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The Nile: The Longest and Mightiest River in the World
Unlike Moses, I wasn't pulled out of the reeds floating on the Nile. But like Moses, I was born a few meters away from the shore of this beautiful river.
My father was a third-generation Egyptian whose great-grandfather hailed from Switzerland. He could be considered the original hippie. He didn't believe in military service, which is obligatory for three years in Switzerland for any male who reaches the age of nineteen. After the three-year period, you are obligated to serve fifteen days every year thereafter. Well, he didn't like this idea and fled to Egypt, where he started a brewery business.
My father Paul was born into this rich beer-brewer family, whose wealth, unfortunately, was soon squandered by his father's expensive amours. My grandfather had a passion for women and poker-especially expensive women, like a great actress or opera diva. In order to carry on a successful wooing campaign, he needed funds for the pied à terre, diamond ring, pearl necklace, or perhaps the purchase of a little castlesomewhere in the mountains. A generous and flamboyant sort, but not, alas, the sort of person who holds onto money! As for poker, he loved it, and he played fast and he played hard. He might have parlayed his poker into an asset had he possessed sufficient guile to hold his bluff and his cards. But it was not so, and between expensive women and bad cards, my grandfather's fortune spilled into the dust of Egypt. My father had to start working at age fifteen after the brewery collapsed.
My father met my mother when she came to Cairo to give a series of guitar and piano concerts. Theresa De Rogatis, my mother, was a world-class performer in both guitar and piano. She was born to an impoverished aristocratic Neapolitan family, the De Rogatises, who traced their lineage back to the time when King Carlos Bourbon of Spain came to rule Naples, which at the time was the capital of the kingdom of the two Sicilies (which comprised the provinces of Campania, Calabria, Sicily in Italy and Aragon in Spain) bringing, in his entourage, the first Carlos De Rogatis as his advisor and lawyer. Carlos De Rogatis was a Spanish Grandee (that is, he could keep his hat in front of the King. Big deal!). Carlos Bourbon was the son of Phillippe V (grandson of Louis XIV and Isabella Farnese).
My mother's father was a harsh taskmaster, but it was because of his demands that Mother became a musical enfant prodige, a child prodigy. Like the young Mozart, she was performing at age six and gave at that age a classical guitar concert for King Emanuel of Italy.
My father and mother met after my mother's first concert in Cairo-evidently, it was "love at first sight." They were married soon after, and my mother gave up her career. She stopped giving concerts but went on to become the first woman ever to become Director of the Conservatory of Music in Cairo. My brother Mario, who is also a musician, and I, were the result of our parents' union. Our home was blessed with good music and bad food-if we hadn't had cooks in our household, Mario and I would have been malnourished!
My father and I loved the local foods, whereas my mother and brother were not terribly fond of them. Dad and I often went to modest little restaurants, "holes in the wall," that served Full medames, that is, a fava-bean concoction with tomatoes in hot pita prepared with tehina (or tahini, a sesame-seed paste). "Full" is the national dish of Egypt that has kept the poor well nourished for centuries on a few cents a day. We would also seek out 'Taamiyeh,' falafel street vendors. Falafel is a Middle East specialty made from ground chickpeas, formed into balls and deep-fried. Or we would frequent little restaurants serving only kebabs and koftas (ground lamb seasoned with spices, formed into patties, skewered, and grilled) with baba-ghanoush and humus and tehina. Like Proust with his madeleines, the scent of these dishes and their spices awakens in me all kinds of remembrances of those long-ago days, and like another Frenchman I seem to "have more memories than if I were a thousand years old." (J'ai plus de souvenirs comme si j'avais mille ans, as I think Baudelaire once wrote.)
I was born in Cairo on January 15, 1926. At that time, this city was considered the "Paris of the Middle East." Cairo was a beautiful and sophisticated city of a million inhabitants, perhaps the most cosmopolitan city in the world. Our family had a large apartment in the center of Cairo, a mile flora the banks of the Nile. The apartment had three pianos, and the floors were covered with Persian rugs. There were servants speaking a variety of languages, Arabic, Nubian, French, Italian, and Greek. My mother was never able to master the Arabic language, despite her musical ability, and I used to enjoy watching the faces of our servants when Mother was trying to give them some simple orders. Her broken Arabic was funny, but her astonishment at not being understood was hilarious-and everyone around registered these rapid shades of emotion, embarrassment and hilarity on their faces. It was an education in "expressive gestures"-of perhaps the faux pas!
Despite her trials with Arabic, Mother continued to compose music for guitar and piano. She was successful, and some of her studies and études are in use today. Mario and I still regularly receive royalties from her compositions, used in music schools in Italy and elsewhere.
There were all sorts of things for us to do in Cairo. My brother and I took long walks in the desert, or went camping, fishing, and hunting. We would go to the city of Alexandria to go bathing of skin diving in the Mediterranean or Port Said or Suez in the Red Sea. In September and October, we used to go down to the main bridges of the city to watch the Nile, normally a slow-moving river, that suddenly becomes a raging torrent, threatening to overrun the bridges that span the city. We felt one with the ancient history of this land, where the overflowing and inundating Nile fructified the earth in its renewing flood each year.
In many ways, the ancient world remained as it had always been; and in my childhood I experienced things from time immemorial. I grew up in a world of faithful Islam, and my early years and memories are all colored by it. I can still hear inwardly the sound of the Muezzin singing "Allahu Akbar, La Allah Il Allah"-the faithful being summoned to prayer, and I can remember the throngs of people in the streets, in the heat and humidity and dust of Cairo. Somehow, the poetry of the Arab tradition became a permanent part of me even though my career in modern settings was far from these early beginnings. My mother was a practicing Catholic, my father a nonpracticing atheist. The world I came into was a hybrid of East and West, ancient and modern, cosmopolitan and native-as rich with many threads as a Persian rug, and as colorful as the soul.
I wrote a poem about these early memories in 1990, more than sixty years after these early days of my life:
CAIRO Remembered past, nostalgia, remember. A summer night the Muezzin calling the Faithful to the evening prayer. Hot, humid, the night sky shimmering, a little dust in the air, a typical summer night. Our only room facing north, the only room with cool, cross ventilation, a pleasant night, hot, but no so hot. The Muezzin's voice modulating: "Allahu Akbar, La Allah il Allah." Voice in the darkness. Voice in the sky. Voice that now brings tears, remembered, poignant. No microphones blaring, a single modulating voice, sad, my past, my levant the synthesis of the East, my birthplace, my root, my youth, my fatherland. In the street below hundreds of faithful, stopping, facing east, praying, the traffic at a standstill, the usual street noises abated. The Muezzin's voice mesmerizing in the distance, modulating, haunting, memories, Cairo.
When the time came for me to go to primary school, my parents were faced with a dilemma because there were so many schools to choose from. I already spoke Arabic, because that was the language of the streets and the language I spoke at home with the servants. I spoke Italian, because mother was Italian, and I spoke French, because my dad spoke to me in French. I suppose, therefore, that it was inevitable that my parents decided to send me to an English school!
I will spare you the details of my first experiences in this stuffy, colonial Victorian school. Suffice to say that the use of the "cane" was the favorite pastime of the provosts, teachers, and anyone else of authority. Yes, at the time the use of corporal punishment was part of the curriculum. The methodology was simple. For minor infractions, you got about five to ten strokes on your open hand. For infractions that were perceived major (and most of them were), you got the strokes on your knuckles. I can attest that this hurt very much and is perhaps the reason why so many educated English people suffer from arthritis when they reach middle age.
Many people ask me what sort of accent I have when I speak English. My answer is usually, "British," but I must have started with a British accent having attended British school. Later on, my accent in English was impossible to tell. It changed; as time went on, people didn't know if my accent was "coming or going"-especially as there was some French, Italian, and maybe Middle Eastern mixed up in it. In short, it is practically impossible to trace my accent, and I defy even Professor Higgins to determine it!
At year's end, my parents, having examined my knuckles, agreed with me that life in an English school was for English lads and not for their little Claude. So the next decision was to send me to the Lycée Français. There I spent three years of pure bliss. I didn't have to work hard, since my French was already good. And for the rest of the courses, I just listened and never did any homework. But something that happened at that school marked me for life.
My father usually picked me in the courtyard at the end of the school day. He was always late, since he left work at about the time classes ended. I dreaded being in the yard waiting for him because the yard was then the domain of three bullies who terrorized the younger kids. For a long time, I avoided being targeted. But one day it finally happened. They set upon me, demanding that I empty my pockets and give them all the money I had. I had none. That did not please them and they started punching me all over. I tried to defend myself, but they were bigger and stronger. Suddenly, I heard a voice behind me: "You can take them, Claude!"
It was my father, who wisely did not interfere with the fight but gave me encouragement to fight my own battle. It gave me a strength I didn't know I had. The bullies now saw an adult in their domain, and like all bullies, they were cowards. Yet my father wanted me to put up a strong fight so that in future they wouldn't bother me. With his encouragement, I started to aim my punches more accurately, turning the tables on them. It worked. This event gave me a new perception of myself that has remained with me all my life. When, in that moment, I whispered to myself, "Claude, you can deal with these types, you can tackle anything!"-I date the real beginning of my determination in life. I have followed what seemed to me to be right and succeeded even where it seemed futile to try to reach a goal.
Mlle Rousseau was the Director of the Lycée and a good friend of the family. One day, she came for "high tea" and after the pleasantries, she said to my parents, "Claude has been with us for three years and is learning nothing. He is highly intelligent, but doesn't seem to want to study. I don't think that we can do anything for him anymore. I suggest that you send him elsewhere and maybe, maybe, they can do better for him."
Thus, my parents had yet to face another decision. Where to send me this time? It wasn't easy to find another school with stricter rules than the lycée that would teach me something without destroying my knuckles in the process. After numerous consultations with friends, advisors, and a psychologist, my parents sent me to the Ecole des Frères, run by Roman Catholic priests who accepted no nonsense from students. I gained a certain wariness about organized religion during my stay there. By the time I finally graduated from primary school, it looked as if I would break all records in the number of schools I had attended during my early youth.
Once again, my poor parents had to make a decision about the next step. Mario, my older brother, had not prepared them for this, having attended only two schools during his entire scholastic primary and secondary years. He was also a talented musician and became the best piano player my mother, who was the Director of the Cairo Music Conservatory, ever had. It was clear that I was fast becoming the black sheep of the family.
Since my brother Mario had done extremely well at the American University of Cairo, I was sent to Lincoln College, a high school run by the AUC. There, because of my athletic abilities and interest in all extra-curricular activities, I finally learned how to study, and studied hard, lest I be deprived of the things I enjoyed. Lo and behold!-to the surprise of both my parents, brother, friends, and not the least myself, I did well at Lincoln and graduated with a high-school diploma.
As I was growing up, and thinking about future career paths, I realized I wanted to go to hotel school in Switzerland. Several factors influenced this decision, the main one being that my godmother owned a hotel in Cairo. I often spent my free time there, helping wherever I could. The second reason was financial. I spent many summer vacations in Naples, at least a month a year with my grandparents. They owned a beautiful house built on the side of a hill with a huge terraced garden where my grandfather grew tomatoes, pears, peaches, and all sorts of vegetables. My grandparents had a neighbor, Delia, who was fond of showing me the closet of one of her sons, "the Doctor." The Doctor owned two pairs of shoes, three shirts and two suits. Delia's other son was a waiter. His closet was full of elegant clothes, shoes, and shirts. It was obvious to me that the waiter made much more money than the doctor did!
But the hotel business grabbed my interest mostly because of the kind of person I am. I did spend three years after high-school graduation studying journalism at the American University in Cairo while I was waiting for things to open up for me in Europe. There was a war going on, which would make it impossible for me to get to Switzerland and begin my hotel studies.
Then a miracle happened: May 8, 1945! VE Day! I was nineteen; I could finally travel abroad! It seemed the beginning of a whole new life, when I could finally start studying for the hotel business. I planned to attend the Ecole des Hoteliers, Switzerland, the best hotel school in the world. Once again, I reapplied, procured a passport, and cast about for means to get to Lausanne. In the meantime, my father, always the wise man, suggested that while waiting for transportation, I should take any hotel job in Cairo. It was clear he thought I should be sure of my vocation before spending all that money in Lausanne.
I found a temporary job as barman and controller at the Mena House Hotel, situated at the foot of the pyramids. My job description stated that I should work with the barman to check that all drinks were properly registered. Hotel barmen had been known to put their kids through college at a hotel's expense by not properly registering the drinks. When the barman took his breaks, I took over to work the shift. It was an enjoyable job, although it didn't pay much. I helped augment my income by guiding tourists to climb Cheops, the largest of the pyramids. Finally, after a few months of pyramid climbing and bar oversight duties, I secured a berth on the SS Volendam, a Dutch passenger ship that had been used during the war as a troop transport carrier.
Excerpted from Sang Froid by Claude Feninger Copyright © 2006 by Claude Feninger. Excerpted by permission.
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