The Cairo House

Syracuse University Press | Sep 1, 2000

"An enchanting novel-as-memoir...what strengthens Ms Serageldin's book is Gigi's own personal story." 

The Economist, July 15 2004.

The Pashas’ Passing

"SAMIA SERAGELDIN'S novel was first published four years ago by a small university press in America. It is now being brought out in Britain by an imprint of HarperCollins, a multinational publisher. An enchanting novel-as-memoir, it fully deserves this crack at a wider audience.

Gigi, a modern Egyptian woman born to a patrician family, grows up in the 1950s in a sprawling, multilingual house in Cairo. There is a statue to Poseidon in the garden and the cook ritually slaughters sheep for the “Feast of the Sacrifice”. No one in the house ends a sentence in the same language in which it began.

The men of the family, led by Seif-el-Islam Pasha, a patriarch who smells of Cuban cigars and Old Spice, are involved in cotton, trading and politics; the women, in shopping, gossiping and arranging marriages. For all their frippery, their traditions reinforce the ties that bind.

But the pashas' hour is passing. With the takeover of power by Nasser, with his rhetoric, his sequestration decrees and his insistence that Arab socialism be taught in schools, many of them go into exile. Those who remain maintain the traditions, but increasingly these serve only to mask the growing uncertainty and confusion.

There is nothing new in the passing of another haute bourgeoisie. What strengthens Ms Serageldin's book is Gigi's own personal story. Barely out of her teens, she is propelled into an arranged marriage that is sealed with a contract negotiated (in her absence) by the men in her family to show, one of them explains, that “in this marriage [your husband] is not dealing with a friendless girl, he is dealing with the men in her family, and is accountable to them.

But Gigi's expectations are greater than those of more old-fashioned women. The marriage breaks down and she loses custody of her only son. A second marriage, to a French journalist, and their relocation to Connecticut rarely fill the emptiness she feels. Indeed, they serve only to underscore the wider point of Ms Serageldin's story: that while regimes may change and houses be bought and sold, exile is something you carry with you in your heart." Economist.

"Succeeds both as ironical Proustian reminiscence and as a telling exploration of the ambiguities of status, loyalty, and belonging." Kirkus Reviews.

The Cairo House is autobiographical novel that depicts the glamorous Egypt of the pashas and King Farouk, the police state of the colonels who seized power in 1952, the post-Sadat years and the rise of fundamentalism during the Mubarak era. The narrative tracks the rise and fall of a family clan through the turbulent second half of the 20thC. It is a study of a class, a culture and a country in transition and crisis, exploring the ambiguities of status and loyalty, and the conflicting attachments of the exiled expatriate who can neither go home again, or stay away. 

Reprinted in a UK edition with HarperCollins Fourth Estate and translated into ten languages. SEE PHOTOS AND LISTEN TO VIDEO ON THE REAL CAIRO HOUSE PAGE.