Sitting on a sailboat tied to a dock while day-after-day rain pours and wind gusts wildly might be the best place and time to pick up a nice thick novel. I’m new to Robert Solé’s writing and new to the Syrian migration to Egypt. The novel was published in French in 1992 as Le Tarbouche, it won the 1992 Pix Méditerranée. It was translated into English in 2000 under the title Birds of Passage, which shifts the focus from the business of the family to four decades of exile (1916-1958) in Egypt. What better way to be distracted: a new author, a new context, and a gossipy multi-generational family saga?
The old patriarch is proud of his tarbouche– or fez-making factory and the wealth it accrues for his family. The Barrakani are a big, loving family who gather daily around the dining table to eat, of course, but also to share stories. These scenes are some of my favourite. However, Birds of Passage is a saga, a tapestry woven with many threads.
One of these threads involves religious tension in the Greek Catholic family. Education is valued and the best education is by the Jesuits; so the children are enrolled in the Roman school. You can imagine what happens when the eldest son, destined to take over the family business, announces that he will become a Jesuit priest. This thread plays itself out against a back-drop of the dominant Muslim faith of the country (at this point, not an issue, but later, after the revolution, religion does have an impact).
Like all family sagas, there is intrigue and mystery, love affairs and devotion, dreams fulfilled and dreams shattered. Solé writes with insight into the day-to-day struggles and joys of his characters and with knowledge about Syrians in Egypt during the early-to-mid twentieth century. At times the story moves along in raucous fun; at others, dramatically. But there’s another reality beyond family crisis and celebrations.
Egyptians, under British occupation, resent the Syrian enclave with its financial and political influence. The British merely condone the merchant class of Syrian migrants, the relationship with the Sultan, complex. The Barrakanis successfully maneuver through this minefield, but they are never accepted as Egyptians. Although they survive both World Wars, their business acumen and isolation from the mainstream cannot protect them from the outcome of the revolution that began in 1952. They’ve remained Syrians in their hearts and attitudes. Never having fully integrated into Egyptian life, they find in the end that they are “birds of passage” and must move on to exile elsewhere.
The novel moved with me from the airy cockpit of the sailboat to the cabin in the bow and the next day repeated the journey until I’d read all 375 big pages. Given the situation in Syria today, Birds of Passage has provided a little insight into the psyche and culture of its people, historic migrations, and determination to be Syrian wherever they might live. Birds of Passage is a good read.
Available through your local bookstore or online: Birds of Passage