Samia Serageldin, an Egyptian-American, writes a fictional autobiography describing, in vivid details and rich imagery, the times that once were: pre-revolution Egypt. She takes her readers through a fascinating journey through cultures within cultures. The Cairo House is more than just a novel about Cairo though. It is a tribute to the changing times and the elegance that once existed in a pre-Nasserite pre-Salafism Egypt.
Through her flawless storytelling and emotionally-charged first person account of a changing Egyptian society, Serageldin opens a window unto the Middle East. The story of Egypt's metamorphosis from an enlightened "chic" society to a mosaic of new-bourgeois, nouveau riche, and Islamists is recounted without the all too common dullness and prosaism of historical fiction.
The history of Egypt, the most populous Arab country, is intricately tied with the cultural history of the whole region, and in many instances, the world. Novels written about Egypt usually reflected the Colonial times, written from "foreign" perspectives. Samia Serageldin, an Egyptian by birth, weaves a beautifully crafted picture of pre-revolution and Nasserite eras up to 1970s through the eyes of Gigi, her alter ego. The author comes from an elite family whose world was torn apart by the 1952 revolution Egypt. As a part of the Egyptian aristocracy so viciously hunted down by Gamal Abdel Nasser, she lends her memories to Gihan Seifeldin to take readers through time, and occasionally space, in a story centered on their childhood family mansion.
It has always intrigued me how female Arab writers approach their autobiographies. Writing an autobiographical account of their lives without offending conservative family members is no easy feat! In The Cairo House, Samia Serageldin's semi-fictional account of her life leaves out any controversial details. Nothing too personal, nothing too emotional. While this might have caused the novel to be dull and bland, Ms. Serageldin manages to pull it off because of the historical richness, and vivid imagery of her life.
The characters are all alive throughout the novel. You feel a sense of belonging with them by the middle of the narration, and you don't want to part with them at the end. Rare are the books that evoke such emotions for the whole cast of characters, not just the primary protagonist. However, at certain turns of the story, the character development leaves the reader wondering…. sometimes you feel like you can tell fact from fiction.
Politics and history aside, the novel is a story not just about what once was, but also about how elusive the sense of belonging is. If you have ever wondered how being "uprooted" feels like, read Samia Serageldin's account of her journey. It is tremendously entertaining and thought provoking.