Author explores an Egypt that has ‘gone with the wind’
Taking a leisurely walk through Garden City or Zamalek, passing by large, stately homes and villas – in contrast to the tall, graying buildings that overshadow them -you are reminded of how much life in Egypt has changed over the past 50 years or so.
Our parents’ and grandparents’ stories of yesteryear and old, black-and-white movies give us a peek at ayam zaman (the good old days) when life was allegedly simpler, women wore strapless gowns, mini-skirts and beehives and cars drove unheeded by traffic jams. All evidence points to the undeniable fact that life in Cairo has changed dramatically in the past 50 years or so.
Samia s Serageldin s novel, “The Cairo House, takes the reader through a similar walk through life during the luxurious days following World War II, to the turning point in Egypt s history when the Free Officers took power in 1952, reaching the social upheaval during Nasser s era, followed by Sadat s infitah, and finally to the Cairo of today.
Dubbed a semi-autobiographical novel, the protagonist s story unfolds against the backdrop of the changing social and political scene. Gigi, a modern woman born into an affluent and influential family, grows up in the 1950s in a stately villa in Garden City. Gigi tries to adapt to the emergence of a new social entity that challenges the sheltered cocoon and values the women of her family have been enveloped in.
There s nothing unique about Gigi s story, except for the frank quality of Serageldin s account of life during the times.
THE DAILY STAR EGYPT: This being your first novel, which came first? Did you want to be a writer, and chose this story as your first to tell? Or, did you feel like you had a story to tell, and thus became a writer?
SAMIA SERAGELDIN: I’ve always written, even as a teenager, and I completed an earlier novel several years ago, but The Cairo House is the first novel I’ve written for publication. For me, having a story to tell comes first and foremost; the topic finds me, I do not go looking for it. The Cairo House is largely my own story, and as the Chinese saying goes, I have “lived through interesting times. For a writer, it is not entirely a bad thing to have lived through interesting times.
DSE: The fact that The Cairo House is written in English combined with some of the lengthy explanations of Egyptian customs and habits give the impression that the book was written with a foreign audience in mind. Is this the case?
SS: I grew up trilingual, but I have lived in England or the States more or less continuously since the age of 20, so English is now my dominant language of written expression. It’s also true that every writer imagines an “ideal reader, and that mine was vaguely an Anglophone. That gave me a feeling of anonymity and consequently freedom from the kinds of inhibitions – both personal and political – that would have constrained me if I were writing for an Egyptian readership, where my family name would immediately have been familiar. But in the end, an authentic work of literature has no true “ideal reader but the writer herself, and with any luck its appeal will be universal. The “hyphenated writer in particular brings a unique perspective, that of the insider and outsider to both the culture of the country of birth and that of the country of adoption.
DSE: Did you attempt to have The Cairo House printed by an Egyptian publishing house?
SS: I do feel that, having had my book translated into five European languages, only one of which I can read, I’m especially keen on having an Arabic edition. But I can’t say I’ve seriously taken the steps to find a publisher, probably because I’m not sure how to go about it. The publishing industry is different in each country. I’m open to any helpful ideas! I was recently interviewed on a Radio France Inter program in conjunction with the author of the Yacoubian Building, and everyone asked if my book was available in Arabic yet.
DSE: Was there a notable difference in how Egyptian readers received the book, vs foreign readers?
SS: Yes, of course. For Egyptians, it was a roman à clef, and not a particularly difficult key to turn at that. It was gratifying to be told by so many strangers that I brought back memories and nostalgia for an Egypt they knew and thought they had lost. A few readers voiced concerns that certain depictions of Egyptian culture or Islamic practice, entirely inoffensive in themselves, might be misunderstood by a foreign reader. The overwhelming majority of readers, though, told me that my love for Egypt, its people, its culture, came through very powerfully in the novel.
As for foreign readers, many described the feeling of entering a fascinating world that they could never have entered otherwise, but just as many commented on the universality of the experience of the expatriate, from whatever culture, in our increasingly globalized and diasporic world.
DSE: You have been invited to lecture about the status of Arab woman. How do you feel about your role as a spokesman for Egyptian and Arab women abroad?
It is a role that I would never have chosen for myself, being a very private person, were it not for the events of September 11 and the urgent need to address the hostility and prejudice toward Muslims in the aftermath. In particular, the role of the Arab or Muslim woman – conflated in the minds of the Western public – is highly politicized, and I try to mark my position as neither victim nor virago. I refuse to lend myself to be used for anyone’s agenda, on either side. Especially as a writer in the West, after 9/11, that is a difficult position to take, when the eagerness or reluctance of publishers has everything to do with your willingness or refusal to play the role of “woman victim of Islam.
DSE: Your novel has been described as semi-autobiographical. Did you find that readers – especially among family, friends and acquaintances – had difficulty separating truth from fiction?
SS: They imagined they recognized all the characters, even though some were composites: Tante Zohra, for instance, is a conflation of my two paternal aunts. Some family members initially felt squeamish at the idea of airing family affairs in public, but those who actually read it had no objections. What surprised me is that people who thought they recognized themselves in the book did not mind even slightly critical portrayals, whereas those who did not figure at all as characters were offended at being left out!
DSE: The Cairo House uses Nasserist Egypt, and the social upheaval it caused among your social class, as a backdrop. If you were to write a book based on the Cairo of today, what do you believe would be the most influential political or socio-economic influence?
SS: The Egypt of today is the setting for the third part of the book and the two most important political/socio-economic developments are those I evoke: the rise of Islamic fundamentalism and the new elite since Sadat’s infitah, that is within the past quarter century. The two phenomena are not disassociated. On the one hand, upward mobility brings with it different values, different backgrounds and cultural references. On the other hand, a sense of disempowerment in the socio-economic marketplace often translates into a rejection of material advancement and seeking refuge in a religious context.
But if there is a single development I find terribly disturbing in the Egypt of today, it is the marked rise in sectarian tension between Copts and Muslims.
DSE: If you could characterize the Cairo of your childhood in one phrase, what would it be?
SS: Gone with the wind.
DSE: In an essay about your book, you have written, But I returned to Egypt constantly, in my mind, weaving my memories into stories stored away in that virtual filing cabinet all writers carry around in their head. How does the Egypt in your mind compare to the reality you face when you visit?
SS: The rose-colored glasses of childhood are distorting, I always remind myself. Even accounting for that, the cities were much mo
re livable; the crush of population did not bear down so oppressively on every aspect of daily existence. Traffic and pollution have made Cairo and Alexandria so unlivable that Cairenes are fleeing to the new suburbs of New Cairo and Sixth of October in a mass defection unimaginable only 10 years ago, and summer vacationers have abandoned Alexandria for the new resorts on the North Coast.
Civility – not to say civilization – seems to be going by the wayside. People have less time for social graces, and Cairenes are becoming as harried as New Yorkers.The Egypt I grew up in, at least in the cities, was a far more secular and forward-looking environment. I keep summer dresses in my trunk in Cairo that I wore in the ’70s that I would not dare wear on the street today.
On the positive side, there is considerably more freedom of speech than I remember in the oppressive atmosphere of the Nasser years, and you can buy almost anything you want in Egypt today, assuming you can afford to pay the price for imported goods.
DSE: Please tell us about your upcoming novel. Will Egypt feature in this novel or will it be a complete departure from The Cairo House ?
SS: My next novel will indeed be a complete departure, but it will still be set in Egypt, although not necessarily in contemporary Egypt, and not necessarily with all-Egyptian protagonists. I am reluctant to reveal any more details, as I have learned from experience that to speak of a work in progress before it is a done deal is to take the risk of jinxing it! But I promise to let you know as soon as I am in a position to do so.
Samia Serageldin was born and raised in Egypt, educated in Europe, and immigrated to the US with her family in 1980. She holds an M.S. in politics from the University of London and is a writer, a political essayist, an editor and literary critic. A part-time instructor at Duke University, she is the author of papers on topics including Arab American writing and gender and Islam in Egypt. Since September 11 she has been active as a speaker in various public forums on Islam and on international events.
“The Cairo House was originally published by Syracuse University Press, 2000, and is available at local bookstores.