A Conversation with the Author:
How much did you inject yourself into the character of Maya or any other characters in City of the Sun?
As a refugee and then as an immigrant myself, who was uprooted twice, I could easily draw from my personal experiences when writing the novel. Granted, we did not flee from Hitler’s internment camps like Maya and her family, but we went through similar trauma of loss and fear for the future when we were chased out of Egypt and arrived in France, in a new culture, without knowing a soul, stripped of all of our possessions and miles away from our loved ones. It takes immense courage to forge a new life in a foreign country. There is no room for dreams or self-indulgence—survival is the order of the day. That said, I also knew I wanted my heroine to fall in love, so I had to leave an opening in her for that to occur. From page one, I kept a window of hope open. Like me, Maya loves to ponder life and has a strong response to the aesthetic of the environment around her. She is someone intensely curious and independent who relishes her privacy while at the same time craving connection with other human beings. When she falls for Mickey, she’s willing to break all the rules to experience that connection on a deep, primal level, soul to soul.
As I developed Mickey, I also thought about what kind of man Maya would respond to. And I came up with someone hungry for the truth and very idealistic. By the same token, as I got to know Mickey better, I discovered what kind of woman he would risk his life for, and that helped me shape Maya. There is a lot of me in both of these characters, but they are infinitely more patient and noble than I am!
During the war, did the United States actually recruit journalists or other civilians for matters of state abroad as they do with Mickey in your novel?
Prior to WWII the U.S. government had left intelligence to the Department of State and the armed services, and there was no sharing or coordination between those departments. It wasn’t until July 1941 that President Roosevelt decided that it was vital to have an independent central office to collect and analyze data about Nazism and the danger that it posed to America, even though the United States was not yet in the war. So he formed the Office of the Coordinator of Information (COI) and Bill Donovan, a prominent lawyer, was appointed as the director of the organization. Donovan recruited Americans who had traveled abroad or studied world affairs, mostly finding them at East Coast universities (many came from Princeton), businesses, and law firms. Some were also journalists like Mickey. These civilians received no training in espionage; they were just patriots who volunteered to join the struggle against the threat of Nazism. They learned as they went along, following Donovan’s motto of “Let’s give it a try.”
A year later, the COI became the Office of Strategic Services (OSS, the predecessor to the CIA). Donovan was still in charge, but this time he recruited men and women from more diverse areas and backgrounds—historians, bankers, actors, lawyers, businessmen, and even a baseball player (Moe Berg). The first OSS agents were trained by the British in Canada. Though new to the game, the OSS was instrumental in many of the successes during the war, including providing the U.S. government with advance information about German efforts to develop atomic weapons.
Describe your research and writing process. Did the story develop in any unexpected ways as you learned more about Egypt during the war?
Since the only thing I knew when I started the decade-long journey of writing this novel was that I wanted to learn and write about the Jews of Egypt, I began to read about Egypt’s history. My interests quickly took me to the modern history of the country, when a huge influx of European and Jewish immigrants from all over the Mediterranean basin took place. They’d come because Western culture had taken root here after Napoleon, and they saw great opportunity in the rapid modernization of the country that resulted from the building of the Suez Canal. Soon myriad languages were spoken in Cairo (with French being the language de rigueur), and the increasingly sophisticated city became known as “Paris on the Nile.” Europeans, Jews, and Arabs coexisted in surprising harmony. However, as England took control of the country and imposed itself both economically and politically in Egypt’s affairs, dissent was heard from many quarters ranging from the nascent Islamic fundamentalists to the nationalists and the monarchy itself.
As I built my story in that fascinating world, I chose to set it during a pivotal period of WWII and soon found myself reading in depth not only about each and every one of these groups and factions but also the war itself, since everything going on directly affected my characters and their motivations. The research grew exponentially as the story developed, and I confess to having felt at times overwhelmed. I found myself exploring territories I did not expect to enter, such as Britain’s policy in Palestine and the wide range of the Axis Powers’ activities in North Africa and the Middle East. In my quest for accuracy, I’ve read countless books and articles and conducted many interviews. In addition, I’ve studied many old photographs, pieces of music, films, and even fashions of the period. To recompose the past, I feel that research must include a wide variety of sources in order to not only understand it intellectually but also deeply feel it. The books I read varied from scholarly works and memoirs to fiction written at the time, but I was most fortunate to have had access to the extensive diaries of the British Ambassador in Egypt, Sir Miles Lampson, who was at the epicenter of that world. Short of divulging state secrets, he wrote about everything and everyone in Cairo with extraordinary detail. Anwar Sadat’s autobiography as well as his book Revolt on the Nile also proved to be very helpful.
I wrote ten drafts of City of the Sun from beginning to end. The first one was one thousand pages long and included the point of view of many of the characters now only briefly appearing in the novel, such as the British Ambassador, young King Farouk, and Egypt’s then prime minister. I wanted to give voice to all of them; they all had a story to tell. But with each draft I had to let go of a character’s point of view as I trimmed the text.
There is no doubt that the research for this book was daunting, but as I wrapped my arms around the world of my novel, I became so immersed that the book started to write itself with history filling in the blanks. The time, place, and characters became a living world that hasn’t stopped fascinating me. Today, even after ten years of hard work, I’m still as excited about it as I was on day one.
What can we learn from the period in Egyptian history you detail in City of the Sun that can help us better understand the country today, particularly in the context of the Arab Spring?
In 1914 Britain declared Egypt a British protectorate, meaning that if there were a war between Egypt and another country, then the British would have armies in Egypt that would fight for them. Having been under constant foreign occupation ever since the last Pharaonic dynasty (525 BC), the Egyptians had finally had enough, and violently fought against the English for their right of self-determination, which they at last acquired in 1922 when the country ceased to be a protectorate. However, with the Suez Canal being such a vital trade route for their Empire, the British remained in place in the country, controlling much of the economy and political system. When more violent riots erupted, England agreed to the legal termination of their occupation, and Egypt was admitted into the League of Nations as an independent country in 1936, though the British still ended up staying.
With the advent of WWII and the Germans at Egypt’s door, Britain declared the country to be under martial law and imposed itself militarily, making a final mockery of Egypt’s independence. In City of the Sun, we see the consequences of Britain’s tight grip on the country. We see how the emerging Muslim Brotherhood gains power and becomes a paramilitary organization, how young Egyptian army officers (including Sadat) feel humiliated and plot against the British, and how secular, nationalist groups try to regain their power, taking their grievances to the streets again. We also see how during the war, thousands of Allied soldiers pour into Cairo, shocking the sensibilities of a religious and traditional people with the proliferation of bars and brothels. The British adopted a zero-tolerance policy against any dissent and interned thousands of people.
The Arab Spring shows how many of the same forces at play during WWII, which were created as a result of colonialism, are at play now but this time against one another as well as against the West. America has replaced England as the western power the Egyptian people distrust and loathe. Sadat was right to name his autobiography In Search of Identity. But after all, living under foreign rule since the Pharaonic era, it is to be expected that it will take some time for Egypt to find its path to self-governance.
Which major characters in your novel are based on (or are) real-life people?
While Mickey, Maya, her family, and their host family in Cairo, are either entirely fictional or composites of people I’ve known, most of the other major characters are based on real people.
The spy in my novel, HEINRICH KESNER, is partially derived from the German spy JOHANNES EPPLER, who was recruited by the Abwehr and smuggled into Cairo to provide information about British troop and naval movements to Rommel’s headquarters via radio messages. Like Eppler, my character was raised by his Egyptian stepfather, giving him a mixed German and Arab cultural heritage, greatly facilitating his ability to penetrate British-ruled Egypt. Also, like Eppler, he operates out of a houseboat on the Nile and is arrested for his spying activities. But the similarities end there. A number of novels have either been based on or inspired by Eppler’s story, including The English Patient, The Key to Rebecca, and A City of Gold.
In the novel, Kesner gets help from MADAME SAMINA, who is partially based on the historical character of Egyptian belly dancer, HEKMET FAHMY who helped Eppler in his espionage work and was arrested for it. Also, Kesner receives assistance as Eppler did, from ANWAR SADAT, who founded the Revolutionary Committee within the Egyptian army, which was at the time pro-Axis in the belief that the Germans would “liberate” Egypt from the British. Sadat was arrested in 1942 by the British for his collaboration with Eppler. He later became the third president of Egypt and was assassinated by Islamic fundamentalists for his historic peace agreement with Israel.
I don’t have any evidence that SHEIK HASSAN AL BANNA and the Muslim Brotherhood that he founded as a social and religious organization in 1928 were directly involved with Eppler, the German spy in Cairo, but al-Banna did have strong ties to the Nazis and deeply admired Hitler. During WWII the Brotherhood became a paramilitary organization that conducted sabotage activities against the British and al Banna was imprisoned twice. He also became antagonistic toward the Egyptian Jewish community, sending death threats to its members and attacking Jewish businesses. Since then, the Brotherhood has been mostly outlawed in Egypt. In 2012, however, one of its members, Mohamed Morsi, was elected president only to be ousted from office a year later by the military. As of this writing the organization is outlawed again.
KING FAROUK is also a real life character who appears in my novel. He was only twenty years old in 1941. He’d become the King of Egypt at sixteen when his father, King Fuad, died, and having led a very sheltered life, he was totally unprepared for the job. The British Ambassador, SIR MILES LAMPSON, who also appears in the novel, took him under his tutelage and greatly intimidated the young king, whom he called “the boy.” King Farouk had a lot to contend with: from power struggles within his government to pressures from outside political parties and British rule, and, of course, the war. Though his reign was mired in conflicts, he was the first Egyptian ruler fluent in Arabic and was adored by the Egyptian people. Many of the attributes that I give him in the book are true: he loved the glamorous royal lifestyle, the parties, the women, and the cars—especially red cars! No one else in the country was allowed to drive a red car. Like his father, he had a Jewish mistress and was very close to the Jewish community in Cairo and in Alexandria. King Farouk had a tumultuous reign until he was overthrown in 1952 by a military coup led by the Free Officers. He was exiled to Italy, where he died in 1965.
SIR MILES LAMPSON was the British High Commissioner and Ambassador to Egypt from 1934 to 1946. Standing at 6’5″, he was an imposing figure in every sense of the word. He was said to be the true ruler of Egypt and oversaw every issue that affected the fate of the country from the seating arrangements of royalty at the grand fetes to the suppression of Arab riots in the streets. He pulled the strings of every businessman, political figure, and minor prince in the region. Keeping it all under control was a gargantuan challenge. But Egypt was his business. A ferocious loyalist and imperialist, the dogmatic and pompous British ambassador was the symbol of British colonialism and he proudly defended the destiny that “the sun would never set on the British Empire.”
Yet he was capable of great friendships, notably with ALEXANDER KIRK, the American Ambassador in Cairo at the time, whom he wrote about with great affection in his diaries. I must note that the character of Dorothy Calley, Kirk’s strong-minded secretary and one of my favorite characters in the book, is entirely fictional.
Finally, we have as a real character in the book, WILLIAM DONOVAN, the head of the Office of the Coordinator of Information (COI) and later director of the Office of Strategic Services. He proposes the undercover mission to Mickey. I’ve obviously used Donovan in a completely fictional setup, but I tried very hard to stay true to the optimistic, level headed, patriotic man that he was.
There are many other real characters peppered throughout the novel, such as the Free French General Catroux, Randolph Chuchill, the PM’s nephew, Nahas Pahas, the leader of the Egyptian nationalistic party, and others. They were all there at the time, making the journey of writing this novel come ever so much more alive.
What has accounted for the shrinking in size of the Egyptian Jewish community between World War II and today? What do you see as the future of Jews in Egypt?
Ah! That’s another book! In a nutshell, as I showed in my novel, the writing was already on the wall in 1941 (and even earlier) that things were going to change for the Jews of Egypt. To start with, the intensification of the Arab-Zionist conflict in British mandate of Palestine, the continuing British military occupation, and the privileged position of the Europeans made things difficult for the Jews there. Hassan al-Banna and his Muslim Brotherhood organization denounced them as fifth columnists and traitors who aligned themselves with the Western powers that they despised. As Egyptians became dissatisfied with the monarchy for colluding with the British, strong nationalistic and pan-Arabic as well as Islamist sentiments developed at the expense of foreigners and minorities such as the Jews. The creation of the State of Israel, the Arab-Israeli war of 1948, the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956 involving France, Britain and Israel, and, of course, the 1967 and 1973 wars between Egypt and Israel, all led to the irreversible deterioration in relations between Muslims and Jews in Egypt and to a new political anti-Semitism. Jews were either expelled (like my family) or forced to flee because of discrimination and persecution. We all had to leave our possessions behind, and our assets were confiscated.
Today there are forty Jews living in Egypt, mostly elderly women. Most Egyptians under the age of fifty are not even aware that not so long ago, a large colony of Jews lived side by side with them in harmony, and even fought side by side with them for an independent Egypt. Jews founded and financed many of the country’s finest hospitals and institutions. There is no future for the Jews in Egypt right now, but Egyptians are a warm and welcoming people, and I do believe that should the Israeli-Palestinian problem be resolved, we will be breaking bread with them again.