Above: Maya (far right) with her Alexandrian friends on an unforgettable visit to the Valley of the Kings, 1952.
‘LISTEN … TO THE ALEXANDRIA YOU ARE LOSING’
Alice Springs News Online presents two responses to Maya Cifali’s memoir, The Silver Bracelet, launched last weekend at Olive Pink Botanic Garden.
Introduction by RUSSELL GOLDFLAM
Maya Cifali’s Alexandrian memoir, The Silver Bracelet, is not her first such venture. Thirty years ago, Maya published a collection of poems in French; she translated one of those poems into Italian, which won her a prize not in Alexandria, but that other pearl of the Mediterranean, Palermo. That Palermitano prize-winning poem recalls an erotically charged moonlit night on a beach – a Mediterranean, Egyptian, Alexandrian beach.
The city of Alexandria, her face turned towards Europe, her feet planted in Africa, swarming with Muslims, Christians and Jews, bewitched Maya Cifali. And in due course, Alexandria bewitched me.
In my case, the spell was from a few brief visits, spread out over almost every decade of my adult life, a period of more than 40 years, but enriched and deepened by dipping – sometimes almost drowning – in the extraordinary Alexandria of the imagination, the Alexandria evoked in the works of CP Cavafy, of EM Forster, of Lawrence Durrell, of Naguib Mahfouz, and now, I am delighted to say, of my dear friend Maya Cifali (right, photo by Pip McManus).
Maya’s Alexandrian enchantment isn’t, like mine, a fleeting taste seasoned with literature: hers bears the indelible stamp of her earliest memories, the precious souvenirs of childhood. Alexandria is imprinted on Maya the way the feel of springy coarse buffalo grass under my bare feet was imprinted on me when at the age of six I stepped out onto our front yard in a new city, Perth.
The Silver Bracelet is shot through with those primal experiences that make and mark a girl as the woman she will grow into: the smells, the sounds, the salty sandy breeze on her face, the taste of menenas – those date-filled pastries her Nonna used to make while filling Maya’s head with impossibly exotic stories – the heady stew of accents all bubbling deliciously together: French, Italian, Arabic, Turkish, Armenian, Greek, English.
Let me tell you how Alexandria’s magic drew Maya and me together into its web. I came to Alice in 1981 and worked for a few years at IAD, with interpreters. And then my partner Pip and I decided to go and live in Egypt. We’d travelled through Egypt ten years before and it had got its hooks into us.
Pip, in fact, had had her first taste of Egypt as a ten year old in 1962, when she’d sailed through the Suez Canal and stopped off to see the pyramids, and bartered a pair of socks and a bar of soap for a little leather camel stuffed with sawdust delivered in a cane basket via a rope winched up the side of her passenger liner by some local boys in a tiny boat way down below – all this just a handful of years after Maya had left Egypt to go to university in Paris. So back then, Pip, who incidentally designed the cover of The Silver Bracelet, and Maya were, we now know, like ships in the night, almost within touching distance.
Anyway, Pip and I had a big Egyptian-themed going away party – all our Alice Springs friends came dressed as Cleopatra, as Tutankhamun, as archaeologists, as Palestinian guerrilla fighters, and one even came as a pyramid – and then we set off for Egypt.
I nearly got a job in the College St Marc, which I now find from Maya’s book was one tram stop up the line from Maya’s childhood tram stop – Camp de Cesar, or Cambo Cizar or Campo Cesare or Caesar’s Camp, depending on which language Maya was using that day. And yes, it’s called that because Julius Caesar and his army, so they say, pitched their tents there. Imagine, growing up knowing that around the corner, two thousand years ago, the most important man in the whole world, the Donald Trump of his day, used to roll out his swag!
Left: Maya (2nd from left) at Stanley Beach, Alexandria in 1953.
Anyway, Pip and I ended up getting jobs elsewhere, but, as is the way in Egypt, we got friendly with someone who had an uncle who knew some people from the glory days in Alexandria, so we drove across the Nile delta to Skandria, as the Egyptians call it, and looked up the uncle. We liked the look of this dilapidated old deco hotel with a big sign on it saying “Hotel Leroy”, so we booked in. And lo and behold, it turned out that not only did our friend’s ancient uncle live in that very hotel but he owned it.
His name was Laki Zervudachi. And Mr Zervudachi welcomed us into his luxurious but greatly reduced world, with his exquisite collection of art and antiquities, all now crammed into his suite a couple of floors above our room. And then he introduced us to his coterie of friends, all in their seventies and eighties, remnants of the cosmopolitan colonial elite who had made Alexandria the opulent showpiece of Mediterranean culture in the first half of the twentieth century.
We spent an unforgettable afternoon down at Montazah beach, in their little wooden cabana, just like the cabins Maya describes in The Silver Bracelet, on the beaches of Alexandria where she spent her summer holidays as a teenager, the beaches she later magicked into her prize-winning poetry.
A year later we came back home and I returned to work at IAD. And that’s when I first met Maya, who, while I had been in Egypt, had, much as I had myself a few years previously, come up to Alice Springs on spec and immediately fallen in love with the place, and its people. And, just as I had found that much in Egypt reminded me of Alice Springs, Maya found that much in Alice reminded her of Egypt: the limitless blue skies, the heat and dust of desert places, the date palms, the sounds of strange languages in the street, and the jostling of profoundly different cultures rubbing up against each other, worlds apart, living together.
To my amazement, here back in my old Alice Springs workplace, I now found a native-born Egyptian, also working with interpreters, a fellow Jew with an affinity to the Arab world, who, like me, had the sense of being strongly drawn to, and deeply connected with these two disparate communities on opposite sides of the world, Alice and Alex.
And there were more specific connections too: the Hotel Leroy (at right) where we’d stayed, is in Maya’s book, because her father got a position there after the war as its business manager. He must have known the Zervudachis, one of the foremost banking and commercial dynasties in Egypt prior to independence and nationalisation in the 1950s, when they all (apart from Laki) were scattered far and wide to all corners of the earth, like so many members of Maya’s own family. Which is why, to this day, when Maya travels, to Paris, to Lausanne, to Brussels, to Geneva, to wherever, she always has cousins to visit.
Leaving Alexandria is the sorrowful event that frames Maya’s story, and The Silver Bracelet is shot through with intimations of the uprooting which is to come. That is why she has chosen one of Cavafy’s most famous poems as her epigraph. It concludes:
“Listen … to the exquisite music of that strange procession, / and say goodbye to her, the Alexandria you are losing.”
One of Mr Zervudachi’s friends, blue-eyed, parchment-skinned Mr Saleh, took us back to his villa and showed us a contract of sale drawn up around the turn of the twentieth century. It recorded the purchase by Saleh’s father, a Turkish nobleman, of Saleh’s mother, a Circassian girl who had been abducted by a Cossack on horseback to be sold to the Ottoman court in Cairo. And here, at the very end of Maya’s book, is the marriage contract of her maternal grandparents, Chaim Chamla and Adele Mizrahi, registered at just about the same time, 1893, laboriously handwritten in fancy French.
And both contracts, as no doubt was de rigueur back there and then, certify that the bride is a virgin, and specify the price the parties have agreed the groom should pay for that privilege, which in the case of Maya’s grandfather was a bride price of two hundred crowns.
Some years later, we met up with Maya on a return trip to Egypt, where we had a great time brushing up on our street Arabic, reacquainting ourselves with ful wa taamiyah – those inimitable and delicious Egyptian fava bean and felafel sandwiches, rediscovering our favourite places, and lamenting the things that had been lost.
Left: Revisiting Alexandria in 1990.
So much had changed, and since then they have changed so much much more. Not all for the bad, I should say: the Great Library of Alexandria was in its heyday the largest in the world, until it was burnt down, quite possibly by that bloke who used to camp around the corner from Maya’s place, Julius Caesar.
Now, against all the odds, the Alexandrians have built the magnificent Bibliotheca Alexandrina, a twenty first century treasury of literature that aims to restore Alexandria as a world centre of intellectual property. And they’re also planning a spectacular underwater museum so that visitors can view the remains of the Pharos lighthouse, one of the original Seven Wonders of the World, in situ on the seabed.
Those Alexandrians are a tenacious, passionate lot, and nothing is more important to them than preserving history and heritage. And Maya Cifali is an Alexandrian. Her modest memoir isn’t on the grand scale of the Bibliotheca or the Pharos Museum, but it is conceived in the same spirit. And so much of Alexandria has been lost, or scattered, or betrayed, or withered away, or ground down. Which is all the more reason it is so important that Maya has committed her precious memories to paper, as the charmed world she grew up in is already a millennium away. Alf shukran wa shukran, ya habibti.
[We asked Maya to provide a translation of Russell’s closing words. She wrote: “‘Thousand thanks and thanks, my much loved friend.’ This is word for word. Could be: ‘Thousand times thank you, my very dear friend.’ The first is more ‘Arab’ in its flavour.]
Above: At the launch from left, Maya Cifali, Russell Goldflam, Kieran Finnane (speaking), Craig San Roque, who read CP Cavafy’s poem, ‘The God forsakes Antony’, written in Alexandria in 1911. Maya uses it as the epigraph to her memoir. Photo by Pip McManus.
Review by KIERAN FINNANE
I have known Maya Cifali over the years as a woman of small stature, large eyes, an alluring accent and strong opinions, to be reliably seen at art events and Sunday night films at Araluen. I’ve sat with her at a dinner table perhaps only once, and in a cafe on another occasion. I was aware of the fact of her Egyptian birth but it would have taken many dinners, many cups of coffee to enter into the world of her girlhood in the way I have done now, thanks to her memoir The Silver Bracelet.
In fact I doubt whether its intensity of atmosphere – let alone the detail of her genealogy and of the way that seismic events in the geopolitics of Europe and the Middle East impacted upon her family’s lives over generations – could have been transmitted in the conversation of friends.
And perhaps this transmission can not even be made in the conversations between family members over decades. It seems Maya herself has realised this, setting down these pages primarily with her children and grandchildren in mind, so that they can hold more clearly these lines back to the past and the ways they crossed one another to create a family of such richly intertwined heritage.
I will come back to this but first let me say that The Silver Bracelet surpasses family interest. It is not offered as a work of literature but it is marked by vivid writing and tells a grand story. Maya writes to engage, not just to set down. She knows the value of language, and has several to draw upon. English is her fourth language. In Central Australia we are not often exposed to such linguistic facility except amongst Aboriginal people.
Right: Maya and mother Aimée in 1940.
Although written mainly in English, the book has sonorities of French and Alexandrian Arabic and Italian. Maya knows the allure of names – place names, people’s names. Haim Chamla, Nonn’Adele, Tante Rosette. Roushdi, Rue Beni-Souef, Ibrahimyeh, La Palestra.
She knows how to describe places and people; her descriptions are vivid, sensual, full of heat and light – this is a sun-drenched book – and of colour and smells, many smells.
Her grandfather Haim made his fortune in the textile business. His warehouses were located in the harbour area, west of Alexandria. Maya visits to choose the fabric for her summer dresses:
“The acrid odours of stagnant cotton, old string and musty hemp or jute, brown paper rolls, dry mice droppings and dust hit my nostrils with pleasurable disgust. I can smell it now.” (p46)
Later in her family’s apartment on Rue Beni-Souef, the doorkeeper Khalil is washing the building’s stairs with a single bucket of water for all five floors:
“After the first flights of steps, the water turns cloudy, dusty, then muddy; then smelly, then really dirty, and the specific smell of our ‘freshly washed’ stairs floats in the air for the whole day.” (p162)
Maya knows the power of simile yet doesn’t overdo it, as many a more experienced writer can do. This is how she opens the chapter “My good Nonn’Adele”, about her maternal grandmother:
Left: Nonn’Adele with Aimée, 1919.
“Once upon a time there was an old lady. She had silver hair, gathered in a heavy bun. She was plump and looked very sweet; her hands were soft and white, with perfect pink nails like the sugar almonds given out and shared at weddings and christenings.” (p93)
We can see those hands. It’s a lovely light introduction to this sweet-natured woman.
Now listen to quite a different character sketch:
“I knock at the door and after a long while, Signora Pesticcio opens it. In a flowered black and pink Chinese dressing gown, a broad figure appears in a puff of English cigarette smoke, a powdered white face with a heavy bun of dyed black hair and heavy kohl-black eyes. The red lips, with the hanging cigarette, complete the Chinese mask … Signora Pesticcio is Neapolitan by birth. … Her voice is welcoming – ‘Ciao Mariuccia”’- with the deep, coarse husky pitch of the chain-smoker. The whole apartment stinks of cold smoke.” (p57)
Signora Pesticcio is not important in the narrative but these evocations of distinct individuals – and there are many of them – bring this past world alive. Here Maya is in Cairo, not Alexandria, visiting her paternal grandmother, Nonna Maria Pimpach who is living in a small room in Signora Pesticcio’s apartment. Maya enters her story, with a knowing switch to present tense:
“I am sitting on her high brass bed. Nonna Maria allows herself to reminisce. She is revisiting her younger days. I am older by then, almost 13, wearing my silver bracelet, and almost her confidante. We speak Italian. I understand every nuance of that beautiful language.” (p63)
The writing about her grandmothers is particularly strong.
“I am the rich owner of both sides of the Moon. I have two grandmothers, Nonn’Adele and Nonna Maria. … I have the double privilege of growing up with two and they make me explore the two faces of the one Moon: the Jewish and the Christian, the French and the Italian.” (p55)
These grandmothers, more than anyone, seem to have given anchor to Maya in the swirl of events and the complex of relationships that defined her girlhood. Hers is a family of diaspora upon diaspora.
Right: Nonna Maria in 1930 and 1954.
On the maternal side they are Sephardic Jews, originally from the north-east of Algeria. Already in Egypt, in 1870 they are declared French by decree in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair – the declaration a French political manoeuvre that Maya describes.
On the paternal side, the family come from Trieste, in 1880 fleeing Austrian persecution of the Italians there. Nonna Maria is a girl at the time, but remains attached to the Austro-Hungarian Empire throughout her life as an exile in Egypt.
On this side of the family, there is also a line of missing fathers – there is a mysterious uncle, lo Zio, but no husband in the life of Maria’s mother, and Maria in turn has her firstborn son, Luigi, Maya’s father, out of wedlock. As a single woman who must earn her living, Maria places Luigi in an orphanage until she later marries and reclaims him.
Luigi, who becomes known as Louis, marries Aimée, Maya’s mother, but as if in an echo through the generations, he misses crucial years of Maya’s childhood when he is interned as an Italian in British-controlled Egypt during World War II. This absence and perhaps its effect on him, as well as the emotional reserve formed in his own difficult youth, leads to a certain distance in their relationship, although Maya has deep respect for his resilience and determination. It leads her to make this observation:
“To be tagged ‘figlio di nessuno’ [‘son of no-one’] on your birth certificate was a handicap to be overcome; it was a dishonour to be born ‘fatherless’. Individual identity, if not superiority, was to be earned through relentless efforts. The shift from family name, family honour and family fortune to personal achievements and integrity is one of the remarkable changes of modern times. The 20th century recognised the quality of a self-made man.” (p90)
Left: Luigi (at right) with other Italians interned at Camp Fayed, 1942.
She makes many such astute observations, of herself and others and broader circumstances. And in this quality of sharp observation and thoughtfulness, her mother Aimée may have had a hand.
There are many strong female characters in Maya’s narrative, Aimée among them. She trains as a nurse to free herself from her father’s hold and the necessity of marrying. Through professional experience and personal inclination she moves into the practice of social work. She comes across as a woman of wonderful warmth, energy and initiative, and there’s a vivid chapter where Maya recalls the visits she made with her mother to people needing assistance in the poor neighbourhoods of Alexandria after the war.
The book is dense with detail of family and neighbourhood life in this fascinating city, intertwined with public life and historical events on a grand scale. There’s not space and no point to try to unravel its web here – read the book – but I must mention the central conflict that changed Maya’s life forever and was the beginning of the long path that brought her here to Alice Springs, at the other end of the earth.
This was the Suez Crisis of 1956 , which resulted in Egyptian independence and the expulsion from the country of all Jews. Maya was studying in Paris at the time and all of a sudden found herself without a home or homeland to return to. On her mother’s side of the family they had been in Egypt for four generations.
Maya is philosophical about this, recognising the rightness of Egyptians throwing off the yoke of colonial rule, but her loss is acutely felt nonetheless. She dwells on the separation at various points in the narrative, which loops in and out of a straight chronology, as one would expect from the workings of memory. Late in the book she writes this:
“We abused the hospitality for more than 150 years; we were merely guests but we became masters. We became fatter and richer at the expense of the people of Egypt. We imposed our lifestyle. We had to go. We were not part of the problem; we were the problem.” (p135)
Right: The dining room at Rue Beni-Souef.
Her parents eventually followed her to Australia and they are buried in Allambie Heights, NSW, whereas her grandparents have their graves in Alexandria. She writes movingly of the “successive migrations” that “reinforce the character, enhance personal resilience”: “Easily said, but there is always some part of the self that goes hungry.” (p218)
She has to some extent assuaged that hunger with her return to Alexandria in recent years, where she was touched to be recognised by some Egyptians as a “daughter of the land”. And also by this return in memory to the years of her growing up, so vividly evoked. The book is a feat of memory, supported by meticulous research, but more than that, by a life well lived and lived in love.
Perhaps the light of Alexandria would not have burned so brightly for Maya if her family had not loved her as they did. I think Luigi and Aimée, Nonn’Adele and Nonna Maria, would have felt their job well done and been very proud of Maya, their daughter and granddaughter, today.
Note: All black and white photos reproduced here and many more are found in Maya’s memoir.
Below: ‘Mazarita’, the apartment block in the centre of the photo, was the Alexandrian home of Maya’s mother’s family for 40 years.