Goren’s Egyptian paradise at variance with Aciman’s

Jews in Egypt ( Photo: Nebi Daniel)

“Alexandrian Summer is a return to a mythical past, to a lost
paradise that was not really a paradise but that, being lost, has, over
the years, acquired all the makings of one.” So says Andre Aciman in his introduction to the novel  by Yitzhak Gormezano Goren, reproduced in The Tablet. But his own family’s last year in Alexandria was anything but paradisiac:

 One’s childhood is always
yearned for, and this is young Yitzhak’s—or Robert, as he is called in
the book—paradise.

I still remember our last year in Alexandria. By then, our assets had
been frozen and my father’s factory nationalized, and even our cars
were no longer ours, though we were allowed to drive them. Our days were
numbered, and we knew it.

Or did we? My father claimed that he would have remained in Egypt
even without an income. Come to think of it I myself could not even
conceive of a life outside Egypt. Our living room and in the end even
the round room in the back were packed with suitcases, and still all of
us were convinced this was all for show, as if by going through the
motions of packing and pretending we were indeed leaving, we were merely
placating a hostile deity who would, at the last instant, spare us the
final leave taking and tell us it was all a test, just a test. We were
never going away.

Ironically, that final year is the one I remember best, because it
was the most tumultuous I remember my grandmother and her sister, my
great aunt, and I remember the bickering with neighbors and the tussles
with my brother and the fights between my parents, and the loud screams
when our servants fought with those of our neighbors; everyone’s temper
was volcanic that year, because it was clear that things were falling
apart and that we were on our last legs and still couldn’t believe that
the end was near.

But I remember Saturdays. We weren’t religious, though I recall my
great aunt turning on the radio loud on Saturday mornings to hear songs
in both Yiddish and Ladino. She preferred the Ashkenazi songs and
prayers, and to the sound of these songs I remember she would start
preparing for Saturday’s lunch, because there were always guests on
Saturdays. And even if we didn’t exaggerate the Sabbath spirit, still
there was a festive air about the household, and our cook Abdou, who
spoke Ladino, would put on his cleanest outfit and utter those few words
in Hebrew that he knew far better than I did. In Gormezano Goren’s own
words, “A pleasant breeze blew from the sea. The tumult of bathers
sounded from afar: Muslims, Christians, and Jews desecrating the
Sabbath. On the street, cars honked hysterically. The entire city
rumbled and roared, and nevertheless a Sabbath serenity was felt all
around.”

Every Alexandrian remembers this way of life and knows it is forever lost. At the very least, Alexandrian Summer gives us one final, splendid season in this mythical metropolis.

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The Jewish lotus-eaters of Alexandria

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