In the semiautobiographical novel, La lente découverte de l’etrangeté, published in Quebec in 2002, Victor Teboul, a Francophone Canadian writer born in Alexandria, describes himself as a “Jew from Egypt” and recalls a childhood experience that occurred after visiting a department store, writes Amr Tawfik Kamal in his doctoral thesis submitted in 2013 at the University of Michigan.
Since Teboul calls his departure from Egypt a second exodus, his first framework of memory is a religious one that roots the modern Jewish Egyptian experience within a broader Jewish memory.
(...) he creates this continuum for the history of Jewish Egyptians by transforming the departure into an “episodic” recollection which will be commemorated every year with the Passover (Wertsch 51).
The memory gains a mystical religious aura in which the modern exodus becomes both a political and a spiritual tie that connects the community together. In contrast to Ghali’s depiction, Téboul, who celebrates cosmopolitanism and has founded an organization promoting tolerance in Canada, uses his memory of Egyptian department stores as a moment where he recognizes cultural and ethnic difference. In the following episode, the young narrator recalls a time when his father took him to visit the Bedouins in Alexandria.
Ahlan wasahlan, ya Moussa, they say (...)
Under their rudimentary tent, they smile and offer me sugar cane juice just as
they would have done for an adult. The children, barefoot, move closer toward
me. I have the strange feeling of being different from them and resembling
them at the same time. Here, my name is Moussa. This is how they translated
my name once they knew that I was called “Maurice.” This was not the first
time I visited them. I am wearing a striped shirt, white shorts and sandals
bought at Cicurel, the grand magasin at Saad Zaghlool street. (Téboul 28)
In this passage, the narrator transfers the significance of the department store to his clothes. Téboul reveals an ambivalent stance toward his life in Alexandria. In the beginning, the reference to Cicurel subtly connects the narrator to the Alexandrian cityscape. The clothes from Cicurel stand for the barrier that protects him from becoming a barefoot Arab. In the Bedouin’s tent, French gives way to Arabic.
The narrator’s name is transformed from “Maurice” to “Moussa,” the Arabic equivalent of Moses. The illusion of cosmopolitanism suddenly recedes and reveals to the narrator his other reality. He has become an Oriental Jew. The fantasy of the Orient fascinates him and, gradually, he sheds his cosmopolitan side. He asks himself why he is wearing sandals; he even tells the chief of the tribe that he is one of his children and he wants to marry a Bedouin girl. The clothes from Cicurel, then, reveal the narrator’s double consciousness. Maurice/Moussa perceives the Arab Other from the perspective of the Orientalist adventurer who desires to appropriate the Orient, and from the perspective of the Oriental Jew who connects with a classical image from Jewish religion, that of Moses and Hebrews wandering in the Sinai desert. In the latter case the narrator’sclothes appear as a fake disguise, or a form of colonial mimicry that cannot hide the Oriental inside him (Said 110). Téboul uses department stores as a symbol to express his complex cultural belonging to Alexandria and as a way to approach his situation in Quebec.
(Pp. 287 - 289)
Empires and Emporia: Fictions of the Department Store in the Modern Mediterranean
by Amr Tawfik Kamal
A dissertation submitted in partial fulfillment
of the requirements for the degree of
Doctor of Philosophy
in the University of Michigan