Wednesday, 18 April 2012

Alexandrian Women

Two young Slovene women in Alexandria.
In his film Aleksandrinke, Metod Pevec, a Slovenian documentary filmmaker, has told the moving story of the waves of young women from the Gori┼íka region of Slovenia who from the late nineteenth century onwards migrated to Egypt where they worked as nannies, wet nurses, maids and governesses for the better off families of flourishing Alexandria.  The transition from impoverished village to cosmopolitan city could be liberating but the cost could be heartbreaking.  After years of sending money home, sustaining their families, sometimes literally paying for the houses their families lived in, these Slovene women, known in their home valleys as 'Aleksandrinke' - Alexandrians - left behind everything, friends, family, husbands, children, when they discovered that they were unable to return to and endure their former narrow lives.

Many Aleksandrinke spent the whole of their lives in Alexandria or Cairo and are buried there today. The film interviews several women who went to Alexandria, some a hundred years old, and who did after all return to their Slovenian homeland, and it interviews a number of their charges, the young children they nourished and loved in Egypt and who now remember them and love them still, among them Boutros Boutros Ghali.  Some married into cosmopolitan families, Greek, Italian, English, Egyptian; most lived comfortably and some became fabulously wealthy.

The most successful of these women was Josa Finney, who married the English cotton broker Oswald Finney, the richest man in Egypt in the 1930s.  The Finneys gave spectacular carnival balls at their house in Alexandria which became famous in Alexandrian lore and gossip, and served the novelist Lawrence Durrell well when he described the carnival ball in Balthazar, the second volume of his Alexandria Quartet. Michael Haag, who was historical advisor to the film, is also interviewed and talks about Josa and how she inspired one of the greatest scenes in The Alexandria Quartet.

A painted portrait of Josa Finney.
Metod Pevec has won a number of awards for his film Aleksandrinke. For more about Metod and the film, click here.

There is a website for the film in Slovenian and English. And quite apart from the text the website has some good photographs and also a snatch of the film. To go to the website click here.

Unfortunately the film, which has been produced with subtitles, is not yet available on DVD. Meanwhile you will have to make do with the trailer, which can be viewed on the website above or on YouTube. Click here.

Also there is a quite separate website devoted to the phenomenon of the migration of Slovenian women to Alexandria, with photographs, historical background, and so on. Click here.

More on Josa and Oswald Finney, including photographs, can be found in Michael Haag's books Alexandria: City of Memory, Yale University Press, and Vintage Alexandria, The American University in Cairo Press.