1951. In an apartment on the Rue Delta in Alexandria, a young boy plays a game to wile the hours away, recording and cataloging the makes and license plate numbers of the cars that pass on the street below. Inside, his mother, grandmother and an assortment of matrons gather and gossip over a game of rummy. Tourists flock to the city, to the beaches and warm waters. A rich mixture of languages play across the tongues of residents and visitors alike. But on the ground tensions are building, political frustrations run deep, threatening to fracture the tentative ties that have bound Muslims, Jews and Christians in this cosmopolitan playground. For thousands of families clinging to a fragile petit bourgeois existence, this may be one of the last glorious seasons of romance, horse racing and cool drinks served by discreet and obliging servants.
“True, Alexandria was rotten to the core, but its rot had roots, was saturated in history. Dig deep through the muck and you’ll find the remnants of a crumbling papyrus, or a lock of hair from the shrunken head of a mummy. Something is rotten, truly rotten in the kingdom of Alexandria. That’s why I love her so much, Alexandria. A city that lets you live like a carefree lord without even being rich. Of course you had to be European, or at least Jewish, and of minimal intelligence, and even that wasn’t always a staunch demand.”
From the opening pages of Alexandrian Summer, the newly translated novel by Israeli author Yitzhak Gormezano Goren, the author’s deep affection for the city in which he spent the early years of his life is unmistakable. His narrator makes it clear that the story he is about to share is, in fact, his own. He is that 10 year old boy watching the cars pass. But he debates how best to tell the tale, admitting that he is looking back with the perspective and wisdom of an adult. First person, third person, real names, fictitious identites with the standard disclaimer? He opts to shift his focal length, like a photographer adjusting the depth of field of his lens, moving in and out of a series of scenes that collectively recount the visit of the Hamid-Alis, family friends from Cairo, who have come to spend the summer. Young Robby does not know it at the time but by the winter his family will leave for Israel. It is his mature self who is able to look back and sift through the events of his final summer in this magical city. Through Robby and a colourful canvas of characters – immediate family, extended family, friends and neighbours – he unfolds a story that is at once intimate and personal, and part of a broader political sea change.
From the moment that the Hamid-Alis pull up in their Topolino, an aura of glamour descends on the apartment on the Rue Delta. The father Joseph, a small man with his characteristic fez, is a former jockey who tasted fame and glory until the sudden and tragic death of his beloved mare. But rumours persist that, in his Turkish blood is a Muslim past that he abandoned to convert to Judaism when he fell in love with Emilie, his full bodied and patient wife. David Hamid-Ali, their 17 year-old son, is a perfectly pressed and groomed specimen of athleticism, a rising star on the horse racing circuit who has been groomed to take on his father’s sport. But the dedication is dependent on a strict diet to combat the tendency to weight gain inherited from his mother. And the one true desire of his heart, Robby’s older sister, is playing with his emotions. Finally the youngest son, 11 year-old Victor, is overlooked by his parents, subject to frequent pummeling at the hands of his older brother and, thus neglected, he occupies himself by engaging in sexual play with Robby and his friends. By the time they climb back into the Topolino to return to Cairo, the Hamid-Ali family will be reduced, weakened and irrevocably changed. Before long Egypt and Alexandria will also undergo a revolution.
By evoking small snapshots of the emotions, interactions, observations and events of this steamy summer, Gormezano Goren paints a heartbreaking and tender portrait of family dynamics complete with his own “Greek chorus” of rummy playing matrons. At the core of this story is the racetrack rivalry between David and the lightening fast Muslim jockey Al-Tal’ooni. Although he triumphs in the first race of the season, David’s loss in the second begins a series of conflicts between father and son, and spiraling self doubts and depression in the aging Joseph. Against the backdrop of a legendary city at a moment when the life that the Jewish and other European residents is about to unravel and dissolve, this one last summer blends the nostalgia of childhood with the disillusion of age to create a timeless tale, beautiful and sad.
Originally published in Hebrew in 1978, Gormezano Goren worked closely with translator Yardenne Greenspan to prepare this first English edition. In an interesting essay on Lit Hub, he recounts the challenges of preserving the polyglot quality of discourse in Alexandria and the value of being able to revisit the original text after so much time. Alexandrian Summer is published by New Vessel Press.