The focal point of this non-traditional Ph.D. thesis is the apartment at no. 19, rue Hawayati in central Cairo, where my mother Sol, one of the last of a long line of Spanish Jews, lived in the nineteen thirties and forties.
The two sections bookending this thesis, Section 1: ZACCARIA and Section 3: DONOVAN explore the hitherto unknown stories of my mother’s two husbands, both wartime intelligence agents, one an Italian anti-fascist spy working in clandestinity for the British in Egypt, the other an officer in British Army Intelligence and the Secret Intelligence Service, both of them meeting entirely different fates.
Section 2: NAHUM, set in between, traces the background of her people over fifteen centuries, from Jerusalem to Spain, then, successively, Amsterdam, Smyrna, Cairo and Sydney.
Exploring these three narratives took me down three paths to the crossroads in Cairo, 1942, namely to 19, rue Hawayati, the point of intersection of the three routes that I follow in the thesis. Each of the paths that converged on that focal point emerged from one of the three empires: the Austro-Hungarian for the ZACCARIA section, the Ottoman (NAHUM) and the British (DONOVAN). I followed all those paths in situ, undertaking several journeys over the forty months of this project, visiting nine countries and some nineteen institutes and organisations. I have woven into the text my own research experiences, and occasionally, some clearly signaled imaginative reconstructions where no sources were available, and have sought to place the individual stories firmly within their historical contexts.
Several themes appear throughout: the effects of nationalist impulses on the societies where they appear; the complexities of identity, especially in the Levant; the role of memory in the recreation of historical narrative; and, perhaps most fundamentally, the way individuals may either be swept along by larger historical forces, or find ways of facing them head on and emerging undefeated.