Friday, July 31, 2015
Goren's Egyptian paradise at variance with Aciman's
Jews in Egypt ( Photo: Nebi Daniel)
"Alexandrian Summer is a return to a mythical past, to a lost paradise that was not really a paradise but that, being lost, has, over the years, acquired all the makings of one." So says Andre Aciman in his introduction to the novel by Yitzhak Gormezano Goren, reproduced in The Tablet. But his own family's last year in Alexandria was anything but paradisiac:
One’s childhood is always yearned for, and this is young Yitzhak’s—or Robert, as he is called in the book—paradise.
I still remember our last year in Alexandria. By then, our assets had been frozen and my father’s factory nationalized, and even our cars were no longer ours, though we were allowed to drive them. Our days were numbered, and we knew it.
Or did we? My father claimed that he would have remained in Egypt even without an income. Come to think of it I myself could not even conceive of a life outside Egypt. Our living room and in the end even the round room in the back were packed with suitcases, and still all of us were convinced this was all for show, as if by going through the motions of packing and pretending we were indeed leaving, we were merely placating a hostile deity who would, at the last instant, spare us the final leave taking and tell us it was all a test, just a test. We were never going away.
Ironically, that final year is the one I remember best, because it was the most tumultuous I remember my grandmother and her sister, my great aunt, and I remember the bickering with neighbors and the tussles with my brother and the fights between my parents, and the loud screams when our servants fought with those of our neighbors; everyone’s temper was volcanic that year, because it was clear that things were falling apart and that we were on our last legs and still couldn’t believe that the end was near.
But I remember Saturdays. We weren’t religious, though I recall my great aunt turning on the radio loud on Saturday mornings to hear songs in both Yiddish and Ladino. She preferred the Ashkenazi songs and prayers, and to the sound of these songs I remember she would start preparing for Saturday’s lunch, because there were always guests on Saturdays. And even if we didn’t exaggerate the Sabbath spirit, still there was a festive air about the household, and our cook Abdou, who spoke Ladino, would put on his cleanest outfit and utter those few words in Hebrew that he knew far better than I did. In Gormezano Goren’s own words, “A pleasant breeze blew from the sea. The tumult of bathers sounded from afar: Muslims, Christians, and Jews desecrating the Sabbath. On the street, cars honked hysterically. The entire city rumbled and roared, and nevertheless a Sabbath serenity was felt all around.”
Every Alexandrian remembers this way of life and knows it is forever lost. At the very least, Alexandrian Summer gives us one final, splendid season in this mythical metropolis.
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The Jewish lotus-eaters of Alexandria