Michael Vatikiotis has impeccable cosmopolitan credentials. On his mother’s side, he comes from the once prosperous Italian Jewish Sornaga tribe who descended on Egypt in the 19th century in search of his fortune. His father’s side is descended from the Greek Orthodox Vatikiotis family, who emigrated to Palestine in the mid-1870s. Judging by his own career, he remained true to these multifaceted roots and escaped the “astonishing normality” of a childhood in the London suburbs of becoming a journalist and conflict mediator who lived all over the world.
Live between the lines is the gripping and beautifully written story of a journey to explore his identity by visiting the places – mainly Egypt and Israel – in which several generations of his Levantine ancestors made themselves at home. Apart from being an extremely personal family-memory-with-travel story, it is also a sign of tolerance between diverse religions and different communities at a time when much of the Middle East is filled with generosity, fanaticism and sectarianism. violence is consumed. An urgent question haunts his often grieving narrative: where did everything go wrong?
Today, one of the persistent images of international migration is that of refugees fleeing Europe with weak, overcrowded boats from the Middle East. Vatikiotis reminds us of the extraordinary period that began in the mid-19th century when the roles were reversed and the region was a safe haven and a place to seek one’s happiness for those fleeing war and poverty. in a divided Europe.
His great-grandfather Samuele was a pioneering entrepreneur who left Livorno for Egypt in the 1860s, shortly after the construction of the Suez Canal began. He earned a fortune in the cotton manufacturing industry, fueled by global shortages caused by the American Civil War. Samuel’s grandson of the same name, Michael’s grandfather, followed in the family’s footsteps, starting a ceramics business south of Cairo in 1905 and making another fortune.
The polyglotal Sornagas led a gilded life, shrugging shoulders with high society, playing cards with the modernization of Khedive Ismail and waving through endless cocktails in Alexandria and Cairo. The cultural contribution made by several generations of Levantines is impressive. In Egypt alone, they included Constantine P Cavafy, Edmond Jabès, Jacqueline Kahanoff and Lawrence Durrell. Vatikiotis’ more modest Greek family includes Brother Leontios, an uncle who rebuilt a monastery in the Judean desert for 60 years.
Vatikiotis may be a romantic, but he’s clearly clear enough to realize that the cosmopolitan of one person in Alexandria, Acre, Beirut, Cairo, Haifa, Jerusalem — a choice from across the Levant — another’s rich foreign interlocutor wash. The glittering beau mouths of belle époque Egypt were almost exclusively strange.
He also acknowledges that the Ottoman capitulations, under which foreign communities could trade within the empire, pay taxes, worship, and render justice according to their own laws, were ultimately a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they have become “the foundations of diversity and cosmopolitanism in the Middle East” – one could realize that Abbasid Baghdad was a model of cosmopolitanism more than a millennium earlier – but on the other hand it has causing the destruction of the empire they granted.
The Levantine days were numbered. After the explosion of the Ottoman Empire after the First World War, European colonialism ushered in arbitrary dividing lines and fixed borders, which unleashed a rising flood of Arab nationalism, Islamism and Zionism. Both the Sornagas in Egypt and the Vatikiotis tribe in Palestine were plagued by the storm. By the mid-fifties, they had set up sticks and left to rebuild their lives in the west.
In post-World War II Egypt, the brand Gamal Abdel Nasser replaced the British colonial yoke with a new authoritarian regime, the forerunner of President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military-led state today. It is a sad sign of the times that Vatikiotis discovers that his old uncle’s ceramic factory, which has now been set up, becomes a resort exclusively for the army. Once upon a time, multicultural Egypt became monochromatic, a place where ‘endless inequality and injustice’ is the norm. In Israel, he walks a difficult path through divided Jerusalem and locates his last Greek dentist.
Vatikiotis deplores the ‘apparent hopelessness’ and ‘endless conflict’ of the Middle East. True to his calling as a mediator of conflict, he finds himself repeatedly drawn during his travels to the peacemakers and pragmatists who give his story a glimmer of hope. “My Levantine blood yearns for peaceful compromise,” he writes, “however unlikely it may be.”
Life Between the Lines: A Journey in Search of the Lost Levant by Michael Vatikiotis, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £ 20, 304 pages
Justin Marozzi is the author of ‘Islamic Empires: Fifteen Cities That Define a Civilization’
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