Le Tarbouche

“We were not expelled. We did not force ourselves out. The truth is somewhere in between. We have always been in between: between two languages, between two cultures, between two Churches, between two chairs. Papa used to say, ‘It’s not very comfortable, but that’s how are buttocks are made.’”

I just finished reading a wonderful novel called Le Tarbouche, by the French writer Robert Solé.

Le Tarbouche is a sprawling family saga set in Egypt, from the end of the 19th to the mid 20th centuries. It follows the Batrakani family, from their humble origins as Christian Syrian immigrants arriving in Alexandria, until their departure from Egypt after the revolution in the 1950s. It reveals a lot about the large ethnic communities that once existed in Egypt—Greeks, Italians, Syrians, Armenians. They owned businesses, started newspapers, built entire neighbourhoods in Cairo at a time when Egypt was turned towards Europe (largely because of their colonial occupants…).

The members of Batrakani family are all Francophiles. Even as the British take control in Egypt, they go to a French Jesuit school and keep up-to-date on the latest fashions in Paris. Some of them even struggle to communicate in Arabic with their maids. And that, of course, is their downfall. Unable or unwilling to become fully Egyptian, despite having invested so much in the country and having earned some healthy returns from these investments, the Batrakanis eventually have to flee when a wave of nationalism seizes the country in the 1950s. The British are kicked out, and with them go everything that represents the “old” order.

One of the things I enjoyed about this novel is that it’s not told in a strict chronological way. Rather, it’s built up in short chapters that form recollections, digressions, anecdotes—so many snapshots for a family album. It’s like meeting an interesting person at a café, and having them tell you family stories. In fact, this book reminded me of a shop-owner we met here in Cairo—someone I’ll try to write about in more detail in the future—who grew up speaking French, English, and Arabic and who still feels more culturally aligned with France.

The book’s title, of course, refers to the tarboosh, that traditional, tasselled red hat, also known as a fez, which became unpopular when Egypt took control of its own destiny in the 1950s. In the novel, one of the family’s businesses is a tarboosh factory, and the “flowerpot” hat becomes a potent metaphor for changing fortunes in changing times.

As far as I can tell, Le Tarbouche has never been translated into English, which is a real shame. You can find some of Solé’s other books, such as The Alexandria Semaphore, in English, and they might provide an interesting introduction to his universe.

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