Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Out of Egypt by André Aciman

This memoir is so well-written I am almost embarrassed to write about it because I cannot write as well about the book as Aciman has written his story. He was born in Alexandria, Egypt in 1951. The family spoke French, and also Italian, Greek, Ladino, and Arabic. His family were Jews of Turkish and Italian origin who settled in Alexandria, Egypt in 1905. As Italian citizens (who had never lived in Italy), they were not expelled after the 1956 war as were the French and British. They were expelled as Jews in 1964.

Aciman's father owned a factory, an uncle was a close friend of King Fouad (useful until the king was overthrown), his grandmother smuggled money out of the country in preparation for the day when the family would have to leave the country. The book is alive with characters, scenes,  incidents. It is both a moving account of childhood (Aciman's mother was deaf) and the portrayal of a lost world. The Alexandria that was an ex-pat playground for the English, French, and upper class foreign families like Aciman's is gone with the sirocco.

Among the elements that make the book so fascinating is something I didn't realize you could do in a memoir (which reflects my limited imagination). Aciman describes lives and incidents he could not possibly have witnessed: His Uncle Villi's experiences before and during WWII and his parents' courtship and marriage all occurred before Aciman was born. Because he is not limited to what he himself personally witnessed and experienced, he is able to put family stories and relationships into a context that would be confusing—and less interesting—without them.

What he does personally experience is fascinating. For his education, his father enrolls him at age nine in the best private school in Alexandria, Victory College (it had been Victoria College until Egypt beat the English and French in the 1956 war). As part of the curriculum, he has to learn Arabic--a subject he ignores completely until the day before he has to recite an Arabic poem in class. His father hires the son of a servant to teach André the poem:

"He blushed again, perhaps because our reversed roles made him feel awkward, but also perhaps because he suddenly realized that he would have to teach a Jew a poem vilifying Jews. He read the poem once to himself. Then, as my Arabic teacher would do in class, he spoke out the first few words, repeated them, and then waited for me to say them back to him. He did not explain the poem; no one ever explained the poems. They were always about poison, Jews, vengeance, and motherland...."

An extraordinary book. I'm glad I read it.

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