The weekend after I purchased a new Honda sedan, I hired a small construction crew. They arrived at my apartment, in Cairo, early on a Friday morning. The foreman told me that it was important to work quickly, because the police weren’t likely to be active before Friday prayers.
With my wife, Leslie, and our twin daughters, I lived on the ground floor of an old Art Deco residence that I called the spiderweb building. It was impossible to enter or leave the place without passing a series of decorative wrought-iron webs. A six-foot-high webbed gate stood at the building’s main entrance, and then, inside the lobby, an old-fashioned elevator was encased in a web-shaped cage. The front door to our apartment was marked by little black spiderwebs. At the back of the apartment, another door led to a small garden with a webbed fence. This fence ended in a pair of spiderweb gates that were large enough to admit a car.
The construction crew started on the sidewalk outside these gates. They mixed buckets of concrete and built a ramp from the sidewalk to the street. Then they laid out a parking slab in a corner of the garden that had previously been strewn with old boards and other rubbish. My landlady was pleased when I asked for permission to clear out the trash, because a parking spot would make the apartment more valuable. But Egyptian friends had advised me not to contact any authorities about the ramp to the street. It was April, 2014, less than a year after Mohammed Morsi, the country’s first democratically elected President, had been removed from office by a military coup. Ever since the start of the Arab Spring in Egypt, in January, 2011, periods of political instability had been followed by unauthorized construction projects around the city. The police were distracted, and, in any case, the government had become so dysfunctional that it was pointless to apply for a permit.
When the concrete dried, I drove my Honda through the gates. In front of the ramp, I strung up a chain and erected a no-parking sign that said “Mamnouh”—“Prohibited.” The chain and the sign lasted less than a month. They were confiscated during one of the half-hearted sweeps that the police performed periodically, as a public show of resistance to all the illegal construction. But the cops left the ramp alone.
After that, my concerns shifted from the state authorities to the local ones. Street parking was managed by three doormen who originally came from Upper Egypt, in the south, and now they started putting cars in front of the ramp. It created a double income stream for them—they would charge drivers to park the cars, and then they would charge me to have them moved. Soon, the twins, Ariel and Natasha, started first grade, and I needed to drive them to school. I tried to figure out a system for parking management, but all three doormen, who worked in different buildings, claimed that they should be in charge of the new ramp. They argued about it for weeks, until I realized that they were nursing the conflict along because it allowed everybody to continue to ask me for money. Finally, I settled on a solution that was also in the local spirit: I paid all three doormen, but never in set amounts and never on a schedule. As a result, nobody was completely satisfied, and the parking management never worked perfectly, but it functioned at a basic, grumbling level, like so many things in Cairo. On most mornings, we left for school at a reasonable hour.
Once, a wealthy man who lived in a neighboring building confronted me about the ramp. “You shouldn’t have built that,” he said. “I’ve lived here for twenty years, and there was never a ramp there.”
I didn’t admit the truth—there were many days when I regretted my construction project. Instead, I defended the ramp, explaining that the spiderweb building was a lot more than twenty years old, and the landlady had said that people probably parked there in the past, because the gates seemed to have been designed to admit a car. But this was pure speculation, because she couldn’t even tell me the exact age of the building. Once, when I asked about the meaning of the spiderweb motif, she shrugged and said that she had no idea. Like a number of local real-estate owners, her family had come into possession of the building during the chaotic period after Egypt’s previous revolution, in 1952. At that time, the landlady had been a child, and she knew nothing about the original owners.
We lived there for nearly five years. Ariel and Natasha had been toddlers when we moved to Cairo, and their early childhoods were tracked in photographs taken around the apartment. I had so many pictures of spiderwebs and identical twins: toddlers on webbed balconies, three-year-olds standing next to the elevator cage, school-age girls getting into the Honda beside the webbed gates.
In some photos, the girls wore headlamps while eating dinner, because blackouts were common in times of political instability. In 2018, I wrote an essay for The New Yorker about our family’s experience during the Arab Spring, and I mentioned the blackouts, the apartment, and the spiderweb motif. Almost immediately after it was published, a reader sent me an e-mail:
From your description of the building, it seems that it could be the
one where I lived as a child until 1956. The address (at the time) is
2 Ahmed Hishmat. . . . The building used to belong to my grandparents.
I could send you pictures of the building. I am very curious to know
if it is the same building where I grew up.
Thank you in advance,
Dr. Albert Bivas
Palo Alto, CA
I wrote back and told him that the address was the same, and I attached some photographs. Albert Bivas responded with pictures of his own, in black-and-white. One featured identical-twin toddler girls playing in front of a wrought-iron spiderweb on a balcony. At the top of the photograph was a date: 1946.
The neighborhood was full of old buildings, but there was little sense of formal history. Nobody had erected plaques that identified the ages of the structures or the people who had previously lived in them. The only building that locals connected with a historical figure was three doors down from us, a villa that was built by the street’s namesake. Ahmed Hishmat, a government minister who, in the nineteen-tens and twenties, had opposed British colonialism, constructed the villa, in 1921. By the time we were in Cairo, nobody had lived in it for years. The villa was administered by a private school, which had allowed the place to deteriorate; many windows were broken, and bushes and vines covered most of the top story.
None of the old structures on the street were in particularly good shape, but some still had traces of their former glory. We lived in Zamalek, a district at the northern end of a long, thin island in the Nile that first became popular with affluent Cairenes in the nineteen-twenties. A number of these early residents built houses in the Art Deco style, mixing influences from the East and the West, modern and ancient. In addition to the spiderwebs, our building had Greek-inspired columns, and some of the balconies had porticos with a ziggurat-shaped pattern that recalled ancient Mesopotamia. There were stepped window frames and filigreed decorative squares, which are typical of Islamic architecture.
When I took the twins for walks, I made up stories about the buildings. The Ahmed Hishmat villa was their favorite, because it looked like a haunted house from a children’s book. I told tales about magic spells and a resident who had slumbered beneath the vines for decades. Usually, we walked in the heat of the late afternoon, when it was easy to imagine somebody sleeping the years away.
Of course, none of these buildings was very old by Egyptian standards. It was easy to understand how memories slipped away, especially after the various modern upheavals and revolutions. Even before that, invaders had regularly swept through the Nile Valley: the Greeks, the Romans, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Ottomans, the Europeans. The act of forgetting was characteristic of Egypt; this was a country where people had written hieroglyphs for more than three millennia and then lost all knowledge of them for another thousand-plus years. Abu Ja‘far al-Idrisi, an Egyptian scholar of the thirteenth century, wrote, about the Great Pyramid, “The nation that built it lay destroyed, it has no successor to carry the truth of its stories from father to son, as sons of other nations carry from their fathers what they love and cherish among their stories.”
Without real stories about the ruins, people naturally made up new ones, just as I had with the Ahmed Hishmat villa. In the fourth century, after Christianity had spread across the country, some Egyptians started to describe the pyramids as former granaries. There wasn’t any evidence for this idea, but it matched Biblical stories of Joseph and ancient Egypt. Sometimes a tale about a half-remembered monument was created for political reasons. Around 1401 B.C., Thutmose IV, who wasn’t in line for the throne, somehow became pharaoh. He may have had his brother killed, although the only commentary we have about the succession comes from Thutmose IV himself. He claimed that, as a prince, while hunting on the Giza Plateau, he decided to nap in the shadow of the Great Sphinx. By then, the sphinx was already more than a thousand years old, and sand had buried it up to its neck. While the prince slept, the god Haremakhet visited him in a dream and declared, “I shall give to you the kingship.” The god instructed the prince to clear away the sand from the statue. After this was done and the prince became king, he had the dream story inscribed on a stele and placed between the Sphinx’s paws.
The oldest photograph that Albert Bivas sent me was dated June 11, 1933—when his maternal grandparents held a groundbreaking ceremony for the spiderweb building. In the picture, Betty Bassan and Léon Bassan stand next to a foundation stone. Betty is tapping the stone with a hammer. Around them, a crowd of people are dressed in European-style clothes, while a large Egyptian man in a white galabiya is helping to hold the foundation stone.
The next photograph is from the inauguration of the finished building. A small group of men stand in front of the webbed balcony that, eight decades later, would lead to the room that I used as an office. In the picture, there are signs for the various groups that contributed to the construction: the contracting firm, whose name is Italian, and Schindler, the German company that installed the elevator.
Albert and his family had lived in that same ground-floor apartment. He was born in Cairo, in 1941, and after him his parents had four girls. The identical twins, Betty and Danièle, were born in 1944. In photographs, the baby twins are beautiful, with curly hair and enormous eyes, and in several images they sit on the balconies. The details of these scenes—the metal spiderwebs, the patterned floor tiling—are exactly the same as in photographs of my own twins.
Peter Hessler’s twin daughters, Natasha and Ariel.
Photograph Courtesy Peter Hessler
Albert’s grandparents lived on the floor directly above. Like all of Albert’s known ancestors, they were Sephardic Jews who, at the end of the fifteenth century, fled the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal. They settled in Constantinople, which was welcoming to Jews at the time. Albert’s grandfather Léon was born in Turkey, but as a young man he moved to Egypt.
At the time, such a move was relatively easy, because Turkey and Egypt were both part of the Ottoman Empire. A number of Jewish families had moved during the late nineteenth century, when the opening of the Suez Canal created business opportunities in Egypt. For a while, Léon taught at a French-language school, and then he became an importer of supplies for tailors. In Cairo, he joined a vibrant community of Egyptian Jews. Some families had been in the city for centuries, and a number of Jewish activists had been prominent in the Egyptian-nationalist movement that resisted British imperialism in the early nineteen-hundreds.
For Léon, identity was many-sided. He and his wife communicated in Ladino, a form of Old Spanish that incorporated words from Hebrew, Turkish, Arabic, and other languages. It’s also known as Judeo-Spanish, because the tongue was carried across the Mediterranean and sustained for centuries by the Sephardic Jews who had been driven out of Spain. Léon also knew Turkish from childhood, and he learned Egyptian Arabic. He loved writing poetry and essays in French, which had been the language of his education.
None of his writings were published, but they were collected in journals preserved by the family. Léon’s voice is witty, curious, and intensely observant. He was an outsider who came to consider himself Egyptian, at a time when the country was full of such people—Jewish Egyptians, Greek Egyptians, Italian Egyptians. In Arabic, Cairenes refer to their country as “um al-duniya,” “the mother of the world,” and Léon describes the place as a melting pot. “The fashions of all the countries and all the times cross each other in Cairo,” he writes, in April, 1934. “It is a crossroads of all the races; you hear all the languages. And every person betrays his origin by the way he walks and by the way he is dressed.” He describes the “nervous” walk of the Europeans, who move quickly but say little. In contrast, l’autochtone—“the aborigine,” or local—walks slowly, to preserve his strength. But he isn’t silent. “He speaks loud and laughs very loud,” Léon writes. “He is poor like Job and nevertheless happy to live.”
In the journals, Léon takes pleasure in the organized chaos of the Cairo streets. He likes the professional female mourners who are hired for funerals and who, “in between their wailing, slip in some low-class jokes.” He also admires the beggars, especially the ones who are small-time scam artists—“the false blind, the false deaf, the people who have no arms but actually have hidden arms, the people who act like cripples but actually can run with their strong little legs as soon as the shawish [a junior police officer] is following them.” He gently mocks the discomfort that such figures inspire in Western residents, who have a tendency to label any irritation “the eleventh plague of Egypt.” Sometimes the eleventh plague is the beggars; at other times, it’s mosquitos. In the early thirties, the eleventh plague was revolutionary student activists. “These students, when they are demonstrating, imitate what people do in civilized countries,” Léon writes. “They break streetlamps, burn tramways, ransack shops, and knock off the hats of passersby while screaming in favor of this or against that.”
For a long time, Albert Bivas and I exchanged e-mails and telephone calls, and then I went to meet him, at his home in Palo Alto. He was a trim man in his seventies, with bright blue eyes of a shade that I had never seen on an Egyptian. He showed me his grandfather’s journals and old photographs, and he often laughed at the quirks and complexities of the culture in which he was raised. He remembered that his other grandfather read a newspaper written in Aljamiado, which used Arabic script to transcribe Spanish. The first time that Albert attended a Christmas party as a boy, it was hosted by a Muslim family who had decorated a tree and invited Jewish, Christian, and Muslim students from the local French lycée. The school was directly across the street from the spiderweb building.
“We took one class about the history of France, and another class about the history of Egypt,” Albert said. “There were contradictions between these classes—sometimes we joked that we didn’t know if our ancestors were the Gauls or the pharaohs!” He continued, “The same as when we were doing Passover in Cairo, and we would read the story about how we were slaves in Egypt. And now we were here! But how can we have servants here, if we were slaves? As children, we were very amused by this.”
Albert’s father was a stockbroker who founded a textile factory, and the family was prosperous. They had servants to clean the apartment and to cook, and the doorman, an Upper Egyptian named Mohammed, doted on the children. The family parked their Citroën sedan in a garage in the garden. When Albert and I talked, he sketched out the layout of the building, and he confirmed that the spiderweb gate had been designed for automobiles. His family hadn’t needed a ramp to reach the street, since a sidewalk had yet to be built. I wished that I had had this piece of historical evidence when my neighbor confronted me about my construction project.
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The strange little world of Albert’s family—the island in the Nile, the mixed languages, the spiderweb building, with its combination of Art Deco, classical, and Islamic architecture—began to seem increasingly fragile in the nineteen-forties. The neighborhood experienced frequent blackouts, as it did during the political turmoil of the Arab Spring, but in the forties the cause was war. In June, 1941, Léon Bassan wrote a poem titled “Black Out”:
Close your shutters and turn off the lights
There goes the happiness of our dear homes
There are lines going through the sky, of pirate airplanes
In Egypt, German and British forces fought at Al-Alamein, on the Mediterranean coast west of Alexandria, but Cairo was relatively unaffected. Many Egyptian nationalists were sympathetic to the Nazis because of their hatred of British imperialism. But, for an Egyptian Jew, the fear of Hitler was visceral, and the name often crops up in Léon’s poems:
Satan is Hitler himself
Göring is the angry tiger
Goebbels is the cursed snake
And Himmler the vulture walking toward the prey
One of Léon’s sisters had got married and moved to France. After the war, Léon learned that his sister had been sent to Auschwitz, where she died. He never mentioned the death to his grandchildren, although even as a young boy Albert could tell that something was changing in Cairo. Once, he went to the cinema with his father to see a French movie, and when a Jewish character appeared onscreen, people in the audience shouted, “Kill the Jew! Kill the Jew!” On November 29, 1947, after the United Nations passed a resolution calling for Palestine to be partitioned between Arabs and Jews, angry mobs gathered in downtown Cairo. Albert’s family was out in the Citroën, and his father, whose name was also Léon, yelled at the children to duck, in case people caught a glimpse of them in European dress.
Léon Bivas had named his textile company Albitex, after his only son, and his dream was that Albert would someday take over the business. But, in 1952, as protests against the Egyptian monarchy intensified, Léon Bivas sensed that the regime might be toppled. He took his wife and children to France that summer, with the expectation that they would return after things stabilized. In July, when Nasser and the other army men who became known as the Free Officers carried out their revolution, the Bivas family was living in Paris.
Albert’s mother was pregnant with their last child, and she wanted to give birth in the country that she considered her homeland. By December, Léon Bivas believed that the situation was safe because the new President, Mohamed Naguib, was known to be friendly to Jews. So the family returned to the spiderweb building. But post-revolution Presidencies have a way of ending abruptly, and, after less than a year, Naguib was unseated by Nasser. Nasser’s feelings about Jews had been hardened by his military experience in the Arab-Israeli War of 1947, when the Israelis had routed the Egyptian forces. In 1956, the year that Nasser won the Presidential election with more than ninety-nine per cent of the popular vote, the Bivas family went to France again. This time, they packed as much as they could in their luggage.
Léon Bivas returned to Cairo alone, to deal with the factory. In July, Nasser seized the Suez Canal, and the resulting war, in which Israel fought alongside the British and the French, represented the end for Egyptian Jews. Nasser’s government arrested hundreds on the suspicion of espionage and other crimes, and a new exodus began. In the span of three months, at least ten thousand Jews fled the country. A number of former Nazi officials had sought refuge in Egypt after the Second World War, and some of these men reportedly helped Nasser’s government design anti-Semitic laws. Egyptian nationality could be revoked from anybody who was declared to be a “Zionist,” a term that was never defined. Soon, Jewish Egyptians were limited to a single piece of luggage on departure. Anybody carrying significant funds out of the country could be arrested.
Albert Bivas’s grandparents and others, at the spiderweb building’s inauguration, in 1935.
Photograph Courtesy Albert Bivas
By this time, Albert’s grandparents were elderly, and they were allowed to leave on one-way passports—the documents specified that they were good for only a single journey. They left in such a hurry that they didn’t sell the spiderweb building. In France, the passports of Albert, his mother, and his four sisters expired, and the Egyptian Embassy refused to renew them. France classified the family as stateless. In less than a year, they had gone from prosperous residents of a family-owned building to refugees.
In Cairo, Léon Bivas was trapped in the ground-floor apartment. The government refused to grant him travel documents, and he was placed under house arrest. Outside the webbed gates a guard was stationed, and he escorted Bivas to the textile factory every morning. Bivas ran the factory as a virtual prisoner for more than a year. It was nearly impossible for an Egyptian Jew to sell a significant asset, because buyers knew they could just wait for things to get worse. Finally, the factory’s Egyptian foreman bought the business at a steep discount, which presented Bivas with a new problem. He couldn’t carry or transfer cash out of Egypt. But he had an idea. He bought two pairs of roller skates and mailed them to the twins.
When Albert Bivas and I met, it was easy to exchange memories about the neighborhood, because so much had remained the same across a half century. Our landlady’s family had added some new upper stories to the building, but the lower floors had hardly changed. Bivas recognized photographs of the fireplace in our living room, and his twin sisters remembered getting in trouble for using crayons to color the fireplace’s delicate bas-relief decorations. Albert and I reminisced about the Upper Egyptian doormen in their galabiyas, and the way in which they managed the buildings and the streets. In Albert’s time, scrap dealers who made their way through the neighborhood called out “Roba bikya,” and they were still using the same phrase when I lived there. The words are a corruption of the Italian for “old things.”
Revolutionary politics also resonated across different eras. Before the uprising of 1952, Nasser secretly allied with leaders of the Muslim Brotherhood, who organized protests that helped to destabilize the old regime. Not long after Nasser came to power, he decided that he could no longer trust the Islamists, and he launched a vicious crackdown. This pattern recurred with uncanny similarity during the Arab Spring. In the initial phase, Muslim Brothers played an important role in the demonstrations that overthrew Hosni Mubarak, and then Morsi, a leader of the Brotherhood, was elected President, in 2012. That August, he attempted to solidify power by purging the Army’s top leadership. He appointed a relatively unknown director of military intelligence, named Abdel Fattah El-Sisi, as the Minister of Defense.
When Sisi took command of the military, he was perceived to be an ally of the Islamists. He had a reputation as a devout Muslim, and the Web site of the Brotherhood’s political wing described him as a “defense minister with revolutionary taste.” But, after less than a year, Sisi’s appetite for revolution took on a new form, and he turned on the man who had appointed him. After Sisi led the coup against Morsi, in 2013, his new regime instituted a harsh crackdown on Islamists and other activists. I knew a number of Egyptians who became political refugees during this period, fleeing to Europe, the United States, or the Gulf states.
In the wake of the coup, Sisi set about building a cult of personality. His speeches often recalled the words of Nasser and Anwar Sadat, and supporters on Tahrir Square made posters that featured Sisi’s image alongside pictures of these predecessors. In the streets, I often heard speakers playing a pop song called “All of Us Love Sisi,” written by Shabola, who came from a Giza slum:
We will wake up at five o’clock, no laziness from now on,
If we eat only one meal, as long as it is with you it will be like honey,
A condiment with you is tastier than a kebab,
We’ll live in peace and love, no more chaos or terrorism.
Nothing that happened in Egypt was new; for every event, there were multiple historical precedents, layered like the strata of an archaeological dig. You could look to the era of Nasser, or to the period of British occupation, or you could go even deeper in time. In the nineteenth century B.C., when a powerful pharaoh named Senwosret III expanded Egyptian control into Nubia, he commissioned hymns that, like Shabola’s song, addressed the pharaoh in the voice of everyday Egyptians:
How Egypt rejoices in your strong arm:
you have safeguarded its traditions.
How the common people rejoice in your counsel:
your power has won increase for them.
With all the attention that’s paid to the pyramids and other monuments, it’s easy to forget that the true genius of the ancient Egyptians was political. Toby Wilkinson, an Egyptologist who wrote “The Rise and Fall of Ancient Egypt,” notes that the ancient Egyptians invented the concept of a divine king, along with the idea of nationhood—a people with a common identity sharing a political territory. They were brilliant at making symbols. The crown and the scepter are both believed to have been Egyptian inventions, and Egyptians understood the political power of architecture. On temples and royal buildings, they used pillars and vertical buttresses that, beneath the bright Egyptian sun, threw dramatic shadows across the structures. Other ancient cultures in sunny climes, like the Greeks, later adopted similar techniques, and the use of such vertical features also became characteristic of the modern Art Deco style. There are many such connections to the modern world. In ancient Egypt, in the heart of the capital, the pharaoh’s residence was whitewashed and referred to as the White Wall, a distant ancestor of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.
Pharaohs also pioneered the manipulation of nostalgia and mysticism in ways that we can recognize. They connected themselves with past rulers and monuments, and they used stories like the one that Thutmose IV told about the dream at the Great Sphinx. More than twenty-four centuries later, after the coup of 2013, Sisi had his own version of the dream story. That December, there was an audio leak of an interview between Sisi and a journalist named Yasser Rizk. “I’m one of the people who have a long history of visions,” Sisi said. “I have seen a lot of things that then happened.”
Rizk asked him to elaborate, and Sisi described some of these visions. “And then in another dream I was sitting with Sadat, talking with him,” Sisi said. “He told me, ‘I knew that I was going to become the President of the Republic.’ And I said, ‘I know that I’m going to become the President of the Republic.’ ”
Half a year after the audiotape was leaked, Sisi won the first post-coup Presidential election, with more than ninety-seven per cent of the vote.
At the end of the nineteen-forties, Egypt was still home to around eighty thousand Jews, many of them educated and prosperous. Generally, they had to abandon much of their wealth, if not all of it. Albert Bivas’s various Egyptian relatives scattered around the world, although most of them ended up in France or Israel. After fleeing Cairo, Albert, his four sisters, and their mother lived in a hotel near Paris.
It was there that they received the package with the roller skates, along with a letter. Albert’s parents had arranged a code before they were separated, because they knew that outgoing mail would be searched in Cairo. Albert’s mother understood the message that was hidden in the letter: Don’t touch the skates.
Léon Bivas was separated from his family for twenty months before he managed to arrange an exit visa, probably through bribes. A friend brought him a plane ticket, and he left the spiderweb building without alerting the guard (or by paying him off). He carried nothing but a briefcase. In France, after the joyful reunion with his family, one of the first things he did was disassemble the wheels of one roller skate. There, in the place of a ball bearing, was a diamond.
He had purchased the diamond in Cairo, with the money he made from selling the factory. Every transaction incurred steep fees, and the diamond wasn’t worth nearly the value of the business, but it was better than nothing. Léon Bivas sold the diamond and gave some of the proceeds to his brother, who had been an investor in the textile company. In France, it took Bivas a long time to find work, and for years the family lived in near poverty. He eventually found a decent banking job in Strasbourg.
The family often reminisced about their old life in Cairo, but there was no sense that they might return. And, although Albert’s parents never regained their former prosperity, they didn’t express bitterness. “I guess my parents drew a line,” Albert told me. “And we never crossed that line to think about what might have been.” Undoubtedly, this perspective was shaped by recent history. Betty Kane, one of the twins, wrote in an e-mail, “We are still better off than the millions of Jews (including family members) living in Europe who were murdered in that era.”
The family’s wealth was left behind, but their tradition of education proved more portable. All five children excelled at school and attended French universities. The twins studied law, another sister studied political science and journalism, and the fourth sibling became a doctor. Albert received two doctorates in physics, and he enjoyed a long career as a research physicist, eventually settling in the United States. By the time I visited him in Palo Alto, he was retired. He had never gone back to Egypt.
The textile factory still exists, although it has moved to a new location, and the company name was changed from Albitex. The foreman who bought the factory left it to his son, exactly as Albert’s father had intended to do.
In 2016, the spiritual leader of the Egyptian Jewish community announced that there were six Jews left in the country. All of them were women older than sixty-five.
There was one question about the Zamalek building that Albert Bivas couldn’t answer. When I asked about the spiderwebs, he contacted his sisters and other relatives, but nobody knew the significance of the motif. Art historians told me that the angular form of the webs was classic Art Deco style but that it wasn’t some recognized symbol. The exact meaning of this particular web was lost with the generation that constructed the building.
Léon Bassan, Albert’s grandfather, had been granted permission to return to Cairo briefly, in 1959, in order to sell his home. That May, as he prepared to leave Egypt for the final time, he wrote a farewell poem about the spiderweb building:
Adieu, my old home, dear nest of my children.
Seeing their cradle, my poor heart is breaking.
I tremble as I carry away their childhood pictures,
My mind persists in remembering their games
Adieu, the beautiful portico that decorated my living room
Adieu, my golden dreams.
More than half a century later, Albert didn’t know whom the building had been sold to, or what the price had been. But on other points his memory was still as clear as a child’s. He remembered the mekwegi, the neighborhood ironing man, and how he kept some water in his mouth and sprayed it onto clothes while working his hot irons. He remembered going to outdoor movies in Zamalek and how the children shrieked with joy whenever a lizard crawled across the face of a starlet in closeup. He remembered that the family Citroën, parked behind the spiderweb gates, had eleven horsepower, and he remembered riding it to the pyramids. He remembered that a local child would ask tourists for a coin, and then he would climb the Great Pyramid, barefoot, hopping from stone to stone, following some secret route up the crumbling structure, until at last he waved triumphantly from the top.
In Egypt, time is accordion-like. Certain moments seem to last forever, but then everything is compressed and an era disappears in a flash. Léon Bassan, who lived through the momentous events of the early twentieth century, and who raised four daughters and then lived above four granddaughters, had a particularly strong sense of Egyptian time. In 1934, he wrote a poem with the prescient title “Egyptian Spring”:
In my country, childhood passes quickly
Everything is precocious, the people and the plants. . . .
The trees bloom and spread their fragrance quickly
Like in a greenhouse
The little girls, similarly, grow fast
And become women with incredible precocity. That’s Egypt.
Léon Bassan’s twin granddaughters now live in different cities on the East Coast, and in photographs the women are still hard to tell apart. When I met with Albert Bivas, we marvelled at the coincidences—the way the old black-and-white pictures of those baby girls lined up with images of Ariel and Natasha. In the dining room of the webbed apartment, Albert’s parents used to speak Ladino when they didn’t want their children to understand, just as Leslie and I used Chinese for private conversations in the same room. Albert’s wife was named Natalie, but she went by Natasha; their only daughter was Arielle. What were the odds? But maybe that was the meaning of the spiderwebs. Everything was connected: the revolutions and the refugees, the untimely events and the unlikely languages. There were webs around the building, and webs around the island; they continued the length of the great river and beyond. The webs ran everywhere from this place they called um al-duniya, the mother of the world.