place or culture they call their own. Aciman’s masterful writing is candid, compassionate, astute and funny. In Out of Egypt he tells a story that is at the same time intimate and exotic. The fact that it is written mostly through the viewpoint of a young boy makes the book especially powerful. A child’s memories of his elders even with hindsight, are that of an observer and not a player, and therefore mostly uncluttered by personal prejudices and self aggrandizement.
Note: First published in 1995, Out of Egypt is a widely reviewed book. You can find many other reviews on the web. I am writing this not to add anything new but mostly as a book recommendation for 3 QD readers who may be interested in reading about a disappeared community, a lost way of life and a vanished world – a Middle East where Muslims, Jews and Christians coexisted within a rich mosaic of cultures. As I mentioned earlier, this was my second reading of the book that was prompted by a recent article in the New Yorker where Aciman recounts living with and later coming to understand his mother’s profound deafness. Please check out the essay for a taste of the author’s style and insights.