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A cultural note - Stories of Italians in Egypt: the Di Lernia family and the Suez Canal

Tue, July 10, 2018 10:28

 By Paolo Sabbatini

As I announced in my previous article, several Italian films, whether for cinema or for television, were screened at the Cultural Institute in the past few days. To present the films, some experts from the sector were invited: Francesco Vedovati for the inauguration on July 1; David Abatecola, on July 2, to present some short films by the students of the Centro Sperimentale di Cinematografia, Cinecitta, Rome; Francesco Braida, screenwriter, on July 3, to comment on the film "Taranta on the Road"; Dario di Gennaro, television director, to present his successful series "Green Line", on Wednesday on July 4; and finally Paolo Vanino from the Culture Institute, to present the film "The Father and the Foreigner" on the closing evening, Thursday, July 5.

Talking to the director di Gennaro, I discovered that his family had very strong ties with Egypt, and so I was intrigued: I wanted to know more.

Since I am very interested in knowing the personal stories of my compatriots here, and especially in hearing anecdotes about the ancestors of the people I meet, Dario explained that probably the first member of his family to reach Egypt was his great-great-great-grandfather, who worked for the Suez Canal Company with the Italian engineer Luigi Negrelli.

As the story goes, Negrelli, a great expert on civil works for the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had begun making the plans for the Canal in 1836, and he took part in the various technical Commissions for the gigantic work even when the Canal was entrusted to Ferdinand de Lesseps, some decades later. Apparently, the projects adopted were those of Negrelli, who did not receive due recognition, unfortunately.

Benedetto di Lernia, son of Negrelli’s assistant (therefore the great-great-grandfather of Dario), took his father's place on the Suez Canal work site. He married an Italian woman from Egypt, whose sister Loretta was married to an important high-ranking Egyptian officer, the equivalent of a prince: he was none other than the Commander of the royal yacht of the King of Egypt, probably King Fuad I.

According to family tradition, he kept his post during the reign of King Farouk. They had two daughters, one of whom was called Aida, the fateful name of the Italians of Egypt.

The Di Lernia family, having been connected with the Canal, settled in Port Said, where they opened a petrol station and an emporium which was very well-known, because it stocked a great variety of items, from food to household utensils.

Naturally I went to consult the precious book "Yearbook of the Italians of Egypt" of 1938, a unique copy that is kept in the library of the Institute; and indeed, at page 6 of the General Index, I found the following information: Food stores – Canal area, Port Said, Fratelli Di Lernia, via Tantah, tel. 22.29.656.

Who knows what happened to the shop, after the whole family left Egypt in the middle of the 20th Century? With Dario we will call the old number, because all things in life, present, past and future are linked with a red thread: and maybe we will take a trip to Port Said, to rediscover traditions. Dear readers, please follow!

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