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Castaways in Cairo: An Exercise in Bibliographic Archæology.

Shlomo Narinsky (“Neroni”)


A CITY IS constituted by its buildings and their inhabitants, by its climate and its form of government, by its ghosts and its luck, and also by the lives of those people who pass through it, temporary residents, survivors from the shipwreck of modernity washed up on its shores, scrambling and hustling, hiding out, stuck, or making the most of a good thing as long as it lasts. For the first half of the twentieth century, Cairo, polyglot and cosmopolitan yet also ruthlessly exploited and riven with profound levels of inequality, had more than its share such castaways. Among them was Shlomo Narinsky, an artist who later adopted the single-name moniker Neroni. It was as Neroni that he created the cover design of Edmond Jabès’s third book of poetry, Maman (1932).

Born in the Ukraine in 1885, Narinsky joined a group of Russian-Jewish Zionists as a young man and emigrated to Palestine in the first years of the twentieth century. Among his early friends were Yitzhak Ben-Zvi, who, like Narinsky, had left Russia in the wake of anti-Jewish pogroms, and David Ben Gurion. Ben-Zvi would become the second president of Israel and Ben Gurion its first prime minister. Losing interest in politics once he arrived in the Holy Land, Narinsky took up photography and painting. A visit to Paris exposed him to modern art. Cézanne became his god.

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In 1916, he and his wife Sonia, both of whom held Russian passports, were deported from Palestine to Egypt by the Ottoman government. (Russia and the Ottoman Empire were on opposite sides in the First World War; the Ottomans didn’t like the idea of Russian subjects on their territory.) In Cairo, Sonia set up a photography studio, becoming the only woman photographer in the city, and thus able to take portraits of Muslim women that would have been impossible for a male photographer. At the end of the First World War, Shlomo and Sonia returned to Palestine, though only briefly.

Among the holdings of the Cavafy Archive, a project dedicated preserving material relating to the great poet Constantine Cavafy (1863-1933) and housed since 2012 at the Onassis Library in Athens, is a print of one of Narinsky’s Cairo photographs, his portrait of Alexander Singopolous (1898-1966), the Alexandrian lawyer who would become Cavafy’s heir and literary executor. The photograph, which is undated but must have been taken during the Narinskys’ Egyptian sojourn (circa 1916-1919), shows a youthful, tousle-haired Singopolous. It’s much livelier and less formal than Narinsky’s Palestine portraits. One can’t help wondering if it was taken by Sonia rather than by her husband. The fact that Sonia and Shlomo’s first names shared an initial lends the signature “S. Narinsky” a degree of ambiguity.

The sale, in 1920, of a series of photographs Shlomo had taken in Palestine to a company that later turned them into popular postcards financed a return to Paris where Narinsky changed his name to Neroni (perhaps in homage to the obscure Italian Mannerist Bartolomeo Neroni, ca. 1505-1571). In 1932, the year that Maman was published, the couple opened a photography studio in Paris, while Neroni pursued an up-and-down career as an illustrator and painter.

Today Neroni is remembered for his early photographs of the Holy Land and its inhabitants rather than for anything he may have accomplished as an artist. He has left barely a trace in history.

Eight years later when the German Army marched along the Champs-Élysées, the Narinskys were still in Paris. Although Neroni was able to evade the authorities for several years, he was eventually arrested and sent to the Drancy internment camp where, beginning in the summer of 1942, packed trains departed with ferocious regularity for Auschwitz. Somehow, Sonia was able to contact Ben–Zvi and Ben Gurion before her husband was placed on a transport headed East, and, the story goes, these two Jewish leaders persuaded the British, who then controlled Palestine, to exchange a German spy imprisoned in Palestine for several Jews from France. Taken by the Gestapo from Paris to Constantinople in 1944, Neroni and Sonia were traded for the Nazi spy and returned safely to Palestine, 24 years after leaving it. Living first on a kibbutz, they eventually moved to Haifa, where Neroni supported himself not through his art but as a photography instructor at a vocational high school for girls. He died in 1960. Today he is remembered for his pre-First World War photographs of the Holy Land and its inhabitants rather than for anything he may have accomplished during the following four decades. As an artist, he has left barely a trace in history. Perhaps it was the bad luck of his adopted name: most of the works of his namesake, Bartolomeo Neroni, were, Wikipedia tells us, “either ephemeral or have been lost.” On eBay, I just found a 1934 Neroni drawing depicting a grove of sleek, leafless trees offered for €215.

Published in Cairo by La Semaine Egyptienne, Maman is a thin volume printed in a small edition1 and is among the most elusive of Jabès’s Egyptian publications. Appearing when Jabès was 20, though written when he was only 17, Maman consists of a single longish poem about Jabès’s mother, suffused with her suffering after the death of her daughter Marcelle; it was among the early books Jabès found embarrassing and never allowed to be reprinted. Neroni’s cover features, in faded green against tan, some elegantly stylized palm fronds above a clump of desert grass and a low sand dune. Strangely, the exact same image is used for another book La Semaine Egyptienne published in 1932, Rythmes Dispersés by the Alexandrian poet Gaston Zananiri (1904-1996).

Compounding the similarities between the two books, the artist responsible for the internal illustrations for Maman, G.J. Dimos, also did the illustrations for Zananiri’s book. Still in 1932, Neroni designed the cover of a third Semaine Egyptienne book, Yvonne Laeufer’s poetry collection Rythmes Clandestines. (Although Maman doesn’t figure in my Jabès collection, I do own copies of Rythmes Dispersés and Rythmes Clandestines.) Clearly, Stavro Stavrinos, the Egyptian-Greek proprietor of La Semaine Egyptienne, wasn’t worried about confusing readers of his poetry publications with similar covers and similar titles, nor should he have been: production of the books was generally subsidized by their authors, and distribution was minimal—he had nothing to lose.

For some time I wondered how it was that Neroni came to design, in a single year, the covers of Maman, Rythmes Dispersés and Rythmes Clandestines? More than a decade had passed since he left Egypt. It seemed doubtful that Jabès, who was an infant during years that Neroni spent in Cairo, had anything to do with these commissions. Perhaps, I thought, the artist retained some Egyptian connections that led, in the 1930s, to him being commissioned for Cairo publications. It was only while poring over back issues of Le Semaine Egyptienne, an illustrated cultural review published every two weeks by Stavrinos,2 that I found the solution to this mystery, 0n page 20 of the Nov. 21, 1927 edition :

So, in the late 1920s, Neroni, most likely accompanied by Sonia, was spending six months a year in Cairo, where he was running an art school, which he advertised in a magazine owned and edited by the publisher of Maman, Rythmes Dispersés and Rythmes Clandestines. It’s easy to imagine Stavrinos contracting with Neroni for their cover designs, perhaps in exchange for this advertisement.

Details about Yvonne Laeufer’s life are hard to find. She was born in Belgium in 1899, and began contributing to the Belgian newspaper Le Soir in 1920. I don’t know when she moved to Cairo, but by the mid-1920s she was a prolific journalist there, writing daily columns under the pen name “Miss Grinchette” for French-language Egyptian newspapers3 and publishing music criticism and literary pieces about Egyptian life under her own name. In 1930, Stavrinos published L’oeil pour l’oeil (An Eye for an Eye), her book of Arab folktales transposed into French. It’s the only book of Laeufer’s to have any kind of afterlife. Republished in Belgium in the 1930s with a racier title, Quand les harems s’entrouvrent (When the Harems Crack Open), L’Oeil pour l’oeil has more recently (2018) become available as a print-on-demand book from the publishing conglomerate Hachette in partnership with the Bibliothèque nationale de France.

Near the front of the original edition of L’Oeil pour l’oeil is a list of five other books by Laeufer that were slated to appear: Ailleurs (Elsewhere), Fin de Race: Contes arabes (End of the Race, Arab Tales), La Babel Ensablée (Babel Buried in Sand), L’Eternelle Chanson: Contes des mont et des plaines (The Eternal Song: Stories of mountains and plains), and En Bateau, Ma Vie (By Boat, My Life). As far as I can tell, none of them was ever published. Laeufer did, however manage to publish three other volumes during her life: Les Stigmatisés, which appeared in Brussels in 1929, Les Erotiques, poèmes, and, under the pseudonym Orlova, a novel titled Les Convulsions du Nil (Convulsions of the Nile), published in Geneva in 1946.

The few pieces I’ve read by Laeufer are intriguing, especially a 1927 article where she celebrates Arab music and takes Western music critics to task for their ethnocentrism. Is she a lost writer worth recovering? Someone who knows this period much better than I—French scholar Daniel Lançon, who is the author of a study of Jabès’s Cairo years—argues that until the late 1920s, French prose writers in Egypt were often “cursed by an obsession with Egyptian folklore and landscape. Furthermore, numerous tales à la Loti confirming the idea of the East as a topos of unbridled lechery and sexual possibility were written about harems and bazaars, one example of this tendency being the work of Yvonne Laeufer, in particular her Oeil pour oeil.”

It’s possible that Yvonne Laeufer is not some unjustly forgotten talent, but simply one more author defined by and imprisoned within the prejudices of her time.

I admit it’s possible that Yvonne Laeufer is not some unjustly forgotten talent, but simply one more author defined by and imprisoned within the prejudices of her time. The only way to find out would be to cut the pages of Rythmes Clandestin, and order a POD copy of Oeil pour oeil, and track down examples of her other publications. Alas, I’m too much of a bibliophile to slit open my unread copy of Rythmes Clandestins and not enough of a literary scholar to bother with her other books. Really, the only thing I want to know is when and where she died, information that has so far eluded me.

Gaston Zananiri left a much more substantial trace in history. The author of scholarly works on the Byzantine Church and Francophone literature, Zananiri was the embodiment of Alexandria, which rivaled Cairo in its cosmopolitanism, as a Levantine rather than an Egyptian or North African city. Acutely aware of his own mixed heritage (his father came from a Syrian Melkite family; his mother’s father was a Hungarian Jew, her mother was Italian), Zananiri once defined a Levantine as “a rootless individual who takes root wherever he finds himself.” As for the Alexandria he knew, he once memorably described it as “an Egyptian city with windows opened onto the Mediterranean and doors closed to Egypt.” The fabled port was so turned (I almost wrote “oriented”) toward Europe, Zananiri claimed, it was possible to live there “for years without ever visiting Cairo, while one took a boat for destinations in France or Italy.”

In the English-speaking world Zananiri’s claim to fame, such as it is, lies in his association with Lawrence Durrell. In his fascinating work of cultural archeology, Alexandria: City of Memory, Michael Haag notes that Zananiri was a partial model for the character of Balthazar in The Alexandria Quartet and that he was an indispensable source for Durrell regarding Cavafy, whom Zananiri knew well. For instance, says Haag, with the description “in Justine of the boys who stir and turn to watch every stranger ‘in those little cafés where Balthazar went so often with the old poet of the city,’ Durrell was clearly recollecting Zananiri’s stories of his night-time adventures with Cavafy.” (As with other characters in The Alexandria Quartet, Durrell gave Balthazar traits of more than one person—he resembles Cavafy himself, as well as Cavafy’s friend.) Haag also notes that Durrell read Zananiri’s L’Egypte et l’équilibre du Levant au Moyen Age (1936) and L’Esprit méditerranéen dans le Proche Orient (1939). “Both books,” Haag writes, “were contributions to the discussion in intellectual and political circles about where Egypt’s future lay at a time when it was still being asked who the Egyptians were and how their heritage should be defined.”

We now know how that discussion concluded, how after the 1952 Revolution, and, even more so, following the Suez debacle of 1956, Egypt’s future would be one in which people like Neroni, Zananiri and Jabès, along with so many others — such as writers Albert Cossery and Georges Henein, artists Ida Kar and Amy Nimr, and filmmaker Togo Mizrahi — would have no rights to citizenship or property. Another Egyptian exile, singer-songwriter Georges Moustaki, who was born in Alexandria in 1934 and left Egypt in 1951, recalled a lost paradise of companionship in his 1989 song “Alexandrie”: “Arabes Grecs Juifs Italians/ tous bon Méditerranéans/ tous compagnons de meme bord/ l’amour et la folie d’abord” (Arabs Greeks Jews Italians/ all good Mediterraneans/ all sharing the same shore/ of love and madness).

While Neroni doesn’t seem to have had any special feeling for Egypt, the same can’t be said of Zananiri and Jabès. Only three years after founding a Center for Alexandrine Studies, Zananiri, despite his decades of passionate advocacy for a Mediterranean identity, left Egypt for France in 1951; he died in exile in 1996, his rhythms and life dispersed far from his beloved Alexandria. Jabès departed Cairo in 1957, under official pressure and after years of growing anti-Jewish actions, leaving behind everything he had known, everything he had owned; he died in Paris in 1991 without even once revisiting Egypt, although the memory of its desert defined his imagination and pervaded his books. As he once explained to an interviewer: “I always deferred my departure from Egypt. I certainly felt it couldn’t go on like that. Believe me, it wasn’t any social position, no matter how comfortable, that prevented me from taking the leap, but the country, the people, with their wisdom and their humor, but the sky, but the desert, above all the desert, my desert.”

Raphael Rubinstein is a New York-based writer and art critic whose previous books include The Miraculous (Paper Monument/N+1 Books, 2014) and A Geniza (Granary Books, 2015). Since 2007, he has been Professor of Critical Studies at the University of Houston School of Art. “Castaways in Cairo” is taken from his work-in-progress Libraries of Sand, a biography-novel-bibliomemoir inspired by the life and work of Egyptian-French writer Edmond Jabès (1912-1991).


  1. 120 numbered copies on antique white laid paper, 26 copies on the same paper lettered A to Z and three copies signed by the author and designated with Roman numerals.
  2. A typical number, from April 1927, is here.
  3. Such as L’Egypte Nouvelle, where Miss Grinchette appears here, on p VII.

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