The Sun at Midday: Tales of a Mediterranean Familyby Gini Alhadeff
This astonishing memoir is the story of a family who always felt slightly foreign in every country and developed a chameleon-like ability to adapt to their surroundings. Gini Alhadeff was born in Alexandria, Egypt, and grew up in Cairo, Khartoum, Florence, and Tokyo. With a vivid gift for narrative, Alhadeff evokes the languid Alexandria of the early decades of this century (where her mother’s family made its fortune in cotton) and some of its beguiling honorary citizens: a violet-eyed aunt who refused to have new slipcovers made for her sofa so President Nasser would find the old ones when her house was impounded; a cousin who was taught the limits of reason by Wittgenstein at Cambridge and became a monsignor; a gynecologist uncle interned at Auschwitz and then Buchenwald, who lived to tell his tale with stark unsentimentality. With a keen sense for both the comic and the tragic, Alhadeff sizes up what is left of the family fortune: a tendency to live beyond one’s means, the stories and legends that survive the rise and fall of families, and the present as a paradise for those who, having lost all, have nothing to lose.
The Alhadeffs made and lost more than one fortune in the Italian Jewish communities in Rhodes and Alexandria well before Gini was born, by which time her branch of the family was both Catholic and solidly middle class. In fact, Alhadeff didn't even realize she was from illustrious Jewish ancestry until she was 22 and living in New York City: Someone asked her if she was a Sephardic Jew. "No," she said, then, "I don't know," and finally, "Yes, maybe." Suddenly, all the signs that she'd noticed throughout her convent-school upbringing became clear. She goes over them here, commenting on her multilingual relatives (who have taken up, discarded, and then retrieved a number of religions) with insight and an uncanny knack for detail. Her mother's family, the Tilches, are seen in the full pride and pathos of their fallen glory. Although they can trace their ancestry in Egypt back to the 16th century and were once wealthy cotton merchants, they are now forced to live on the kindness of inferior relations. Nelly Tilche, Alhadeff's great-aunt, stays with Alhadeff's family and justifies her place with them by leading a crusade against missing and frayed underwear, searching, darning, and even speaking up for "the disappeared." Alhadeff's cousin Pierre is a poor priest who drops the names of the rich and famous and lives the life of a celibate playboy. Alhadeff injects a more somber note, however, in the story of her uncle Nissim, who was captured in Rome during WW II and sent to Auschwitz. Told in Nissim's voice, this long passage is stark and moving.
Alhadeff tackles complex relationships with humor and wisdom; listening to her reminiscences is an entertaining, frequently surprising, and moving experience.
“Spills over with the aromas of exotic places and foods, arresting characters, anecdotes and stories. . . . [An] unexpectedly complicated, abundant family memoir.” –Los Angeles Times
“It is called a memoir but it is also (and all at once) a history and a novel and a poem, a beautiful and undefinable piece of work.” –Joan Didion
“A vivid, eloquent discussion of [Alhadeff’s] complex ancestry and its implications. . . . She writes with elegance and panache.” –Penelope Lively, The New York Times Book Review
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The Sephardi Mediterranean from which I come is a world of many languages and no borders. My father's family speak Ladino among themselves; my mother's speak French. Most of them have a "foreign" accent in every language they speak, though they speak very fluently Contained in this trace of an accent, in this shred of difference, is the nature of their identity: belonging everywhere, but not quite. In Tuscany, my father is il signore cinese and in Italy, though we are Italian by passport, our Arabic surname, often mistaken for Russian, makes us all foreigners. We were never more Italian, in fact, than when we were in Japan because there it meant nothing that our surname did not end in a vowel.
Language to us is not neutral: it is a place, an identity, and a filter. My father uses it to establish fleeting complicities with waiters, cabdrivers, doormen. He can do so in seven languages, including Greek, Arabic and Japanese, the only one he learned as an adult.
Our generation, that of my brothers and myself, has achieved a deeper level of camouflage: we too belong everywhere and nowhere, but this telltale racial characteristic has been obscured by the chameleon-skin of our new identities. When we left Japan, my father choreographed our reentry into the West: one brother was sent to England, became visibly, audibly English, married an Englishwoman and has two daughters who are anti-Tory and feminist, and would be hard to describe as anything but English. The other brother was sent to America, became ostensibly American, married an American, though he now lives in Italy, and has a son who considers himself more American than Italian. I was sent to Florence and became Italian, to England and became English, to New York and became a New Yorker, if not an American. I am the worst of the chameleons: I have swallowed several ethnic identities whole and no single one lords it over the others. They are all equal and fully developed. I never feel I am translating "myself." There is an "original me" in every language I speak, though this "original" is constantly rendered false by the presence of other, just as original, "originals." And I have to curb my tendency to imitate the accent, dialect, or inflection of the person I am speaking to, and of the country, city, or neighborhood I am in. I sometimes find it hard to distinguish between identity and mimicry. At this rate, it is easy to see that our origins will soon have become invisible.
I come from two versions of the Mediterranean: my mother's family, well, who knows, it has been said that they were pirates who settled in Livorno. There is little evidence to support that, and the name Pinto is, after all, quite common. If this particular strain of Pintos have one thing they share it is lethargy, a quality hardly suited to piracy. Even so, my great-grandfather ended up making a tidy fortune as a cotton merchant in Alexandria. My grandfather, Silvio, vastly increased this fortune in between visits to the Sporting Club, afternoon naps, and secret assignations.
With the help of his partners--relatives, mostly, of which the youngest was my uncle Aldo--little was left of Pinto Cotton for President Nasser to nationalize. Years later in Milan, Aldo met and married a woman with whom he would, in the course of less than three decades, build a fashion empire, acquire an island in the Caribbean, and houses by the sea, in a forest, in a city in Italy. Secretly, he dreams of golf and the protracted holiday of retirement.
In Alexandria, my maternal grandmother ran her considerable staff of cooks, parlor maids, gardeners and chauffeurs, and organized afternoon canasta parties for what, even at the time, was an enormous number of people. Our parents had been living in Nairobi while we remained in Alex until the start of the Suez Canal crisis in 1956.
My father's family lived in Rhodes, which was then still an Italian colony, and only left when Mussolini's "racial laws" were passed in 1938. My grandfather was a merchant banker and owned a large portion of the island (which to this day has a street named after him), but still my father, thirteen and the youngest of seven, was barred from attending school. The entire family, except for the eldest son, Jacques, then moved to Alexandria. Jacques was left in charge of the family business and of the family fortune (except for one building belonging to my grandmother that she had, by some premonition, refused to sign over to him). In the years that followed he became increasingly convinced that it was all rightfully his, and ignored my grandfather's repeated requests for funds.
"The world is like a cucumber," says an Arabic proverb my father likes to quote in the original, "sometimes you have it in your mouth and sometimes you have it up your . . ."
So my parents met in Alexandria, in their midteens. She was at the English Girls' School; he was at Victoria College. It was here that their "Englishness" was planted and nurtured. Five years after they met, they decided to get married, or rather, he asked her to marry him, despite the fact that her brother Aldo thought, with characteristic disloyalty towards his nearest and dearest, that my father was throwing himself away, and told him so.
They had a honeymoon by the sea, at Agami, and there the news reached them from Alex that Gino, my mother's brother, had crashed into a farm cart on his way home from a party and died. The photographs show that he was very good-looking in a Leslie Howard sort of way, and there were at least two dozen of his horse-jumping trophies in my grandparents' bedroom. His untimely disappearance conferred on him all perfections. He was barely twenty when he died, my grandmother barely forty-five, but she took to flattening her hair under a hair net and wearing black, grey and lilac. Whatever interest she'd had in society deserted her, which left my grandfather free to make love to an undisclosed number of Alexandrian wives--French, British, Italian. I don't want to make him sound more rakish than he was: behind a Victorian exterior, it was what everybody did, given a chance, and what with the climate, the languor and the natural incestuousness of colonial life, there was no lack of chances.
Neither family was very religious, my mother's even less so than my father's. It is one of the effects of Italy that even people who have been transplanted as often as Jews have, tend to feel Italian before they feel Jewish. And to feel Italian is to feel a little Catholic, after all. Not long after my parents had had their first son, Giampiero, my father decided they should convert to Catholicism. They were in their early twenties then, and one of my father's six brothers, Nissim, who had gone to Rome to study medicine, had been taken by the Germans, first to Auschwitz, then to Buchenwald. For a time, before news reached Alexandria of his whereabouts, no one even knew if he was still alive. It undoubtedly contributed to my father's decision to convert. No member of his family followed the example, except for us, naturally, though we didn't have a choice. Many years later (and by then Nissim had become a prosperous obstetrician in Jamaica Estates, Queens), we learned that none of them approved in the least, no matter what his reasons might have been. But since both of my parents' families were always discreet to the point of being uncommunicative, and certainly as much as possible avoided discussing matters of love, money and religion, I had no idea I was of Jewish descent until I was almost twenty, and came to New York.
In fact, we were brought up as Catholics, which meant that we were baptized, confirmed, and sent to Catholic schools--in Tokyo, they were the only schools for foreigners. When my mother had announced that we were moving from Varese and that we would have to guess where to, we named every city we could think of and had practically given up, till I yelled, "Not Tokyo?" and she nodded. My father had been asked to start a branch of Olivetti, the company that made typewriters and calculators, in Japan. We were given Il poliglotta inglese, a very thick book with a Union Jack on the cover whose only appreciable result was that I learned to say beh-ah-oo-tee-full. Bribes were offered to make me get through Little Women in English, but to no avail: I arrived in Tokyo at the age of ten knowing little more than shurrupp and bye-bye.
At the Sacred Heart in Tokyo, whose gravel driveway the feet of boys were not allowed to touch, I wore a white veil and white gloves, sang, "Jesus wants me for a sunbeam," and kneeled in front of a statue of the Virgin Mary reciting, "Oh Mary, I give thee the lily of my heart, be thou its guardian forever," planting a paper lily in a box at her feet. I expect it was our purity we were entrusting to her, and in that sense the prayer differed from an Italian one of later years, "Oh Mary, you who have conceived without sinning, allow us to sin without conceiving." But as far as my father was concerned, being Catholic boiled down to attending Mass on Christmas Eve. Religion was never discussed at home, nor the subject of his conversion. But one family religion that did come with us from country to country was the Mediterranean one of superstition. It was as much a part of our life as the rules of good manners: no walking under ladders, no hats on beds, no open umbrellas in the house, no seating thirteen people at a dinner table, no passing the salt shaker from hand to hand, no pouring wine backhandedly, no crossed handshakes, no toasting with water, no advancing on a street that had been crossed by a black cat, no spilling wine without dabbing it behind the ears, no spilling salt without casting it behind one's shoulders, no lighting more than two cigarettes with one match, no breaking mirrors without throwing the fragments into flowing water, no departures or arrivals on Tuesdays and Fridays. If any of these commandments were unwittingly violated, one had to count to thirteen skipping the even numbers, spit and count backwards, skipping the even numbers, then spit again.
If superstitions took care of what one shouldn't do, proverbs governed the rest. There were sayings accumulated from so many different cultures--Ladino, Italian, French, Turkish, and Arabic--that it seemed there was one for every situation. "You go to sleep with babies, you wake up wet," that was a Spanish one. "Never too much zeal" was French. "I know my chickens" was Italian. "One day honey, one day onions" was Arabic. It was one of the favorite family games to translate these from the original into a language that would make them sound ridiculous, like this one from the Italian, "So much does the she-cat go to the bacon that she leaves her little paw."
We lived in Alexandria, Cairo and Khartoum, then Tokyo, London and New York. For a time, between Alex and Tokyo, we lived at my grandparents' house in a place called Buguggiate, near Varese in northern Italy. My elder brother, Giampi, was sickly and had been sent to Switzerland with a witchlike governess called Mademoiselle Pourchot who was obsessed with table manners and little else in the realm of human endeavor. My younger brother, Gianchi, and I went to an Italian school in the nearby town of Azzate, where for the first time, in grade school, we studied what was after all meant to be our mother tongue. (In fact, we had already learned Arabic and French, and though the first was soon forgotten for lack of practice, the second is what we spoke at home.) There, in the course of a religion class, the parish priest explained that there were other creeds beside Catholicism, the Moslem one, for instance.
I knew there was something fishy about my grandparents' religion: they never came to Mass with us. That was it, I thought, they must be Moslems. I told the priest very excitedly. He was not only impressed but horrified and stamped home with us to talk to my grandmother. He was told that they were Jewish, not Moslem, and that made it all better, apparently, though it is hard to see why, considering that Islam at least recognizes Christ as a prophet.
There was a defection on my mother's side of the family too: Pierre, a cousin of hers, rose to the rank of monsignor in the Catholic Church. Flying from grand wedding to grand funeral, he has earned himself the honorary title of "Pastor to the Rich and Famous." One faction of the family firmly maintains that he is a spy, and if by that they mean that he is curious, they are right.
Our spinster aunt Nelly preferred Molière and Corneille to the enigmas of theology. Her disheveled mane of bluish hair prompted us to call her Ben-Gurion. She traveled with us from Egypt to Italy, Japan and England, and died peacefully on a plane.
My father's only sister, Sarah, known since her Paris schooldays as les eaux de Versailles for her easy tears, decided not to have slipcovers made for her new white couches in Alexandria so that when Nasser confiscated the house and all its contents the couches would be quite filthy. Years later, in Varese, my grandmother, who took pride in her orchard, would say to her "Aren't these tomatoes good?" and she invariably replied, "Pas comme en Egypte" (Not like in Egypt).
I have never gone to Andalusia, where both of my parents' families probably originated and remained until the start of the Inquisition, or to Izmir, where my father's mother was born, or to Rhodes (except once a quarter of a century ago), where Jacques's son still lives with his family, but I did return to Alexandria three times. The first time, ten years ago, I found our house on Abukir Road in Bulkeley unchanged except for the two new office buildings planted on the grounds where the gardens had been. Inside, it was as though my grandparents had moved out the day before. There were still many books on the shelves with my grandmother's name on them. They were probably books she did not feel were "serious" enough to take with her; my grandfather's considerable library is intact, at the house in Varese.
That house now belongs to my uncle Piero, an architect in Milan. It contains whatever furniture and objects my grandparents were able to take with them on the boat from Alex, and many albums of photographs, meticulously labeled and dated. There are images of the houses in Alex, Cairo and Khartoum, of the Sporting Club, of my grandfather with Khadriya Pasha, Farouk's brother-in-law, and other protagonists of these multiple tales.
Finally, Tuscany is where my mother and father and several of his brothers have ended up: the olive groves and vineyards remind them of Rhodes. Mentally, I consider it "home," especially because I live in New York, but it is only one of my "homes" . . .
Meet the Author
Gini Alhadeff was born in Alexandria, Egypt, of Italian parents. After attending a French kindergarten in Khartoum, Alhadeff learned English in Tokyo, graduated from high school in Florence, Italy, and from art schools in London and New York. She is the author of a memoir, The Sun at Midday: Tales of a Mediterranean Family, and of a novel, Diary of a Djinn. She founded and edited two literary quarterlies, Normal, and XXIst Century! in the late 80's, and has since contributed regularly to Italian Elle, and to Travel + Leisure magazine; more recently also to the quarterlies Bidoun, The Drawbridge and to T Magazine. In 2004 she won Mexico's Pluma de Plata award for journalism. She edited and translated the first American anthology of Italian poet Patrizia Cavalli, My Poems Won’t Change the World (FSG 2013) and her translation of Fleur Jaeggy’s collection of stories, I Am the Brother of XX, will be published by New Directions in 2017.
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