Out of Egypt
By André Aciman
Picador Copyright © 1994 André Aciman
All rights reserved.
Soldier, Salesman, Swindler, Spy
"So, are we or aren't we, siamo o non siamo," boasted my Great-uncle Vili when the two of us finally sat down late that summer afternoon in a garden overlooking his sprawling estate in Surrey.
"Just look at this," he pointed to a vast expanse of green. "Isn't it splendid?" he asked, as if he had invented the very notion of an afternoon stroll in the English countryside. "Just before sundown and minutes after tea, it always comes: a sense of plenitude, of bliss almost. You know — everything I wanted, I got. Not bad for a man in his eighties." Arrogant self-satisfaction beamed on his features.
I tried to speak to him of Alexandria, of time lost and lost worlds, of the end when the end came, of Monsieur Costa and Montefeltro and Aldo Kohn, of Lotte and Aunt Flora and lives so faraway now. He cut me short and made a disparaging motion with his hand, as if to dismiss a bad odor. "That was rubbish. I live in the present," he said almost vexed by my nostalgia. "Siamo o non siamo?" he asked, standing up to stretch his muscles, then pointing to the first owl of the evening.
It was never exactly clear what one was or wasn't, but to everyone in the family, including those who don't speak a word of Italian today, this elliptical phrase still captures the strutting, daredevil, cocksure, soldier-braggart who had pulled himself out of an Italian trench during the Great War and then, hidden between rows of trees with his rifle held tightly in both hands, would have mowed down the entire Austro-Hungarian Empire had he not run out of bullets. The phrase expressed the hectoring self-confidence of a drill sergeant surrounded by sissies in need of daily jostling. "Are we man enough or aren't we?" he seemed to say. "Are we going ahead with it or aren't we?" "Are we worth our salt or what?" It was his way of whistling in the dark, of shrugging off defeat, of picking up the pieces and calling it a victory. This, after all, was how he barged in on the affairs of fate and held out for more, taking credit for everything, down to the unforeseen brilliance of his most hapless schemes. He mistook overdrawn luck for foresight, just as he misread courage for what was little more than the gumption of a street urchin. He had pluck. He knew it, and he flaunted it.
Impervious to the humiliating Italian defeat at the Battle of Caporetto in 1917, Uncle Vili remained forever proud of his service to the Italian army, flaunting that as well, with the spirited Florentine lilt he had picked up in Italian Jesuit schools in Constantinople. Like most young Jewish men born in Turkey toward the end of the century, Vili disparaged anything having to do with Ottoman culture and thirsted for the West, finally becoming "Italian" the way most Jews in Turkey did: by claiming ancestral ties with Leghorn, a port city near Pisa where escaped Jews from Spain had settled in the sixteenth century. A very distant Italian relative bearing the Spanish name of Pardo-Roques was conveniently dug up in Leghorn — Vili was half Pardo-Roques himself — whereupon all living "cousins" in Turkey immediately became Italian. They were all, of course, staunch nationalists, monarchists.
When told the Italian army had never been valiant, Uncle Vili had immediately challenged an Alexandrian Greek to a duel, especially after the latter had reminded him that all those Italian medals and trinkets hardly altered the fact that Vili was still a Turkish rascal, and a Jewish one to boot. This infuriated Uncle Vili, not because someone had impugned his Jewishness — he would have been the first to do so — but because he hated to be reminded that many Jews had become Italian through shady means. The weapons their seconds had chosen for the occasion were so obsolete that neither of the two duelists knew how to wield them. No one was hurt, apologies were made, one of them even giggled, and, to foster a spirit of fellowship, Vili suggested a quiet restaurant overlooking the sea, where on this clear Alexandrian day in June everyone ate his heartiest luncheon in years. When it came time for the bill, both the Greek and the Italian insisted on paying, and the tug-of-war would have gone on forever, each alleging his honor and his pleasure, had not Uncle Vili, like a conjurer finally compelled to use magic when all else failed, pulled out his choicest little phrase, in this case meaning, "Now am I or aren't I a man of honor?" The Greek, who was the more gracious of the two, conceded.
Uncle Vili knew how to convey that intangible though unmistakable feeling that he had lineage — a provenance so ancient and so distinguished that it transcended such petty distinctions as birthplace, nationality, or religion. And with the suggestion of lineage came the suggestion of wealth — if always with the vague hint that this wealth was inconveniently tied up elsewhere, in land, for example, foreign land, something no one in the family ever had much of except when it came in clay flowerpots. But lineage earned him credit. And this is what mattered to him most, for this was how he and all the men in the family made, borrowed, lost, and married into fortunes: on credit.
Lineage came naturally to Vili, not because he had it, nor because he mimicked it, nor even because he aspired to it with the leisured polish of lapsed aristocrats. In his case, it was simply the conviction that he was born better. He had the imposing bearing of the wealthy, the reluctant smile that immediately sweetens in the company of equals. He was patrician in thrift, politics, and debauchery, intolerant of poor posture more than of bad taste, of bad taste more than of cruelty, and of bad table manners more than of bad eating habits. Above all, he detested what he called the "atavisms" by which Jews gave themselves away, especially when impersonating goyim. He derided all in-laws and acquaintances who looked typically Jewish, not because he did not look so himself, or because he hated Jews, but because he knew how much others did. It's because of Jews like them that they hate Jews like us. When snubbed by an observant Jew proud of his heritage, Vili's answer trickled down his tongue like a pit he had been twiddling about his mouth for forty years: "Proud of what? Are we or aren't we all peddlers in the end?"
And peddle is what he knew and did best. He even peddled fascism to the British in Egypt and, later, on behalf of the Italians, in Europe as well. He was as devoted to Il Duce as he was to the Pope. His annual addresses to the Hitler Youth in Germany were highly applauded and became a notorious source of strife within the family. "Don't meddle, I know what I'm doing," he would say. Years later, when the British began threatening to round up all adult Italian males living in Alexandria, Uncle Vili suddenly rummaged through his closets and began hawking old certificates from the rabbinate of Constantinople to remind his friends at the British Consulate that, as an Italian Jew, he couldn't possibly be considered a threat to British interests. Would they like him to spy on the Italians? The British could not have asked for better.
He performed so brilliantly that after the war he was rewarded with a Georgian estate in Surrey, where he lived in lordly penury for the remainder of his days under the assumed name of Dr. H. M. Spingarn. Herbert Michael Spingarn was an Englishman whom Vili had met as a child in Constantinople and who had stirred in him two lifelong passions: the Levantine desire to emulate anything British, and the Ottoman contempt for British anything. Uncle Vili, who had given up his distinctly Jewish name for an Anglo-Saxon one, cringed with half-concealed embarrassment when I told him that this fellow Spingarn had himself been a Jew. "Yes, I recall something like that," he said vaguely. "We're everywhere, then, aren't we? Scratch the surface and you'll find everyone's a Jew," jeered the octogenarian Turco-Italian-Anglophile-gentrified-Fascist Jew who had started his professional life peddling Turkish fezzes in Vienna and Berlin and was to end it as the sole auctioneer of deposed King Farouk's property. "The Sotheby's of Egypt; but a peddler nonetheless," he added, reclining in his chair as we both watched a flight of birds descend upon the murky, stagnant waters of what must have once been a splendid pond. "Still, a great people, these Jews," he would say in broken English, affecting a tone of detached condescension so purposefully shallow and so clearly aware of its own fatuousness as to suggest that, when it came to his co-religionists, he always meant the opposite of what he said. Following praise, he would always vilify these admirable yet "scoundrel Jews," only then to change his tune once more. "After all, Einstein, Schnabel, Freud, Disraeli," he would declaim with a glint in his eyes and a half-suppressed smile. "Were they or weren't they?"
He had left Egypt — to which the family had moved from Constantinople in 1905 — a would-be cadet with fire in his gut and quicksilver in his eyes. He had studied in Germany, served in the Prussian army, changed sides when the Italians joined the war in 1915, and after Caporetto sat out the rest of the war in Cyprus as an interpreter, returning to Egypt four years after his discharge, a polished rake in his late twenties whose insolent good looks betrayed a history of shady deals and ruthless sieges in the battle of the sexes. Impressed by his conquests, his sisters judged him decidedly masculine, what with the roguish tilt of his fedora, the impatient Come, come now in his voice, and that patronizing swagger with which he would come up and grab a bottle of champagne you were trying to uncork and say, Let me — never overbearing, but just enough to signal there was more, much more. He had fought in all sorts of battles, on all sorts of sides, with all sorts of weapons. He was a consummate marksman, a remarkable athlete, a shrewd businessman, a relentless womanizer — and yes, decidedly masculine.
"Are we or aren't we," he would brag after a conquest, or a killing in the stock market, or on suddenly recovering from a hopeless bout of malaria, or when he saw through a shrewd woman, or knocked down a street ruffian, or when he simply wanted to show the world that he was not easily hoodwinked. It meant: Did I show them or didn't I? He would use this phrase after negotiating a difficult transaction: Didn't I promise they'd come begging for my price? Or when he had a blackmailer thrown in jail: Didn't I warn him not to take me for a pushover? Or when his beloved sister, Aunt Marta, came crying to him hysterically after she had been jilted by yet another fiancé, in which case his phrase meant: Any man worthy of the name could have seen it coming! Didn't I warn you? And then, to remind her she was made of stronger stuff than tears, he would sit her on his lap and, holding both her hands in his, rock her ever so gently, swearing she'd get over her sorrow sooner than she thought, for such was the way with lovesickness, and besides, was she or wasn't she?
Later, he would buy her roses and placate her for a few hours, maybe a few days. But she was not always easily swayed and, sometimes, scarcely would he have let go of her and gone to his study than he would suddenly hear her shrieking hysterically at the other end of the apartment: "But who'll marry me, who?" she kept asking her sisters as she sobbed and blew her nose on the first rag that fell her way.
"Who'll marry me at my age, tell me, who, who?" she would ask, shrieking her way back into his study.
"Someone will, you mark my words," he would say.
"No one will," she insisted. "Can't you see why? Can't you see I'm ugly? Even I know it!"
"Ugly you're not!"
"Just say the truth: ugly!"
"You may not be the most beautiful —"
"But no one in the street will ever turn around to look at me."
"You should be thinking of a home, Marta, not the street."
"You just don't understand, do you? All you do is twist my words and make me sound stupid!" She began raising her voice.
"Look, if you want me to say you're ugly, then all right, you're ugly."
"No one understands, no one."
And she would drift away again like an ailing specter come to seek comfort among the living only to be shooed away.
Aunt Marta's crises de mariage, as they were called, were known to last for hours. Afterward she had such pounding headaches that she would put herself to sleep early in the afternoon and not dare show her face until the next morning, and even then, the storm was not necessarily quelled, for as soon as she got out of bed she would ask whoever crossed her path to look at her eyes. "They are puffy," she would say, "aren't they? Look at them. Just look at this," she would insist, nearly poking her eyes out. "No, they're fine," someone would respond. "You're lying. I can even feel how puffy they are. Now everyone will know I cried over him. They'll tell him, I know they will. I'm so humiliated, so humiliated." Her voice quavered until it broke into a sob, and down came the tears again.
For the rest of the day, her mother, her three sisters, five brothers, and sisters- and brothers-in-law would take turns peeking in her door, carrying pieces of ice in a small bowl for her eyes while she lay in the dark with a compress of her own devising. "I'm suffering. If only you knew how I'm suffering," she would groan, in exactly the same words I heard her whisper more than fifty years later in a hospital room in Paris as she lay dying of cancer. Outside, sitting with his other siblings in the crowded living room, Uncle Vili could no longer control himself. "Enough is enough! What Marta really needs — we all know what it is." "Don't be vulgar now," his sister Clara interrupted, unable to stifle a giggle as she stood at her easel, painting yet another version of Tolstoy's grizzled features. "See?" Uncle Vili retaliated. "You may not like the truth, but everyone agrees with me," he continued with increased exasperation in his voice. "All these years, and the poor girl still doesn't know a man's fore from his aft." Their older brother Isaac burst out laughing. "Can you really imagine her with anyone?" "Enough is enough," snapped their mother, a matriarch nearing her seventies. "We must find her a good Jewish man. Rich, poor, doesn't matter." "But who, who, who, tell me who?" Aunt Marta interrupted, overhearing the tail end of their conversation on her way to the bathroom. "It's hopeless. Hopeless. Why did you make me come to Egypt, why?" she said, turning to her elder sister Esther. "It's hot and muggy, I'm always sweating, and the men are so dreadful."
Uncle Vili stood up, curled his hand around her hip, and said, "Calm yourself, Marta, and don't worry. We'll find you someone. I promise. Leave it to me."
"But you always say that, always, and you don't ever mean it. And besides, who do we know here?"
This was Vili's long-awaited cue. And he rose to the occasion with the studied nonchalance of a man driven to use exactly the words he has been dying to say. In this instance, they meant: Can anyone really doubt that we are well connected?
This was an oblique reference to Uncle Isaac, who, while studying at the University of Turin, had managed to become a very close friend of a fellow student named Fouad, the future king of Egypt. Both men spoke Turkish, Italian, German, some Albanian, and, between them, had concocted a pidgin tongue, rich in obscenities and double entendres, that they called Turkitalbanisch and which they continued to speak into their old age. It was because Uncle Isaac staked all of his hopes on this undying friendship that he had eventually persuaded his parents and siblings to sell everything in Constantinople and move to Alexandria.
Uncle Vili was fond of boasting that his brother — and, by implication, himself as well — "owned" the king. "He has the king in his breast pocket," he would say, pointing to his own breast pocket, in which a silver cigarette case bearing the king's seal was permanently lodged. In the end, it was the king who introduced Isaac to the man who was to play such a significant role in his sister's life.
Aunt Marta, who was nearing forty at the time, was eventually married to this man, a rich Swabian Jew whom everyone in the family called "the Schwab" — his real name was Aldo Kohn — and who did little else but play golf all day, bridge at night, and in between smoked Turkish cigarettes on which his name and family crest had been meticulously inscribed in gold filigree. He was a balding, corpulent man whom Marta had turned down ten years earlier but who was determined to pursue her again and, better yet, without demanding a dowry, which suited everyone. At one of the family gatherings, it was arranged to leave the would-be's alone for a while, and before Marta knew what the Schwab was about, or even had time to turn around and pull herself away, he had grabbed hold of her wrist and fastened around it a lavish bracelet on the back of which his jeweler had inscribed M'appari, after the famous aria from von Flotow's Martha. Aunt Marta was so flustered she did not realize she had broken into tears, which so moved the poor Schwab that he too started to weep, begging as he sobbed, "Don't say no, don't say no." Arrangements were made, and soon enough everyone noticed an unusually serene and restful glow settle upon Aunt Marta's rosy features. "She'll kill him at this rate," her brothers snickered. (Continues...)
Excerpted from Out of Egypt by André Aciman. Copyright © 1994 André Aciman. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
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