Book Review | Mohamed Keshavjee Reviews Hélène Alexander’s “A Life of Ups and Downs”

The Ugandan Expulsion at 50, and the 75th anniversary of the Partition of India: A Call for a New Approach to Oral History.

Asian communities throughout the world, like various Jewish communities over the past 100 years, are diasporic and their rich histories captured from the ground reveals so much about personalities who are often only mentioned in meta-histories. A recent memoir of an Egyptian Jewish family mentions the cosmopolitan outlook of Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah in Aswan, normally only known for it being his burial place. However, the memoir shows his interest in the environment which he may have been contemplating as the site of his mausoleum.

Social history has until recently often been underplayed in capturing and documenting the larger stories of communities and nations. As with many of the Ismaili communities in 20th-century East Africa, amongst other places, the settled life and institutions of the 80,000-strong Egyptian Jewish community were ravaged by local resentment of their presence, mainly generated by chauvinist political leaders in newly-independent states. Like the later expulsion of the Asian community in Uganda in the 1970s, Egyptian Jews (including those holding Egyptian passports) were summoned to local police stations, issued with a one-way exit visa and allowed to take very little with them.

The memoir of Hélène Alexander’s family, besides capturing the social life of a very prominent Egyptian Jewish family, provides insights into individuals who shaped the contours of many of the developments of 20th-century Egypt.

There had been a community of Jews in Egypt from time immemorial, but the advent to power of Muhammad Ali in 1805 following the French ‘Egyptian campaign’ under Napoleon opened up the newly semi-autonomous Ottoman province of Egypt to Western experts and expertise. The paradox of the ‘second Exodus’ of Jews from Egypt is that from the inception of the Zionist movement until 1956, Egypt’s Jews had felt a sense of comfort and acceptance in the cosmopolitan milieu of Egypt.

Hélène Alexander is the youngest of the four girls born to Victor Adda and Marie, née Mosseri, in Alexandria, Egypt, a city much glamorised by Lawrence Durrell in The Alexandria Quartet. The Adda and Mosseri families were two of the country’s most renowned Sephardi families, with marriage bonds connecting them also to many of the other great Jewish mercantile and professional dynasties of Egypt and the Sephardi world such as the Aghion, Piha, Rollo and Smouha families.

Jeanne Mosseri nee Aghion. Photo credit: Russell Harris
(L to R) Jackie Adda, Colette Adda, Jeanne Mosseri, Jean Mosseri, Suzy Adda, Hélène Adda. Photo credit: Russell Harris

It is against this backdrop that Hélène’s ancestors arrived in Egypt, most probably in answer to Muhammad Ali’s call for foreign expertise, and set their mercantile activities into action. By the time of her birth in 1932, Hélène’s maternal grandfather, Joseph Mosseri Bey, was the private banker of King Fuad and her father, Victor Adda, was a highly-educated businessman and world-renowned coin collector who drove one of the first motor cars in Egypt, settled his family into an enormous villa in the most elegant district of central Alexandria and took his wife and four daughters, plus nannies, on his version of the grand tour across Europe as they headed for their summer house above Loch Ness almost every year until World War II.

Photo credit: Russell Harris

In her memoir, Hélène Alexander recreates a stratum of the lost world of pre-revolutionary Alexandria, and tells us of idyllic childhood years interspersed with visits to her grandmother’s magnificent villa on the bank of the Nile in Cairo. We hear of summer holidays heading across Europe to Loch Ness. She also speaks at length of the magical island in the Nile at Aswan which her father bought as a paradisiac getaway for his family and which brings some great names of the time into the memoir: the most famous operatic singer of the day, Dame Nellie Melba, the French author André Maurois, Somerset Maugham, who was to write a forward to The Memoirs of Aga Khan, and many others. Unsurprisingly, Imam Sultan Muhammad Shah, Aga Khan III, comes into the story after WWII, as he liked to winter with Mata Salamat in the Old Cataract Hotel in Aswan. The biography includes anecdotes of the Aga Khan’s visits to Khashanbanarti, Hélène’s family’s island in the Nile, to view their tame gazelles, her father’s fruit and vegetables gardens and, of course, to eat her mother’s famed chocolate cake (recipe provided!).

Khashanbhanarti, Aswan. Photo credit: Russell Harris
Aga Khan III. Photo credit: Russell Harris

The memoir takes the reader through Hélène Alexander’s student years in the UK and her married life in London and Scotland. As with the Egyptian elite in general, her blithely untroubled early life was sharply punctuated by the Suez Crisis of 1956 and the ensuing depredations carried out by the new revolutionary government against its resident minority communities and its own bourgeoisie.

As with the formerly marginalised Ismaili communities of East Africa, this memoir highlights the importance of recording the memories of community members who still carry with them anecdotes, family histories, photographs and other memorabilia. Works of this nature present a good paradigm of how material that has remained, undeciphered, with families, can be put to great educational use and would fit very well with the Ismaili Heritage Project sponsored by The Institute of Ismaili Studies, London, which has so far led to a number of independent Ismaili blogs that aim to capture the memory of people while they are still with us.

Hélène’s biography, including fragments of reported conversations, a record of a lifestyle and a family that has now become diasporic, is an exemplar of how social history can contribute to the reconstruction of lost worlds. In recalling the incidents and events of her early life, the memoir shows how a family is affected by world events beyond their control. It mentions, for example, her father installing a huge concrete sewer pipe in the basement of their Alexandria home as an air-raid shelter. She recalls in 1942 watching the military ambulances passing in the street as they carried back the wounded from Alamein. The memoir documents her father’s decision not to return to Egypt after 1956, leaving behind a portfolio of investments, land, directorships, properties and of course personal chattels that were simply expropriated by the various rapacious organs of the Egyptian government under Gamal Abdel Nasser, something with which all Asian Ugandan expellees can identify. A poem by Longfellow, although written in 1854, sums up poignantly the present sad state of Egypt’s Jewish community

Closed are the portals of their Synagogue,
No Psalms of David now the silence break,
No Rabbi reads the ancient Decalogue
In the grand dialect the Prophets spake.

The memoir also covers the second part of Hélène’s life, perhaps, one might say, the diasporic years, and details how Hélène and her husband Dicky, with a group of dedicated supporters, established The Fan Museum, Greenwich, an institution that has earned world renown during its over thirty years of operation. This is something that the British Ugandan Asians at 50 are trying now to accomplish with a call to all Ugandan Asians expellees globally to document their memories.

The memoir contains over 300 illustrations. These include various family trees, rare family photographs from the Egyptian years, topographical images and maps. We have seen how some of this type of material is still held privately by many Asian families in the diaspora, and is now being rediscovered by third generation writers such as Neema Shah in her novel Kololo Hill, Shamim Sarif in her prize-winning novel and subsequent film The World Unseen, and Jalal Jaffer’s recent autobiography Memories of a Ugandan Refugee.

Russell Harris, who collaborated with Hélène Alexander on the exhibition and book Cool: Presenting a Cooling Image, has provided a postscript to the memoir in which he contextualises the position of the Adda and Mosseri families within the history of post-Napoleonic Egypt which includes the end of empire and the emergence of the modern African nation state. In this postscript, Russell presents some of the results of his research into the personalities and sites mentioned by Hélène Alexander.

Ophthalmic Hospital in Alexandria. Photo credit: Russell Harris

2022 is an interesting year of reflection for millions from India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, East and Southern Africa and elsewhere, with regard to how history could be written in a more inclusive manner, capturing Urvashi Butalia’s approach to history in her book The Other Side of Silence. She emphasises that the phenomenon ought to be approached in terms other than the ‘grand narrative of politics’ which always relates history from above while overlooking the underlying layers of history which are equally important for posterity and accuracy.

A Life of Ups & Downs is available from the Fan Museum Greenwich, +44 208 305 1441 or by email info@thefanmuseum.org.uk at £25.00 plus postage.

Author: ismailimail

Independent, civil society media featuring Ismaili Muslim community, inter and intra faith endeavors, achievements and humanitarian works.

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