Friday, March 01, 2013

Anne-Marie Drosso's In Their Father's Country, thoughtful reflections on 20th-century Cairo

Anne-Marie Drosso's In Their Father's Country presents a sensitive and bracingly honest view of modern Egyptian history, as seen through the eyes of a woman whose life spans nearly the entire 20th century.

This setting may seem exotic to Western readers, but Claire Sahli and her older sister Gabrielle are modern women growing up in the cosmopolitan city of Cairo, which makes the mental transition relatively smooth.

The novel opens in 1924, when Claire is fourteen and Gabrielle fifteen.  Their beloved father Selim, an experienced lawyer who is a proud crusader for the working classes, is succumbing to kidney disease.  His death leaves his wife and daughters vulnerable and forces them to turn to his brother Yussef for their livelihoods.

Claire and Gabrielle's mother is Italian, and Claire can't help but wonder why her father's obituary omits the name of his wife.  Was it because of her desire for privacy, or something more?  As the novel progresses, secrets from her parents' history are slowly exposed, leaving Claire to decide how to react to what she learns.

The novel's title is apt.  Egypt was Selim's homeland, but over time, his Greek Catholic family finds themselves increasingly pushed to the margins of Cairo society.  They are privileged, but not rich, and the nationalist movement is gaining ground.  Although the Sahlis favor Egypt's independence from Britain, the country's mid-20th century focus on Arab solidarity, under Nasser's rule, threatens to leave them behind altogether.

She remembered the twenties as a time when just about everyone around her was touched by nationalist fervor.  Now, in her circles, many of her friends and acquaintances were saying that that the new generation of nationalists was becoming rudderless and uncontrollable.  Was the current political agitation perceived in those circles as posing a fundamental threat to their existence?

Through Claire and her relatives' experiences, readers get an informative glimpse at Egypt's volatile politics and varied social values, which mix the surprisingly liberated with the very traditional.  Married when she's barely out of school to a man who's considerably older, Claire later takes lovers; meanwhile, her cousin's husband stirs up conflict with his desire for a second wife. 

Claire's story is spliced into segments, each of which brings an important period of her life to the forefront: the death of a past lover in 1941, the birth of her son in 1947, her unwilling job transfer to the city of Minya in 1968, a decision forced upon her by her supervisor because of political pressure.  Claire moves there because she wants to keep her retirement pension, but with her high salary and lack of fluent Arabic, she is strongly resented by her coworkers.

The changing relationships between Claire and members of her large, extended family, which includes close friends and servants, figure prominently.  The tensions between warm, gregarious Claire and Gabrielle, who is described as "neither tender nor nurturing," only grow as the sisters age.  Because the plot jumps from one time period to another, readers are left to fill in some gaps themselves.  In particular, I wish Drosso had allowed us to glimpse Claire's formative yearsshe skips straight from 1924 to 1941so we could see how her personality formed.

Many chapters revolve around a relative's death, which creates a nostalgic, thoughtful feel.  Adding to this sense are the different forms of literary expression included in the text, such as personal letters, journal entries, and a short memoir written by one of Claire's daughters.

In Their Father's Country is an absorbing, reflective portrait of a resilient woman, her country, and how they weathered the external forces affecting them both.  It was published by Telegram Books, an independent publisher of international literary fiction, in 2009 (£7.99, US $13.95, Can $15.50, trade pb, 227pp including glossary).  This was a personal purchase.

11 comments:

  1. This sounds like a good book. I have a past project collecting dust that takes place during the same time period and in the same place. Maybe reading this will inspire me to rework that old manuscript.

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    1. This one was very good! I'd love to read more set in this time and place.

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  2. Great review. This one sounds fantastic.

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    1. Thanks, Holly - sometimes random purchases turn up very worthwhile reads!

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  3. This sounds very good, I hadn't heard of it before.

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    1. I forget how I came across it originally - browsing by genre in Amazon, I think. It's been on my shelves for a few years so I figured this was a good time to get to it.

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  4. You might find this post relevant as well: http://nonaorbach.com/blog/?p=1024

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    1. What a wonderful artifact from the past!

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  5. The setting for this one sounds fascinating.

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  6. Looks like another one for my TBR pile.

    I am reading Drosso's Cairo Tales this year for the Middle East Challenge. I am looking forward to it quite a bit.

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    1. Short stories aren't my usual reading, but I bet that collection will be a good one. The author was born and grew up in Egypt and knows the setting well.

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