You hold a catacomb of memories.
I wait outside your door to catch fragments.
How much can any of us know
of what preceded? We interrogate
doors we cannot pass through,
look at shadows through keyholes.
Can I trace the path of your flight from Egypt
in the old grainy black and white photographs
of a young man and a younger woman
honeymooning in Luxor over sixty years ago,
in the French you speak with an Egyptian accent,
or those long nights playing cards in the lounge room
in clouds of cigarette smoke, the murmuring of
Egyptian voices transplanted across the world
billowing like the sail of a felucca in my childhood sleep?
You strolled along the Corniche
in Alexandria when you were a girl,
moved to Cairo,
fell down the stairs and cracked open
your head when you were ten (we can still
feel the scar through your hair),
recall blocks of ice hauled from the street
to the balcony, siestas and lazy afternoons
at The Club, visits to Groppi’s.
I imagine a world moving around you
like the intricate workings of a watch:
you were immersed in friends, community,
large family gatherings, a hubbub of siblings,
warm and close. Looking back
from this distance, it seems carefree
like the young woman in the photographs,
but I can see only shadows: and your
mother’s early death in childbirth,
your father, your beloved father.
You were caught in the spokes
of history’s turning wheel.
A plague of war came closer, Rommel
pushing through the desert to El Alamein,
synagogues destroying their records,
the threads of your life unravelling
— and further unravelling
even as Israel was being born,
even as a tide of refugees,
a great ingathering of the displaced
landed on her shores —
with waves of departure,
family splintering off to America,
to England, to Israel, one after
the other — the mass dispersion
of everything known,
everything familiar, everything.
Leaving is not a simple thing:
what is left behind? What comes
with you? What stowaways?
Affix a moment to it:
the act of leaving — boarding ship
at Port Said in 1952;
or the commitment to leaving —
the Australian crew bringing
you a birthday cake,
wishing you ‘many happy returns’
and your puzzled response:
‘I’m not going back’.
A moment as artifice:
to mark passage, to denote
before and after, despite
the continuum of leaving:
making landfall, arriving
The Egypt of your childhood
receded before you left,
before you took what few possessions
you were allowed — leaving behind
what was already gone;
taking with you what you imagined
you were leaving —
and boarded the ship to your future
with hardly a backward glance.
The sea parted before you.
You were young then
and the future lengthened into
a fall of manna, a dazzling antipodean
light that you entered
and kept entering for sixty years.
But Egypt kept returning —
in accents or turns of phrase,
in phone calls,
in visitors at your door
from Brazil or Europe:
messengers from an earlier life.
In the mornings, the rich smell
of Turkish coffee — Dad going through
the elaborate ritual, the practised
science of making it, his daily gift
of smell, of taste, of texture
from another land, another time.
Curious, I went back thirty years later,
returning to the Egypt I had never left
and never known, attached by an umbilicus
steeped in history. I looked to find my face
or its echo in a Cairo crowd,
but the half life of your quarter life is short,
and there were no traces: it takes so
little time to be obliterated, for all the markings
to disappear, buried in a sea of sand.
Each year at Pesach we remember the Exodus
in ritual, in food and song, in stories:
your story overlaying the biblical —
exodus upon exodus,
always leaving, lost markings hidden
though marking generation after generation.