Yitzhak Gormezano Goren
Translated by Yardenne Greenspan
New Vessel Press
2015, pp. 200, $15.99
Love Letter to a Lost City
by Juliana Maio
Yitzhak Gormezano Goren, an Egyptian Jew, was ten years old when his family decided to move from Alexandria to Israel in December of 1951. The Gorens must have had a crystal ball, because five years later a great many Egyptian Jewish families, including my own, were suddenly expelled during the strife of the Suez Crisis. In the ensuing decade, the entire Egyptian Jewish community was systematically forced out, migrating to the four corners of the world.
As if waking from a general anesthesia, many Egyptian Jews like myself have lately taken an interest in their roots and written, with great nostalgia, about their and their families’ lives among the Arabs. Goren was one of the first when he wrote Alexandrian Summer, which was originally published in Hebrew in 1978. The recent publication of an English version attests to the fact that the story of the Jews of the Arab world, long neglected, is ready to be heard.
The plot of this novel is deceptively simple: The Hamdi-Alis, an upper-class Jewish family from Cairo, make their annual descent upon Alexandria in the summer of 1951 to escape the torrid heat and dust of the capital. They are hosted by a local Jewish family whose 10-year-old son, Robby, and the younger Hamdi-Ali boy explore their budding sexuality with one another. Meanwhile, Joseph Hamdi-Ali, the family’s patriarch and retired jockey, grooms his older son, David, to ride in an important race. David’s opponent is a Muslim, and the race is a metaphor for the tension bubbling just below the surface between Jews and Arabs.
Points of view shift in this short but densely layered book, as the author conveys the motivations and feelings of its many characters. The women are confined to motherhood and to serving their husbands when not playing cards or gossiping in Ladino—the lingua franca of Sephardic Jews. Robby’s independently minded sister is an exception.
At the book’s center is Joseph, a flawed and broken man tormented with regrets and conflicted loyalties as he faces old age. A Turkish Muslim who converted to Judaism to marry his Jewish sweetheart, he finds himself uncomfortably cut off from his roots. Though he believes there is only one god for the Jews, Christians and Muslims, he still fears the wrath of Allah, the vengeful. Will Allah make his son David the loser of this horse race against his formidable Muslim rival, or will the god of the Jews triumph? The whole city is on edge. When David is victorious, “a hair-raising cry of grief” sweeps Alexandria. In that cry, “some claimed they heard…the protest of all of Egypt, trampled under the feet of strangers,” and violent demonstrations demanding “death to the Jews” ensued.
The novel has personal resonance, since my own Egyptian Jewish family used to escape Cairo to summer in Alexandria. My ancestors had arrived generations earlier when many Jews from all across the Mediterranean migrated to Egypt. The surge began during the mid-19th century, when the Suez Canal was built and Egypt underwent a massive modernization. A great many other foreigners arrived then too, and Goren beautifully describes Alexandria’s multi-ethnic, multi-cultural, multi-religious and multi-lingual society at a time when Jews, Christians and Muslims lived together harmoniously. Of Egypt’s Jews, the author writes: “Yes, that is what they’re like, cosmopolitan to the bone. Speaking to one another in French, English, Spanish, Italian, Greek. They know only the Arabic they absolutely need.” And of course, they also spoke Ladino.
As Goren writes, by the early 1950s, the majority of Jews were thriving and enjoyed a way of life that my father characterized as dolce far niente—living without a care in pleasant relaxation. But a lot happened to Egypt and its Jews after the Gorens wisely departed, and of the 80,000 Jews living in Egypt at the beginning of World War II, only a handful remain today.
So what went wrong? Goren does not tell us about the rise of Nasserism and its devastating impact on Egyptian Jews. As lush and vivid as Alexandrian Summer is, it ultimately fails to explain why the Egyptian people turned on their Jews. Goren makes reference to the Egyptian servants’ meager wages compared to those of their Jewish masters. But not all Egyptians were servants and not only the Jews had servants. The author is well aware of that. He writes of Alexandria as a city that “lets you live like a carefree lord without even being rich. Of course you had to be European, or at least Jewish.”
Although Goren suggests that support of Zionism in those days was illegal (letters from and about Israel were censored), he does not point to the recognition of the State of Israel in 1948—during a climate of surging Arab nationalism—as the primary source of the people’s resentment toward the Jews. Ironically, most Egyptian Jews were not Zionists, yet they were perceived as a fifth column, secretly loyal to Israel. Perhaps what happened to the Jews in Egypt is just another example in the history of the diaspora, with Jews once more made the scapegoats when things were not going well in their host country.
Egyptians were an oppressed people living under foreign occupation since the times of the last Pharaoh. In 1952, finally fed up, Egyptians burned the British occupier properties, and soon, after a military coup, dethroned King Farouk for having been a puppet of the English. The Lavon Affair in 1954 (when a small group of Egyptian Jews, recruited by Israeli intelligence, planted bombs inside cinemas, libraries and educational centers in Egypt) did not help things. These events, in addition to the 1956 Suez Canal War and subsequent Israeli-Arab conflicts, all led to the inevitable expulsion of virtually all of Egypt’s foreigners and Jews.
I must take issue with the esteemed author André Aciman, who in his introduction to the book brushes off Goren’s nostalgia for the Alexandria of his childhood as a mythical past that over the years became a paradise only because it was lost. Egypt was indeed a real paradise for many of its Jews, and Goren is yet another one of us who testifies to that essential truth. What could be nicer than a life of dolce far niente, sipping coffee with your Greek, Armenian, Turkish, French, Syrian, Egyptian, Italian and English neighbors?
Despite its underlying theme, Jews vs. Muslims, Alexandrian Summer remains above all a love letter to the lush paradise of Alexandria, a city once famous for its magnificent library of books and manuscripts from all over the ancient world. Although that library was destroyed by fire in the 4th century, its embers would inspire the rebuilding of the city to its former glory in the 19th century, giving rise once again to a polyglot, cultured society that included writers such as the poet Constantine Cavafy, the novelist Lawrence Durrell (The Alexandria Quartet) and, now, Yitzhak Gormezano Goren.
Juliana Maio is the author of the historical novel City of the Sun, set in Egypt in 1941.