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Great Uncle Vili Mystery Resolved At Last

by Samir Raafat
Egyptian Mail, February 1, 1997

Like I suspected all along, the fictitious character of Great Uncle Vili was indeed borrowed from Maadi's long time resident Maurice George Levi. Only, in Out of Egypt, Levi-Vili features as a rogue and a swindler, attributes that have ruffled a few family feathers.

Several weeks ago, on December 21, 1996, I wrote on this page an article contesting the existence of a lead character in André Aciman's non-fiction book Out of Egypt. I asserted Aciman's Great Uncle Vili from Alexandria did not exist and that his real double actually lived in Maadi. He was called Maurice George Levi.

I wrote Aciman in 1995 asking him for some clarification on that mistaken identity providing him with ample evidence supporting my assertion.

For whatever reason, Aciman's short reply sidestepped the issue. Perhaps, the fact he was a candidate for a $30,000 literary award for his 'non-fiction' work had something to do with it.

In due Aciman received the Whitting Literary Award and all the kudos that came with it.

The mystery of Vili vs. Levi remained unsolved for another year.

Since my last article on the subject, two things occurred. The first solved the mystery of great uncle Vili and this was no thanks to Andre Aciman. It was solved because of the forthcomingness of Mrs. Denise Sciama, presently residing near Ascot in the UK.

As it tunrs out Mrs. Sciama is the daughter of the late Maurice George Levi, the man I suspected all along inspired the character of the fictitious Great Uncle Vili who so impressed Andre Aciman when he allegedly met him as a child, or so he says in his book.

According to Denise Sciama, her father was indeed related to Andre Aciman-- she did not specify the exact degree of relationship.

On the other hand, she states Aciman had never met her father. Levy contested the attributes of 'swindler' and 'shady'. If anything, her father lived by his impeccable reputation without which he would never have become the leading member of his profession and 'the Sotheby of Egypt.'

With Sciama's recent revelation, the mystery of the true identity of Great Uncle Vili has once and for all been solved. We can therefore put the case to rest and leave it to the Aciman-Levi family to pass judgment and work things out. Family justice system traditionally hands out more severe sentences than the present day, often too liberal, court system.

The second occurrence was my being interviewed on my Aciman article. The interviewer--an Australian erudite with historical connections to Egypt--wanted to know why I had written an article insinuating that Vili was Levi, and why had I accused Aciman of fudging his characters. Was this the case of a disgruntled Egyptian hitting on a successful author?


Q. What prompted you to write the article criticizing the author?

A. My articles were not a criticism of André Aciman or of his book. They were direct inquiries asking Aciman, or anyone who knew or remembered, whether Great Uncle Vili was in fact Maurice George Levi who lived in Maadi?

Q. What significance did the character of Great Uncle Vili have to you?

A. The striking similarities between Aciman's description of his Great Uncle Vili in Out of Egypt and my portrait of Maurice George Levi in Maadi 1904-1962; History & Society in a Cairo Suburb, were at times too close for comfort.

Even though my book appeared eight months before Aciman's, I nevertheless felt I had the right and obligation to raise the issue with him. I wanted to make sure that one of us had not done a major error. For a historian, historical accuracy to the extent that the facts are available, is clearly important. More so in non-fiction memoirs, biographies and other works of this nature. Some of these works could one day constitute a prime source for researchers. It is therefore the duty of authors to investigate and research even after the fact.

Q. Did you contact André Aciman and point out the similarities and give him the opportunity to explain his position in relation to this particular contested character and the discrepancies that you averted to previously?

A. At first I E-mailed Aciman. When no replies were forthcoming, I wrote him a letter. Still no reply, but then snail mail is not always reliable. I then wrote an article entitled "Where There Two Of Them? The Amazing Manhattan-Maadi Connection" [which appeared on this page on October 14, 1995]. I mailed the article with a letter attached to Aciman at Princeton University where he teaches French literature. This is when I received a short reply. Aciman did not answer any of the questions raised. Instead he congratulated me for my excellent read of his book and suggested a follow-up "shady bankers and mock pashas"!!!

Q. Obviously the response did not satisfy your original query.

A. I was somewhat--to say the least--surprised by the brevity of his response which would have been OK if he had answered my original query. This is a situation where the author of a recently published family memoir is asked confirmation about the identity of his lead character. He is asked whether or not he 'borrowed' him from a contemporary in Maadi. He is provided with ample evidence about this 'double'who existed in Maadi. If all of the above fails to provoke the author's interest, then I don't know what will!

Q. It would still seem you were overly concerned about the occurrence of the information contained in Aciman's book in relation to this particular character [Great Uncle Vili].

A. Uncle Vili caught the attention of most book reviewers. He was central to Out of Egypt. Since he existed in my own book under another name, I started to go through my own notes and tapes to check out anything of relevance I could have missed. I made additional inquiries with people who knew Maurice George Levi who featured in Out of Egypt as Great Uncle Vili. Most confirmed what I had already found out. Great uncle Vili did not exist. Aciman must have made him up based on M.G. Levi. They were as baffled as I was.

Q. What is the situation now?

A. My concerns seemed to have been well-founded. A few days ago, a Mrs. Sciama who lives in the UK and who was availed of my second article on the mysterious great uncle Vili, confirmed that the character in Aciman's book was far too resembling of her own father (Maurice George Levi) to have been anyone else. More importantly, she stated that André Aciman was indeed her relation. She also denied André Aciman allegations that he had met her father. She also had very strong reservations about how Aciman described her father even though he featured in Aciman's book as Great Uncle Vili.

But as far as I'm concerned, the above development clarified to me that Aciman used a family character for his story albeit changing his name to suit the general drift of his book. I wish he had mentioned his "requisitioning" of Maurice George Levi in his letter rather than beating around the bush. This would have saved precious time and undue concern. I still wonder why he preferred to be cagey about the whole issue.

Q. I understand André Aciman received an award for his book.

A. Yes, he received the Whitting Award in the amount of $30,000. Perhaps this is why he was so disingenuous.

Q. In relation to this award, was it classified in any particular category?

A. Yes, non-fiction!

Q. Were there any other historical questions or questions of historical accuracy raised, following the publishing of his book.

A. Having written a book on the same period, I am the first to admit how difficult it is to write this kind of historical memoirs based on oral history. A lot of the information is contingent to what people remember and what they choose to tell you. Out of Egypt never claims to be an academic work with footnotes and bibliographies, etc.. It is a compilation of Aciman's recollections and those he gathered from his family elders.

Yet, the second part of his book is closer to Aciman's frame of reference since he lived part of it. I know that several of his schoolmates - some of them foreigners - had skeptical reservations of his description of Victoria College. I will read out one of these which was published on internet:

Born in Egypt, and being a contemporary of the author, I read the book 'Out of Egypt' with considerable personal interest and curiosity. Mr. Aciman's prose brings events and protagonists to life, and he quite ably conjures the atmosphere that pervaded upper middle class Alexandrine households in that era. His characters are colorful and varied, but believable. My only major variance with Mr. Aciman relates to his school experiences. One of the schools he attended was Victoria College, a British-run institution modeled on Eton and similar public schools in Britain. Mr. Aciman expects us to believe that he was forced to learn Koranic verses to avoid ostracism. This is a invention. Having attended Victorian College during the same period of time, I can attest that at no time, were any students of non-Islamic faith required to either attend Koran lessons, or asked to recite its verses. Time, or hyperbole, must have distorted Mr. Aciman's otherwise excellent memory."

Q. Do you know of any other similar comments?

A. Not really, except what I was told by someone who was present at a lecture given by Aciman in New York attended mostly by former Egyptians from both Cairo and Alexandria. The audience argued with Aciman and did not seem to agree with many things in his book. But, being an author myself, this is not an uncommon occurrence.

articles posted on were published in the following books by Samir W Raafat: THE EGYPTIAN BOURSE, Zeitouna, Cairo -- CAIRO THE GLORY YEARS, Harpocrates, Alexandria -- HISTORY & SOCIETY IN A CAIRO SUBURB; MAADI 1904-1962, Palm Press, Cairo -- PRIVILEGED FOR THREE CENTURIES, printed digitally and bound by Elias Printing, Egypt

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