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Landlocked Islands

Landlocked Islands: Two Alien Lives in Egypt

Pierre Cachia
Copyright Date: 1999
Pages: 192
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  • Book Info
    Landlocked Islands
    Book Description:

    This is a highly unusual and beautifully written book. It is the double memoir of a mother and son, Anna and Pierre, and the story takes us from Anna’s childhood in Russia and subsequent arrival in Egypt in 1901 to Pierre’s enrollment at the American University in Cairo in the late 1930s. It is fascinating, therefore, not only as a personal account of an interesting group of people but also as a social document that portrays a segment of Egypt’s society in the first forty years of the twentieth century. As a personal story, it is a rewarding insight into the early formation of a leading, well-known, and respected Arabist. His mother’s account of her own early life and tragedies reveals a remarkable woman we would wish to have known. As a social document, it gives us a rare—perhaps unique—picture of the life of foreigners in Egypt who were not part of the elite, privileged, ruling class, revealing much about the choices that were available to them in education, career, marriage, and social mixing. Landlocked Islands thus offers the social historian a study of some minorities in Egypt during the first half of the twentieth century; it also opens up the whole question of expatriate life in Egypt. But, above all, it is an entertaining and intriguing tale, a book that one constantly finds oneself eager to pick up and read.

    eISBN: 978-1-61797-235-5
    Subjects: History, Sociology

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-vi)
  3. Prologue
    (pp. vii-viii)
    Pierre Cachia

    The European communities that thrived in Egypt in modern times were a curious phenomenon: alien minorities that were not disadvantaged but privileged, for most of them were not subject to Egyptian law and virtually all enjoyed the prestige of belonging to a culture that was widely held — even by many Egyptians — to be superior to the local one.

    The studies that have appeared deal only with particular groups, and besides draw only on the experiences of communities in Cairo or Alexandria, which were large enough to be virtually self-sufficient. My family, on the contrary, lived in a succession of provincial...

  4. Part I Pierre’s Lines of Descent

    • Chapter 1 The Cachias
      (pp. 3-12)

      Prolific but constricted to a tiny archipelago, the Maltese are marked by fate for errantry. I suspect that their children grow up with the unspoken assumption that they may end their lives in totally different locations and in vastly different circumstances from the ones they were born in.

      The surname Cachia, pronounced Kakeeya, is fairly common in Malta, but its derivation is something of a puzzle. One guess is that it comes from the Greek root that gives us such words as ‘cacodemon ’ and ‘cacophony, ’ but this I hastily reject if only because no other Maltese name betrays...

    • Chapter 2 The Axlers
      (pp. 13-24)

      Orphaned rather early in life, my mother Anna retained only a somewhat romanticized account of her parents ’ beginnings, and no information at all about any prior generation. She knew that she was born in Russia, but when she was about two she was taken to Jerusalem via Romania and Turkey. At the age of ten or eleven she lost her mother, and a while later her father took her to an elder brother in Egypt, then vanished from her life altogether. This brother manifestly resented her, treated her abominably, and told her she was a bastard. This led her...

  5. Part II Anna’s Memories

    • Chapter 3 Childhood
      (pp. 27-38)

      I was told that I was born in Russia in 1889, but have no personal memories that I can definitely say were of Russia. My mother was from Odessa, and according to what my brother later told me, she was abarina, that is to say she belonged to the small nobility; certainly she was a very cultured lady. Still according to my brother, in the course of some war or other there was an outbreak of cholera among the troops, and my father was among the fugitives. He stopped at my mother ’s house and asked for a drink....

    • Chapter 4 Independence
      (pp. 39-60)

      My brother took me to a Rudolfsheim — an organization not unlike the YWCA and a boon to young women in my situation. Both were doing excellent work, but the YWCA was so overcrowded that girls had to share rooms, with only curtains between them. At the Rudolfsheim, I had a room to myself. I was to see my brother only once more in my life.

      The Rudolfsheim then had a pet weasel that had the run of the place; it had a little bell tied around its neck with a yellow ribbon. But nobody had told me of it, and...

    • Chapter 5 Marriage to Dubos
      (pp. 61-74)

      Back at the English Pension, Madame Mansur one day asked me about Dubos: “Why won’t you marry him? He is a nice young man and very much in love with you. He keeps proposing to you — why do you turn him down? ” I then told her of my marriage to Robbins. When I had finished, she asked me how long ago it had taken place. “Three years,” I said. “Ah well, it doesn’t count any more. I have arranged a similar marriage for someone else. ” And she did arrange — thanks to her Egyptian husband — to have a kind...

    • Chapter 6 A Housewife in Fayyum
      (pp. 75-98)

      I saw some correspondence that had been exchanged between François and his father at the time they thought me to be dead. It seems that the family was trying to marry François to his cousin Sylvia, who later married Tony. Sylvia had made him a present of some handkerchiefs she had embroidered herself. Thereupon he wrote to his father, “It is useless for Sylvia to send me presents. I have never loved anyone but Madame Dubos, and could not think of marrying anyone but Madame Dubos.” And I saw his father’s reply: “Just because a young woman who is your...

    • Chapter 7 The Humble Folk
      (pp. 99-108)

      Once back in Fayyum after the 1919 Revolution, we had to get a boy to help in the house and run errands. He had only one eye. He had been declared fit for military service, then he lost his eye and the authorities were convinced that he had done that on purpose to escape military service, as many others did. I was told by Abduh that some put a hot nail into one eye on purpose. Abduh had not done that, but he got a two-month prison sentence all the same and was put to road-building. He was half starved...

    • Chapter 8 The Extended Family
      (pp. 109-112)

      Tante Marie was grandfather Joseph Cachia’s sister, an orphan from childhood, raised in a convent. Other siblings were Abramino and Élie. Abramino was living with a woman — they were not married, but lived very happily and soon severed all family relations. Elie married Teresa, and they had four children. Elie died from tuberculosis; his wife got it too, and was bedridden for seven years before she too passed away.

      Adelaide and Spiridion Magri were children of a wealthy man. After his first wife died, he married a widow, who was very cruel to the two children. His business affairs went...

  6. Part III Pierre’s Formation

    • Chapter 9 Childhood
      (pp. 115-138)

      I was born in 1921, in Fayyum.

      Technically, the Fayyum is an oasis, but it is an oasis large enough to be a province with several thriving towns in it, for it is abundantly supplied with water drawn from the Nile through a canal. The creation of this canal is ascribed to the Joseph whose stewardship of Egypt is recounted in both the Bible and the Koran, so that it is named after him: Bahr Yusif.

      For an artificial watercourse, it meanders a great deal. Local legend has it that when Joseph was in power and taking measures to counter...

    • Chapter 10 Sohag
      (pp. 139-162)

      The end of our primary schooling coincided with Father’s promotion to the position of agent, that is, branch manager, of the National Bank of Egypt in the Upper Egyptian town of Sohag. It is a town I remember with affection. The Nile forms a broad loop around three sides of it, and along the river was a pleasant promenade lined with trees that had fern-like leaves and that for part of the year were covered with blossoms, a few hyacinth blue, but most a bright orange-red. The French name we had for them — ‘flamboyants ’ — may not have been the...

    • Chapter 11 Cairo
      (pp. 163-176)

      The secondary school certificate that José and I earned in 1938 was the passport to a variety of white-collar jobs in banks and other commercial enterprises, in government service, and the like. Few of the people we associated with aspired to more than that, and only a tiny minority even of Europeans went on to university.

      We had in fact exhausted the educational possibilities of the provinces. Any further step necessitated splitting the family, sending José and me to Cairo, and finding the money to fund a second household.

      At this point Father had to make another weighty decision, comparable...

    • Chapter 12 Retrospect
      (pp. 177-182)

      If the status and role of the foreign communities that were once so prominent in Egypt is to be understood and assessed, much more precise information and many more comparisons are needed than occur in the almost haphazard reminiscences that have been recorded in the preceding pages. What these offer is at best a starting point, some openings worth enlarging, some false starts to avoid.

      The most facile approach is to attribute all features and activities of these foreign bodies to colonialism, and so to dwell on the exploitation inseparable from it, on the arrogance it bred. Yet the influx...

  7. Selected Reading
    (pp. 183-184)
  8. Index
    (pp. 185-188)