Michael Vatikiotis has impeccable cosmopolitan credentials. On his mother’s side, he hails from the once prosperous Italian Jewish Sornaga clan which, in the 19th century, decamped to Egypt to seek its fortune. His father’s side is descended from the Greek Orthodox Vatikiotis family, which emigrated to Palestine in the mid-1870s. Judging by his own career, he has remained faithful to these many-layered roots, escaping “the mind-numbing normality” of a childhood in London suburbia to become a journalist and conflict mediator who has lived all over the world.
Lives Between the Lines is the moving and beautifully written story of a journey to explore his identity by visiting the places — primarily Egypt and Israel — in which several generations of his Levantine ancestors made their homes. As well as being a highly personal family-memoir-cum-travelogue, it is a paean to tolerance between diverse faiths and different communities at a time when much of the Middle East is being consumed by bigotry, fanaticism and sectarian violence. An insistent question haunts his often mournful narrative: where did it all go wrong?
Today one of the enduring images of international migration is that of refugees fleeing the Middle East for Europe in flimsy, overcrowded boats. Vatikiotis reminds us of that extraordinary period beginning in the mid-19th century when the roles were reversed and the region represented a safe haven and a place to seek one’s fortune for those fleeing war and poverty in a divided Europe.
His great-great-grandfather Samuele was a pioneering entrepreneur who left Livorno for Egypt in the 1860s, shortly after the start of the Suez Canal’s construction. He made a fortune in the cotton-ginning business, fuelled by global shortages brought about by the American Civil War. Samuele’s eponymous grandson, Michael’s great-uncle, followed in the family footsteps, founded a ceramics business south of Cairo in 1905 and amassed another fortune.
The polyglottal Sornagas led a gilded life, rubbing shoulders with high society, playing cards with the modernising Khedive Ismail and wafting through endless cocktail parties in Alexandria and Cairo. The cultural contribution made by several generations of Levantines is impressive. In Egypt alone they included Constantine P Cavafy, Edmond Jabès, Jacqueline Kahanoff and Lawrence Durrell. Vatikiotis’s more modest Greek family includes Brother Leontios a great-uncle who spent 60 years rebuilding a monastery in the Judaean Desert.
Vatikiotis may be a romantic, but he is sufficiently clear-eyed to appreciate that one person’s cosmopolitan in Alexandria, Acre, Beirut, Cairo, Haifa, Jerusalem — take your pick from across the Levant — was another’s wealthy foreign interloper. The glittering beau monde of belle époque Egypt was almost exclusively foreign.
He recognises, too, that the Ottoman Capitulations, under which foreign communities within the empire could trade, pay taxes, worship and deliver justice according to their own laws, ultimately proved a double-edged sword. On the one hand, they became “the foundations of diversity and cosmopolitanism in the Middle East” — one might cavil that Abbasid Baghdad was a model of cosmopolitanism more than a millennium earlier — but on the other they brought about the destruction of the very empire which had granted them.
The Levantines’ days were numbered. After the Ottoman Empire’s implosion following the first world war, European colonialism ushered in arbitrary dividing lines and fixed borders, unleashing a rising tide of Arab nationalism, Islamism and Zionism. Both the Sornagas in Egypt and the Vatikiotis clan in Palestine were buffeted by the storm. By the mid-1950s they had upped sticks and left to rebuild their lives in the west.
In post-second world war Egypt, the firebrand Gamal Abdel Nasser replaced the British colonial yoke with a new authoritarian regime, precursor to President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi’s military-led state today. It is a sad sign of the times when Vatikiotis discovers his great-uncle’s now defunct ceramics factory is being turned into a resort exclusively for the military. Once multicultural Egypt has become monochromatic, a place where “interminable inequality and injustice” are the norm. In Israel he treads a troubled path through divided Jerusalem and tracks down its last Greek dentist.
Vatikiotis deplores the “distinct hopelessness” and “interminable conflict” of the Middle East. True to his calling as a conflict mediator, he finds himself drawn again and again during his travels to the peacemakers and pragmatists who lend his narrative a glimmer of hope. “My Levantine blood yearns for peaceful compromise,” he writes, “however unlikely it seems.”
Lives Between the Lines: A Journey in Search of the Lost Levant by Michael Vatikiotis, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20, 304 pages
Justin Marozzi is the author of ‘Islamic Empires: Fifteen Cities that Define a Civilization’
Join our online book group on Facebook at FT Books Café