In Her Own Words

“Live in Interesting Times”
by Samia Serageldin

The French have a saying: “Happy people have no story.” I wouldn’t go that far. It’s enough, for a writer, to have “lived in interesting times,” as the Chinese curse goes, and that I have done. I was born in Egypt on the cusp of a revolution which brought great political and social upheaval; none were more affected than politically-prominent, landowning families like my own. But the worst was ten years into the future, and as yet unimaginable, for people like us.

My memories of early childhood are those of a happily hybrid culture: Egyptian cuisine and French governesses; English schools and Nubian doorkeepers; celebrating the Feast of the Sacrifice and licking Italian ices on the beach in a swimsuit. Then one day, when I was a child, in the early sixties, my world came crashing down. The Nasser regime had designated certain families as “enemies of the people”; the men were whisked away to a camp for political prisoners; every penny we owned was confiscated. The pall of the police state descended upon us. The thousand eyes and ears of the secret service were everywhere; even in the privacy of our own bedrooms, between parent and child, we whispered.

As soon as I could leave to go to college in Europe, I did. And I have lived abroad in one place or another, more or less ever since. 
The years passed and I made a very different life for myself; my sons grew up playing ice hockey in Michigan and soccer in North Carolina. There was no room in this brave new world for my memories of jasmine and dust. I locked away my photograph albums of Egypt in the attic and blended into my new environment like a perfect chameleon. Friends who knew me for years barely knew where I was born. There was no hypocrisy involved; only the need to compartmentalize in order to survive. When glimpses of my former life transpired like a palimpsest, I dreaded the slightly skeptical question that inevitably ensued: “So what are you doing here in Houghton (or Newton, or Chapel Hill)?” 

But there is a saying in Egypt that one who has drunk of the waters of the Nile will always return. I did, constantly, in my mind, weaving my memories into stories that I stored away in that virtual filing cabinet all writers carry around in their heads. Later I went back, in the flesh, every few years. Every time I was struck by the relentless pace of change sweeping every aspect of life; it seemed to me that soon the last traces of the world I had known would be gone with the wind. And that was the impetus for putting the stories in my head on paper. But once I started writing, I realized that I was recovering my lost voice, finally trying to reconcile my present with my past. 

So, when I finally did sit down at the keyboard to write “The Cairo House”, why did I not produce a memoir? Editors pointed out the advantages: the powerful appeal of first-person testimony; the fact that memoirs are so much more marketable today than novels; that much of my material was autobiographical anyway; and other unassailable arguments along those lines. But I stuck to my guns. I knew that, in my case, a memoir would be less free, and in a very real sense less true, than a novel could be. I could not avoid feeling under enormous personal pressure to circumvent anything that could be construed as offensive, libelous or scandalous, especially given the politically or personally sensitive nature of certain passages in the book. Moreover a memoir might well have been less interesting: only in a novel would one have the license to conveniently conflate two aunts into “Tante Zohra”, for instance; or to explore “the path not taken,” at a crucial juncture in the story. Finally, I confess that overcoming my natural reticence would have been altogether too daunting without the fig leaf of fiction.

When The Cairo House saw the light in the Fall of 2000, this came as a complete surprise to most people who knew me, since I had largely kept my writing to myself. There was the slight trepidation, for the natural chameleon, of showing her true colors. But now, when someone asks me the usual question: “So what brings you to Chapel Hill?”, instead of the usual, dismissive: “Oh, it’s a long story,” I can add: “Well, not all that long: 224 pages, to be exact.” 

Since then, The Cairo House has been translated into ten foreign languages, the most recent of which is the Arabic edition that was published to much attention from the media and readers in Egypt a year ago. I have also written and published other novels, stories and essays, but your first book, like your firstborn child, is a unique experience.