Review: Samia Serageldin and the CAIRO HOUSE
By Kevin Stoda
Serageldin, Samia. CAIRO HOUSE, London: Harper Perennial, 2005. pp. 312.
As Samia Serageldin knows very well , Percy Shelley wrote on his visit to Egypt two centuries ago in his poem Ozymandias: Shelley had once
“. . . met a traveller from an antique land
Who said—“Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert … Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown,
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamp’d on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them, and the heart that fed;
And on the pedestal these words appear:
My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
Serageldin had referred to this poem by Shelley in her recent blog on a journey to the upper Nile.
Serageldin blogged namely, “The comment of a fellow tourist before the Edfu temple, an unusually philosophical remark for this very worldly woman [,was today as follows]: ‘One gets the impression that it’s all happened before, what we’re experiencing today, this end-of-the-world feeling; the ancients thought it was the end of their world too, and yet here we are, thousands of years later.’ Or, as Percy Shelley would say: ‘My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings, etc.’” [Ozymandias was the Greek name for Ramses II.]
Although Serageldin was raised in the model structure[s] of her first novel, the CAIRO HOUSE—or more authentically known in the Egyptian capital these days as “The Serageldin family residence at No. 10 El Basha Street.” However, like the main character in CAIRO HOUSE, she has spent most of her adult world growing up outside of the land of her birth. As a matter of fact, Serageldin paints her main character in CAIRO HOUSE as a child standing in the corner of a room observing but not really being seen, i.e. like a chameleon hiding in a large room, forest, or stairwell. In this comparison, the author and her main character of Gigi, i.e. a small child in one of the wealthy Cairo homes who grows to womanhood lives, like Serageldin actually has, i.e. as an adult in several Europeans lands before settling down in America.
In CAIRO HOUSE novel, we find in the House of the Pasha (Pasha is the equivalent of an Egyptian Lord in 19th and early Century) that history is constantly transforming before the eyes of a young Egyptian girl, named Gigi. There is a putsch and the playboy King Farouq of Egypt is deposed of early in the 1950s, i.e. before the girl Gigi is even born, but as most baby boomers in America have recognized—the 1950s was a formative era for her [our] parents. For the Serageldin household, the 1950s was an era of tumult and rising Arab nationalism as bit-by-bit Gamal Abdul Nasser made his country into a more and more totalitarian state—thanks to financing from the Soviet Union. Finally, by the early 1960s, the Pasha and the other civic leaders of his class and of an earlier age are rounded up and sent to concentration camps or, in some cases, executed as enemies of the state.
NOTE: “Most of the people who live in the Middle East and North Africa are Arabs, but Arabs have only recently controlled the region. Ottoman Turks controlled most of the territory until World War I. The British and French replaced them in power. Many Arabs have dreamed of combining their individual countries into one pan-Arabic nation. Gamal Abdel Nasser was a leader in uniting Arab-speaking people. As a youth, he became a revolutionary opposed to British rule in Egypt. In 1952, Nasser led a military overthrow of King Farouk, and two years later assumed the title of president.”
The Pasha of the CAIRO HOUSE novel is the older brother of a large family of brothers, who had had great estates in the Delta region prior to the take over of the land by Arab Nationalists under Nasser. The family represents a multicultural but soon-outdated Egypt. In short, Gigi’s heritage included the Farouk era when wealthy Muslims sent their children freely to study in catholic schools and when Turks and European culture was not hated nor seen as foreign (or particularly colonialist) to the culture of Egypt or to the Arab world. Gigi’s nanny was French and her husband had been Italian. Many of the family members have green or blue eyes, but otherwise look fully Egyptian. It was until Nasser came along that the Greeks, Jews, and many Europeans moved out of the country en masse emigration.
The Serageldin family’s rural properties and bank accounts had been confiscated. Meanwhile, for over a decade the family and others of Gigi’s caste, were persecuted mercilessly in the 1960s under Nasser’s followers. Most men were totally unemployable for more than a decade, i.e. due to blackballing and blacklisting. Despite this persecution, Gigi recalls that the Serageldin family’s pride and sense of tradition and conventions continued to lead them to donate much of their remaining accessible wealth to needy beggars, staff and visitors over the decades in which much of the tale of the CAIRO HOUSE takes place.
Gigi calls this the era of being nationally blacklisted “the Era of Sequestration” because the family’s wealth was sequestered and the name of the household was labeled by Nasser and his clan as enemies of the people. Finally, there is a reprieve under Anwar Sadat’s rule and a thaw with the West is undertaken in the 1970s. This leads the Pasha, his family, and friends to reenter politics, so the family begins to become alive again after nearly two decades of internal exile and ostracism.
Gigi tries to kick-start life of her own. She did not desire to be an observer of life nor a chameleon in the corner forever. She did this by following the Egyptian traditions—by getting married to a Egyptian boy. She barely knew the boy but he was planning to live several more years in the UK, i.e. long enough for her to finish her undergraduate degree and to eventually bare a son, named Tarek.
Meanwhile, Anwar Sadat’s gambit to make friends with all sides and isolate the Arab nationalists (Nasser’s people) led to a resurgence in the influence of Islamic leaders and the Islamic Brotherhood in particularly—even thought it was a banned party. Soon all the women are suddenly wearing head coverings—even one of the most loved aunts of Gigi. Gigi recalls, as she was growing up, how often her aunt had proudly told of the day that the women of her class had finally marched and took off their veils with the support of the King Farouk regime (and their own liberal husbands) decades earlier.
Over the decades, every time Gigi returns to Egypt, she enjoys it, but she is often forced to either flee or simply to leave due to societal restrictions, gossip, retributions, and even once under an arrest threat. As well, every time she returns to Egypt, Gigi finds it a different place. She talks about the 50 days of sand and desert winds, known in Egypt as the Khamsuns. These winds blow in during high summer and cover the city with new layers of dust by the minute. This ebb and flow of the desert sands is not unlike that referred to in Shelley’s Ozymandias. In this metaphor of the khamsuns, we see the ever changing political and social landscape of Cairo and all of Egypt—from year to year and through many political and revolutionary/reactionary cycles..
A subplot for Gigi [and the author who created her] seems to be that women have the cards stacked against them in Egyptian society. This is the major reason why Gigi finally decides to leave Egypt again—i.e. as the novel comes to its end. Gigi is being told all of the time to seize the day, but in her homeland, Egypt, she is never permitted to become more fully herself—or what she thinks she is destined to become. Like many Europeans in the 19th century, Gigi and the author end up traveling to America and building a new home and place in the sun—or as Gigi did, a place in the snows of New England in a small college town that enables her to move on—even as Egypt changes with each new wind of desert sand [or does not change as in the poem by Shelley].
Samia Serageldin’s first novel was CAIRO HOUSE. It came out just as the massacres of 9-11 occurred and created both a sensation in the USA and in Egypt. Since then she has published several other novels. She explains why this has become a mission for her in a recent interview: “At a time when the American popular imagination is dominated by distorted images of Arabs and Muslims as the ultimate ‘other,’ it is critical to counterbalance these stereotypes with unmediated, first-person, authentic reflections of the real-life experiences of writers of Middle East heritage. This is where fiction and narrative non-fiction occupy a privileged position, creating an intimate, expansive space for empathy and identification, privileging the personal over the communal and thus serving generality through specificity. Until recently, there was a dearth of full-length fiction or memoir by writers of Arab heritage, but a critical mass is beginning to form with the flowering of novels and memoirs by immigrant and first generation writers. This beginning promises a development along the lines of Latino and, more recently, Indian fiction, which are increasingly finding their place in mainstream literature in the United States.”