In this fictionalized memoir, loosely based on true events, Youssef Cohen shares a poignant story told through the eyes of a man who lost his mother as a child and, forty years later, is still haunted by the memories. He embarks on a quest to learn more about his mother; his search takes him from Manhattan to Venice to Sao Paolo and finally to Cairo. In a narrative stitched together with letters, photographs, and memories of the people he meets along the way, the man creates a fascinating tapestry of his forgotten past.
But before the man reaches his mother's grave at a Jewish cemetery in Bassatine, he must understand his own identity in order to heal from the loss he suffered so many years ago.
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By Youssef Cohen
iUniverse, Inc.Copyright © 2010 Youssef Cohen
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Chapter OneEleventh Street, Manhattan
In June 1998 I sat at my desk, unable to concentrate on the lecture I was preparing on Machado de Assis's The Posthumous Memoirs of Brás Cubas. My copy of the Memoirs is well thumbed, as I return often to my favorite passages, to the narrator's quirky puns, jokes, and diatribes, relishing them as one would the habitual gossip of a dear friend. But on that afternoon, Machado de Assis and his narrator had infected me with their melancholy. The office in which I had worked for so many years felt suddenly alien, as if it belonged to someone else, and the hundreds of books I had lovingly arranged side by side now seemed but a meaningless jumble of color and print. The disorientation I felt did not last long, but the lingering sense of futility soon made unbearable the deathly silence of my office. Hoping that a change of place would offer some relief, I picked up the New York Times and headed up Broadway toward my favorite coffee shop on Eleventh Street. At the corner of Broadway and Astor Place the sight of green mangos and yellow bananas confused me, for the smell that hung in the pasty heat wasn't of mango but rather of the sausages being fried in the metal stand next to the fruit vendor's. Not far ahead, the Gothic spire of Grace Church rose white in the sky, a giant arrow pointing to the mortals below the way out of their carnal cages.
On Eleventh Street, where my legs had taken me while my mind had drifted, I saw my father standing by the iron bars of the Spanish-Portuguese Cemetery. Impeccably suited in the gray Tasmanian wool he bought in London, a white handkerchief peeking out of his breast pocket, he looked at the worn surface of the stone graves and shook his graying head from side to side slowly, a disconsolate expression stamped on his Mediterranean face. I stood motionless in the speckled shadow of a tree watching him mutter things I could not hear until he walked away and turned the corner onto Sixth Avenue. Only then did I remember it was the sixth anniversary of his death. My father died on my brother's birthday, and on that morning I had made a mental note to call my brother in Brazil, yet my father's death had eluded my memory. Shortly after he passed away, my father began popping up here and there, sometimes on special occasions, often for seemingly no reason at all. In the beginning his apparitions frightened me, but as time went by, my anxiety was gradually replaced by pleasure, the pleasure of watching him without being seen. The years I had spent fearing his stern and critical gaze had worn me out, and many a time I had wished he would disappear, a wish that filled me with guilt when he actually did. Now that I could watch him as if through a one-way mirror, I had the best of both worlds: I could see him without having to endure either his gaze or my guilt. It mattered little whether my father in fact occasionally resurrected or I hallucinated him into being.
At first I attributed the grief that shadowed my father's face to a feeling of kinship with the handful of Sephardic Jews buried under the soft stones of the tiny cemetery. Like them, my father had his roots in the Iberian Peninsula. Both my father's ancestors and the Jews buried on Eleventh Street had fled the Inquisition. The Jews who landed in New Amsterdam in 1654 came from the port of Recife, in northeast Brazil. The Dutch had conquered Recife from the Portuguese in 1630, and under the government of the Dutch West India Company, it became a haven of religious tolerance. Recife Jews began to practice their faith openly. They built a synagogue, schools, and charities, and the records show that Jews were highly organized and deeply involved in the affairs of the community. But when the Portuguese reconquered their port in 1654, the Inquisition now saw Recife Jews, who had converted to Christianity under Portuguese rule, as relapsed heretics. Many were either executed on the spot or sent back to Portugal to be tried by the Holy Office.
Those fortunate enough to escape sailed to Amsterdam, while others sought shelter among the Jewish communities that had been previously tolerated in the more lax colonies of the Caribbean. Among the latter were the twenty-three Jews who landed on the shores of New Amsterdam. After spending weeks at sea, the Jews who made the crossing must have been amazed by what they saw when they reached the Upper Bay. The Hudson Valley and the islands must have looked to them a lush terrestrial paradise. Whales and dolphins escorted the ships entering the bay, and on the land the forests were full of flowers and fruit trees. The woods teemed with wolves, bears, foxes, and other wild animals. September 7, 1654, was 25 Elul, the anniversary of the first day of creation, and upon seeing the verdant landscape on such a day, the newly arrived Jews must have thought of Genesis and a clean beginning. But Stuyvesant did not want them in his little outpost; had it not been for the support of wealthy Jewish merchants from the West India Company, Stuyvesant would have turned them back. The twenty-three Jews stayed, and later more of them came and joined Shearith Israel, a congregation that is now housed in the imposing neoclassical synagogue on Central Park West and Seventieth Street. The Spanish-Portuguese Cemetery of Eleventh Street, at the gate of which my father was shaking his head, was acquired by Shearith Israel in 1804. It was much larger then, but when in 1830 the city opened Eleventh Street, the cemetery was condemned. The congregation petitioned to save the part that wouldn't interfere with the street and was granted its wish. The part of the cemetery that was saved is the miniscule triangle now on Eleventh Street.
My father's ancestors, on the other hand, fled to the Islamic cities of the Ottoman Empire. His paternal grandfather was from Aleppo, Syria, and he, like many Middle Eastern Jews, had moved to Cairo seeking fortune during the cotton boom of the mid-1800s. My father was born in Cairo, in 1915, and so was I, in 1947, and we lived there until the Suez War. In 1956 most of the hundred thousand Jews who lived in Egypt left, and my father took us to Brazil. But he never forgot Egypt. He could not speak of Cairo without sorrow. He missed the city; he loved it, and he gathered the courage to go back one last time only a few years before he died. When I saw him shortly after he returned to Brazil, he acted as if he were no longer of this world.
Perhaps my father shook his head in front of the cemetery because he knew what it meant to leave everything behind, like the New Amsterdam Jews had, or perhaps he regretted that all the other European Jews had not come to the New World before the Nazis got to them. My father himself had narrowly escaped the Nazis in 1942. Fourteen years before he was run out of Egypt, he had run from the Nazis in Paris. Just as they were entering Paris, where he was studying medicine, he was leaving it for Marseille. He remained in this unoccupied city until 1942, when he went to Lisbon and embarked on a ship that took him around the coast of Africa to Cairo. The diary of his voyage around Africa begins in Lisbon on January 20, where he boarded the Quanza, a Portuguese ship of seven thousand tons. "We boarded," he writes, "with apprehension. Portugal is neutral yet many of its ships, like ours, are heavily fortified. The Quanza sailed at full steam. All the way to Madeira, for two days, the sea was detestable. We were not allowed to visit the island; we admired its dense vegetation and splendid hotels from a distance. Vendors climbed aboard selling canaries for thirty Portuguese crowns a pair. They also sold superb table linens and all manner of mother-of-pearl and tortoise shells."
From Madeira the ship sailed to the island of St. Thomas in the Gulf of Guinea, and it is then that my father makes the acquaintance of a few passengers. "With us," he writes, "travels a lady called Diran Garbedian, an Armenian from Egypt who is also going to Suez, and her two daughters. Jeanine, twenty, who has a gorgeous body, is vivacious and provocative, but is unfortunately myopic and forced to wear ugly glasses. Her sister Manouche, fifteen, is also pretty but simple minded. With Alex, my friend from Paris, the four of us became inseparable. There is also Gloria Gai, the wife of an English officer (Lieutenant Colonel Gai, HMS Military Hospital in Kirkie, Poona, India), and her daughter Roda. Through Gloria I met a Belgian lady and her daughter, Nicole Demblon, a Rhodesian beauty from Salisbury. Alex and I played bridge and danced with them late into the night.
"On February 1 the ship moored at St. Thomas, which saddles the equator. Three days before, as we approached Freetown, an English cruiser flashed signals asking for the name of our ship. 'Good luck,' they answered. Around the equator the sea is as calm as a tranquil lake, but the weather is heavy, very humid, unhealthy. Not a breath of air. Far away the coast of Africa appears wild and deserted. Before our arrival at St. Thomas, as we got to the equator, we had to submit to the usual masked party. A crowned Neptune with a white beard condemned each of us in turn to be thrown into the pool or to a lime bath. It was annoying. Still, I have wonderful memories of St. Thomas. Arriving at night, Nicole and I disembarked, toured the island, and then went to a show in which the ship's orchestra participated. It was one of the most picturesque shows I have ever watched. The dancers wore the local costume. How shall I describe it? It was a mixture of Spanish, Basque, Portuguese, and Brazilian costumes with bright colors that regaled and enchanted the eyes: green mingled with violet and scarlet red. Everything bursts with color in St. Thomas; everything is perfumed; the flowers are large, brightly colored, and fragrant; the green of the trees intense; the fruits huge, juicy, and aromatic. We bought twelve mangos for one escudo, and Alex and I each ate six in a row, which gave us a serious colic. The next morning, we rented two taxis; in the first, Alex, Jeanine, and Manouche; in the second, Mme Garbedian, Nicole, and me. We toured the island, stopping at the most beautiful places. Along the beach coconut trees swayed in the wind, and on the ground fallen coconuts covered the sand. We visited a huge farm, where we found all the fruits of the earth, many of which I had never seen before. The man in charge treated us like kings. He was a mulatto with a white beard who knew Paris and spoke very good French. Apparently it rains a lot on the island. While we were there it rained three times, intensely; ten minutes later, the sun reappeared, and the island dried. The birds are beautiful. I bought three lovely miniature parrots that entertain us all. At night our ship took to the sea, and large phosphorescent fish followed us for a long time.
"On February 5 we stopped by the shore of St. Antonio de Zaira. A small boat flying a Belgian flag came from the Congo. When the Belgians on board saw their flag, they began to cry. We were moved. No one who hasn't lived the misery of occupation can understand the intensity of this emotion. Under the German boot, Belgians are starving, and their flag is banned from their monuments, palaces, and government buildings. The only flag to be seen is German."
The next day the ship moors at Lobito in Angola, and my father has to say good-bye to Nicole. "We had not made any declarations to each other," he writes, "but we had been inseparable for all this time. She had nicknamed me 'Porcupine.' She came with her parents to say good-bye to us before she disembarked, and when my turn came, she pulled me toward her and kissed me. I was stupefied. I looked at her parents, Alex, Jeanine, and Manouche. I must have looked like an idiot. She had with her the two parakeets I had given her. As the ship slowly left the dock, she waved her arms for more than a quarter of an hour and then ran after us to the end of the dock. It was difficult to leave her. Yet it was also a beautiful moment, a moment of high, intense, and pure feeling. Nicole was twenty-nine years old, yet she was still innocent. She inspired my respect from the moment I saw her. I had asked her once—after dinner on the prow of the ship—if she had ever felt physically attracted to a man. 'Yes,' she said, 'but I cannot imagine kissing a man who will not become my husband.' She was the kind of woman who would make a great companion to a man; the kind you could build a home with. Once, when her parents were dining and she had remained downstairs with a headache, I went to her cabin. She slept on her back with her arms crossed on her breasts, holding a printed copy of my thesis. She slept like Snow White. I left without making a sound."
Nothing much happens between Lobito and Lourenço Marques, Mozambique, except for the terrible seas of the Cape of Good Hope. My father mentions the natural beauty of Capetown, which he sees from afar spread at the foot of majestic mountains. On the eighteenth of February they arrive at Lourenço Marques, a lovely city that became a center of espionage during the war. "The city was close to the South African border," my father writes, "and South Africa was full of German spies. The Boers hated the English and especially the Jews. Our hotel, the Polana Hotel, was full of suspicious-looking people. Mme Garbedian, Jeanine, Manouche, Alex, and I lodged there for more than a month. Our rooms were next to each other, and the heat often forced us to walk around with nothing but towels around our waists, in Abyssinian fashion. Mme Garbedian took me in her confidence and many a time would dry my hair with a towel while I read the newspaper in her room.
"After a few days, in the lobby of the hotel, I met Dr. Schwartz, a psychiatrist from Prague who spoke good French and with whom I became friends. He was a curious man with beady eyes, and since he was a good philosemite, my being a Jew was for him sufficient introduction. Schwartz became infatuated with Jeanine, who by now was Alex's girlfriend. Alex didn't seem inconvenienced. The shrink danced glued to Jeanine's body. 'It's my technique,' he told me. 'Manouche dances well, but Jeanine! Her technique equals mine!' Sardonic as he was, Schwartz made our evenings hilarious, but he could also be nasty. I met a young woman, a physician from Goa, who was a mixture of Chinese and Portuguese, and very beautiful. Schwartz did everything he could to stop me from getting closer to her, but she came to my bedroom anyway when Mme Garbedian and her daughters were out.
"The clipper Ville de Strasbourg sailed to Suez on April 10 at six in the morning. Only Alex and I had tickets; the Garbedian family had to wait for another two weeks. The night before we sailed, Alex, Schwartz, and I drank until morning. Schwartz drove us to the dock, with Alex sitting next to him. At one point he told Alex, 'You are very nice, but Jeanine needs a grown man, a guy like me.' Alex patted him on the back amicably. 'Good Dr. Schwartz,' he said, laughing. The scene cannot be described; it was unbelievably funny.
"On April 22, the Ville de Strasbourg docked at Aden. We saw nothing of Aden. We stayed there for nearly ten hours, the time necessary to load coal on the ship. The officer who came aboard (Abd El Hamid Ghanem was his name) invited us for a coffee. Happy to talk about himself and his country, he was all smiles, and his hospitality, like that of all Arabs, was irreproachable. At four thirty in the morning, we lifted anchor, and we should be in Port Soudan in three days, to Suez in four, then Cairo, my family, and my house. I am anxious to hug my father, my mother, my little sisters, and my brothers. I haven't seen them in four years; four years that have seen the outbreak of the war and the defeat of France, our France, our second homeland."
At the coffee shop next to the Spanish-Portuguese cemetery, a bare-navel odalisque led the way to a small table between the window and the bar. I sat facing shelves of elaborate pastries, the most attractive of which was a cylindrical mango mousse cake, a good-looking multilayered affair on a crusty chocolate base. I ordered only coffee. The odalisque asked me if I wanted anything else, and after I shook my head, left me alone with the Times. I tried to read but could not focus, absorbed as I was by the associations my father's apparition had triggered. His dark face circled in my mind as fiercely as a vulture round its dying prey. He wanted something from me. The odalisque came back with my coffee, and, as I was thanking her, I became aware that I had missed the obvious. When my father shook his head by the gate of the Spanish-Portuguese cemetery he must have been thinking of another cemetery, in Al-Basatin, just outside Cairo. Bassatine Cemetery dates back to the eleventh century, and it is there that my father buried my mother in December 1952—only six years after they wed. Shortly before he died, my father spoke about her for the first, and last, time.
Excerpted from Odette by Youssef Cohen Copyright © 2010 by Youssef Cohen. Excerpted by permission of iUniverse, Inc.. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
This is a little gem of a book! Delightful and thought-provoking with its images and ideas, it will linger in your mind long after you put it down. Loved it!
There are so many facets to this moving book. It is written in the style of a memoir, but memoirs are about memory. This novel is about not remembering and about the yearning, the wanting to remember, the need to have some memory of a loved one when you have none or very little. The narrator was young when his mother died - at that age when you might have wisps of memory or events, but you're not sure if they are real or imaginary. The narrator's journey becomes, then, a journey to remember, to feel emotion, affection, and connection to his mother and his early childhood in Egypt. He is not always successful but the journey itself is deep and meaningful. This novel is also a story of diaspora, both personal and universal, across time and across continents. The narrator takes us from New York to Venice, Sao Paulo, and Cairo, from today to sixty years ago, as he pulls up his roots, sometimes by force, sometimes by choice, and resettles in one country and then another. Through the stories of the richly drawn characters of the novel, the author tells the poignant story of the Sephardic Jewish diaspora and of all refugees around the world. It is a must read, for this is the story of our times.