Wednesday, 19 June 2019

Remembering Alexandria

Maria and Rafaella

Seven years ago I did a blog post on Alexandrian women.  Now out of the blue I have received an email from the daughter, Sylvia Mikkelsen, of one of the women pictured in that post.

With Sylvia's permission I post her email here.

What a surprise to see my beautiful, young mother staring right back at me from your blog under the caption ‘Alexandrian Women.’  She is the one in white. I had been trying to read up on the Aleksandrinke and there you were, both of you! I knew you, of course, through your wonderful Alexandria: City of Memory, a book I had bought years back when Louisa, my grandchild, was born. I knew that the day would come when she would be asking questions about whether I was Egyptian, being born in Alexandria, or why in the world would her great grandmother come from Slovenia (of all places), and her great grandfather from the Levant –  and where was that, anyway?? Oh, we still say the Levant because if we say Lebanese, there are other  connotations today – and why do you speak English and French? – well, my father decided I should have an English education and my sister a French one, and Christian Lebanese people speak mostly French, etc. etc. There would be a lot of oral tales about my background, naturally. Yet, your book would give her all the necessary cultural and historical background as well as your great insight into the strange and mysterious world that was our Alexandria, a place that only exists in the memory of people who lived there. Not to mention the enriching literary parts concerning Durrell and Forster! She is today sixteen, and is the spitting image of my mother, Rafaella. She looks very often in your book, where I point out on the map the different tram stations on this narrow strip of land where we  lived so well,  between the marshes and the Mediterranean.

A propos the photo, Rafaella is together with her sister, Maria (in the dark dress). It is a strange photo, or part of a photo where there were two other Slovene girls together with them, if I remember correctly. It reflects the two extremes in the lot that awaited most of these girls in their fatidic journey to Alexandria.  Maria arrived a few years before her younger sister to earn some money to send back to Gradisce – a village at the foot of the Carso hills, a few kilometers from Gorizia – where she had left a husband, two children, only to come back home years later, after the war, to be abused and insulted by her husband who called her the Alexandrian whore. My mother, on the other hand, found her husband almost immediately.  She was barely eighteen and worked as a governess for the Ada’s only child, a girl who adored my mother for years and years to come (we, her daughters, were quite jealous of this relationship!). The Ada were a wealthy Jewish family who treated Rafaella as a daughter. Their neighbour, a  Lebanese young man of a bit less than twice her age, observed her from his balcony and fell madly in love with her. He was to be our father. They had a happy marriage and my father and mother are buried  in the beautiful cemetery in my mother’s village. With Nasser, they left Alexandria, first to Lebanon, later to Switzerland, and finally to Slovenia where they spent their summers, and shared their winters between Denmark, at my place, and Geneva, my sister’s. 

Et voil√†, the story behind the girls, one in dark and the other in white.I am sorry for this long-winded mail but that is how Alexandrians are, n’est-ce pas?

Oh, I have almost forgotten. I have a story to tell but do you think it would be worthwhile? Rafaella’s first cousin, Elda, was a governess – not to a child – but to none other than Lee Miller who was for a short period of time Aziz Eloui Bey’s second wife. After Lee deserted Eloui (there are several versions of who left whom), Elda - who was also my godmother - married Aziz Eloui, like a true Jane Eyre. We were very close as a family and we had great times, especially at Gharbaniat where Uncle Aziz had one of these fortress-like mansions in the desert. Anyway, practically on her deathbed, years later while she was living in a lovely pink villa close to Trieste, she finally opened up and talked about the long-lasting effects of having interacted with a beauty and personality as wild as  Lee Miller’s.  If I ever venture to write in the genre of a personal essay, perhaps, or anything you would advise me to do, would you kindly read it?  It would be the story of  the paradoxical effects Lee Miller had upon the governess,  a prudish, Catholic, Slovene country-girl, emotions that fluctuated between sheer horror and unconditional adoration. The Alexandrian Governess would be a cross between Jane Eyre, and Daphne du Maurier’s Mrs Danvers. Actually, it seems that du Maurier’s inspiration for Rebecca arose from her years spent in Alexandria (which she intensely disliked) while her husband was stationed there as a marine officer.

I do not know why we, Alexandrians, always have the dream to write, but we do. Probably because we lived in a time warp, and we still cannot come to terms with it.