Aciman, Andre. “Out of Egypt: A Memoir”, Picador, 2007.
Quite a Family
“Out of Egypt” is the book that made me a Andre Aciman fan and I am so happy now that others have been introduced to him via the film adaptation of “Call Me By Your Name”. Now only does Aciman always have a good story to tell but he tells each of them in gorgeous prose. Perhaps his best story is that one his family that we meet in “Out of Egypt”. This is a memoir that looks at the Aciman clan from their arrival to Alexandria, Egypt to its defeated departure three generations later. We meet some wonderful characters— Uncle Vili, a proud daredevil, soldier, salesman, and spy; two grandmothers, the Princess and the Saint, who were able to gossip in six languages; Aunt Flora, the German refugee who warns that Jews lose everything “at least twice in their lives” to name a few as a start. We also meet Andre, a boy who, even as he longs for a wider world, does not want to be taken out of Egypt.
Andre was born and raised in Alexandria, Egypt but considered his nationality to be French. His family were Sephardic Jews who had wandered from Italy to Turkey and then settled in Egypt. His father owned a woolen mill and his parents were very wealthy, as were the other members of the larger family who lived with them or gathered regularly for elegant meals and special occasions. They had no common language and only a few of them learned Arabic. They hid their Jewishness when Nasser was in power as this a time of high Arab nationalism, intense anti-Semitism and then war. Eventually they went to Paris, leaving behind much of their wealth but little of their culture. Aciman gives us a very rich and captivating portrait of a Jewish family that experienced many adventures and as many disappointments. Here Aciman redeems the social life, customs, and history of a community that barely exists today amid an inhospitable milieu, due to political turmoil in close and remote lands. While this is something of a nostalgic account of that family, it is also a look at a community that was but is no more. The Acimans came to Alexandria, Egypt, in 1905, long before young Andre‚ was born. There they lived in splendor as Aciman’s great-aunts and –uncles made and lost fortunes, despised the Arab natives, and survived two world wars. The family rose to, and fell from, the heights of government and European-Egyptian society, and by the late 1960s the entire clan had either died, emigrated, or been expelled from their adoptive home.
Aciman begins his memoir with a visit to Great-uncle Vili, the first of the family to emigrate. Vili was in his 80s then and had become a genteel and gentile Englishman: Because of his service to the British during WW II (even while remaining faithful to Italian Fascism), he was granted a country estate in Surrey, where he lived out his life as Dr. H.M. Spingarn. Vili’s sister Esther, Aciman’s grandmother and one of the last to leave Egypt and she was a European grande dame who dined at Alexandria’s Sporting Club, fingered produce in the market, and bargained mercilessly with the local merchants. She smuggled money out of Egypt for years before she was expelled along with her sister Elsa and Aciman and his parents. Aciman paints quite a portrait of a bygone time without idealizing his colorful ancestors. Much of their interest is, in fact, in their pettiness, spitefulness, and bigotry. “They were simultaneously assimilated, anti-Semitic, and practicing Jews; masters of their Egyptian servants and “Dogs of the Arabs.” Aciman’s father was an unrepentant philanderer and his deaf mother was a source of shame. We see Aciman, himself, as an as observer of the family’s deterioration.
I loved reading of a time when Jews lived in peace with their Muslim and Christian neighbors in Alexandria. Aciman does not mention anti-Jewish sentiments until after the Suez War. Aciman, like many “Egyptian” Jews preferred to hold European nationalities and in some cases some were French or Italian without ever having been in these countries. Europeans had their own courts in Egypt and did not fall under Egyptian Laws. For Aciman, life became unbearable after the waves of Nationalization in the early 60’s.
This is an Alexandria that no longer exists not just for Egyptian Jews. The population explosion in Egypt has transformed Alexandria beyond recognition but Aciman’s beautiful writing of Alexandria brings it back. Affluent Egyptian Jews who left Egypt in the fifties and sixties are not immediately thought of as refugees and there is little discussion on their issues of identity and affiliation in Egypt and elsewhere. Aciman shares some very funny moments and shows us that life can be amusing even with its dysfunction.