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Anne Gani's immigration story began in Egypt and took her America in the 1950s.
(Illustration by Arantza Peña Popo
Immigrant Postcard, 1957: From Alexandria, Egypt To The Land Of ‘Leave It To Beaver’
Landing as a young immigrant in 1950s America was the start of a decades-long experience that was “a journey, not a destination.”
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It was the first time I’d ever seen a television set. Here was this magical black box that projected images and lifelike action, just like the movies, but mere feet away from us in my aunt’s living room.

About This Series
  • This story is part of a new LAist series called Being American. It’s inspired by the success of our year-long Race In LA series, in which Angelenos shared personal stories about how our race and/or ethnicity shapes our lived experience.

We had just arrived at my aunt’s apartment in Louisville, Kentucky, traveling by way of New York City and Paris after sailing away from our home in Alexandria, Egypt, never to go back.

It was August 1957. I was 12 years old, and my new life here awaited.

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A family of many cultures

My parents and their children were born in Egypt, where my grandparents on both sides had settled in the early 20th century after emigrating from Greece, Lebanon, and Syria.

My family is 100% Jewish: Syrian-Lebanese-Greek-Sephardic-Misrahi-Romaniote Jews. Our history is as complicated as it sounds. Our home culture has always been a mix of Middle Eastern, French, Greek and Italian. We were citizens of Greece, even though we were born in Egypt.

A vintage black and white photo shows a little girl with her hand extended upward, and behind her the pyramids and the Sphinx in Giza, Egypt.
The author at around age 10 on a family day trip to the pyramids and the Sphinx in Giza, Egypt, 1953.
(Courtesy of Anne Gani)

My parents had a good life in Egypt after the Second World War. They were both highly educated and spoke multiple languages. My father owned a successful engineering business, and was one of the few who owned a car. He had the latest camera and was an avid photographer.

A vintage photo depicts a little girl in a white dress next to a statue on a pedestal and an ornately-dressed red doll.
The author in her family’s living room in Alexandria, circa 1953.
(Courtesy of Anne Gani)

He bought my mother unique diamond jewelry, filled our home with priceless antiques and upscale furnishings, and took us on trips to Europe.

But by the middle 1950s, our life began changing. Being Jewish in Egypt was becoming unsafe. My maternal grandmother, uncle and aunt had emigrated to the United States several years before and had been urging us to join them. As nationalism and antisemitism surged in Egypt and the Middle East, my parents decided it was time to leave.

With trepidation and uncertainty, we boarded a ship in Alexandria with virtually nothing but our clothes. Sadly, all those beautiful art pieces and hundreds of photos that my father had taken of our family were left behind. We settled temporarily in Paris, waiting for our visa to the United States.

We arrived in New York on a hot August day, welcomed by family members who had also left Alexandria.

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New York was enthralling. I remember seeing the view from our hotel room, walking uptown dwarfed by the skyscrapers, riding the elevator to the top of the Empire State Building, and buying sandwiches from the automat.

My journey was just beginning.

A new world

Two days later we flew to Louisville, where my aunt, who had helped facilitate our immigration, lived and worked. There, where the Midwest borders the South, we lived our American life for the first time.

A vintage photo depicts a young girl with brown hair in a red sweater, to the left of her the branches of a pine tree.
Newly arrived in Louisville, fall 1957.
(Courtesy of Anne Gani)

My aunt welcomed us to her small one-bedroom apartment and introduced us to life here. Almost immediately, she took us to the local supermarket, excited to display American abundance.

We filled two entire carts with exotic items like boxes of mac ‘n’ cheese, the glass cups of Kraft cheese with pimentos and that incomparable, white, squishy bread — already sliced!

My aunt had immigrated to the U.S. when she was 18 and was well-assimilated. She believed strongly in the proverbial American Dream, having worked her way up in retail.

A vintage photo depicts a woman with glasses in a 1950s-era dark-colored tailored jacket and skirt.
The author’s aunt, Rosette, who welcomed the family to Louisville after their arrival in the U.S. in 1957.
(Courtesy of Anne Gani)

She introduced us to the modern and convenient aspects of life in the United States: a sofa bed, a washer and dryer, a toaster, rock ‘n’ roll, and of course, television!

Sitcoms and rock n’ roll

My family always loved music. Our home in Alexandria was filled with the sounds of classical, operatic, and pop music from all over the world. In Louisville, in that summer of 1957, my sister and I were introduced to American rock and roll.

We’d listen to Johnny Mathis, the Everly Brothers, Paul Anka, and of course, Elvis Presley. Though our English was limited, we quickly memorized the lyrics and sang along in my aunt’s living room to Chances Are,”Diana,” Wake Up, Little Susie,” and more. I can still sing along to the big hits that greeted us when we arrived.

The black-and-white TV set at my aunt’s house quickly became a favorite of ours too. We were already familiar with the movie-industry portrayal of American life exported around the world, having watched back in Alexandria American movies that promised romance and high-society living.

A vintage photo depicts a girl with dark hair in a 1950s-era pale-green or beige button-down blouse with round collar.
The author as a soon-to-be teenager in Louisville, Kentucky, in the fall of 1957.
(Courtesy of Anne Gani)

In 1957 Louisville, my sister and I became absorbed in the stereotypical American life portrayed on television. We watched Leave it to Beaver, Our Miss Brooks, Father Knows Best, and other iconic TV family shows from that era.

We imagined that when we went to California, our final destination, we would have a life similar to what we saw— a two-story house, friendly teens who would gather there with us, easy schooling, a working dad and a stay-at-home mom. Shows like The $64,000 question, Queen for a Day or The Price is Right implied that those who struggled would easily find resources to reward them with American wealth.

Reality, however, did not match the expected myth, as we would learn soon enough that American life was nothing like a 1950s sitcom.

The road trip

My mother was impatient to reunite in California with her own mother and many cousins there. In late October 1957, my father bought a car, a metallic-pink 1957 Chevrolet Bel Air that he would keep for the next 25-plus years, and we embarked on our week-long trip to Los Angeles.

We drove on Route 66 through Kentucky, Tennessee, Arkansas, Texas, New Mexico, and Arizona. Hotel and restaurant staff in small towns were intrigued by our accents and curious about our experiences. Perhaps they hadn’t met many immigrants like us.

A vintage photo depicts part of a 1957 pink Chevrolet Bel Air, with a Travelodge sign in the background.
The family's pink Chevy on the road to California.
(Courtesy of Anne Gani )

We drove into the Los Angeles basin on a six-lane freeway, with thousands of cars zipping around us. The speed and number of cars were overwhelming, but my father drove that route as if he were already a real Angeleno.

Culture shock

We drove right to my grandmother’s duplex apartment in the heart of West Hollywood. We had reached our new home!

I was excited to start school in Los Angeles. School life in Paris had been painful, with strict and sometimes cruel teachers and staff, and I was impatient to start over. I entered the 7th grade at Bancroft Junior High School in West Hollywood.

My English was still rudimentary. On that first day of school, I worried that I could not understand anything the teachers said. It was unnerving. But coming from rigorous French schools, we were more advanced in some subjects. Little homework was assigned and the teachers were kind and understanding. We excelled in our classes and became fluent English speakers in no time.

Unfortunately, those early years in American schools were not happy years for us. Social interactions were patronizing and hurtful. My classmates made fun of the way I mispronounced words, or the way I dressed, or what I ate — and most disappointingly, my expectations of friendship. I was (and still am) shy, and approaching new friends was daunting.

We were still living in a very xenophobic era, and immigrant kids like us had to suffer through these adjustments. There were no other immigrant students in my school that I knew of. No one seemed to have any interest in my foreign life in Alexandria or in my experiences, or that I had already learned four languages.

There were a large number of Jewish students at my school, possibly the children of parents who had been refugees from the Holocaust. But my classmates had never heard of Sephardic Jews and could not accept that I was Jewish, because I did not speak Yiddish. It’s a persistent reaction I’ve heard in L.A. all my life, even from people who know me well.

We were strange creatures, and yet we were expected to fit in immediately. I learned to close off and never talk about my multicultural childhood, and to suppress being multilingual.

A rude awakening

Some of my mother’s cousins who had lived here for many years were also critical of us because we were not “American” enough by their standards. They made snide comments implying that we did not know how to dress or act appropriately.

Because of these uncomfortable encounters, my parents withdrew from these relatives and never made long-lasting friends here. But within 10 years of our arrival, the rest of my mother’s immediate relatives moved to Los Angeles, and my parents centered their lives around our extended family.

Those first years, my parents struggled. But my father eventually received his licenses and worked successfully as a structural engineer with an expertise in earthquake safety.

A vintage photo depicts a woman in a white dress standing by the stairs of an apartment complex that bears the numbers "1268."
The author in front of the building that her father built in West Hollywood.
(Courtesy of Anne Gani)

He built an apartment building in West Hollywood, where we lived in one unit and rented out the others. That building still stands today.

My mother worked in a department store to help support the family, then became a teacher at a new French private school. With determination and resilience, my parents thrived, being grateful to have found refuge here.

Assimilation is a process

As I grew older, I worked hard at becoming as “American” as my classmates. I made a conscious effort to drop my accent, and learned from my peers what was appropriate to say and do. I still listened to rock and roll, having bought my own transistor radio, and dressed in the teen fashions of the late 1950s and early 1960s.

A vintage photo depicts a young woman in a white skirt and top and pointy 1960s-era shoes, with greenery in the background.
The author as a senior at Fairfax High School.
(Courtesy of Anne Gani)

I took the bus with my friends to go to the movies, to the beach, to school, to go shopping.

I learned quickly that American teenagers did not hug or walk arm in arm, as we did in Alexandria. I adapted to changing my fork from my left to right hand after cutting the food. I never wore the same outfit two days in a row.

Even with all those efforts, I never felt assimilated. I was not comfortable having my friends and my family together, and often felt socially awkward.

I spoke French with my parents, English with my friends. I was very aware that my friends were not at ease with my family and vice versa, so I kept them separate. I went to my classmates’ homes, but they never came over to mine.

Vintage graduation photos of a young woman with dark hair: At left in white cap and gown, at right in a dark-colored cap and gown.
The author’s 1963 Fairfax High School graduation photo (left) and 1967 UCLA graduation photo (right).
(Courtesy of Anne Gani)

In contrast, my four college years at UCLA were some of the happiest as I became more independent and confident and made some lifelong friends, some of whom were immigrants themselves.

We connected in the French department over French language, culture and theater. For the first time, I did not have to pretend to be as American as expected.

I also became politically active, volunteering for the presidential campaign of Robert F. Kennedy. But after his assassination in 1968, I became disillusioned.

A vintage black-and-white photo shows a small crowd of people surrounding a man in a dark suit and tie, who is shaking the hand of a woman in a light-color dress.
The author, left, shakes the hand of then-Vice President Hubert Humphrey while interning for the Democratic National Committee in 1967. The photo is dedicated “To Anne Gani” by Humphrey.
(Courtesy of Anne Gani)

Upon graduating from UCLA, I walked away from politics and reluctantly became a teacher in an elementary school, where I was once again an outlier.

This was the 1970s, and many of the same prejudices I had experienced as a young student still existed. Most of the staff at the elementary school in South Gate where I taught had never ventured far beyond that neighborhood, and had little understanding of other cultures and ethnicities. They expected immediate English and assimilation from immigrant students and their parents, who were mostly from Mexico and Central America.

They chastised students who spoke Spanish among themselves. They made ignorant and derogatory comments about Jews and about our students.

However, by that time, I was more confident and reveled in being a rebel. I became outspoken in defense of immigrants and diversity. Through my work as an educator and my experience as an immigrant, I became a social justice advocate.

During this time, I’d also developed a passion for folk dancing, which was truly the beginning of my adult life. Starting in the late 1960s, folk dance clubs proliferated all over Southern California, attracting foreigners and bohemians alike.

A vintage photo depicts three dancers in elaborate folk-dancing outfits topped by red shawls, performing at an event.
At a folk dancing performance in 1969; the author is the dancer on the left.
(Courtesy of Anne Gani)

This was a place to be different and to be comfortable being different. International folk dancing opened the door to the Greek American intellectual and cultural community that became the center of my life.

I had finally found a place to belong. In the process of acculturating, I discovered that this country had given me the opportunity to forge my own life.

Becoming an American

As the Greek poet Constantine Cavafy writes, becoming an American has been a journey, not a destination, a process of immersion alternating with withdrawal.

I am now 77 years old, and though I am adjusted to living here, I waver between my identity as an outspoken American and “marching to my own drum” as a former immigrant.

I vote in every election and have raised my children as American as possible, to the point that I didn’t raise them bilingual — though I could tell they still felt different from their peers.

As California has become more diverse, I am not such an outsider anymore, because so many of us are from somewhere else.

Two black-and-white photos depict a woman in traditional Greek folk dancing attire, wearing a head scarf.
The author dressed for a Greek folk dancing performance, circa 1971.
(Courtesy Anne Gani)

Yet there is always a small part of me that does not feel as “American” as might be expected after so many years here. I often assume there are ways to behave or things to say that everyone else knows and I don’t. I often wonder if my words or actions make others uncomfortable.

The ultimate challenge for me occurred on Sept. 11, 2001. I was on my last day on a remote Greek island when the hotel manager yelled out about a plane crash. On the lobby television, I witnessed the second plane hitting the World Trade Center and the towers collapsing.

I was devastated that the United States had been attacked. Far from home and family, I felt lost. I worried that I would not be able to fly home, and agonized over the thought that I could be stranded in Greece for years. As much as I loved Greece, it was very clear to me that it was not home.

When I arrived in Los Angeles a few days later and my children picked me up at LAX, I had an epiphany. After all the years wondering whether I belonged here, at times even contemplating the idea of moving to Greece, I finally understood that home was Los Angeles, home was America, and that this was where my heart and soul now belonged.

A man in a gray suit and red tie, at left, leans smiling toward a woman in blue and silver, who is also smiling and holding flowers.
The author and her husband, Jerry Savin, on their wedding day in 2010.
(Courtesy of Anne Gani)

I could not, nor wanted to, live anywhere else.

A month after I returned to L.A., I met the Alaska-born, Oregon-raised American man who became my second husband.

I am convinced that coming to terms with my Americanization — who I now was, and where home was — enabled me to be open to this new chapter of my life.

  • Anne Gani has lived in the United States since 1957. She had a long career in education, eventually becoming co-director of a teacher professional development unit in the Graduate School of Education at UCLA. She and her husband travel frequently, especially to Greece. She's still involved with Greek folk dancing, and continues to judge dance competitions.

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