Tag Archives: Armenian Diaspora

Pierre, my Armenian-Egyptian private eye in Cairo Mon Amour

 

Cairo Mon Amour introduces Pierre Farag, one of my best-developed characters. In some respects, Pierre is the touchstone of the novel, with its themes of shifting loyalties and the propensity of individuals to adapt to adversity.

I made Pierre half-Armenian and half-Coptic, an Egyptian with an ambiguous identity and a shady profession of private investigator and translator. He’s a man who burrows unnoticed in the folds of the city, among the ‘troupe of misfits, malcontents, blackmailers, and square pegs in round holes who fed him scraps of information, shreds of rumour and dollops of sheer spite’.

He is intensely patriotic, the son of a fighter pilot killed in the 1967 war. But like all certainties in Cairo Mon Amour, his patriotism is tested as the truth becomes clear about the cynical diplomatic plot he has been drawn into.

Pierre prefers the French version of his name, although he is Butrous and Bedros in Arabic and Armenian respectively. He doesn’t explain how the French version came about, and I prefer to leave the secret with him.

Where does Pierre come from? My inspiration was an Armenian man who used to occasionally visit the house of my wife’s relative in Cairo in 1973. He wore a beret and tinted glasses, and seemed studious and thoughtful. It was said that he had spent time in prison during Nasser’s time. He never said much, but he has remained in some corner of my mind for decades. Nobody in the family can remember him, and sometimes I wonder if I imagined him!

 

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The music in Cairo Mon Amour

Music in a novel? Well, if Ann Patchett uses it in Bel Canto, then I’m on safe ground. But am I fooling myself when I weave a piece of music around a scene in my novel Cairo Mon Amour? Just because I get an emotional charge as I bash the keyboard, headphones clamped on my ears, is there any way my readers will share my response?

Well, it depends. Picture my exiled Egyptian actress Zouzou, marooned in a flat in damp London. She sings Roberta Flack’s Killing Me Softly as she passes the hours. My intention is that the impact of the song is subverted: The words are about the pain of a lovelorn woman listening to a singer. But it’s the gloom of exile that is slowly killing her. Of course, everyone knows this song, and I hope that at least some of my readers will hum along.

But what about the Arabic music? Here’s a passage where I give the reader a little help:

But the last record in the stack was Umm Kulthoum’s The Ruins. He put the record on and let the exquisite Classical Arabic stanzas caress his wary heart, almost against his will. The words told of the capriciousness of fate, the powerlessness of the lover’s heart to follow its destiny. The song – the performance was half an hour long – ended on an ambiguous note, somewhere between hope and resignation.

The truth is that while Arabs swoon over the music of this revered singer, most Western readers would just wouldn’t get it. In this case, I hope my description conveys the emotional impact of the song without the reader having to listen to it. But if anyone is curious, the endnotes to the ebook include a link to a YouTube video. In fact, there are YouTube links to all to the music in the book.

The movie Solaris (the original Soviet version, not the US remake) features in the book, and I’ve referenced Tarkovsky’s arrangement of a J.S. Bach choral prelude.* I use the piece of music as an icebreaker between two characters who are thrown together against their will (no spoilers). One begins to hum the melody, and the other recognises it: They discover they have both seen Solaris; there is a point of connection. If Solaris is on your list of top ten movies, you’ll get it. But even if you know only a little about Bach, what I hope is that you’ll think organ+church, and you’ll be half-way there. And there’s a YouTube link!

Happy listening, even if the music is in your head.

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*BWV 639 Ich ruf zu dir, Herr Jesu Christ.