An Alexandrian in Search of Lost Time


The words that someone from Egypt had posted on my Facebook page were thoroughly inspiring. Now that Hosni Mubarak's regime was almost certainly going to collapse, wouldn't it be wonderful, she asked, if all Christians, Jews, and Muslims exiled during Gamal Abdel Nasser's fiercely anti-Western and anti-Semitic years were finally invited back to Egypt to help rebuild the country? The thought couldn't have been more exhilarating—or more quixotic. Finally, after more than 60 years of Nasserite regimes and a lying press that invented enemies both within and without Egypt's borders, someone from Egypt was willing to unmuzzle the truth and lift the blindfolds that three successive dictatorial rulers had forced the country to wear. Was Egypt ready to become the free, enlightened, pluralistic society it could be? Would I be able to live there again?

And yet, on rereading the words on my Facebook page, it wasn't the prospect of rallying Jews, Christians, and Muslims to build a new Egypt that stirred me. Nor was it the farfetched notion that someone like me might actually play a role in rebuilding anything, much less a country—or that rebuilding anything were even an option right now, as Egypt reels down an eddy of chaos and violence the likes of which the Arab world hasn't witnessed in ages. What moved me were three simple words: Back to Egypt.

I kept repeating them to myself with both disbelief and muted excitement. I knew better than to let myself be lured by them, but I couldn't ignore them either. I liked toying with Back to Egypt. The words felt like a promise of something I'd given up on and learned to live without for so long that heeding their beck now felt like a welcome intrusion in my day-to-day life, and a rousing call to action. Back to Egypt. Was such a thing even possible after Nasser robbed my family, ruined our lives, kicked us out, and then told us we were never to return again? Would Egypt really open its doors after so many years and ask me to pitch in whatever I had in me to give? I did not want to hear the answer. Instead, before I could even snuff out the call to reality, a fantasy raced through my mind: drop everything, cancel your appointments, purchase a ticket online—never mind the visa—book a room facing the Mediterranean, and within hours, fling open the windows of your hotel room in Alexandria and finally, almost 50 years later, look out and say, "Home."

Egypt is not my home. It hasn't been my home in decades. In fact, Egypt was never my home. I didn't belong in Egypt. Most of my childhood and adolescence in Egypt consisted of finding ways to pretend I was already out of Egypt. New York is my home now—or almost my home. Maybe "home" is a foreign concept for exiles—was already a foreign concept as I was growing up in Egypt. The closest exiles come to the idea of home is when you finally pin them down and ask them where they would like to be buried. Their answer is invariably the same. Despite new roots, new careers, and the families they've built, all will say: my birthplace. This is where life comes full circle; this is where life makes sense. This is why, on reading the words Back to Egypt, my mind immediately drifted to an open window facing the Mediterranean.

Egypt was my birthplace, but in name only. I grew up in Egypt, I went to school in Egypt, my first crush was in Egypt. But my family was not Egyptian. We did not speak Arabic, and those of us who did spoke it poorly. I studied Arabic for eight years, but it took a few months in Europe for me to forget all the classical Arabic that was drummed—and often beaten—into me.

I am a Jew born into a Turkish family in Egypt. But I am not Turkish. I was sent to British schools in Egypt, but I am not British. My family became Italian, and I learned to speak Italian, but my mother tongue is French. For years as a child I was under the misguided notion that I was a French boy who, like almost everyone else I knew in Egypt, would soon be moving back to France. "Back" to France was a paradox, since virtually no one in my immediate family was French or had ever even set foot in France. But France was my soul home, my imaginary home, and will remain so all my life, even if not a single ounce of me is French.

This was far from uncommon in the Egypt I was born in. Most people spoke at least five languages. The world of Alexandria, portrayed ever so evocatively by the novelist Lawrence Durrell in his Alexandria Quartet, was anything but monolingual or monocultural. We were a bit of everything without being much of any one thing. The products of a decayed colonial world and thoroughly confused by an ever-changing Middle East, the Alexandrians I grew up with belonged nowhere: not in Alexandria, not outside it. Things got progressively more difficult. Following the deposition of King Farouk in 1952 and the nationalization of the Suez Canal by then-president Nasser in 1956, which unleashed the Suez crisis that same year, all French and British nationals and almost all Jews were summarily expelled from Egypt. My family was spared. But our turn came nine years later.

During those nine years I saw Egypt change, particularly Alexandria. Nasser, born in Alexandria, had vowed to wipe off every vestige of European culture from its face, and succeeded in doing just that. From a thriving, multicultural city frequently referred to as the Little Paris, with schools, hospitals, clubs, and many other institutions rivaling Europe's, the city became a backwater where those of us who remained clung desperately to a fast-vanishing sense of modernity. Egypt was becoming Egyptian, which made perfect sense, of course, but the more it became Egyptian, the more it seemed to drift back in time. Fierce nationalism, an overarching religious culture, a wave of socialist nationalizations, and institutionalized anti-Western sentiment came to dominate Alexandria. The city had lost its urban and cosmopolitan allure. In school the atmosphere became hostile. I was the only Jew in what had once been a British school, which was now attended by rich Arabs and Egyptians. Not a day went by when someone didn't make a snide remark about my religion or—since the two were confused—about Israel. In the streets it was not uncommon to be harassed by groups of youngsters or have stones thrown at you. The atmosphere was growing increasingly bleak and dangerous. The police, it was reported, followed members of my family and were keeping tabs on my father, who worked in textiles. He was frequently summoned to the government security office or to the taxation bureau. People were constantly denouncing him with anonymous letters, which the government needed to investigate. Once, he was so sure he was going to be thrown in jail that he sat me down and taught me how to write in code to my uncles in Europe. I was the head of the family now, he said. Nothing could have felt more unreal that day.

Everyone we knew in Egypt lived in fear. First came the fear of losing one's assets—eventually everyone lost their assets—then came the fear of being arrested on trumped-up charges of spying; then the fear of the police, of jail, of torture, and, finally, of expulsion.

When I think of Egypt, I think of fear. A group of children playing soccer in the alleys would instantly rouse my fear. A lingering glance from a stranger stirred fear. The view of a mob, or of a crowd minding its business, brought instant fear as well. Even complaining about something in a store could instantly bring on who-knows-what dire consequences. We cowered.

Every few weeks we would hear of yet another family that had opted to leave everything behind to seek their luck in Europe or in America, Canada, or Australia.

By the time we left in 1965, Egypt had long since become a police state. It was just that Jews like us who hadn't been expelled in 1956 were the first to bear the brunt of this repressive state, and obviously the first to notice. Greeks, Armenians, Copts, and finally all Egyptians would learn soon enough. The nationalist, socialist, anti-Semitic, and Pan-Arab aspirations that came in the wake of Nasser's determination to shake off the West and demonize Israel—which made him the darling of every Egyptian household—came with a heavy price that many were perhaps willing to overlook: dictatorship, paranoia, a brutally repressive regime, and ultimately the Six-Day War. Like all wars waged by totalitarian regimes, this one, like the Yom Kippur war of 1973, was aimed less at the destruction of Israel than at channeling pandemic grievances on an imaginary foe who would not go away. Hunger, poverty, unemployment, and the generalized hopelessness both among the educated and the uneducated, to say nothing of rage ready to boil over at the slightest provocation—these have always been and still remain the enemy.

Mubarak, for all his friendship with the U.S., and despite a frigid peace with Israel that seldom missed an opportunity to stoke the embers of anti-Semitism, never did wage a war against Israel. Meanwhile, Egypt has woken up to that enemy, and for the first time since it stopped being a British colony, is staring it in the face—and is as shocked as it is frightened by what it sees.

In my last year in Egypt, my father had the foresight to take me out of what had become an English school with a curriculum heavily tilted toward Arabic studies and put me in a small American school in a tiny suburb of Alexandria. Going there every morning was like leaving the impoverished world of the police state I lived in and stepping into the free world where people said what they thought, laughed at their political leaders, and sometimes flouted school authority with an impunity the likes of which I'd never witnessed in my other school.

There were days during the winter months that year when, after rehearsing for the school play in the evening, I would often catch the tram home feeling I was leaving behind a candid, well-lit, better world and heading to a shabby, fallen-empire, antiquated place littered with noise, strife, fear, loud radio playing, the smell of garlic and falafel, the din of women yelling out their windows, and the clamor of street urchins.

Yet this was my world, and however much I have grown to love New York and the great cities of Europe, it is to Alexandria that my thoughts drift back each time I think of what I long for most in life: this sky and none other, these beaches and none other, and this kind of people and none other. Absent the fear that always shadowed me wherever I walked in Egypt and that continues to haunt me each time I think back to those days—and is the first thing I wish to banish from the face of this country—I'm already there.