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Birds Of Passage
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From Publishers Weekly
The tarboosh, that conical, usually red headgear characteristic of the Middle East at the beginning of the 20th century, sits jauntily atop Sol?'s semi-autobiographical story of a Syrian Greek Catholic family in Egypt. The 1946 birth of Charles, the author's surrogate, is chronicled in the opening episode of this sprawling, multigenerational tale, but the novel's central figure is Charles's grandfather, Georges Bey Batrakani, the leading manufacturer of tarbooshes in pre-Nasser Egypt. In 1860, when the Muslims of Damascus set out to massacre their Christian neighbors, the young girl who will become Georges's mother flees Syria for Egypt. Late 19th-century Egypt, while officially autonomous but nominally under Ottoman rule, was really a British protectorate, with a sizable Syrian community; upper-class Syrians spoke English and French. Georges's father, ?lias Batrakani, is a clerk for the British government and a great anglophile. Later, Georges and his brother, Nando, make their own fortunes, Nando as a land speculator, and Georges as a businessman, with profits impressive enough that the upper-class Syrian Touta family allow Georges to marry their oldest daughter, Yolande. Unfortunately, Georges is infatuated with the youngest daughter, Maggi. As the years go by, however, he falls in love with Yolande, even as he sustains a love affair with Maggi. The narrative chronicles the Batrakanis' social and economic progress as Georges's boys grow up: Michel, the dreamer; Andr?, the priest; Alex, the playboy; Paul, the snob. Of the girls, it is Viviane who gives birth to Charles. Charles's father, Selim Yared, and Selim's family, play a large role in the narrative, too. The fortunes of the Batrakanis are symbolized by the fortunes of the tarboosh, which flourished up to 1952. Modernity, imposed by the nationalist Nasser, puts an end both to the headgear and to the Batrakanis' sojourn in Egypt. Winner of the 1992 Prix Mediterran?e, this leisurely, satisfying novel breathes the nostalgia of a crowded family gathering.
Copyright 2000 Reed Business Information, Inc.
The New York Times Book Review, Peter Khoury
Michael Pollard The Guardian, on The Photographer's Wife
"An original, evocative novel of unromanticized nostalgia, it explains, explores and illuminates."
Richard Eder, The New York Times
"Birds of Passage is delightful."
Edward Stern, The Times Literary Supplement
"Lovingly alive in the present of the era it evokes . . ."
For four decades, from 1916 to 1958, family gatherings at the Batrakani household are an excuse to gossip, eat molokhiya, and tell endless stories.
Energetic and cosmopolitan, their family fate is entwined with that of their adopted land, Egypt, as it is caught in the upheavals of the twentieth century. Georges Bey Batrakani is the patriarch of this family of Greek Catholic, French-speaking Syrians, living in a Muslim Cairo run by the British. He is driven by the need to achieve the wealth necessary for the luxury he craves. His chosen method is to manufacture the tarboosh, or fez, worn by every member of the Egyptian establishment. As long as the tarboosh holds sway, the family flourishes. But in 1952, everything must change. Egyptians take the reins of power for the first time since the pharaohs, and the tarboosh becomes an anathema. The Batrakanis, birds of passage, their love affair with Egypt at an end, must move on to a new exile elsewhere.
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