‘The Girl from Cairo’: La Jollan self-publishes her memoirs from living on 3 continents
La Jolla resident Peggy Hinaekian has written “The Girl from Cairo,” in which she details her memories from several decades lived on three continents, including significant decisions made “on a whim.”
Hinaekian, 85, was born in Egypt to a British-Armenian mother and an Armenian father whose parents escaped the Armenian Genocide in the early 20th century. She said she was compelled to write her memoirs after reviewing files containing memoirs she stopped and started and “never finished. I thought, ‘I have to get serious. I have to write.’”
Hinaekian, who also authored the novel “Of Julia and Men” and is a painter of abstract contemporary art, said the memoirs were inspired by diaries she’s kept since age 12. The writings include “things I had forgotten, people I’d met,” she said, along with letters she received and copies of letters she wrote to others.
“I thought I should write my life,” she said. “Life in Cairo was fascinating in the ‘50s. I had a very good childhood. If people visit Cairo now, it’s not the same.”
Hinaekian, who hasn’t been back to Cairo since 1990, said the city had “such a cosmopolitan atmosphere. It felt like you were in Europe; it felt better than that. Everybody spoke at least three languages: your native tongue, Arabic and either French or English.”
She left Cairo for Europe in 1956 to avoid the Suez Crisis, an invasion of Egypt by Israel, followed by the United Kingdom and France. She used an Iranian passport obtained through her husband, a photographer whose father fled from Turkey to Iran.
It was illegal then to leave Egypt, and Hinaekian said the government told her parents it would capture her on return. But “when I went back in 1959, nobody caught me. The law was loosely applied.”
Hinaekian moved with her husband to Montreal later in 1959, and she worked as a secretary and fashion model. But she dreamed of going to Manhattan to be a fashion designer — an ambition cultivated during her childhood in Cairo.
“I used to design dresses in Egypt,” she said. “Clothes in Egypt were a very big thing. We had morning dresses, afternoon dresses and evening dresses. You wouldn’t be caught dead with a morning dress in the evening. That’s how it was. Everyone was a dressmaker; you had to know how to sew.”
In moving to Manhattan in 1961, Hinaekian realized her dream but then realized its shortcomings. “The designing world in Manhattan was a rat race,” she said. “It was not glamorous; the workplace was dirty, full of dust. … I had hay fever all the time.”
Hinaekian worked several jobs consecutively and was fired for complaining about working conditions, she said.
“I was making a lot of money, but I had no quality of life,” she said. “I got fed up of the rat race, I got fed up of my husband and I got fed up of New York, a place I had wanted to be all my life since I was 8 years old.”
After separating from her husband, Hinaekian moved to Switzerland in 1963 “on a whim.” She traveled all over Europe and finalized her divorce in 1965.
“I met a lot of dates,” she said. “It was very easy to meet people.”
One of those she met was Mitch Messier, an American with French-Canadian heritage living in Geneva. “He’s a great guy,” Hinaekian said. The two have been married since 1973 and have two sons.
In 2000, the couple moved to Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “I loved it; we were right on the ocean,” she said.
Ten years later, after visiting with her son who wanted to surf, she and Messier moved again, this time to another oceanside town: La Jolla.
“I’ve done a lot of things on a whim,” Hinaekian said.
The couple now spend six months a year in California and the other six months in Florida.
Hinaekian said La Jolla reminds her of where she grew up, “the way that you can walk around and go into stores and people know you and say ‘Hi.’ I love that.”
Though Hinaekian said she’s now “not adventurous at all,” she mused that doing “everything on a whim … made me stronger. I could assimilate in any surroundings.”
“I think my Egyptian cosmopolitan background helped me,” she said. “I didn’t feel out of place anywhere. I want to make friends in the country where I am, because otherwise you are excluded.”
Looking back on her various relocations, Hinaekian said: “I marvel at the way I did things without thinking. I don’t regret it.”
Hinaekian self-published “The Girl from Cairo,” which she completed after six months of daily writing.
Though many names have been changed in the book, “everything is factual,” she said, including the dialogue, which came from her diaries and letters. “It’s amazing when I read these letters; it takes me back and I almost imagined myself present. It’s very atmospheric.”
“The Girl from Cairo” is available in various formats from $3.99 at bit.ly/cairomemoirs. ◆
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