Born in Cairo in 1934 with Belgian citizenship, long-time Glebe resident Louis Cabri lived in several countries before he and his South African wife Mimi settled down in Canada in 1959 and became Canadian citizens. Their journey is recounted by the retired mineralogist, along with many photos, in his recently self-published memoir: Cairo to Canada and everything in between.
It’s the story of his Second World War boyhood in Egypt and living afterwards in Brazil, the U.S., South Africa, Ghana and Sierra Leone before he and Mimi, just married, came to Montreal for his graduate studies at McGill and later moved to Ottawa where they have lived since 1964, except for one year in Belgium.
Before Canada, Cabri says, he had a feeling of not quite belonging, of always trying to fit in. But he fit in here, getting his PhD, going on to an award-winning career in mineralogy with the federal government’s Canmet group. He even had a mineral named after him –cabriite. Meanwhile, Mimi developed her artistic talents, becoming a noted ceramicist with kilns and a studio at her home.
The Cabri family’s history of multi-emigration goes back to Cabri’s paternal ancestors, Calvinist Huguenots who left France at the end of the 17th century for the Netherlands because of religious persecution. His great-grandfather went to Belgium in the early 19th century; his father moved to Cairo in the 1920s when it was a great trading city. Cabri’s maternal ancestors also escaped religious discrimination, fleeing as Catholics from then Constantinople to Damascus and later to Egypt where his mother was born.
As a fourth generation De Meillon, Mimi’s story is also intriguing. Her family’s English-born patriarch was a significant Cape Town artist in the early 19th century and his descendants made their mark in arts, science and medicine.
Louis Cabri’s memoir recalls how after Mussolini declared war on the Allies, there was a lot of Italian and Egyptian hostility in Cairo towards anyone pro-British, like the Cabri family, with ugly taunts about what would happen if the Axis powers won. As for the few air raids on Cairo by German bombers, he remembers them as “exciting events for a 6-to-7-year-old” when he could sometimes watched anti-aircraft gun tracers and criss-crossing searchlights. But “suppressed family anxiety” is how he describes those times amid the rumble of far-off artillery and a potentially explosive political situation in the city.
After French-speaking kindergarten run by nuns, Cabri went to an English school, joined the British Boy Scouts, played with toy lead-soldiers and vintage Dinky toys (new ones were hard to get), “devoured” boys’ magazines such as Hotspur and Champion and was “mesmerized” by John Buchan’s gripping spy story The Thirty-Nine Steps. At school, the puny, asthmatic Cabri was nicknamed the “Battling Mosquito” after winning a boxing award. It should have been an award for “the pluckiest boxer,” he says. His boxing days ended with a bloody nose inflicted by the fists of a stronger boy.
In his classrooms then, children used pens with detachable nibs dipped in ink wells. There was much excitement when his father brought home the newly invented ballpoint pen. Cabri and his friends immediately tested it for writing under water on soggy paper in a toilet basin.
In 1946, his family moved to Rio de Janeiro and shortly after to New York. The U.S. was a country full of optimism, he writes, “being rebuilt on the energy and muscle of returning veterans.” It’s also when he began to take more interest in girls.
In 1950, the family left by ship for South Africa. Cabri went to private school with tie and blazer, driving a Hillman with a loose clutch and defective hand brake. He studied geology at Johannesburg’s University of the Witwatersrand and met Mimi who was at the Johannesburg School of Art. But despite the privileges his family enjoyed, tensions between the Afrikaans and English “never made me feel really welcome.”
After geological field work in the Gold Coast (now Ghana), Sierra Leone and the Northern Cape in South Africa, he and Mimi embarked from Cape Town for a 21-day voyage to Montreal on a cargo ship that carried a dozen passengers. At McGill, he found that 25 per cent of the post-graduate geology students were from South Africa.
Living a small apartment, with Mimi working as a commercial artist, they started a family. “We were happy and comfortable in our new country,” Louis reflects.
Copies of Louis Cabri’s 241-page memoir, Cairo to Canada and Everything in Between, can be ordered through the author at email@example.com.
Neville Nankivell is a long-time Glebe resident and former newspaper editor and columnist.