“Where are you from?”
“Jamaica … My father is Egyptian.”
“And what nationality does that make you?”
“I say chaps! This man says his nationality is parasitologist!”
If you’re born with three mother-countries, as Yasseen was, you look for the Highest Common Factor that unites them, and since both his parents were doctors – parasitologists – that was how, for a moment at least at an English public school, he rationalised himself. For some people the Lowest Common Denominator, religion, does the trick. Olivier Roy points to the sort of dislocation Yasseen explores, physical and metaphorical, as central in creating the anomie and the resentment that breed extremism; and no doubt it can be so. Yasseen was fortunate, in that respect, in growing up in Jamaica where religion was worn lightly. His father taught him to pray and to recite the fatiha; his nanny had him baptized a Catholic, and his mother didn’t really hold with such things. When he came home from his convent school in Montego Bay aged four or five, and announced that he wanted to be a father, his mother unrolled a chart of naked bodies, gonads and foetuses, leaving him a little puzzled: “I know all about that. I don’t mean that kind of father. I mean like Father Kerr.” The convent, as he puts it, was suddenly found to have outlived its usefulness, but had successfully contributed to his inoculation against exclusivity and undue enthusiasm in religion.
There is another, gentler and infinitely more interesting side to cultural dislocation – one which provokes reflection, insight and wisdom, the creative parallax of inhabiting different points-of-view. This is what Emigrating Home is about. It is the story of the search for self-understanding of a clever young man with a Jamaican-British mother, an Egyptian father and an English education. A young man who was brought up as a child in Montego Bay, sent to school and university in England, and went for the first time to Egypt in his early twenties, speaking no Arabic, driven before the winds of Suez to Cairo, where “I stayed for twenty years without once going abroad.” It was home but didn’t feel like it, and the title of his book, Emigrating Home, sums up the curse and the blessing of the real, imperfect, open-minded cosmopolitan. ‘Abroad,’ of course, is an interesting word in this context.
The book interleaves stories from Yasseen’s early days in Egypt with others from his pre-Egyptian past in Montego Bay and England, building up, like papier mâché in layers of different-coloured newsprint, a solid and meaningful life, which was at the same time bemusing and apparently accidental. Born in Jamaica before the war with a British colonial passport, Yasseen was descended on the one side from an Anglo-Jamaican family and on the other from a line Azharis, so that he already incorporated two worlds before he knew his own name (which was itself as protean as his background). His mother was a fiercely anglophile Jamaican of the old island professional class: his father an Egyptian, educated in Germany, the first of his family to have a ‘modern’ education. Both doctors, they met at the London School of Tropical Medicine – “in Gower Street, where people fell in love over malaria slides” – married, and moved to Cairo. There they lost a son in deeply traumatic circumstances and moved again, in the shadow of this tragedy, to Montego Bay, where Yasseen’s mother had grown up, and where she now reopened her late father’s medical practice.
Yasseen and his brother Yazeed were born in Montego Bay, and here they spent their childhood immersed in the wonderfully colourful culture of Jamaica in the 1930s and 40s, of Calypso and nuns, of mangos, magic, skeletons, yaws, guns, maroons and ghosts. Yasseen’s family was wildly eccentric, for a time grounded by his grave, humorous, but often perplexed Egyptian father who left as war broke out, hoping to be reunited when the family were allowed to travel. But they were not, and in the end Egypt became his home. Yasseen was left to be brought up by a flotilla of superbly wilful women – his mother, Jeanne, imperious, brisk, severe, treating her children as miniature adults unless when reproving them; his grandmother, “the little old squirrel, sitting at the head of her dining-table in between meals, reading with the aid of a pince-nez and magnifying glass that hung on a ribbon round her neck;” Louche the French nanny, whose disappearance Yasseen conjured with obeah magic; Great Aunt Consuela, who was in constant spiritualist communion with her late husband, “the Inspector,” and believed unshakeably that “Satan and all his works were as plain as a ginger puss on a coal-heap;” and Aunt Vanessa, who looked like Ava Gardner, wore plum-coloured shorts and hypnotized chickens. Yasseen’s Jamaican childhood is a magic mountain of wonderful stories, one of which has him innocently reciting his ‘Poetry-Uncle’ Julian’s calypso version of Marvel’s To His Coy Mistress in the drawing-room, beginning well enough
“If we had di worl’ an time
Diss coyness gurly wuz no crime…”
but running aground on the line “Two hundred to adore each tit” which went down less well with his mother and her guests; and Uncle Julian was barred the house in consequence. It was only one of the many mishaps that Yasseen brought down on his disingenuous little head.
The book tells gloriously of a childhood that makes that of the Durrell family in Corfu look positively staid; and an education in immediately post-war England that gave Yasseen a well-stocked and very English mind with the querulous obliquity of the half-outsider, and the sonorous accents of Alvar Liddell. He ran through schools in quick succession, bridling at the stupidity and inflexibility of all but his last, King Edward’s, Birmingham. By 1956 he was at a northern university, wrestling with the implications of the Suez crisis, taking part in demonstrations against the idiotic aggression of the Eden government, and worrying himself sick about his younger brother, Yazeed, who was doing national service in the British army and perhaps about to be parachuted into the Canal Zone. Yasseen too faced the same prospect: “In the British army” he realised, starkly, “I could be sent to Suez to kill relatives,” but he managed to get deferment as a dual national. Baffled and unhappy, he says to a teacher, “What am I supposed to do? ‘Buy a couple of pistols – one for Egypt and one for Britain – and shoot myself through each ear in the Bull Ring?”
At about this time, his mother became gravely ill with a long-term illness, and he wrote to the father he hadn’t seen in fifteen years. A month or two later he was summoned to a London hotel to meet the Egyptian semi-stranger, who was passing through England for a conference. “You had better come home, my boy. You are, after all, Egyptian … You can’t do anything for your mother by staying.” The upshot of the meeting was a ‘return’ home to his family in Egypt, a quizzical and alarming departure from Southampton docks and a bewildering arrival in Cairo on Christmas Day 1957.
Yasseen’s early days in Egypt are funny and touching, and his account of them is redolent of an older Egypt which, for those of us who grew to love it later, always seemed tantalisingly just the other side of a corner. For this intercultural innocent, this “Khawagga Bijou,” nothing was quite as straightforward as it seemed at first glance. Yasseen tells of puzzlement and misunderstanding. He felt incapable and awkward, dependent on his beloved but strange new family, infantilised and genially misunderstood. Frustrated by misread signs – a proposal of marriage inadvertently as good as accepted, a contretemps on a bus, a litany of linguistic disasters – he seemed always to be sending unintentional messages, and misreading those sent to him. Why, when he looked so utterly Egyptian, did the news-vendor offer him a French, not an Arabic, newspaper? Body-language: “According to Dad, I had an ‘English hop.’ You know how the British walk: briskly, purposefully through the rain from one definite place to another definite place. Here the sun put the brakes on. So I couldn’t pass unnoticed: slip downstream with the sild and the salmon …”
This is a process that any of us who live and work abroad are used to – but with the very big difference that we always know what is ‘home’ and what is ‘abroad.’ Discovery and adaptation are relatively straightforward when your feet are well-planted on solid ground: but when the ground is moving with you, rippling under your feet, depriving you of firm reference points, it is a different and much more challenging business. Some people, and Yasseen is one of them, turn it to good account; and, never quite losing the clarity of vision that is the privilege as well as the curse of the outsider, remain indispensable and revealing hand-holders and guides.
Of his journey home Yasseen has made an enchanting book, a funny, human story of confusion and adaptation that leaves the reader a little breathless, but full of admiration for a journey so well travelled, and a traveller who is the best company imaginable. I for one hope that there will be a sequel, and meanwhile give this lovely book proud place on my bookshelves.
Emigrating Home is for sale as book and Kindle from Amazon – and for the next 48 hours or so is on offer there for free Kindle download. Do it here: Emigrating Home – Kindle Edition UK