Prof. Alexander Kitroeff Talks to TNH about the Greeks in Egypt

The National Herald

The Greeks and the Making of Modern Egypt by Alexander Kitroeff. Photo: AUC Press/ Jacket photograph courtesy of ELIA/MIET Photographic Archive

In his research and published works, Alexander Kitroeff, Associate Professor of History at Haverford College, focuses on nationalism and ethnicity in modern Greece and its diaspora, and its manifestations across a broad spectrum, from politics to sports. Prof. Kitroeff spoke to The National Herald about his latest book, The Greeks and the Making of Modern Egypt which was published this year by the American University in Cairo Press.

TNH: What inspired you to write the book?

Prof. Alexander Kitroeff: My relationship with the Greeks in Egypt is both familial and academic. My great grandfather Alexandros Th. Kitroeff moved from the island of Chios to Alexandria in the late 19th century in order to becoming involved in the cotton business. He was a member of the Boards of the Greek Community in Alexandria and the “Mikrasiatikos Syllogos.” He enjoyed great prosperity until the Wall Street Crash of 1929. My grandfather and my grandmother were born in Alexandria, so was my father. They all moved to Greece in the 1950s and 1960s when life in Egypt became difficult for the Greeks. I was born in Athens and grew up listening to stories of life in Egypt, how easy and wonderful it had been.

I have an equally intimate connection in academic terms because as a graduate student at Oxford University I chose to write my doctoral dissertation on the history Greeks in Egypt during the period between the two world wars. I spent several months doing research in Alexandria, where I lived with my grandmother’s sister who had stayed there along with a few thousand Greeks. While I was there, I made an emotional visit to the Greek cemetery and the graves of my great grandfather Alexandros and his wife Polyxeni, who was from the Aegean island of Amorgos.

The National Herald

FILE - Professor Alexander Kitroeff of Haverford College. (Photo by TNH/Kostas Bej)

My dissertation was published as a book in England in 1989, by that time I had moved to the United States so my research turned towards the Greek Americans. Three years ago, somewhat out of the blue, the American University in Cairo Press asked me if I would be interested in writing a book on the history of the Greek presence in Modern Egypt from its beginnings in the early nineteenth century through the 1960s when that presence diminished substantially. It was a wonderful opportunity to return to my family and academic roots!

TNH: How long did the book take from idea to publication?

AK: It took only three years from the invitation from the AUC Press to the publication, which must be some sort of record. But I had already written about a small period of the history of the Greeks in Egypt, several colleagues in the meantime had published important works on the Greeks or the other foreign communities in Egypt, and also I was able to take year’s leave from teaching at Haverford College and I spent it in Greece writing the book. I should add that both the AUC Press acquisitions editor Nadia Naqib and the manuscript editor Katie Holland also contributed to the whole process being efficient and fast.

TNH: What was the most surprising thing you found in your research on the Greeks in Egypt?

AK: I was pleasantly surprised by the intense feelings of love and nostalgia towards Egypt of almost all the Greeks who lived there, along with their strong attachments to Greece. The Greeks had a special relationship with the Egyptians, and they loved the country they had settled in, without losing any of their strong Greek identity thanks to the presence of strong community organizations, community-run schools, many ethnic associations and the Greek Orthodox patriarchate of Alexandria and its many churches. Typically, one Greek who was leaving Egypt for Greece in the late 1940s wrote that he did not know whether he was leaving or he was travelling to his country.

TNH: What was the most challenging aspect of researching and writing the book?

AK: The greatest challenge I faced was striking the right balance between two things. The first was acknowledging that at least through the end of the 1940s the Greeks, as had the other foreign communities, enjoyed a set of privileges – immunity from local laws and taxation - in Egypt that gave them an advantage over the local population. The second was that despite those privileges, the Greeks contributed significantly to Egypt’s economic and social modernization and they maintained close and respectful ties with the local population.

For example, the wealthy Greeks who were dominant in Egypt’s economic mainstay, the cultivation and export of cotton, including the Benachi, Salvago and Choremi families, obviously owed the wealth they amassed to the presence of the British in Egypt which lasted from 1882 to 1951, and the privileges they enjoyed. Nonetheless, they also invested in other sectors of the economy which the British were unconcerned about, and their success attracted other entrepreneurs, such as cigarette manufacturers who also developed other sectors of the Egyptian economy. And the growth of the cotton sector they led, contributed to the work of several Greek agriculturalists who developed higher and higher quality types of cotton, thus benefitting Egypt. In many cases those developments troubled the British authorities because the textile owners in northern England did not want to adjust their machinery to accommodate new types of cotton.

Many Greeks from Egypt who look back on their stay in that country with nostalgia, believe that when scholars mention the privileges the Greeks enjoyed that somehow detracts from the enormous contributions the Greeks made. I have tried to show that the Greek experience in Egypt was characterized by both privileges and contributions.

TNH: What are you working on next?

AK: I have just completed a book manuscript on the history of the relationship between Greek Orthodoxy and Greek America. It explores the ways Greek Orthodoxy has shaped Greek American identity in the twentieth century. I relied a great deal on the excellent archives of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese in New York, the help of archivist Nikie Calles and many others including Fr. Robert Stephanopoulos and Fr. Alex Karloutsos. The book will be published in 2020 in the Orthodox Christianity Series of the Northern Illinois University Press which is an imprint of Cornell University Press.