Friday, October 05, 2012

Suzy Vidal's memories of a shattered world

If you hanker for the laughter, scents or tastes of everyday life for Egyptian Jews before their expulsion in the 1950s, The Jasmine Necklace by Sultana Latifa (Suzy Vidal) is an entertaining and often hilarious read. Lyn Julius wrote this review for the Sephardi Bulletin:

If you want to know why Egyptian women had beautiful and healthy hair, Suzy Vidal will give away their secret: castor oil! For congested eyes and sties, follow Suzy’s grandmother’s remedy: apply a child’s urine on closed lids. The Jasmine necklace does not always come up smelling of roses – there are lice, cockroaches and warts aplenty. But the book also features traditions, recipes, a catalogue of picturesque Arabic words and expressions and untold other clues to this colourful, quirky but vanished world.

The author Suzy aka Sultana has two names because her headstrong mother refused to name her after her mother-in-law Sultana, as was the custom. Suzy was brought up on the fourth floor of a Cairo hotel because the family could not afford to rent a downtown apartment. Nevertheless the Extadey Hotel was a paradise for children, and Suzy sketches vivid portraits of the family’s neighbours and friends. The hotel’s permanent guests reflected the cosmopolitan and multilingual make-up of Egypt before the war – with its Armenians, Jews and Greeks. During World War 2 the US army requisitioned part of the hotel, but indulged the residents with sweets and treats.

With the stormclouds gathering over Egypt’s Jewish community, it is interesting that Suzy’s family – Italian passport–holders with no Italian   - were subject to the same harassment and pressure as other Jews. While they were not expelled overnight like French and British nationals, the Vidals received no assistance from the Italian consulate. When the time came to leave in 1957, the family managed to smuggle out Suzy’s mother’s jewellery in a Player’s cigarette packet, but their capital disappeared with a dishonest ‘passeur’.

“ Only mountains don’t meet.” This saying repeated in Suzy Vidal’s book expresses the hope that  her large family – scattered to the four corners of the earth -  would once again come together after their uprooting from Egypt. But life was a slog and money tight for the refugees, now in Israel, Australia, Brazil and Italy. The close-knit community they had known in Cairo had gone forever. Some never recovered from the shock – Suzy’s parents both died in penury in their 50s.

A graduate of the American University in Cairo, Suzy had to abandon her dreams of becoming a university professor in order to become a shorthand typist. Their exile in Italy was a series of bitter experiences and disappointments as the family struggled to make ends meet. But this book is a fitting tribute to Suzy’s family and community, and a lasting reminder of their roots to the next generation.

The Jasmine necklace  can be ordered direct from the author:
Suzy's blog is at


Patrick Kelmer said...

Where did she go to exile?

Anonymous said...

We went to Milano Italy as we had an Italian passport. But our descent into poverty was awful till the day my father found a job with former Egyptian Jews.I, in the meanwhile I was studying Italian and working as a teacher at night school.
I remember my students asking:"Why are your eyes so sad?"
It is diffcult to be a refugee especially when Italians tell you: "you deserve what you got, afterall you killed Christ!"
But we had to lift up our heads and go onwards!
Sultana Latifa (suzy vidal)

Patrick Kelmer said...

Did you leave Italy after that?

Anonymous said...

yes! Italy is wonderful only for tourists;