Monday, July 26, 2010

Out of Egypt by Andre Aciman 1994

"It is Mr. Aciman's great achievement that he has re-created a world gone forever now, and given us an ironical and affectionate portrait of those who were exiled from it." from a review by Barry Unsworth in the New York Times, February, 1995

This is a wonderful immersion into the life of a large, colorful, multi-lingual Sephardic family who moved from Constantinople, Turkey in the first decade of the twentieth century to Alexandria, Egypt where they lived a rather prosperous life until mid-century. The story, told by the author who was a child growing up in Alexandria amidst his parents, two sets of grandparents and many aunts, uncles and cousins, takes us  to the end of their stay when the last members of the family were expelled in 1965 and moved on to Europe and America. Most of the story takes place in Alexandria with a few scenes in Paris and in Venice where some of the exiled family members resettled.

The author illustrates how his family members seemed woven into the fabric of the city, owning businesses and thriving financially until the status of the Jews in Egypt changed radically with the end of the monarchy and the rise of Nasser, nationalism, pan–Arabism and anti-Israel sentiment. The established Jewish community no longer felt safe and was no longer welcome. Andre Aciman was thirteen when he left with his family for the United States.

Caveat: As in some memoirs, Aciman has not included most of the surnames of members of his extended family, I assume to protect the privacy of their descendants. He does not give us the surnames of either his mother’s or his father’s family, except in the case of his paternal grandfather whose name in Alexandria was spelled Adjamin, not Aciman. This was discovered by an internet source who went sleuthing. Unfortunately, Aciman does not alert us to the fact that he changed at least one important name, that of an uncle who figures prominently in the story.  Samir Raafat published an article on the internet stating that the uncle Aciman calls Vili, whose “real” name Aciman says is “Aaron,” was actually Maurice George Levi who changed his last name to Lee. So we can assume the surname on his father’s mother's side is “Levi.”

Given what we know about this name change, it’s possible that other names have been changed as well, so a list of the names as they appear in the memoir is not included. Unless you’re trying to trace the family name Levi  from Cairo and Constantinople, this memoir is best read as an evocation of the life of a Sephardic Jewish family in Alexandria, how they spend their time, how they live their lives in the first half of the twentieth century. And it is certainly well worth reading.

To read an op ed piece in the New York Times written by Andre Aciman in May, 2009 objecting to President Obama's failing to mention the expulsion of the Jews from Egypt after World War II in a speech Obama delivered in Egypt, click here.

Aciman (Adjamin)
George George Lee (Levi)

Alexandria - (Rue Memphis, Rue Esnah, Rue Delta, Avenue Ambroise Rally in Ibrahimieh, Grand Sporting, Cleopatra, Stanley Beach, Sidi Bishr, Smouha, the Corniche, Boulevard Saad Zaghloul, Vue Cherif, Rue des Pharaons, Rue Toussoum, Rue Phalaki,Rue Djabarti, Montaza Place, Place Mohammed Ali, Delices, Hannaux,  Athineos, La Cote, Hotel Cecil, Victoria College.)

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