Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Aciman and Obama

I was glad Ken brought Aciman's piece to our attention, even though it had nothing to do with Aciman's book that we read but rather with his much praised memoir of growing up in Egypt. Out of Egypt is to my way of thinking something of a slight of hand -- a relict of the rich multicultural society that existed in Alexandria for no more than fifty years, ken to the world that Cavafy occupied and loved. But it is not a memoir of Egyptians, because, as in Cavafy's writings, the Egyptians hardly exist -- except as housekeepers, drivers, gardeners, workers.

As he makes clear in his memoir, the Acimans were eccentric and amusing interlopers from outside, folk that had arrived sometime in the nineteenth century to make a fortune and then mesh with the West. They did well and took Italian nationality to improve their social standing. Almost all the Levantines did this. It brought solidarity with the other Europeans living off the fat of the land and brought them privileges and wealth that was not available to most Egyptians. Since he wrote that book, there have been four or five memoirs by Jews who grew up in Egypt, each vying for the best remembered nostalgia of days gone past. Apparently for them, nostalgia for Egypt is exquisite and memorable.

Therefore it is ironic that Aciman berates Obama for failing to mention in his Cairo speech the "second exodus" of the Jews -- prompted when the state of Israel was founded. Obama, he said, should have equated them with the thousands of Palestinians who also lost everything they owned, who were looted, to use Aciman's word for Egyptian Jews, by the incoming Jews. On the other hand, others criticized Obama for daring to equate the Palestinians with the Jews of the Holocaust which, we all know, is anathema.

I was bewildered and saddened by Aciman's column.

It is sad--to say the least--that people treat each other this way. Actions have consequences, and for the Acimans of the Middle East the decision to carve out of state in the middle of the Arab World meant that their own place in Arab countries was imperiled. Why should there not be a reaction? The West has owned up to the Holocaust. When is Israel going to own up to the Nakba and make restitution? By writing this article, does Aciman actually expect us not to hold Israel accountable? Or is there some other reason for him to go way out on a limb?


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