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'The Sun at Midday':

by Samir Raafat
Cairo Times, April 18, 1997

IN HER BOOK, "The Sun at Midday", the Alexandria-born Gini Alhadeff runs us through the different members of her family which means flashbacks from Tokyo, Northern Italy, Alexandria, Buenos Aires, Auschwitz, Rhodes, Greenville (Mississippi) and back. The habitats range from palatial villas in Alexandria to a two-room flat in Manhattan with a reference to the Italian fashion house of Krizia founded by the author's aunt, Mrs. Aldo Pinto née Mariuccia Mandelli. Gardens are everywhere, all of them heavenly, the scent changing with each season and every repatriation.

With the help of a desk top computer and a 'Family Tree Maker' software, genealogy buffs will love this book as they eagerly enter a collection of Byronic Mediterranean names belonging to the author's relations: Pinto, Piha, Menashe, Aghion, Tilche, Riches, Alhadeffs, etc., discovering in the process that most middle class Jewish families in Alexandria were connected and that they made good wherever destiny took them. And how, through marriage, they were also related to Lawrence Durrell!

Undoubtedly, these colorful relations is what makes Alhadeff's family worth writing about.

Of all her ethnic and national identities, the reader senses that Alhadeff is taken in mostly by her Jewish ancestry. Not unlike US secretary of state Madeleine Albright, Alhadeff discovered her rabbinical roots - in this case Sephardi - in her adulthood. A consequence of this revelation is the Judaica which is palpable throughout 'The Sun at Midday.' And just in case anyone overlooks the plight of her relations this century thinking it was simply a matter of colorful trips across five continents, Alhadeff gives extensive coverage of her Uncle Nissim's sojourn in several German-run WWII concentration camps.

Nissim's story is the longest recit allocated to any single member of the author's family. This lengthy chapter would have been five times as interesting had one not repeatedly stumbled on analogous passages in any of the thousands of books, novels, thrillers, articles, films and CD-ROMS that deal with the subject. And with Alhadeff's book appearing soon after Daniel Goldhagen's encyclopedic work on the subject ('Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust'), Uncle Nissim's episodes seems somewhat parochial.

In her character portrayals, which takes up a good part of her book, Alhadeff is both amusing and direct. Yet, when it comes to describing geographic locations, facts and some of the zeitgeist surrounding the events, beware with a capital "B." Alhadeff could have made sterling use of a beginner's Atlas and an Almanac. Some elementary cross-checking with regards her family's oral testimonials would have also helped.

On the other hand, if Alhadeff's representations of her relations are as spot on as her description of Father Pierre Riches, the Jewish dandy turned Catholic priest, then, Bravo Gini!

I met Riches three Springs ago, once at the Jesuit school in Fagalla and again for a beer at my Maadi garden and he is exactly as the author describes him, a man "who drops names the way certain women put on too many jewels."

While we accept that history is informed gossip, Alhadeff should have ascertained the accuracy of some of the statements made by her relations. The book is full of what would at first seem as irrelevant misrepresentations, yet looked at collectively, they could be misinterpreted as an attempt to dramatize, especially if the reader is Egyptian, a Japanese Samurai or a member of the Catholic deity.

For instance, Alhadeff's places the Egyptian coastal town of al-Alamein at 15 kilometers from Alexandria. While this - some would say extraneous - proximity lends credence to "panic in the city" of Alexandria or "Alexandria being bombarded" making it sound like Normandy or Dunkirk, it is of-course factually incorrect, for Alamein is over 140 kilometers away and the little bombardment that Alexandria sustained during WWII pales next to that received by the remotest European hamlet.

Stating that one of the leading cotton experts of Alexandria was German and thus by implication hostile to Alhadeff's Jewish cotton-trading grandfather, invariably projects that certain 'je ne sais quoi' salable German-Jewish drama which became so literary delectable whenever discussing the 1930s and '40s. Sorry again Ms. Alhadeff, but Mr. Rheinhardt was Swiss, not German.

When Alhadeff's mother "finished school there was no question of her going to university, because there was none in Egypt, because she was a woman, and because of the war." There again, the contrived effects for drama. Yet, a cursory leafing through any contemporary Almanac could have enlightened Alhadeff on the existence of several universities including the co-ed American University in Cairo which closed for only a few months during WWII.

Saad Zaghloul (in this instance Alhadeff got his name right) was prime minister once and not five times. And as for old insignias and decorations being returned to the government when receiving new ones... funny yes, but incorrect.

Those seeking entertainment will find that 'The Sun at Midday' abounds with it. Alhadeff has an engaging style and her stories are punctuated with anecdotes. As oral history goes, her book is informative and her continuous play with fast-back and fast-forward makes it even more compelling.

If you've read André Aciman's "Out of Egypt" and liked it, then I most certainly recommend Gini Alhadeff's book.

articles posted on were published in the following books by Samir W Raafat: THE EGYPTIAN BOURSE, Zeitouna, Cairo -- CAIRO THE GLORY YEARS, Harpocrates, Alexandria -- HISTORY & SOCIETY IN A CAIRO SUBURB; MAADI 1904-1962, Palm Press, Cairo -- PRIVILEGED FOR THREE CENTURIES, printed digitally and bound by Elias Printing, Egypt

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