Monday, July 27, 2009

An Egyptian 'mummy' wrestles with her identity

This poem was written by Lisette Eskinazi Norton Stalbow and dedicated to her mother Benvenuta Taragano who died in March 2002.

Lisette was expelled as a child with her family from Egypt in 1956. She went back in August 20008 to show her son her birthplace. He took this photo of her in a garden in Luxor.

Lisette is still trying to grasp her uprooting and the different strands of her identity. "I loved my country you see. I loved my home. It was my security. But I never knew it till I had gone that I belonged nowhere officially but to a British Passport. A Foreigner I will always be and a foreigner to parts of myself that no one will ever see. What if? Could be the one question of my reality. So imagination became the land which no one could take from me. Things can always come and go but what’s inside no one can take is the most important thing that my daddy taught me."

Once upon a time

There was a little girl

Whose whole world was shaken when she was 9?

Or was it 6?

Like a caterpillar in a cocoon,

She just got moved too soon

To become a natural butterfly.

To survive she would need to adapt,

To learn, to stay vigilant at all times,

Lest it should happen again

And it could you know.

So there she was

Knowing only who she was

By relation to another.

At first it was her mother

Then it was her father...but he stayed behind.

So then it was her brother and her sister.

Her family was her territory.

Her family was who she was.

Because everything else had been taken from her.

This little girl was a refugee you see

- This little girl was me –

Thrown out, expelled, kicked out, some said, for being British

What is British? What was she?

A comedy or a tragedy?

What mistake of nature she must be,

A hybrid for eternity?

Best be good, Best be nice

Best be quick. Best be wise.

Spoke French you see

Looked olive, not quite white you see.

Looked foreign and exotic

but not British as she should be.

So little by little she tried to reform her identity.

For obviously England was where she was meant to be

And anyway they wouldn’t take her back you see.

Because she was British in 1956 in Egypt when Nasser said

"Out Out You foreigners from my land. This is Egyptian Territory!"

"This is where I was born" said she. Is this a comedy or a tragedy?

My mother and father were born in Turkey you see

So they too were foreigners to me in terms of language and territory

My children were born here so an Egyptian became a Mummy

But not in the British Museum you see, only in her identity.

Confused yet?.. Wait and see. You’ll never be as confused as me.

Everybody said

You’re so very lucky.... lucky, lucky, lucky..... you’re so very lucky to leave.

I left my best friend.

You’re so very lucky..... lucky, lucky, lucky..... you’re so very lucky to leave

I left my dog Whisky.

You’re so very lucky....... lucky, lucky, lucky..... you’re so very lucky to leave.

I left my home.

You’re so very lucky........lucky, lucky, lucky....... you’re so very lucky to leave.

I left all that I have known.

You’re so very lucky........ lucky, lucky, lucky...... you’re so very lucky to leave.

I left my daddy or did he leave me?

I had new clothes for Britain.

I had a new language to learn.

I had a new culture to learn.

I had new foods to try


I had to grow iinto me.

Was this a comedy or a tragedy?

And where in all this was any reality?

Re-invent yourself was one philosophy

We were different you know. We were special.......not like the other refugees.

We were from Harrods and they were from Woolworths

Was how it was explained to me.

And now an Egyptian owns Harrods and I live a stone's throw away.

But I am British and I hope he will never be!

The world is but a stage and what goes round comes round!

In Birmingham, in 1956, Enoch Powell times,

Go home Pakie. Go home Wog.

Go back to your dirty land and live in a tent with a camel for company

You Gypo Arab you

I am not a Gypo. I am not an Arab. I am a Jew

But I am in England because I am British too.

How can an identity be a passport, a piece of paper?

How is an identity formed?

For me it was my family since it could never be my territory

Which shifted like the sands

In the land in which I was born.

Nothing is black and white you see.

How could I become ‘me’ on such shifting sands of reality?

To form into the butterfly you see

You must not shake the chrysalis too soon

Or move it from its cocoon.

And so it was in the years that passed that

when I could not longer ‘be’ in my false identity

I fell ill with ‘ME’which forced me to go into the cocoon once more

And emerge as Me from ‘ME’,

Now is that a tragedy or a comedy? You tell me.

My body is my territory you see.

The map of my reality.

The vessel of all that is inside of me

And which you see like a kaleidoscope.

When you shake me, you again will see

the fragments that fall in different patterns

like the shifting sands of my soul.

The colours that make me who I am –

My past, my present


who I am becoming each moment

as I see the world anew

and not through

the blinkers of my past.


I am my family

But it is no longer

A comedy


A tragedy

To also be


And yes

I am of them


I am


A separate


A hybrid.


Is my personality..

But my soul is whole

My soul dances

amongst the embers of my identity

and says

All the rest is history!


Anonymous said...

This Poem is just beautiful, moving and describes what many of us got through.
But your resplendant smile, Lisette, says it all. It says you won.
Levana Zamir.

roger tilles said...

a beautifulpoem-much like a girl I remember from long ago on a visit to Birmingham