I was born and grew up in Egypt as a British (colonial) subject. This made me part of the privileged European community which – especially in its largest concentrations in Alexandria and Cairo – could function largely in isolation from Egyptian society. Not so my own family: my father's occupation as a bank official entailed residence in provincial towns where European families were counted by the tens rather than by the thousands, and by disposition both he and even more my mother were open to friendly relations with Egyptians; and as far as I have been able to ascertain they were the very first foreigners to decide that their sons should attend Egyptian schools where Arabic was the medium of instruction.
This did not shatter all barriers. When later I wrote a memoir combining my mother's reminiscences with an account of my own intellectual formation, the title I gave it was Landlocked Islands (American University in Cairo Press, 1999), for my home language and cultural leanings were French, and I was well aware that although we had daily, casual and good-natured contacts with Egyptians, there were unmapped gulfs between us. But what is significant in the present context is that I was at ease with my friends' literary perceptions, and for leisurely reading I turned as comfortably to a book of Arabic fiction as I might to a collection of French poetry.