Out of Egypt: A Memoir, by Andre Aciman; copyright 1994 by author. Published in hardcover, 1994, by Farrar Straus Giroux; later by Riverhead Books, the Berkley Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Putnam, Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014; Also published in Canada.
The story of an Egyptian Jewish family and their lives in Alexandria. The book won a 1995 Whiting Writer’s Award and has received praise from a litany of reviewers, of whose excerpts themselves show mastery of the English language.
My disappointment with the author’s word choices to describe his great-uncle, however, skewer my initial anticipation in choosing to read this book. I don’t particularly care to find insulting or stereotypical language directed against Jews in my reading selections, but I have found it on a rather regular basis, and often from the same sources. The remarks I find derogatory in this book use descriptors for the great-uncle such as: arrogant; self-satisfaction; strutting; cocksure; …-braggart; hectoring, barged in; hapless; schemes; flaunting; rascal; shady; conjurer. All this, plus some negative turns of phrase in just the first three pages!
By the fourth page, he describes his great-uncle as a self-loathing type who turns the projected anti-Semitism of others inwards upon himself so that the stereotypical insults of the bully become his own self-directed hatred. He continues the derogatory terminology (via the character of his uncle) with: peddler; scoundrel; patronizing; shrewd; womanizer. It’s bad enough to hear anti-Semitism from others, let alone from “one’s own.”
Segueing into another character, also Jewish, Aciman describes him as diffident; stupid; incompetent; duplicity. By the twelfth page, we’ve added “demonic.” This is the stock-in-trade of anti-Semites and the academia of recent generations.
If you make it through all the hyperbole and hectoring, you’re suddenly sucked into the lives of these characters and the portrayal of a time not so far into the distant past, where such attitudes were more commonplace and Jews still lived among many of the Muslim lands prior to the rebirth of their ancestral homeland, Israel. Nary a Jew remains among the so-called Muslim lands and people of today; they were all driven out by the Muslims, their properties and assets confiscated, for the most part, in the land jockeying occurring at the close of World Wars I and II, when the entirety of the Middle East was carved up and redistributed amongst the powerful family scions and factions prevalent at that time — Israel was one fair entity among them.
Yet with the outpouring of a propensity of the world’s Jews and their concurrent settling among the various people of the world in the foreign lands of the “other”, many Jews were looked at as interlopers among the local populace. They were forced to live apart from the mainstream in ghettos and were legally regarded as second-class citizens or subjects and were not permitted to assimilate into many of the cultures in which they found themselves.
This was later to have had the effect of making many Jews resentful of this low-class status conferred upon them, leading to the adoption of these similar attitudes by the Jews against themselves in their shedding of ritual practices and any appearance suggestive of their Judaism which might hinder their ability to blend into the local culture. Many Jewish people do not even realize they have done this and would wholeheartedly deny it was so — but, I know; because I was one of them, anxious to shed the identity which held me back, in my own perception. Later on, when I matured and my viewpoints about the world became more pragmatic and less utopian, so too did my attitudes change to my heredity and I became proud of this noble lineage from which I spring. It is just such inklings that show up in this book, which bring tears to the eyes at its tender moments, knowing that the past as it unfolded has been written and recorded for our review in posterity.
Like a flower bud blooming, one might look on the enlightenment of our recent decades of civil rights and wonder how people could ever have held the attitudes they did during such days. Really, this is what the book is about, to me — aptly named ‘Out of Egypt’ in nodding reference to the Jewish exodus out of bondage from their human masters and into the realm of the Divine.