An Englishman in Search for the Long Lost Levant

British journalist and author Michael Vatikiotis went to the Middle East in pursuit of his Levantine roots, and found forgotten stories about vanished communities

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Guests at the Shepheard's Hotel In Cairo, Egypt, in 1920.
Guests at the Shepheard's Hotel In Cairo, Egypt, in 1920.Credit: Library of Congress
Itamar Rabinovich
Itamar Rabinovich

Lives Between The Lines: A Journey in Search of the Lost Levant, by Michael Vatikiotis, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2021, 368 pages

Michael Vatikiotis is a British journalist and author, and the son of P.J. Vatikiotis, an expert on the politics of the Arab world in the second half of the 20th century. Vatikiotis the father lectured at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London, among other places, and wrote many books, the best known of which deal with the history of modern Egypt. He is also center of the story told by Vatikiotis the son about the role played by European and half-European communities – Greeks, Italians, Armenians and Jews – in Egypt, and Palestine too, during the century between the first half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th century.

The father, P.J. Vatikiotis was born in Mandatory Palestine to Greek parents, grew up in Haifa, and attended the American University in Cairo. He obtained American citizenship and spent most of his adult life in London. He married the daughter of an English civil servant in Egypt and a Jewish woman from the Italian-Egyptian Sornaga family.

The cover of 'Lives Between The Lines: A Journey in Search of the Lost Levant,' by Michael Vatikiotis.Credit: W&N

The journey Vatikiotis the son takes following his family’s story is both real and virtual. He traveled to Egypt and Israel some years ago in search of his family story, and it was an emotional journey. Between the lines, one can sense the thrill he feels seeing sites identified with the history of the two branches of his family and with the heritage of the “Levantine community” to which they belonged, but he doesn’t get maudlin.

The bleak reality he encounters confronts the rich, cosmopolitan heritage of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, especially in regard to Egypt, where during the 19th century, Italian, Greek, Armenia and Jewish communities formed. This was due both to poor living conditions in their home countries and to the opportunities provided by the development and modernization policies of the Muhammad Ali dynasty (which ruled Egypt and Sudan from the 19th to the mid-20th century).

These Levantine communities, as Vatikiotis dubs them, played a key role the cultural life of Egypt at the time, and in construction. They served as the local elite in Cairo and Alexandria and in the cities that arose along the Suez Canal. And their lives in Egypt in the late 19th and early 20th century gave rise to impressive literature, such as by Constantine P. Cavafy, a Greek; Jacqueline Kahanoff and Edmond Jabès, Jews; and Lawrence Durrell and Olivia Manning, Europeans, as well as people tracing their roots to the community, such as André Aciman and Ronit Matalon.

Writer Cathy Scott-Clark, Michael Vatikiotis and Peter Bergen during the Jaipur Literature Festival 2018 at Diggi Palace in Jaipur , Rajasthan, India in 2018. Credit: Vishal Bhatnagar / NurPhoto via

The Levantines in Egypt spoke French or their home languages (but not Hebrew), which enabled them to serve as mediators between the British and local rulers and local society, as of 1882. They generally lived well, although they were not rich. But beneath this comfortable life hid seeds of disaster, which emerged in the second half of the 20th century. The anger of native Egyptians over their dispossession and marginalization led to the rise of two currents: Egyptian nationalism and the Muslim Brotherhood.

There was a third current that saw Egypt not as an Arab Muslim country but as a Mediterranean land with a European orientation, but this current was overwhelmed by the stronger and deeper movements of Islamic and Egyptian nationalism and later, Arab nationalism.

By the 1950s, after the Free Officers revolution and Gamal Al-Nasser’s rise to power, the Levantine communities’ time was over. Some left, some were expelled, and Egypt became a relatively monochromatic state in which nationalism and Islamism fought for its soul. The splendor and the physical and cultural riches were replaced by crowding and poverty that visitors to Cairo see today.

Vatikiotis’ Egyptian sojourn was mainly in search for the roots of his mother’s family. Through her story, we are shown the complexities of life for the Jewish-Italian community in Egypt – the wealth that Samuel Sornaga amassed, the mixed marriages, the life of luxury spent in the clubs and cafes of Cairo and Alexandria, the easy transition between languages and speech, rubbing shoulders with the Egyptian elite and with the royal family.

Holidaymakers relax on a beach in Stanley, Alexandria, during a heat wave, Egypt, August 1933. Credit: AP

But in fact the cosmopolitanism of the Levantine community had begun to unravel in the 1920s, under pressure from the nationalism that arose in Italy and Greece. Mussolini and Fascism had its supporters in Egypt’s Italian-Jewish community.

Moving onto Palestine, in the late 19th century and early 20th, it was not cosmopolitan. With some exceptions, like Jerusalem at the end of the Mandate, the local Levantine community consisted mostly of Greeks who had come to exploit the opportunities created by Ottoman reforms, and Armenians fleeing Turkish massacres. The Jewish community stayed separate, preferring its autonomy.

In Egypt, the term “Levantine” referred to the European and quasi-European communities, but not so in the Levant. Mainly in Lebanon but to a lesser degree in Palestine, it referred to locals who had acquired at least a partial mastery of European languages and culture and travelled between the two worlds without actually belonging to either.

Jacqueline Kahanoff.Credit: Laura Diamant

The British-Lebanese historian Albert Hourani held that to be Levantine was to live “in two worlds or more at once, without belonging to either; to be able to go through the external forms . . . of a certain nationality, religion or culture, without actually possessing it.” Levantinism is, in his view, a state of “going through the external forms of culture, without actually possessing them.”

In the Mandate-era Jewish community and the early years of Israel, “Levantinism” was frowned upon. Only years later, to a large degree thanks to the Egyptian-born Israeli novelist Jacqueline Kahanoff, the term acquired a positive connotation in Israeli discourse as representing multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, and the magic that Vatikiotis the son sought to express in his book.

Palestine at the end of the Ottoman era and during the British Mandate did not have a big Italian community; the Armenian community was small; the Greek community was bigger but small in comparison with its Egyptian counterpart. The Greek community to which the Vatikiotis family belonged was close to the Arab population, especially its Christian minority, for whom the Greek Orthodox Church played a crucial role. In the history of Arab nationalism, Christian intellectuals and activists played a key role and most of them were Greek Orthodox. While the Catholic and Protestant communities felt close to France and Britain, Greek-Orthodox Arabs felt close to Russia and the Arab nationalism that began to develop on the eve of World War I and spread its wings in the years that followed it.

The Vatikiotis family lived in the lower city of Haifa next door to Arab Christian families, and felt close to them, not to the Jewish community. The Greek Orthodox Church fought for influence in Jerusalem and the holy sites, owned a lot of property, and had the financial resources to support its followers and play a major role in the region’s politics. But with the ultimate victory of the Jewish side in Palestine, most of the people in the Greek and Armenian communities left the country.

Streamlines apartments in Alexandria, Egypt in 1947. Credit: AP

Throughout the book, and especially towards the end, Michael Vatikiotis shows his father’s complex attitude toward the Jewish-Arab and Israeli-Palestinian conflict in Palestine and after the rise of the State of Israel. Greeks born in Israel like my father effectively felt closer to the Arab community than to Jews, he wrote; they grew up speaking Arabic, their friends in the Christian schools where they studied were Arab, and at church they rubbed shoulders with the Arab members of the Orthodox community... thus, being in the middle, many Greeks tended to sense more sympathy for the Arab side.

P.J. Vatikiotis himself had many close Arab friends, especially Wadie Haddad, who had left Haifa for Beirut to study medicine and became one of the leaders of the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine and one of the most effective and dangerous terrorists during the height of the war between Israel and Palestinian terrorist groups. The elder Vatikiotis maintained his connections with Haddad and his other friends who joined Fatah and other extremist Palestinian groups well into the 1980s.

At the same time, he had linked with the most prominent Jewish Middle East experts – his patron Bernard Lewis, Elie Kedourie, Walter Laqueur and others, as well as with Israeli scholars. Nor did he shy away from criticizing what he saw as the poor conduct of the Palestinian leadership.

At the end of the day, Vatikiotis was a true academic and wrote and lectured on the Arab world as an academic researcher and not as a friend of any part of the Palestinian leadership or as an emotional supporter of the Palestinian cause. His conduct in this complex reality does indeed justify the title of his son’s book, “Between the Lines.”

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