literature, Politics
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Part One: A Place Without Question

Celine Anderson | September 5 2016

A few summers ago, I was staying at my grandparents’ house in Boston. My mom and I found an old shoebox full of photographs from their first few years in the States. My mom and her parents came to the United States from Egypt on December 24, 1969, when she was eight years old. Their immigration also marked a transition from black and white to color photography. These pictures are from the early 70’s, a time sans social media, when photos were not necessarily taken with the intent of showing but remembering. I like to think of these as visual insurance of my family’s previous life.

My mother’s family is Coptic Orthodox. Her father, Bahig, is an architect, originally from Upper Egypt, who grew up in Old Cairo. Her mother, Nadia, is from the city of Cairo, and had her first job when she came to the United States. My mother, Pauline Kaldas, is an English professor at Hollins University.

Picture1

(left to right) Bahig, Pauline, Nadia. Sitting in a bedroom of their Mohandessin apartment the night before they immigrated. December 1969.

Celine: What was the apartment in Egypt like?

Pauline: We had a really really beautiful apartment… It was called a villa. It was two stories, and we lived on the first floor. It was very spacious and in Mohandessin, a fairly new neighborhood at the time, where they gave special pricing for people who were engineers. That was maybe why my dad was able to rent the apartment there.

C: Did your financial situation change when you came to the States?

P: I think it did. My parents sold everything they had in Egypt before we came. They sold every piece of furniture. My father’s attitude was that making this move was going to be difficult, and by selling everything, by getting rid of everything, it was a way for him to ensure that we were going to make it. That there was no turning back. We went from being upper middle class in Egypt to struggling to become middle class in the United States.

C: So why’d you come?

P: (Laughs). That’s the magic question! Depends on who you ask… I don’t think there’s one definitive answer to that… My mother was somebody who was always fascinated by The West. She wanted to travel, to have new experiences. She found Egypt conservative. The West held a certain attraction for her.  My father had some struggles in his job. Since we’re Coptic, he did experience discrimination at work, and certain doors didn’t open for him because of his religion. There was an idea of more opportunity, a better career, in the United States.

[…] The 1967 war was disastrous for Egypt. Egypt lost terribly, meaning that not only did we lose the Sinai, but also every family lost somebody in that war. So many of the Egyptian soldiers were killed, including one of my great uncles who was a doctor in the military. There was a sense of hopelessness, a loss of faith in the country. That’s when the brain drain started to happen.  The 1965 Immigration Act repealed the quota laws of 1924 Immigration Act, when very few people could come from Africa, North Africa, the Middle East. Those are historical and political things that I think affected my parents’ immigration.

The other part was the image of the U.S. that people in Egypt saw through the movies and soap operas like Peyton Place that made it seem like everyone had a big house, two cars and were very wealthy. There was an image exported to Egypt that made it look like the streets were paved with gold. People who did immigrate would send back letters saying how great everything is… We bought a house, we bought a car, not mentioning the loans and debts. So I don’t think it was a single reason… I think there were a variety of factors.

Picture2

(left to right) Rita (family dog), Usama, Pauline, Mona, Adham and Manal. December 1969.

C: When did you find out you were going to the States?

P: I don’t remember a moment when I was told that we were leaving, but I remember acquiring that knowledge. […] I remember asking my grandmother what it’s like, and the only answer I got was that it’s cold, and that I would need sweaters and a coat.

C: And how did you feel about leaving?

P: I did not want to go. My cousin [Usama] and I had a plan that I was going to hide under the bed so that my parents would have to go without me, and he wasn’t going to tell them where I was, and the plane would leave, and then I think he told on me.

C: Wait, so you actually hid under the bed?

P: Yeah, and he told that I was under there! I have never forgiven him for that. (Laughs).

 

Picture3

(left to right) Nadia (Bahig’s sister in-law), Amir (Bahig’s brother), Amal (Bahig’s sister), Nadia, Bahig, Balsam (Bahig’s sister), Ekram (Nadia’s sister), Aida (Nadia’s mother), Zahaya (Bahig’s mother), Elhami (Bahig’s brother), Pauline, Usama (Pauline’s cousin), Adham (cousin), Manal (cousin), Mona (cousin). In the salon of their  Mohandessin apartment the night before immigration. December 1969.

C: So you must have really not wanted to go…

P: Yes. What I also remember is in the airport. I remember crying, hugging my grandmother, and they had to pull me away from her. I also remember sitting in the plane. My parents gave me the window seat so I could see, and I remember crying the entire time on the plane. I think my mother said that I cried all the way to Vienna, and I don’t think my parents have ever forgiven me for that. (Laughs). They were going through their own anxieties of course.

C: What did you bring with you?

P: Loss. The loss of living a life where you do not have to question who you are and how you fit into the world on a daily basis. […] A grounded identity, or a sense of having a right to be where you are. That’s what I left behind–that incredible sense of belonging in a place without question… Now it’s a question.

I also, more than anything, left behind the connection with my family where on a daily basis, you see where you’ve come from. One of the wonderful things is I knew all of my older relatives and saw new kids being born. There’s a generational line where you know where you fit in your family. You feel that sense of being part of a family, and when we came here [to the States], there were only three of us…  No little kids, no older relatives.

Picture4

(left to right) Nadia, Pauline and Phoebe, in the sofa bed of Phoebe and Nabil’s apartment. 1969.

C: So when exactly did you come?

P: We arrived in Boston on December 24, 1969.

C: Who were you staying with?

P: Phoebe and Nabil. I’m not sure exactly how they’re related. I just know that Phoebe was a distant cousin of my mother. We stayed with them in the studio apartment for about six months, and then they moved out and got another apartment.

C: What was the apartment like?

P: It was crowded of course. There were five people in a little studio apartment. But I think it was also fun and exciting. They had come just a few months before us, and I don’t think they knew a lot of people at all. My aunt was a sort of gregarious person. She had a loud laugh. I remember more good times, having fun together.

I have one memory where my aunt took my mother to the grocery store, and they came back with all these boxes of things. They bought cake mixes, mashed potatoes in a box, tomatoes in a can, all of these things that did not exist in Egypt at the time, and we were surprised how food could come packaged like that. Because in Egypt everything was fresh.

C: That was when Nasser was president, right?

P: Right. I remember just how astounded my mother was at all of this new food and all of these new things. The way that you could have these things in boxes. It was the beginning of the frozen food, TV dinner generation. These things were new and exciting.


Celine Anderson is half African American, half Egyptian, and 100% everyone’s favorite NOC (Nerd of Color). She is entering her sophomore year at Swarthmore college. You can check out her instagram here.

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