An Egyptian exile considers Jewish identity—and his own—in a cosmopolitan world. Excerpted from the new essay collection Alibis.
And Ulysses posing with a cigar is like a lotus eater who thinks he’s found a new home.
So let me return to Freud’s cigar and suggest—and I do so with all the hesitation in the world, because I do hate this sort of thing—that the cigar I’ve been toying with throughout is a phallic symbol.
But as Nietzsche said, I am giving you the moral before giving you the tale.
So let me propose an example.
It is taken from my own experience as the only Jewish boy in a 97-percent-Muslim school in Egypt (the other 3 or so percent were Christians). We are about to take swimming lessons and I complain to the teacher that I am feeling sick—and for all I know at that moment, I must be sick, because fear will do this to you. The reason is not hard to imagine. I didn’t want to undress before the other boys because if I did so I’d reveal to the Catholics who thought I was Catholic, to the Greek Orthodox who always suspected I was one of theirs, or to the Muslims who assumed I was soon to convert to their religion, since I was the only European boy who attended Islam class every week, that I was—to all of them—a sham. You may not feel Jewish, but Judaism is—pardon the metaphor—cut into you, as though to make sure that, however you quibble over your Jewish identity, you are branded with it for life. You—and others—would never have a doubt. But as every Elizabethan and Jacobean playwright knew, that’s precisely the tragedy of impostors. Even when they are totally alone they no longer know where their truth lies. And their awareness of this paradox resolves nothing at all.
But when I explained to some of my relatives why I hated swimming class—I who loved the sea and who loved the beach enough to wish to spend my entire life in the water, because if I am ambivalent about all things, I am certainly the most amphibian man alive—they responded with a totally different tale. During the Armenian massacre, when a Jew was mistaken for an Armenian by the Turks, all he had to do was pull down his trousers and he was given his life back.
So let me be totally blunt now and ask questions whose purpose is really not so much to arrive at answers but to give a sense of how confused I, the writer from cosmopolitan Alexandria, am on this question of the Jewish identity in a cosmopolitan world. To this end, let us assume for a split second that Freud is in fact holding a phallic symbol in his hand.
What is he saying about that phallus? Is he holding out a Jewish member and saying, “Look, ladies and gentlemen, I may be a totally cosmopolitan man, but I can never—nor do I ever wish to—forget I am Jewish”?
Or is he saying the exact opposite? “Look, stare, and observe: Here is proof I am not and have never been Jewish.”
Or, “Would I even allow you to raise the question if I thought you’d come up with this?”
Or is he saying something totally different? That is: “This is just a cigar. And only a Jew from Alexandria who has never understood Freud or confronted his own anxieties about being Jewish would think otherwise. This, sir, says more about you than it ever will about me.”
And without hesitating a second I’d say that he was right, that it is all about me and my own reluctant Judaism, which desperately wishes to find similarly reluctant Jews around the world, if only to nurse the illusion that there are other Jews like me, that Jews like me are not alone, that perhaps all Jews are like me, in the sense that all Jews are other, lonely Jews, that no Jew can ever be authentically Jewish once he steps out of the ghetto, that all Jews have the diaspora branded on them so profoundly that feigning they are not Jewish is perhaps the surest way for them to discover they are nothing but Jewish, and that, in this strange new world that reminds them they are free now, some part of them is forever skulking in the dark dying to scream to another Jew: Ceci n’est pas un cigare.
Excerpted from Alibis: Essays on Elsewhere by André Aciman, to be published in October 2011 by Farrar, Straus and Giroux, LLC. Copyright © 2011 by André Aciman. All rights reserved.
Agenda: Tovah Feldshuh gets old, New York City dines out for farmers, the Klezmatics play Prague, and more