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Biography 24.1 (2001) 302-313
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Autobiography, Exile, Home: The Egyptian Memoirs of Gini Alhadeff, André Aciman, and Edward Said
Roger J. Porter
What has led me to write about Egyptian autobiography, and what has turned my interest to exile? In 1983 I lived in Ma'adi, a small town outside of Cairo, where I was a visiting professor at Cairo American College and directed a production of The Crucible at the school's new theatre. I vividly remember reading Edward Said's Orientalism while sitting by the College's swimming pool, and wanting to know more about the writer who, though not writing autobiographically, nevertheless seemed to me haunted by a nostalgia for a culture prior to its invasion and contamination by the West. In the summer of 2000, in the interstices of a conference on Corfu concerning the work of Lawrence Durrell, I read Said's new memoir Out of Place and discovered that in the 1940s he had been a student at the very college where I had taught, in his day called Cairo School for American Children. As I recalled my time in Ma'adi I could picture exactly where Said's humiliating encounters with the school's British staff had taken place. At the Durrell conference I was also reading Gini Alhadeff's autobiography The Sun at Midday: Tales of a Mediterranean Family, and learning about Durrell's connections to her Alexandrian family. Much of the Durrell conference focused on that writer's exiled status, especially his move from Corfu to Alexandria, and on the influence of Cavafy on the theme of displacement in Durrell's later work. Alhadeff's book, another memoir of dispossession, was suggested to me by a woman at the conference as we sailed across the Ionian Sea to Durrell's former house at Kalami, in a conversation which began when she asked if I knew a Reed College colleague and dear friend, an Iranian professor of political science whose acquaintance she had made when she lived in Teheran just before the Islamic revolution forced her to leave the country.
I mention this little whirligig of relations partly to put a human face on interests that otherwise might be merely academic. Perhaps as a consequence [End Page 302] of living a life firmly rooted in one institution for nearly forty years, and needing occasionally to be displaced from an excess of the familiar, the issue of commitment to non-commitment--something I will track in this essay--deeply interests me. As a Jew living and working in Cairo almost two decades ago, I felt my position to be slightly precarious, though the stakes were never so high as those afflicting André Aciman, one of the autobiographers I discuss here. I could stay in Egypt, he as a Jew in Nasser's Egypt could not. I never hesitated to acknowledge to Egyptian friends that I was Jewish, but after attending a gathering at the Israeli Consul's house on the anniversary of the founding of Israel I wondered if I would somehow be more vulnerable the next day. And when I directed The Crucible at the College, casting in the ingenue role a talented young actress who bolted the production because her Islamic fundamentalist grandparents would not permit their granddaughter to be touched on a public stage, I not unreasonably wondered--since this was only a year after Sadat's assassination--if I would hear from the Muslim Brotherhood.
It was a year when I lived next door to a mosque, whose call to prayer sounded every morning at five o'clock, invariably rousing me out of sleep. One night I dreamt I was invited to direct Hamlet at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford. I was flattered and thrilled, until the muzzein jolted me awake once again, shattering the fantasy. Disgruntled and frustrated, I pushed myself back to sleep, whereupon the dream started up again, but this time I was told to direct the play in Arabic.
An interest in exile has corresponded with the influence in...