The Interviewees

Interview with Francesca Biancani, October 2018

Adjunct Professor of History and Institutions of the Modern Middle East in the Faculty of Political Science of Bologna University. She is also Postdoctoral Fellow at the French Institute for Oriental Archeology (IFAO) and the Centre d’etudes et de documentation economiques, juridiques et sociales (CEDEJ) in Cairo. She is also the author of a book just published: Sex Work in Colonial Egypt: Women, Modernity and the Global Economy (July 2018).

1- You are currently based in Egypt and your current research deals with the social history of Egypt during the cosmopolitan era and more specifically with a specific segment of female domestic labour, nannies and governesses migrating from the areas surrounding the port-city of Trieste to Alexandria and Cairo. What are your chief sources for this research?

My chief sources are personal narratives and testimonies of former protégés of the aleksandrinke, as the women migrating from the Littoral to Alexandria were designated by their folks. In addition to oral history, I am also negotiating access to family archives and institutional archival holdings both in Egypt, where I am based at the moment, such as the Consular Archives of the Italian Consulate in Cairo and in Italy, like the Archivio di Stato of Trieste, and the administrative papers of the Refuge San Francesco, a religious institution founded in Alexandria in 1899 to help and ‘protect’ female migrants from Trieste. Although this institution still exists in Alexandria, the administrative archives for the period I am looking at are located in Trieste nowadays.

2- Egypt effectively became a British colony from 1882 when it was occupied and until 1914 was nominally part of the Ottoman Empire though there was effectively no control from Constantinople. Clearly the British merchants dominated the scene during and after this period till 1956. To what extent was there an Italian merchant presence and can it be traced back earlier than 1882?

The presence of pre-unitary Italian subjects, merchants included, in Egypt can be traced back to the early 19th century, that is before the beginning of the colonial period in 1882. Italian advisors and experts were hired to assist developing the postal service, the railways and in the bureaucracy in the context of Muhammad Ali’s massive modernizing project. The dramatic restructuring of agrarian policies and the unprecedented expansion of cotton cultivation for the export also attracted a number of big merchant families, often of Sephardic Jewish decent, particularly active in the cotton trade. The presence of Jewish merchants from Leghorn protected by the Consulate of Tuscany in Alexandria can be traced back to this period as an instance (see The increasing integration of the Egyptian economy within the global capitalist system during the 19th century, the opening of the Suez Canal, British imperial policies and the investment boom of 1897-1907, all these factors contributed to the establishment of powerful trading communities in Alexandria, the country’s main port, Cairo, Isma̔iliyyah and Port Said. Although many of these merchants where not ethnic Italians, they managed to acquire Italian consular protection after the Italian Unification by virtue of their social prestige.

3- Perhaps the most famous Italian Egyptian is Yolanda Christina Gigliotti known as the late singer Dalida. Her family migrated from Southern Italy in the 1920s and as a second generation she spoke fluent Arabic and other languages. Does she represent a typical Egyptian-Italian in that sense, quite comfortable to embrace that dual identity as opposed to the British who clearly kept a distance from the local communities?

Yes, I think that Dalida with her working-class background is somewhat representative of the majority of the Italians living in Egypt from the last quarter of the 19th century onwards. Most of the members of the Italian community in Egypt were subsistence migrants who decided to leave their places of origin, especially in the south of the Kingdom of Italy, in search of better living conditions. They were not part of the colonial elites, of course, but lower middle class or working-class people -petty merchants, artisans, skilled labourers, also unskilled labourers surviving on daily manual jobs etc.- who lived in close proximity with locals, sharing the same ordinary life and physical spaces.

4- Many of these single women seem to have come from a small region of Italy, bordering Slovenia in the far North-East. Is there something peculiar about this region, was it specially deprived or did the Slovenian influence perhaps allowed for a ‘feminist streak’ in a mostly conservative Catholic country that Italy / Habsburg Empires were at the time?

The reasons for such a connoted wave of gendered migration rested primarily in the combined effect of a protracted period of rural socioeconomic dislocation from the 1860s (whose drivers are again multiple: crisis of the colonato system, changes in hereditary laws, vineyards pests) and the proximity of a port-city like Trieste, a commercial hub where women generally found their first employment upon leaving the countryside and were recruited to move on to Egypt. The presence of big merchant families in Trieste who often had business contacts in Alexandria, especially after the opening of the Suez Canal and the introduction of a regular system of steam liners between Trieste and Alexandria in 1870, boosted the aleksandrinstvo, that it the women’s migration. This phenomenon for various decades was a response to the increasingly difficulties experienced by rural households, in particular after the 1st Wold War and the introduction of “italification” policies by the Fascist Regime, and it constituted a major adaptation strategy: remittances from Egypt were vital to the survival of rural families in the Littoral for decades. The gendered mobility typical of the aleksandrinstvo can’t be in any ways conceived as the evidence of the existence of a somewhat loose patriarchal order, peculiar of the area the women were coming from, though. On the contrary, cultural and religion-based constructions of female decorum the aleksandrinke seemed to transgress because of their unsupervised mobility explain their social stigmatization, despite their fundamental social-economic role. The Slovenia Catholic Church on its part was particularly vehement in creating suspect and fomenting social reprobation around the aleksandrinstvo.

5- It appears that most of these women worked as domestic help / nannies etc. in ‘Levantine’ households. Is the word Levantine used in a Western context, that is families who had migrated only a few generations back from Western Europe to seek their fortune, or did it include the higher socio-economic strata of other minorities such as Jewish, Maronite, Melkite etc. in Alexandria / Cairo?

I use the term ‘Levantine’ to indicate non-European subjects, mostly coming from the East Mediterranean provinces of the Ottoman Empire and often endowed with Capitulary protection they had acquired through their connections. The range of ethnicities covered by the term shifted a great deal over time, but here it designates mainly the highly mobile upper strata of Ottoman millets, Jewish, Maronites, Melkite active in international commerce who opted for consular protection, thus acquired a Capitulary citizenship. Their status within the Egyptian society was always liminal: surely they shared cultural ties with the local population, especially if speaking Arabic dialects at home, but they were mostly economically attached to the European communities they were associated with because of the fact of being educated, professionally trained, and multilingual, as many of them had studied in missionary schools in the Levant. Some of them, in fact, had profited from their position as intermediaries between European and local merchants and had been able to amass considerable fortunes, while others were in active in services (as dragomans, bank employees, money changers) or professionals (lawyers, medical doctors, journalists). Former non-Christian Ottoman subjects from the Levant tended to Egyptianize themselves by assuming an Egyptian citizenship after the country’s independence in 1922. This proved to be an unfortunate decision in time, because since the 1950s amid growing Arab nationalist sentiments, they discovered that they were not considered as full Egyptians, but as disguised foreigners, khawaga in local parlance. With the exception of the local historical Jewish community, Jews residents in Egypt came from disparate places. Particularly in Alexandria, many Jews originated from the ancient Jewish community of Leghorn and thus assumed Italian citizenship. Others, such as the Rolos and the Hararis opted for the British nationality, the Mosseris for the Austro-Hungarian one. The fact that the Aleksandrinke were mostly hired by Levantines is one of the working hypothesis of my current research.

6- What do you think was the impetus for these families in Egypt to hire Italian nannies? Do you think this is a representation of their own perhaps culturally precarious positions, their own conceived identities or how they wanted their children to perceive themselves?

This is the core argument of a tentative manuscript of mine, at the moment. The main idea is that bio-political notions of race and gender were central to the construction of the aleksandrinke’s identity both in the Primorska and in the cosmopolitan society they inhabited in Egypt. On one side, they were sexualized as much as they were Orientalized. Orientalist conceptions about Levantine relaxed morals and deceptiveness factored in the construction of the aleksandrinstvo as a threat to the emerging Slovenian nation because of the identification of femininity with the repository of a people’s bio-political potential coupled with the perceived dangers of unsupervised female mobility. On the other side of the Mediterranean, interestingly, the aleksandrinke, often extolled as models of feminine virtues, were thoroughly racialized and domesticized. Their whiteness, sound rural background and religiosity were inscribed into the making of local elites to the effect of turning them into a status symbol for a self-made comprador elite aspiring to establish its credential as a hegemonic group vis-à-vis age-old European national bourgeoisies and differentiate themselves from local subjects.

7- Do you know of similar Italian / Slovenian women work migrations to other centres of the Middle East such as Beirut, Aleppo etc.?

No, this was a quite peculiar and distinct phenomenon.

8- Presumably all these women were single when they went out to Egypt. Do you know if they mostly married in Egypt or returned to their native villages to start families later? Can you trace individuals across these migrations?

Actually some of them were single and migrated in order to collect the money for their bala, dowry. Many were married, though, and did back and forth in between pregnancies. This constitutes the origin of the archetype of the aleksandrinka as a wet- nurse, which came to overpower any other representation of the aleksandrinstvo, despite the fact that empirical evidence demonstrates that only a tiny fraction of alekandrinke at any time worked as wet nurses. The majority of aleksandrinke were working as nannies or chamber maids, they were not breast feeding the children they were taking care of. The emphasis on lactaction, which marks the hypersexualization of the Aleksandrinsto, was part of the rethorical stigma surrounding this phenomenon in Slovenia.

9- Did some of these women went on to run their own small businesses in Egypt or do you think the society there would have been too closed for them for such ventures?

In fact many aleksandrinke got married in Egypt, both to Egyptians or other resident of foreign nationalities, and established themselves there permanently. Most of testimonies I collected pointed out to the fact that once they married former governesses or nannies became housekeeper and stayed at home, taking care of their families, although clearly this can’t be generalized.

10- You have conducted researched and published findings on the history of prostitution in Cairo particularly in the early 20th century. Were some of these ‘fallen women’ from this Italian migrant background? Were there benevolent organisations to help single women from this community?

Yes, there were women of Italian citizenship selling sex in Cairo, both licensed and clandestine as sex-work was a type of work female trans-Mediterranean subsistence migrants did, this is unquestionable. Sex work was a truly global trade in early 20th century Egypt and Cairo and Alexandria were hubs for international human traffickers, no doubt. As White Slavery moral panic started sweeping the Metropole towards the end of the 19th century, there were foreign organizations working with street women in Egypt, in particular British purity movements and associations of different religious denominations. As to the actual intersection between the aleksandrinstvo and transnational sex work in Egypt, I would not over-emphasize the link. Although the aleksandrinstvo has been criminalized in the Slovenian public discourse as a morally suspect activity, there is no evidence of the fact that women would migrate for purposes other than providing domestic services. Most of the women migration to Alexandria from Trieste already had sound working arrangements when migrating, they were not trafficked. At the same time, this does not mean that some women could find themselves in difficult situation once there and in certain cases recurred to prostitution to earn a living. As usual, there is no such thing as a unified migratory experience.

11- Is it difficult to reach out to descendants of this community as being women perhaps they were ostracised by the men-folk of the community at the time? What type of documentation would you be after from descendants?

As to what pertains the retrieval of family memories from the descendants of the Aleksandrinke in present day Slovenia and Italy, much as been done already by a wonderful team of Slovenian researchers from the Slovenian Institute of Migration. This important work has been collected in a book entitled ‘From Slovenia to Egypt: Aleksandrinke’s Trans-Mediterranean Domestic Workers’ Migration and National Imaginaton’, V & R Unipress, 2014. I also contributed an article on globalization, gender and labour in cosmopolitan Egypt. The Aleksandrinke descendents’ testimonies, after decades of self-imposed censorship resulting from the stigma the aleksadrinke interiorized inasmuch as their migratory past was at stake, have been precious in reconstructing the social milieu in which the women’s migration took place and the discourses surrounding it while complicating and updating some mainstream interpretations of the phenomenon belonging to the first wave of Slovenian social historiography. My work now seeks to extend the study of this phenomenon to the other shore of the Mediterranean, to see how this type of subjectivity was constructed transnationally and the role it played in the construction of the peculiar type of cosmopolitan society of early 20th century Egypt and its specific social hierarchy.

Interview conducted by Craig Encer, to contact Ms Biancani: