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Book Review 228: Out of Egypt

March 2, 2012 - Harry Eagar
OUT OF EGYPT: A Memoir, by Andre Aciman. 340 pages. Riverhead paperback, $14

I am glad that I waited more than 15 years to read this highly praised pseudo-memoir. If I had read it in 1995, I would have thought I had wasted my time. In 2012, things have changed – or, in a way, not changed – and “Out of Egypt” now carries an explosive charge it did not 18 years ago.

Andre Aciman, born in Alexandria in 1950 in a family of Sephardic Jews, intended his memoir to be a loving remembrance of the city from which his family was expelled in 1964. It's a boy's eye view of a small part of the city, and for the first 250 pages or so appears to be more about family than city, and more comic than tragic.

It's a sort of Jewish “Man Who Came to Dinner” set in Egypt, with not one but a whole family of Sheridan Whitesides. Impossible, funny, not quite to be believed people.

The family pioneer arrived in 1905, leaving Constantinople, where they had lived for generations, after being expelled from Iberia. But because they considered themselves Italian citizens (except one German), after World War I it became expedient for all to go.

They were cosmopolitans, speaking Greek, Italian, French, Turkish, Ladino, Arabic, but anything but rootless. They wanted roots. One of Aciman's aunts liked to say that every Jew lost everything twice in a lifetime.

There was, however, no repining, at least as Aciman tells it.

How much of this we can rely on is a puzzle. Aciman relates long stretches of conversations that took place before he was born, in languages he does not know; or, later, when he was not present. I guess these are meant to be reconstructions from family lore, although some of the events (of a sexual nature) can hardly have been that. \ Possibly Aciman deduced scenes from what he concluded had happened, but in particular the scene with his German Aunt Flora is hard to accept as authentic.

The book often reads well. It received the Whiting Writers Award. But it is marred by silly lines. One is about a voice “as kind as a seagull's.” At other times, Aciman tries to be philosophical (which I take to an artifact of his education in French) and comes off, as French writers so often do, as pompously hollow, as when he sums up his devious Uncle Isaac: “He had the wit, good cheer and playful devotion to children that mark the cruelest people.”

Those just happen to be lines I jotted down. There are much worse examples of each kind of bad writing.

It doesn't matter, though, because the last chapter and a half (“The Lotus-eaters” and “The Last Seder”) throw floods of light on current events. No one who had read this book with a critical eye would have said the fatuous things about the “Arab spring” that self-satisfied western librerals have said and continue to say.

Aciman is not political, and what he describes, even though written by a man in his 40s, reflects the uncomprehending observations of a young boy.

What the boy saw was the local, humdrum working out of the remorseless reversion to medieval and even pre-medieval cruelty, stupidity and ignorance of Arab nationalism and the Islamic reawakening.

Eventually, the Jews leave, defeated in Aciman's view, but resilient. The Egyptians, who had been given a glimpse of modernism (good and bad), have slid further and further into a moral and physical squalor.

Aciman's family did all right in the long run.

One is left wondering, though, about what happened to the loyal, funny, kind, patient Egyptian servants, Abdou, in particular, who had been with them for generations.

In a wicked little tidbit, we had already learned that Abdou's conscript son had been beheaded by Yemeni freedom fighters. It cannot have been pleasant in Nasser's, Sadat's and Mubarek's Egypt to be a sonless, jobless Egyptian who had worked for decades for Jews.


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