Population expulsions, state expropriation of private property, the mass movement of ethnic, tribal or religious groups, dispossession, enforced statelessness and the favouring of one ethnic or religious group above another, not to mention the rights of indigenous populations which were so often trampled upon during the era of colonialism — sadly these all spring to mind when we consider momentous events such as the partition of India and the expulsion of the ‘Ugandan Asians’ by Idi Amin 50 years ago. A more recent example in East Africa is the oral history of the until recently ignored Mau-Mau freedom fighters.
In Hélène Alexander’s new memoir, A Life of Ups and Downs, we find a highly refreshing account by a member of Egypt’s pre-revolutionary Jewish community of life in Egypt at a time when King Fuad,
for example, had a Jewish private banker (the author’s grandfather), when the widowed wife of Sultan Hussein had Jewish ladies-in-waiting (the author’s maternal grandmother), when the Jewish High Holidays were marked by senior Egyptian politicians who put in an appearance at Cairo’s or Alexandria’s great synagogues, when Egypt espoused a multi-cultural, multi-religious society and when the great Jewish mercantile families of Egypt were involved in everything from international finance, the improvement of the cotton industry, archaeology, medicine and city planning.
Hélène Alexander was born in 1932, to parents from two of the most-established Jewish mercantile families of Egypt: The Adda and Mosseri families. Both of these families had been settled in Egypt since at least the middle of the 18th century, and by the early 20th century they were as Egyptian as the Muslim and Coptic populations.
The value of this memoir — and here I would call upon the children and grandchildren of other dispersed communities to pull out their boxes of old photographs and documents and start exploring them — is that it is a superb piece of social history. The example set by this memoir, which can also apply to other communities now in the diaspora, is that it recreates what we might romantically call ‘a lost world’. The daily life, the school years, the small retinue of faithful domestic staff are all faithfully and painstakingly documented in a narrative replete with quotidian incidents and the intervention of some great names from history. During WWII, for example, with Hélène’s family unable to cross Europe for their summer cottage on the bank of Loch Ness, her father fulfilled his life-long dream of buying an island — in the Nile at Aswan. And it is here that the list of visitors to the Nile Island of Khashanbanarti start to make their entrance: the operatic soprano Dame Nellie Melba, authors Somerset Maugham and André Maurois and the greatest international celebrity of the time, Sir Sultan Mohamed Shah Aga Khan III for whom Hélène’s mother used to bake his favourite chocolate cake in the days before Aswan had a patisserie!
As with the stories of Ugandan expellees who left with nothing but the tiniest sum of money, A Life of Ups and Downs details how Hélène, now unable to return to her childhood home, rather than spend a lifetime of bitter regret, started to rebuild a life in a new country. Again, with echoes of many diasporic communities, Hélène and her husband got on with their lives, raising children, and in Hélène’s case volunteering in the textile department of the Victoria & Albert Museum, and subsequently establishing a small, privately-funded museum in Greenwich to show her own world-quality collection of fans.
This memoir has in it many examples that other children and grandchildren of the dispossessed can follow. It shows how, from a few small boxes of photographs and a few surviving objects from her early days in Egypt, she was able to reconstruct a life which had totally disappeared. The paradigm that one might be able to emulate is that of capturing the history of their families’ pre-dispersal lives, how they related to members of the majority community, and to other communities among whom they lived. Who are all the nameless faces in old family photographs? What is the significance of the few surviving documents from half a century ago? And above all, what lessons can we learn?
In the fifty years since the Ugandan expulsion, many Asian families, now thankfully resettled in countries which do not go in for mass expulsions or expropriations of private property, it is, I would say, our duty to instigate similar ‘heritage’ projects in an effort to set down on paper the now faint traces of lives no longer lived and to honour all those nameless expellees whose lives are in fact as important as the great names in a community’s or in a country’s history. The careful substantiation of facts and historical events in A Life of Ups and Downs shows the deft interweaving of personal and public history and the reader will find that whenever they come across an event about which they would like to know more, a useful footnote has been provided guiding the reader to published works or newspapers.
Hélène Alexander, A Life of Ups and Downs, can be ordered from The Fan Museum, Greenwich, email firstname.lastname@example.org