Alexandria on My Mind
People in the street in Alexandria called her al-tarsha, the deaf woman. Among the Arabs in the marketplace, everyone and everything in her household was known in relation to her: the deaf woman’s father, the deaf woman’s house, maid, bicycle, car, husband. The motorcycle on which she had won an exhibition race on the Corniche in the early 40’s, and which was later sold to a neighbor, continued to be known as the tarsha’s mutusikl. When I was old enough to walk alone on the street, I discovered that I too was known as the tarsha’s son.
Sometimes, on seeing me, street vendors, shopkeepers, or those idling about the cafés would discreetly raise an index finger to their ear. They were talking about my mother. But they might just as easily have pointed at their temples, for many confused the deaf with the insane. She had screamed at nearly all of them, and everyone knew her temper.
Some forgave and pitied her, with the languid kindness of the Middle East. Others mocked her voice, the discordant, grating voice of the deaf, adding twisted faces to twisted hand signals to look like gargoyles or village idiots. One day, in a crowded grocery shop, my mother caught a young Egyptian mimicking her speech. She could not tell what he was saying, but she recognized the insolent gaze as he smirked at her, all the while looking over toward his friends. She stopped whatever she was doing, told me to stay by the cash register, and without giving the young man time to blink, slapped him twice on the face, very hard. Then, before he could recover, she grabbed him by the head, threw him to the ground, and proceeded to beat him up, first with her fist, then with anything that came her way.
My grandmother, when she heard of the incident, grumbled to her son, my father, that his wife behaved no better than the Arabs among whom she had grown up. “How will he”—she meant me—“ever learn the right way to act if all he hears is her deaf yammering and constant brawling?” Discharging a torrent now that she had spilled a few drops, she went on: “In less than two months we’ll be celebrating my mother’s centennial, and I want him to know how to behave there. I don’t want to introduce Madame Lord or Victoria Coutzeris to the son of a Jewish tarsha, understand?”
The next morning, my grandmother informed my mother that she wanted to take me under her wing, the pretext being that I had been caught mispronouncing far too many words under the influence of my mother’s deviant speech. She also wanted her to tell her deaf friends that they should curtail their visits, especially Aziza, a poor young woman who served as maid, cook’s helper, cleaning lady, and seamstress, and was guilty, in my grandmother’s eyes, of the twin crimes of being deaf and an “ignorant Arab.”
She suggested I visit every other morning in Ibrahimieh, where she lived, and then have lunch with her at my great-grandmother’s home. My mother, stunned by this proposition, which she had lip-read from her mother-in-law’s face and gestures, fell silent, but I caught her pupils darting about, a sign of impatience and suppressed rage. “And what do I do while he’s with you, darn socks with my deaf friends?” she finally burst out.
“Not at all. Oh, I didn’t mean for you to take it like that at all, Gigi,” replied my grandmother, beating a hasty retreat. “I just want the child to know my side of the family and hear polite conversation. He must learn how to speak correctly.”
“But I already take him to my parents every day for that very purpose,” protested my mother.
“That’s very good, Gigi. Still, it’s not quite the same thing,” she said, raising her index finger. “I want him to become distinguished. Like my brothers, who are, as you know, très comme il faut.”
When my father arrived home late that evening, the first thing he did was to show his extreme displeasure that Aziza was still there. It took my mother a second to piece together the puzzle.
“Is this going to end up with your mother taking care of him every other day?”
“Why not?” he replied, going on the offensive. “I don’t want him growing up thinking he is either deaf or an Arab.”
“Meanwhile, poor Aziza stayed later than usual to finish ironing your shirts.” She flung open a cupboard and pointed to two stacks of neatly folded shirts.
“What do I care about shirts?” he shouted.
He picked one up, examined it as if looking for a crease, found none, then brought it close to his nose. He found what he was looking for.
“Here,” he said, almost thrusting the shirt into my mother’s face.
“It was washed this very morning,” she said.
“Smell again! It stinks of helba! helba! helba!” he shouted as he picked up each shirt, sniffed it, and threw it on the floor. “Get rid of her!”
My father was right about one thing: Aziza always trailed that pungent odor of helba, an auburn-colored substance that Egyptians drank in large doses for its alleged curative properties and which dyed their palms red and made their bodies exude what Europeans considered a repellent, dirty odor. My father hated to find it trapped in his drawer, his linens, his food.
This odor was so unmistakable and so overwhelming that one could immediately distinguish Westernized Egyptians, who used very strong after-shave, from those who affected Western habits but whose minds, homes, and regimens were still steeped in the universe of helba. Even if an Egyptian had completely adopted Western ways, shed his native customs to become what my grandparents called an évolué, and wore a suit every day, learned table manners, kissed mamselles hands in greeting, and knew his wines, his cheeses, and the required number of La Fontaine fables by heart, the fact that his clothes gave off the slightest trace of that telltale scent would make one think twice about his professed inclination for the West and suspect that not everyone in his household—himself included—had risen above the dark, sinister underside of Arab hygiene.
But there was another reason for my father’s visceral aversion to helba. He, like his mother, disliked all kinds of recognizable ethnic odors, thinking that the more Westernized a family, the more odorless was its home, its clothes, its cooking. It would never have occurred to either of them that all homes bear ethnic odors, and that anyone born in Alexandria could easily have sniffed out a Sephardi household like ours, with its residual odor of Parmesan cheese, boiled artichokes, and borekas, just as easily as they themselves could recognize an Armenian kitchen by its unavoidable smell of cured pastrami, a Greek living room by the odor of myrrh, and Italians by the smell of fried onions and chamomile. Working-class Italians smelled of fried peppers, and Greeks smelled of garlic and brilliantine, and, when they sweated, their underarms smelled of yogurt.
Aziza originally belonged to a coterie of friends my mother had made while a student at Madame Tsotsou’s boarding school for deaf girls. Under Madame Tsotsou’s vigilant egalitarianism, no one was permitted to distinguish between rich and poor, Greek and Arab, and since none of the girls was allowed pocket money, there were also no privileges to be had, except for the occasional jar of marmalade whose contents were equitably spooned out to all in the dining room. The school was quite successful, and well-to-do pupils came from all around the Mediterranean with no other goal than to speak and behave like the hearing, preferably in French, and, through French, to free themselves from this terrible corvée, their burden of silence.
Among my mother’s friends was another young woman, named Sophie, who came from a patrician Greek family that had lost everything in Smyrna and now retained only the vestiges of distinction in its obligatory afternoon tea where you could taste oversweetened Greek jams on a spoon. Sophie had married a Greek auto mechanic named Costa, a hairy, cocksure sailor-type with greasy hair and dirty fingernails who roared about Alexandria on his motorcycle on Sundays, sporting gold bracelets, a tank shirt, and his nymph, Sophie, on the back seat. Costa, who had the boisterous familiarity of Alexandrian Greeks, was a jack-of-all-trades dabbling in twenty more—an “impresario,” he would say with a tiny wink, meaning a trader in stolen, black-market, and counterfeit goods.
The only person who took a liking to him was, of all people, my grandmother. “He’s a true savage, but a heart of gold,” she would say. Unbeknownst to my mother, Costa would often visit my grandmother and bring her presents, ranging from caviar and champagne to perfumes and foie gras hijacked from Beirut. In return, he asked nothing but the ear of an old woman who, he said, was like a mother to him and understood him far better than did his Sophie, who, during mating season—as he called it—could think of nothing better than to squeeze the pimples on his forehead. “Can a man live that way, madame? Tell me, can he?” he would ask, exasperation bubbling in his voice.
My grandmother had met Costa one evening just as he was arriving to pick up Sophie. Since the two of them were the only hearing people in the room, they began to talk and soon discovered that both were born in Constantinople. When she heard that he owned a motorcycle, and that he ran errands in Ibrahimieh every morning, I saw her give a start and say, “Achhh, kyrio Costa—” and then she begged him to bring me to her house. The man consented easily. In exchange, she recommended that he meet her brothers, who would certainly want to use his services.
Thus, every other morning, Monsieur Costa would arrive with the loudest motorcycle in the world. He would whistle with both fingers in his mouth, and, as soon as I was saddled, order me to hold him tight by the waist, and off we went, roaring through Sidi-Gaber, past Cleopatra, then Grand Sporting, racing with the tram, beating the tram, leaving the tram behind us, finally reaching Petit Sporting, and slowing down toward Ibrahimieh, all in a matter of minutes as he kept taking sharp and ever more intricate turns, veering left then right—growling “Hold tight, pedimou”—leaning as low as he could, his boot grazing the asphalt, always congratulating himself with “What reflexes, Costa, what reflexes!” speeding all the way out to Camp de César, almost to Chatby, and then turning back again toward Ibrahimieh—“for the fun of it”—and slowing the vehicle to the equivalent of a regal canter down Rue Memphis, finally depositing me in front of my grandmother’s house, where she waited for me with a piece of fresh fruit already peeled and ready to be eaten as soon as I hopped off.
An hour into my visit, my grandmother would never fail to observe that I already looked much better. “Look, he’s laughing,” she would say to my grandfather as we sat around the table in the garden. “Isn’t it true that he only laughs when he’s with me?”
“Come, we’ll take a walk around the garden,” my grandfather would say, always eager to be away from his wife, taking me into the arbor where birds sang and where the air was thick with the parched, cloying scent of rosemary and sweet, overgrown rhododendron. Away from my grandmother’s gaze, he would finally reach into his pocket and produce a present: a key chain, or a pen, or a penknife—our secret, he’d say, for she always disapproved of the things he gave me, claiming they were dangerous or unseemly. “Soon I’ll have to teach you billiards,” he said one day, producing three smooth ivory balls from his striped bathrobe pocket. They came, no doubt, from the billiard parlor he owned. Then, using his cane and a billiard cue, we would pluck guavas from one of the trees.
At around half past ten, my grandmother and I would hire a carriage and ride all the way to Stanley Beach where her siblings and her mother had a summer cabin.
At the beach, my great-aunts were persuaded they still lived in fin-de-siècle Alexandria, far from the world of querulous maids and crippled manservants. The women never put on bathing suits but wore white or cream-colored short-sleeved linen or cotton voile dresses with plenty of lace, and large, ornate hats, which they held in place with their hands whenever a breeze came up. There, all four sisters, their mother, friends, and Madame Victoria Coutzeris would sit on multicolored striped folding chairs, forever repeating how important it was to avoid the sun, heaving happy sighs whenever the wind stirred the large, striped umbrella.
I was never allowed to drink or eat anything, certainly not Coca-Cola or those hazelnut biscuits sold by grubby vendors along the sand. My grandmother insisted that nothing agreed with the sea more than fruit, and plenty of it, which is why she brought a thermos filled with lemonade. To my great joy, however, I found out that ice cream could be had simply by sneaking up one flight of stairs to the upper boardwalk where Aunt Flora had her cabin. There I would usually find her reading in a reclining beach chair. I would ask for ice cream and return, rather pleased with myself, to confront my angry grandmother, who stood waiting, like God after Adam had eaten the forbidden fruit.
Once, by chance, I found Aunt Flora sitting quietly next to my mother whom I did not immediately recognize. So great was my surprise and my sudden joy that I could not believe I hadn’t come with her to the beach. She waited for me to finish my ice cream, then took me by the hand, went downstairs to greet her in-laws, and, with a tone of voice that admitted no discussion, said she was taking me home.
“But I had planned to take him to visit Albert at the billiard hall. We always stop there, don’t we?” my grandmother asked, trying to enlist my help.
“No, he’s coming with me,” said my mother.
I thanked my good fortune that my mother had spared me a confrontation. But when my grandmother dried me off before dressing me in clean clothes, the silence between us was intolerable. I wished I had not been so visibly eager to leave her, for the old lady seemed on the verge of tears, and as she bent down to buckle my sandals, which must have been difficult for her, I knew that, given the chance to do it again, I would have forfeited the mango ice cream altogether and not run into my mother. I kissed her on the cheek, saying something I seldom said to her. I told her I loved her. But I said it in Arabic.
To placate his mother, my father personally took me to his parents’ the next morning. But to satisfy my mother, he decided perhaps we didn’t have to go to the beach. Instead, he suggested that he, his father, and I go to buy shoes at a closeout sale. We drove along the Corniche on this clear summer day, parked the car near the Cecil Hotel, and walked toward Boulevard Saad Zaghloul. There we stopped to take in the view and listen to the sound of the water licking the huge, ugly boulders lining the city’s waterfront. There was a pause in the conversation.
“You know,” said my grandfather turning to my father, “I don’t think I need new shoes.” And as though he hadn’t been paying attention to his son, he added, “All this sky and all this water—what do you do with so much blue once you’ve seen it?”
My father changed his mind. “Perhaps we don’t need ready-made shoes after all,” he said, implying that he was rich enough now to afford custom-made ones. Instead, he suggested coffee at an establishment overlooking the bay. “I’ve had an excellent year. Things are going very well. I’m even building an annex to warehouse more goods. So I can afford a cup of coffee at La Côte.”
“I don’t understand,” said my grandfather, as though talking to himself. “One day he’s the impoverished son of a pool-hall owner, and the next he’s splurging on the best cars, best clothes, best this, best that. This can’t go on. You’re only doing well because all the other large textile manufacturers have sold their businesses and moved back to England. It doesn’t bode well. You should be saving more.”
“Both you and Gigi have only one thing in mind: save, save, save.”
Meanwhile, we had reached La Cote and my father opened the heavy glass door, letting both of us in ahead of him. The place was crowded but almost silent.
The waiter, who recognized my father immediately, knew that he liked a table next to the window.
“You shouldn’t be spending your money so frivolously. I’m not the first to say it.” My grandfather was looking out the window. “The entire city knows. There are even rumors about other things as well, if you follow my drift.”
“Your drift sticks out a mile.”
My father picked up a cigarette, let it rest between his fingers as though trying to remember whether he hadn’t already just smoked one, then, staring at it still, said, “You were hardly any better yourself.”
“It’s easy to accuse me. But I was married to a witch.”
A waiter wearing a turban and traditional Egyptian garb poured coffee for the two men, while another, a Greek, brought me a large ice-cream soda.
The old man sighed. He looked at the table next to ours, where two women were drinking tea. “Look, don’t think I don’t know these things.”
“But—” began to protest the son.
“Just promise me this,” added my grandfather. “As long as I’m alive, be good to her, and no more women.”
The son swore.
“And when you’re gone?” he asked, trying to liven the mood.
“When I’m gone, I’ll be gone, and what you do will be your business.”
The waiter brought two large glasses of water and a tiny slice of Turkish delight.
“You know you shouldn’t eat sweets,” said my father. “My doctor—”
“Please!” interrupted his father. “Coffee, cigarettes, and sweets. I’m not even seventy, yet these are the two or three pleasures left me.” He sipped the coffee, holding his demitasse and saucer in the same hand. “There,” he interjected. He had already given me a piece of the Turkish delight and was cutting another.
My father, who was sitting across from us, had put down his demitasse, and was staring at us in silence, as though not wishing to break the spell.
My father knew it as soon as he picked up the receiver that same night. He immediately woke me, not, as he usually did, by sitting at the edge of my bed and whispering my name, but by tapping softly on my shoulder. A sense of cold, almost mechanical urgency seemed to govern each of his movements, as though he had been rehearsing this for years. He washed my face, dried it with swift, perfunctory dabbing motions, and got me dressed. He was not talking.
We drove in silence.
“You shouldn’t have brought the boy,” said my grandmother, tucking her crumpled handkerchief inside the left cuff of her shirt.
“I want my father to see him, and I want him to see my father.”
Mother and son whispered.
It had happened after he came back from the pool hall.
“Who knows!” she said, biting the point of her diamond ring anxiously to keep herself from sobbing again. “I call it the pool hall in order not to call it other things. Do I know where he goes wandering late at night? He never tells me, I never ask.” She was silent an instant. “He doesn’t want to move. Doesn’t even want to take his clothes off.” When they finally took me in to see him, he was lying on his bed, still wearing his tie, jacket, and trousers. Only his shoes had been removed. His socks were too long for his feet and dangled past his toes.
As soon as he heard the door, he thought he was speaking to his wife.
“Don’t come in.”
“It’s me,” whispered my father.
The old man’s voice immediately mellowed.
They spoke in Ladino. Then he spoke to me. “Tu vois ça?” he said, meaning, “Can you believe this? Do you see what’s happening to me?”
A few weeks later, Monsieur Costa deposited me at my grandmother’s house as usual. She shut the gate behind him and, together, we watched his motorcycle roar toward Camp de César. She then looked at the sky and with her usual enthusiasm said, “Just look at this blue! We’ll have a beautiful day at the beach today.”
As I walked into the house, I felt an unusually cool draft running through the corridor. Even the stuffy smell around the pantry seemed gone, and from the garden the scent of basil filled the house. Something had changed. “I’m going to put this on,” my grandmother said, displaying a light-blue linen and cotton dress with buttons running all the way to her ankles.
When I made to open my grandfather’s door, she whispered he was sleeping, that I should not disturb him. “We should pick fresh fruit for the beach,” she said. But I had heard the faint crackle of my grandfather’s old radio from behind his closed door, and I went to open it, certain that he was not sleeping now but sitting at his little table listening to his news broadcast. Perhaps he had already heard me come in the house and was about to open the door to meet me. I pressed down the handle to push his door open and felt him pull at the same time.
I said good morning, and just the sound of his name spoken out loud in his room assured me he had to be there. But the room was unusually bright, with its windows wide open, overlooking a street I had never before seen or even suspected existed. From one of its shops came the loud sound of a radio I had mistaken for his. The wind had pulled open the door as soon as I had touched the handle.
The round table with the radio had been pushed against the wall. His ashtray was sparkling clean for the first time ever, and the mattress on his bed was folded back on the frame, like a man performing a back exercise. A bedspread was thrown clumsily over the whole thing, no sheets, just the frayed, faded stripes of the ancient mattress. Over the bedstand was a large mound of suits, neatly piled, while in his closet all one heard was the chime of hangers dangling from the metal bar.
I saw a row of shoes without trees, stashed like limp and lifeless sloughs, under the dresser. He had always said they were older than I was.
At first, everyone said he was sleeping. Then they said he was resting. Then that he was gone. “Don’t disturb him” evolved into “Don’t disturb his things.” His cane, his tobacco case, his deck of cards, his dentures floating in solution, his penknife, his loose things that not even the passage of time could tidy. Then they began to disappear. I noticed Abdou wearing his shoes. And Mohammed, Abdou’s nephew. The servants did not appreciate shoelaces, so they would pull them out, walking with the instep wide open, the tongues sticking out insolently.
When, several years later, we moved all his garden furniture to our summerhouse at Mandara, something of those hot, peaceful summer mornings came to stay with us as well. Much of the garden furniture had been painted over, but what lingered there was not his presence, not even his memory, but that vague sense of well-being that would fill his sunlit garden when I came looking for him, hoping to hear his cane or his billiard cue, so that we might pluck guavas.
At last the day of the centennial arrived. At lunch, both my Great-Uncle Vili and my Great-Uncle Isaac read eulogies for their brother-in-law, my grandfather, a man who had ridiculed them thoughout his life. Because of the number of guests, dining tables had been moved into my great-grandmother’s bedroom, a huge corner room with two balconies and plenty of sunlight.
While one of her sons was speaking, my one-hundred-year-old great-grandmother, seated at the center of the table, took a small decanter of olive oil that stood in front of her and poured a few drops on her empty plate. She sprinkled some salt on the oil, tore a small piece of bread, dunked it into the oil, and, holding the bread in place with one hand, pricked it with the fork she held in the other and brought it to her mouth.
“I can’t help it—I’m hungry,” said the old woman as she caught an admonitory gaze from one of her septuagenarian daughters.
After the speeches were over, someone toasted the memory of my grandfather. Everyone said, “Amen.” My grandmother, seated next to me, turned to her neighbor, Madame Victoria, and said, “I used to tell him, ‘Your head is in the clouds’; and he would say, ‘And you, Esther, your feet are underground.’ Look who’s underground now.” The smile disappeared from my grandmother’s lips as she cast another look at her mother. “Elsa,” she said to her sister, “wipe off her chin before the oil drips on her dress.”
My great-grandmother wore a black lace dress that day. Next to her was seated her elder brother, who had come from Turkey for the occasion of his younger sister’s centennial. I remember shaking his big, fat, miller’s hand and staring at that gruff immobile mass of flesh, only to hear the man produce his sweetest strain, “Bonjour, jeune homme.” For the pictures that were taken that day, my great-grandmother posed standing, very upright and very alert, her thin dark lips tightly pursed, which was how she smiled, a restrained, cunning, murky look in her eyes. In her hand she held my grandfather’s cane.
She was asked to make a little speech to the 30 or so family members gathered for lunch. Since she did not know French or Italian well enough to speak for a minute without making at least ten mistakes, she gave a small blessing in Ladino which ended with the cheerful though rather flat salud y berakhá, health and blessing. But then, urged by her sons, she finally yielded and began to speak in a halting, heavily accented French, saying that she had lived in Egypt for exactly 50 years, that half her life had been spent in Egypt, and the other half not in Egypt, and that the part not lived in Egypt was lived abroad—and yet in all these years, she went on proudly, she had never learned more than 50 words of Arabic. “One for every year,” snickered her elder son, Nessim.
She knew Arabic so poorly, she went on, that one day she had asked an Arab servant to help her make a bed. The man suddenly blanched and grew flustered and asked her please to reconsider. She had no idea to what he was referring and insisted they go and make the bed together—until a Greek chambermaid informed her that what she had told the servant in Arabic was, “Come with me together in the bed.” The irony, which escaped no one in the room, was not that this extremely old matron could make such a dreadful mistake but that had she insisted, the poor servant would have had to comply. Everyone burst out laughing.
By late afternoon, guests had begun to arrive. When I awoke from my nap, the house was filled with noise. By evening, they were crowding the corridors, the entrance hall, and the two living rooms. Many of the men sported rows of medals, emblems, and rosettes on their chests, some with larger medals hanging from striped bands around their necks, everybody looking like a retired member of a small brigade meeting on the anniversary of a significant battle. Someone took me into the kitchen, where the maid Latifa got me dinner. Members of a musical quintet had just finished eating and were busy brushing the crumbs off their dark suits and wiping their mouths with handkerchiefs. They were not due to start for a while yet.
After I had eaten, my grandmother came and took me by the hand, and, walking about the house, introduced me to friends of the family, most of whom were very old and portly and spoke the same slow, stuffy, melodiously well-articulated French. To my surprise, I caught sight of Hisham, our servant, standing in the middle of the crowd, wearing a fez and the traditional waiter’s garb of which he was so proud, holding with his one arm a giant silver platter that was decorated with flowers. He winked when he saw me, and I shouted “Ya Hisham!” but my grandmother quickly tried to hush me up.
Suddenly the lights went out. Everyone gave an astonished “Ah,” and for a brief moment there was a hushed, expectant hubbub. Then came the sound of a gong. Holding a tall lighted taper in his hand, old Uncle Nessim stood on a chair and, with the look of an amused scarecrow on a moonlit heath, announced that 100 candles would be lit throughout the house and everyone was welcome to help light them. “But this is absolutely divine,” mouthed the wife of an English lord whom everyone called Madame Lord. They all began queuing up as the servants passed out the tapers. Gradually, the corner of the room where we all stood grew lighter and lighter.
“Come,” said my grandmother, “we’ll be the first to light these here.” And without thanking Hisham, who was also handing out the tapers, she grabbed one from his tray. “How beautiful,” said someone looking out the window. “Just fabulous,” said another. “I’ve lighted four, and I’m going to light another and another—oh, so much fun, so much,” squealed Madame Lord, breathless with excitement.
“Here,” said my grandmother, holding the taper in my hand as my mother hovered behind me, kissing me. “Light these two. This one and that one.” She pointed at two candlesticks. “This one is for grandfather, because he will be happy you remembered him tonight.” She lifted me up as my father and my mother guided my hand. “And now this one you light for—”
“I’ll light it for her—” I indicated my great-grandmother; everyone was extraordinarily pleased—“for when she’ll die.”
There was a chilly silence. “Children,” exclaimed Uncle Vili, who knew how to smooth all sorts of ripples.
“He’s not a cruel boy. He just doesn’t know how to keep his mouth shut,” my grandmother apologized.
By now all the rooms were aglow with candlelight, and when the servants opened the windows and balcony doors to let in fresh air, a mild autumnal breeze lilted through the house, swaying the lights ever so gently, as everyone marveled at the effect of the light against crystal.
“This we’ll never forget,” said Mr. Khatchadourian.
“Thank you, thank you,” replied Aunt Elsa, before turning immediately to complain to Madame Victoria of the awkward way Armenians spoke French: “Even when in Europe we’ll be, of this we’ll think each year on this one same day. This I promise.”
A bang was heard in an adjacent room. “Evviva lo sciampagna,” cried an Italian gentleman. Uncle Nessim announced that, as the eldest of the siblings, he had uncorked the first bottle. “I’ll keep this forever,” he said turning to his mother, staring at the cork as if trying to decipher the precious inscription on its head. “We usually say ‘May you live to be a hundred,’ but now I don’t know what to say.”
“Don’t get all worked up now, Nessico,” she replied, tapping him on the arm. “You’ve done enough already.”
“But there won’t be another,” he protested.
“No, there won’t.”
“If only we could start again.”
“Evviva signora,” cheered the Italian gentleman who had overheard the mawkish conversation and who suddenly began singing “Viva il vino spumeggiante” in a loud, stentorian voice, motioning to the band and all those around him to join in a chorus. And everyone, even those only vaguely familiar with the aria from Cavalleria Rusticana, joined in the song.
No one had heard Monsieur Costa arrive. But suddenly I saw him standing in the middle of the hallway, looking like a baffled hermit who had strayed into a pagan orgy, scanning the room for a familiar face, dressed as always in his bombardier jacket, his shirt collar wide open, his hair greased back, the trimmed black mustache about to touch his upper lip.
“Please excuse the disturbance,” he said as soon as he saw my grandmother, “but I must see His Excellency your brother immediately.”
Uncle Vili came walking quickly, muttering “Ay, ay, ay,” to himself, knowing that such a visit could only mean trouble. “Come into the kitchen—no, in here,” he told Monsieur Costa, pointing to a junk-filled room next to the kitchen that sometimes doubled as the maid Latifa’s. “You, out,” said Vili, pointing at me. “I want to come in,” I insisted, promising not to utter a word. I was on the verge of crying. “Come in, but not a sound or I’ll kill you.”
“They caught my brother,” said Monsieur Costa in one breath.
That was a risk. Everyone knew that,” replied Vili.
“Well, yes. They have the money of course. But they also know the number of the bank accounts in Switzerland. And they have a list of names.”
“You mean the fool carried a list of names on him?”
“Then it’s all over.”
Monsieur Costa did not say a word but kept his arms crossed with a look of helpless consternation, as though trying to avert a blow.
“I am in as much trouble as you, Your Excellency,” he said in the end. “There is a ship leaving tonight. It’s a Greek merchant vessel, I can guarantee passage on it. I will be on it as well. Now, if Your Excellency will permit me, there are a few other people I must warn as well.” Monsieur Costa took the service entrance and was never seen again, not even by his wife.
“Call Nessim and Isaac now—and don’t look so worried, for God’s sake.”
This was my first secret mission, and I waited for the right moment to tell each of my great-uncles that they were urgently needed in the chambre des karakibs—which in Arabic meant bric-a-brac. Once I escorted the two of them, I was told to stay outside.
I tried to listen at the door, but all I heard were exclamations of distress. Then they opened the door and asked me to bring in my grandmother only. She must have sensed something was amiss, and by the look on Monsieur Costa’s face when he arrived she must have known it concerned the police. One of my uncles was advising Vili against taking the ship. Costa could no longer be trusted. Instead, a car would drive him directly to the Cairo airport that same night, from where he could catch a dawn flight to Rome without anyone asking too many questions.
None of this caught Uncle Vili by surprise. For years he had been liquidating his assets in Egypt and secretly smuggling money to Switzerland in defiance of the Egyptian government’s ban on all shipment of currency abroad. The punishment for the crime was imprisonment and eventual expulsion. Those holdings still in his name in Egypt were kept for appearances’ sake and could easily be sacrificed. He had even managed to ship his clothes as well as his antique furniture to Europe. All he was leaving behind of value was a poorly kept villa filled with junk, rugs, and a set of the Treccani encyclopedia, which in another life had been given to him by, and bore the signature of, none other than II Duce himself. Not too many years later that coveted set would fall into my hands, only to be sold to a dealer for less than a dollar when we finally left Egypt in 1965.
Presently, I saw my grandmother come out of the junk room tucking her handkerchief into her left sleeve, shutting the door immediately behind her.
“What is it?” asked my father.
“We’ve decided to start the waltz now,” she replied.
At that moment, the quintet sounded a few notes and everyone cleared the space in the middle of the room to watch Vili, the youngest son, dance a Verdi waltz with his mother on the occasion of her birthday. Together they took a few rehearsed turns around the room, pretended to stop a moment, and then resumed the dance, everyone applauding as the couple spun in the light of the 100 candles, until Vili brought her back to where she had been sitting and where my mother waited to help the old lady regain her seat. Without asking, Vili reached out for my mother as he let go of his own, took her into his arms, and suddenly accelerated the pace of the waltz, taking dizzying swirls around the room, this ex-infantryman and veteran of two world wars wheeling the tarsha from Ibrahimieh, showing the world that a sixty-year-old rake could still ignite the heart of a thirty-year-old belle.
When the waltz was over, everyone applauded. Vili returned my mother to my father and said, “I owe your wife many apologies. I should have married her myself.” He took my mother’s hand in his and brought it close to his lips and, still holding it there, whispered, “I won’t see you for many, many years. Goodbye.” My mother blushed, smiled, and said, “Thank you.”
Vili rushed to the kitchen, where his brother’s chauffeur had been waiting for him with his brother’s raincoat, his brother’s suit, and a battered suitcase wrenched out of the junk room which his sisters had now filled with old clothes so he would not arrive at the airport looking suspicious. The service door was opened, and from the landing outside, an unmistakable smell of zibala, refuse, wafted into the kitchen.
There, so as not to arouse suspicion among the guests who had no notion of what was taking place at the other end of the apartment, his sisters had come one by one to bid their most cherished brother farewell. Each wept, then washed her face, put on a smile, and went back to mingle with the guests while another took her place, exhorting her youngest brother, as each had probably done before both world wars, to behave, be good, and be careful.
My grandmother, his senior by almost fifteen years, was the last to say goodbye. “You won’t start now,” she said, “because if you do I will.” “I won’t, I won’t,” he promised. They hugged and kissed, after which Vili asked, “Esther, bless me.” Unable to hold back her tears now, she began weeping aloud, placing a shaking palm upon his head, sobbing the Hebrew words out loud until she had said “Amen.”
“Come, enough of this,” she said as she kept caressing the lapel of his jacket. “Promise to write. Don’t just disappear.” Unable to speak, he nodded.
The chauffeur picked up the suitcase and proceeded down the winding service stairway. Vili followed him, but he had not taken two steps before he suddenly collapsed against the banister. My grandmother exclaimed, “Santa Madonna!” A second later, seated on one of grimy metal treads of the stairway, Vili exploded in a loud sob.
“I’ll never see Mother again,” he began weeping, swaying like a drunkard, his face resting in both hands. “How can I go without saying goodbye, how can I do that to her, how?” I noticed that his lip was bleeding. “Blood!” I shouted. “It’s nothing,” he said, brushing the blood away with his palm as he resumed crying. The chauffeur had come back upstairs to help him. “No, leave me here a second.” My grandmother asked me to fetch a glass of whiskey. “Ask Elsa, she’ll understand.” I asked Hisham instead, who immediately poured a glass for me. I walked back along the corridor with the huge glass. No one asked me anything.
“What a dog’s life,” Vili said after drinking the contents. “All these years, and now this.”
“Adiós,” he said.
His elder sister and I waved at him until the shape of his gray hat and of his hand disappeared all the way downstairs through the half-lit concentric turns of the winding banister.
“And now we must tell no one,” warned my grandmother.
We shut the door of the kitchen behind us, walked through the pantry, shut the pantry door, and suddenly we were back among the guests. “Where were you?” asked my father. “Don’t ask,” gestured my grandmother. Then, seeing he was beginning to look perplexed, she said, “Vili left.” “So soon?” he asked. “He left for good. Understand?”
The only one who did not know the truth for the next two days was my great-grandmother. She had been told a lie so the festivities would not be disrupted.
“He’s in Cairo,” they said in the end. “The king wanted to see him.” No one had ever told the old lady that the king had been deposed many years earlier.
Still, she knew something was amiss.
“He isn’t dead, is he?”
“Dead? Who, Vili? He’s as indestructible as Bismarck. Not like the other one.”
The “other one” was my grandfather.
“He was a poor soul,” said my other grandfather to his daughter, my mother, as we made our way through a narrow passage in between the graves on Yom Kippur a few weeks later. We had just been to lay flowers on his mother’s grave and were now headed toward my grandfather’s.
I knew the way from previous visits to the cemetery with my father and sauntered ahead, avoiding the low slabs. When we arrived, I saw my father waiting for us.
“The poor man,” said my mother’s father after reflecting a moment “We never got along, though God knows I never nursed any ill will toward him. But—” he added, meaning, all that was water under the bridge.
“Can I recite a few words?” he asked his son-in-law, careful not to seem pushy when it came to religious matters.
“Yes,” said my father, with a look of forbearing irony that almost said, “if you really must.”
My other grandfather spoke the words softly, slowly, almost meekly, with diffidence and an air of mild apology one never expects from the faithful. When he was done, he gave his daughter a look and she immediately spoke two or three words of Hebrew, after which she said “Amen.”
“Voilà, Monsieur Albert,” said my grandfather, addressing the stone. Then, with the timidity of a man who had never felt at ease with his son-in-law, he touched my father on the shoulder once, a gesture of hindered sympathy that he did not wish to prolong for fear of overstepping his bounds.
“I feel for you,” he said. “None of us is going to stay much longer in Egypt, and, frankly, it hurts when I think we’ll have to leave our loved ones behind, me my mother, and you your father. They would have been happier to lie where they were born, with their loved ones. Your father once asked me, ‘What did I come to Egypt for if everyone will be leaving soon, leaving me stranded all by myself, twiddling my thumbs in my grave, the last Jew on this parched, half-baked strip of dust teeming with dirty feet?’ He hated Egypt and he’s buried in Egypt. ‘What could be worse than being buried in a cemetery where you know nobody, Monsieur Jacques?’ he would ask.
“And I tell you what: worse than dying is the thought that no one will ever come to your grave, that no one will come wash the letters of your name. Everyone remembers for a few months, a few years, on anniversaries, and then, a generation later, they forget you. And the earth might as well make dust of you, for you’re as good as unborn—you never were born—even if you live to be a hundred.”
My father did not reply, though the allusion to the centennial did not escape him.
On our way out of the cemetery, the four of us greeted other Jewish families who had come to pray for their dead. My grandfather was going to synagogue and had asked whether we would join him for the service.
“Not today,” said my father, clearly thinking of coffee.
“I’ll come,” said my mother.
It was a typical Alexandrian autumn weekday morning. One could even have gone to the beach. My father said we would take a walk in the city. He looked up at the clear sky, thought a moment, and trying to sound casual on our way to La Cote, said, “I hope they’ll give us the same table.”