Wednesday, May 23, 2018

In Their Father's Country, by Anne-Marie Drosso

This family saga affords readers intimate glimpses of a cosmopolitan and multicultural Cairo, as seen through the eyes of the Sahli sisters, Claire and Gabrielle. Though their father is Syrian-born, and their mother Italian, the girls attend a convent school, speak French to their parents, and receive no formal education in Arabic. Raised in privilege, the sisters must deal with the changes the century brings.

The opening scene of the "bourgeois" bedroom where their lawyer father lies ill includes Venetian lamps, Persian rugs, and alabaster bookends. However, this family eschews gilt trim and "the usual profusion of ornamental objects." The neighbourhood is also revealing. The apartment is "within walking distance of Groppi's, Lemonia's, the Cafe Riche, the Mohammed Ali Club, and Au Bouquiniste Orientale." The girls' father, Selim Sahli, frequents all these places.

The novel opens in 1924. While the the British hope to maintain their "special relationship" with Egypt, nationalists want full independence. Shot by assassins, Sir Lee Stack is rushed to the Anglo-American hospital, and Selim explains to his teenage daughters that Syrians, Greeks, Lebanese and Armenians are in an awkward position. He blames not only "'the nationalists who blow our distinctness out of proportion,'" but the insularity of his own community as well.

Very different in personality, the sisters continue to love each other, even as they wrangle over a changing array of problems involving men, children and servants. Young and middle-aged, they tend to argue over romantic and social matters. As they age, they openly disagree over politics.

The sisters' lives move forward against the backdrop of a rapidly changing society. Both marry within their own sheltered milieu, then bear and raise children who leave the country. As she ages, Claire becomes more frustrated by her poor Arabic. ''How," she asks her sister, "can we pretend we're informed when we don't read the Arabic papers and only read the pathetic French dailies intended for people like us?" In contrast, Gabrielle has very little interest in this problem.

Eventually, the very personal issue arises of whether Claire should accept her niece's invitation to live with her in Paris. What would be the emotional effects on her own children if she moved in with Gabrielle's daughter in old age? Can she really risk making her children feel guilty and angering her sister?

The decision of whether to leave Cairo also entails facing the question of whether to try to give up her apartment. Keeping it would require a certain amount of subterfuge, since owning an apartment in Cairo is illegal for people living abroad. This question may well resonate for contemporary Canadians. As city real estate prices skyrocket, some laws have been passed to discourage foreigners from buying Canadian homes and leaving them empty.

Yet new taxes intended to protect local homeowners against foreign investors have drawn the ire of native-born Canadians with summer homes in other towns or cities. Owning a summer place is part of a long tradition that goes back to a time when families who could afford it spent long holidays at a rural lake cottage. Kelowna was once home to such rustic cabins. There, as elsewhere, former cabins have been subsumed by the growing city. Like Claire, these people do not want to completely sever ties to old homes.

Drosso's novel evokes other contemporary dilemmas. We live in times when it's no longer a given to have a stable family home with relatives living nearby. On the contrary, it is increasingly common to have relatives living in multiple countries. This gives a special poignancy to Claire's dilemma about leaving Cairo in old age.

Another theme that echoes strongly concerns the isolation that results when people in multicultural cities maintain close ties with their own ethno-cultural communities and remain unaware of what goes on in among adjacent groups. The choice of burial vaults is telling. Claire and Gabrielle's "emotional separateness in life" is dramatized by the fact that one sister wants to be buried with her husband's people, while the other prefers to be interred beside her parents. But obviously, vault burials are not universal in Cairo. Muslims adhere to very different funerary customs. Perhaps the separateness between the sisters hints at the distance between ethnic communities in the city.

Above all, this is a story of family, the mother-daughter bond in particular. Having grown up with a rather cold mother who kept important secrets from her children, Claire decides that her daughters matter "more to her than the relationship" they have with her. She even tells her sister she can understand a mother "cutting off all ties with her child, if that were necessary for the child's happiness." Claire's thoughts on the mother-daughter bond also suggests how secrets kept by one generation can colour the lives of those who follow.

From the perspective of her very different character, Gabrielle pooh-poohs Claire's ideas about the depth of mother love, saying she doesn't believe a word of it. However, perhaps this is her way of avoiding the emotions that threaten to overwhelm those who take time for introspection. Possibly her quick dismissal is an inverted recognition of how avoidance of certain emotionally difficult challenges has been a pattern in her life.

For me, this work of family drama against a historic background I knew little about was an informative and absorbing read.

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