Samia Serageldin's life has been divided into two parts. Born and raised in Cairo, she lived through, and witnessed first-hand, the political and social turmoil of the Nasser years and the disruptions that followed. Her semi-autobiographical novel, The Cairo House, originally published in 2000 by Syracuse University Press and recently released in paperback, follows the life and memories of her character, Gihan (Gigi), through those years and the ones that followed when she moved to America. The novel is a compelling representation of what it is to lead a hyphenated identity, to try to come to terms with two cultures, two time periods, and two ways of life. Background for the novel and pictures of the real Cairo House are available on her website, www.thecairohouse.com. A second novel will soon be released and she is currently working on a collection of short stories. Samia Serageldin also teaches in the Arabic Studies Program at Duke University.
What inspired you to become a writer?
You know, the Chinese use the expression "May you live in interesting times" as a curse, but for a writer it can be a blessing in disguise. And I certainly grew up in interesting times in Egypt, during a revolutionary regime that brought great political and social upheaval. My earliest memories of an idyllic childhood carne to an abrupt end in the early sixties when the Nasser regime designated certain politically-prominent families as enemies of the people, subject to imprisonment, confiscation of all property and assets, and constant surveillance by the secret police. Ten years later, under Sadat, there was another great reversal, an abrupt about face toward the West; there were brief expectations of political and economic reform, but the situation deteriorated rapidly until it ended with his assassination and the rise of Islamic fundamentalism. It was around then that I left Egypt for the States where I have lived for over twenty years now. I made a very different life for myself in which there was no room for my memories of another place and another time; I tried to blend in like a perfect chameleon. But whenever I returned to Egypt for extended visits, I saw such far-reaching changes sweeping the country, that it seemed to me the world I once knew would soon be gone with the wind. And that was the original impetus to set it all down on paper. But what may have begun as an exercise in "recollections in tranquility" as Wordsworth put it, soon became a very personal and painful attempt to reconcile my own present with my past.
What was the inspiration for the title of your first novel, The Cairo House?
While I was writing the book, I thought the title was something I could decide on later. But in effect I realized that I would only know what the book was about when I knew...