This astonishing memoir is the story of a family who always felt slightly foreign in every country and developed a chameleon-like ability to adapt to their surroundings. Gini Alhadeff was born in Alexandria, Egypt, and grew up in Cairo, Khartoum, Florence, and Tokyo. With a vivid gift for narrative, Alhadeff evokes the languid Alexandria of the early decades of this century (where her mother’s family made its fortune in cotton) and some of its beguiling honorary citizens: a violet-eyed aunt who refused to have new slipcovers made for her sofa so President Nasser would find the old ones when her house was impounded; a cousin who was taught the limits of reason by Wittgenstein at Cambridge and became a monsignor; a gynecologist uncle interned at Auschwitz and then Buchenwald, who lived to tell his tale with stark unsentimentality. With a keen sense for both the comic and the tragic, Alhadeff sizes up what is left of the family fortune: a tendency to live beyond one’s means, the stories and legends that survive the rise and fall of families, and the present as a paradise for those who, having lost all, have nothing to lose.
These engaging portraits of Alhadeff's large, wealthy family of Sephardic Jews sometimes seem to have been snatched from free associations. Yet despite their free-floating quality, Alhadeff's humor and keen sense of place and character re-create the ambiance of her youth in exotic settings peopled with intriguing eccentrics. Her forbears migrated from Spain in the 15th century and, via stops in Italy and Turkey, settled in Egypt. In Alexandria, they established one of the country's wealthiest trading houses and were part of an elite community of Sephardim whose lifestyles imitated those of Parisian high society. For convenience's sake, her irreligious parents converted and sent their children to Catholic schools: Alhadeff was 20 before she knew she was a Jew. More confusing, although her name was Arabic and her parents spoke the language fluently, albeit with a slight accent--as they did with all five or six other languages they spoke--she never quite knew where they all belonged. Sojourns in Italy convinced her she was Italian, and no one contradicted her. The entire family were snobs; one relative's address book listed, under Q., the private phone numbers of all the queens she knew. Another, with an avocation for the priesthood, never quite relinquished his taste for the high life and cultivated rich friends who could provide him with off-duty clothes, cars and hospitality. Throughout the jumble of her recollections, Alhadeff, now a New Yorker who founded two literary magazines, Norman and XXI Century--searches with integrity and wit for a clear understanding of her own nature.