One of the most depressing vignettes in Michael Vatikiotis’s agreeably meandering account of his cosmopolitan family’s experiences in the Near East is when he, a former journalist with a sharp eye for detail, visits El Wedy, close to the Nile south of Cairo, where just over a century ago his great-uncle Samuele Sornaga built a hugely successful ceramics works employing 200 people.
The factory no longer exists. It was nationalised, privatised, closed, and is now a vast construction site. After being harassed and prevented from taking photographs, Vatikiotis discovers it’s being developed as a resort — not for general tourists, mind, but for the army, whose presence looms menacingly everywhere.
Sornaga was from the Italian-Jewish (his mother’s) side of the wider Vatikiotis clan which first came to Egypt in the 19th century. The other more modest branch (his father’s) is Greek, Orthodox in religion, and its members emigrated to Palestine. Both places were then under Ottoman rule, but economic opportunities abounded, particularly in Egypt, where the Khedives were eager to modernise. The eastern Mediterranean was a region to hasten towards, rather than flee from.
Alexandria was usually the first port of call, at least for Italians who grew rich from the demand for technical expertise. Samuele’s grandfather, from Livorno, set up a ginning factory at a time when the American civil war fuelled a demand for Egyptian cotton. His uncle, Michael’s great-grandfather, helped establish the Egyptian postal service (whose first stamps were printed in Italian).
By 1864 one third of the city’s population was European, many of them Jewish. Lawrence Durrell described it in Justine as a melting pot of ‘five races, five languages, a dozen creeds’, the epicentre of a distinctive Levantine culture which Vatikiotis seeks to bring into focus.