I’ve finished Durrell but am still fascinated with Alexandria, so I’m reading Out of Egypt: A Memoir by Andre Aciman, a saga of his family’s life in the city covering most of the twentieth century. It’s apparently somewhat fictionalized, but that neither surprises nor distresses me—all memoirs are to some extent, and he writes so well I don’t really give a damn, not to mention that nobody disputes the accuracy of his portrait of the city. Anyway, I wanted to quote here an interesting discussion (from Chapter 2) of the languages of Jewish Alexandria:

To the three who had discovered one another, Ladino spoke of their homesickness for Constantinople. To them, it was a language of loosened neckties, unbuttoned shirts, and overused slippers, a language as intimate, as natural, and as necessary as the odor of one’s sheets, of one’s closets, of one’s cooking. They returned to it after speaking French, with the gratified relief of left-handed people who, once in private, are no longer forced to do things with their right.

All had studied and knew French exceedingly well, the way Lysias knew Greek—that is, better than the Athenians—gliding through the imperfect subjunctive with the unruffled ease of those who never err when it comes to grammar because, despite all of their efforts, they will never be native speakers. But French was a foreign, stuffy idiom and, as the Princess [his paternal grandmother] herself would tell me many years later, after speaking French for more than two hours, she would begin to salivate. “Spanish, on the other hand, réveille l’âme, lifts up the soul.” And she would always slip in a proverb to prove her point…

The Saint’s husband [these are the maternal grandparents], a Jew born in Aleppo who spoke no Ladino, would often return from work and peek through the wrought-iron fence into the arbor. … “Spanish, Spanish,” the Aleppid would mutter as he and his wife crossed Rue Memphis on their way home, “always your damned Spanish,” while she apologized for not being home yet, trying to explain to a man whose native tongue was Arabic why she had tarried past her usual hour…

Monsieur Jacques… despised Ladino because everything about it conspired to exclude him from a world whose culture was foreign to him, as much by its customs and sounds as by its insidious niceties and clannish etiquette. The more his wife delighted in speaking it, the more repulsive it became, and the more it pleased her to remind him—as her father had reminded her to remind him—that Arabic may have been Arabic, but Spanish was always going to remain Spanish!

For more on the languages of Sephardic Jewry, see here.

N.b.: Tomorrow morning my wife is undergoing minor surgery which will, nevertheless, keep her in the hospital until Tuesday morning; I will be coming home when they kick out the visitors, but I may or may not be in the mood to post, so you have been warned. Go read some Proust or something if this space is silent, and if you feel like it, send good wishes towards western Massachusetts.

Update. Thank you all for your good wishes; they seem to have worked, since my wife came through with flying colors—in fact, the nurse who took her to the recovery room said in 37 years of nursing she’d never seen anyone emerge from surgery so chipper. She was, in fact, so feisty she insisted on sending me home to relax and have a timely dinner so I could get to bed early and have a good night’s sleep for a change. And my dinner will center around a large tamale I got from a Salvadoran eatery around the corner from the hospital; I don’t remember having had Salvadoran food before, and the pupusas I had for lunch were delicious. Pupusa, now there’s an odd word—I’ll have to look up the etymology…

Further update (Aug. 2008): Thanks to shmegegge in this MetaFilter thread (which links to this Aciman article), I have learned that Aciman’s name used to be pronounced the Turkish way (Adjiman), but is now officially pronounced as an English-speaking reader would expect (‘æs-i-mæn). So now we know.


  1. Andre Aciman says

    Thanks for quoting me. I hadn’t read these passages in over a decade.

  2. marie-lucie says

    I am of completely French descent but I have some interesting additions to my family tree. My mother’s brother married a woman who was born in Alexandria and raised in France and whose parents were Middle Eastern Jews: her mother (whom I remember very well) was born in Turkey from a Syrian father and a British mother, and her father was also Middle Eastern although I don’t remember from which country. I discovered recently that he had a document dating from the 18th century, delivered by a French consul and declaring that his ancestor was to be considered a French citizen (or rather subject, as this was before the Revolution). The family had relatives in Alexandria who considered themselves – and were considered – Europeans and as such were expelled by Nasser. According to my aunt they had been used to a life of mostly leisure with servants to run their houses and underlings to run their businesses, while they went to the beach and played tennis (shades of the Alexandria Quartet), so it was hard for them to adapt to living in France in reduced circumstances. Marriage breakups occurred as a result and I met one lonely husband who used to visit my aunt, his cousin. He spoke French just like the rest of us. I never heard the expulsion described in terms of antisemitism (other Europeans were expelled too) but I attributed it to their being perceived as “idle rich” Europeans who had nothing in common with the local people who were working for them.

  3. Steve, if after reading André Aciman you still feel attracted by Egypt and Alexandria you could try Robert Solé, an Egyptian-born French writer and currently Le Monde’s ombudsman (I don’t know if all his books have been translated in English though). He’s not Jew but from a Greek Catholic family. As he says himself, they were Catholic but not Latin, Greek but not Orthodox — another one of these subtle Mideastern combinations.
    In my opinion Le Sémaphore d’Alexandrie (The Alexandria Semaphore) and Le Tarbouche are charming little books, full of humour and tenderness.
    Meilleurs vœux de guérison to Mrs Hat.

  4. I was Googling around for Alexandrian authors and found the Greek author Harry Tzalas and his book Farewell to Alexandria, about whom I know nothing. Tzalas is involved in restoring the thousand year old Greek library in Alexandria, which I suppose should be called the “New Alexandria Library.”
    Then there’s the French writer Sarane Alexandrian, who was not from Alexandria.
    Beyond that it’s the familiar Cavafy, Marinetti, Ungaretti, Durrell, and Forster, though I’m sure there are more.
    I don’t know about Arabic literature. Mahfouz seems more identified with Cairo, but there’s this: “Alexandria and the Later Novels of Naguib Mahfouz.” In The Arabic Novel in Egypt (1914-1970). Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organization, 1973. 63-70. And there were several other Arabic authors who showed up on Google.

  5. How lovely to see you here, Mr Aciman. “Out of Egypt” is, indeed, a lovely book. But, I must take you to task for the most recent thing of yours I read, your wrong-headed and unsympathetic review of W.G. Sebalds “The Ring of Saturn.”
    It was in the 1998 NYRB, but I only read it two months ago. And it made me want to fling my laptop across the room. 🙂

  6. “Rings,” obviously, not “Ring.”

  7. That’s a really enjoyable book. I just read it a couple months ago for a book club at my local library, and I meant to email you and recommend it. I forgot, but there was no need.

  8. How lovely to see you here, Mr Aciman.
    My sentiments exactly! Now, while I’ve got your attention, could you tell me how to pronounce Aciman? I vacillate between a French reading (c=s) and a Turkish one (c=j). An etymology would be great too, but I really hate not knowing how to say proper names. Oh, and I’m still loving the book (now about halfway through).

  9. It’s not a name related to Assemani, is it? (The Assemani family, Maronite Christians, did a lot of scholarship about the Middle East back around 1700 or so.)

  10. marie-lucie says

    Clicking on “somewhat fictionalized” above will get you to a parallel view of Aciman’s words about a certain character in the book and what seems to be the source for them in a historical work. Continuing to read, you will discover the proper pronunciation of “Aciman”.

  11. marie-lucie says

    p.s. Aciman writes so much better than the source in question!

  12. Well, there are references to Agiman and Adjiman, which would tend to suggest that c is being used as in Turkish for j (with Agiman representing an Egyptian Arabic pronunciation), but I can’t make out why you would choose to use modern Turkish orthography for your name if you’re not a Turk. That’s why I was hoping to get the answer from the man himself.

  13. marie-lucie says

    LH, my comment was not for you (since you yourself set up the link), but for other interested persons. Perhaps the spelling “Adjiman” has connotations in Alexandria that “Aciman” does not have? And it does seem that Mr A has some links with Turkey.

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