Nathan, Tobie. “A Land Like You”, translated by Joyce Zonana, Seagull Press, 2020.
The Jewish Ghetto of Cairo
In “A Land Like You”, writer Tobie Nathan’s Egypt is hot, loving and fearless. We meet men and women, mothers and fathers, child kings and British soldiers, Egyptians, foreigners and stateless people, Jews and Copts.
“A Land Like You” is set in Cairo 1925 in the old Jewish quarter of Haret al-Yahud. Esther is a beautiful young woman who is believed to be possessed by demons. She wants to desperately give birth after seven wonderful years of marriage. Her husband who has been blind since childhood, has no objection to her participating in Muslim demon rituals in her efforts to conceive a child. She finally gives birth to Zohar, the narrator, but because his mother’s breasts are dry, he is nursed by a Muslim peasant who is also believed to also be possessed and who has just given birth to a girl, Masreya. The two infants are suckled at the same breasts and “united by a rabbi’s amulet.”
The story of Zohar and Masreya is a story of forbidden love. They share their goals to reach the highest spheres of Cairo and will not let anything stop them. While this is their story, it is also the story of Egypt and of Cairo as Farouk is ousted in disgrace. We read of the city from the onset of the twentieth century until the crisis of 1952 and all that was part of it.
This is also the story of Joe, a young man from the upper class who dreams of going to Israel, and of Nino Cohen, a convert to Islam, who goes mad under the oppression he suffers. Spirit possession and religious mysticism exists alongside of each other and against the backdrop of the British occupation of Egypt and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Free Officers’ Movement.
We enter Zohar’s world and it is through him that we get the impression of living events and we identify with him. It was the time when the Jews and the Arabs coexisted peacefully and where Zohar has a good life and is madly in love with his milk “sister” Masreya. Then with the rise of Nasser and the expulsion of the Jews, everything changed. Here is the story of the last fifty years of the Jewish community of Cairo (a community that has always fascinated me).
The Jewish quarter, as it was known, experienced a pollical and social upheaval and is seen as a place with an abundance of differences—religious, gender, class and ideology yet it is a ghetto inhabited by many communities. What is most interesting is that Jews and Muslims shared so much. They live next to each other and it seems that they share everything including rituals and hope. They fear the same things and they love each other. There is no reason for them not to get along and it seems until near the end that they always did even to the point of sharing histories. What could have been the problem with Zohar and Masreya loving each other? Yet their love presents a problem. As new political regimes come to power, the two lovers become part of this new political world. The question of who one is arises along with whether this is determined by nationality or religion or is it possible to be both. Can I as an American Jew, just be an American or am I always an American Jew? When I lived in Israel was I an Israeli American or was I just an Israeli? Since Israel is “The Jewish State”, the Jewish hyphenate is dropped here yet it returns when I am in America.
Egypt for the Jews was home to many conflicting ideologies including nationalism and Zionism, communism and capitalism and more. Here we see that one can be both Egyptian and Jewish with no hyphen. What happened to the Jews of Egypt was beyond their imaginations.
As the state of Israel was partitioned and then established, the political shift in Egypt was amplified and Jewish Egyptians became aliens in the land they so loved. Jews have not only been indigenous to Egypt, they have always been there yet there are none left now. The land they love has left them to be on their own yet even with this distressing abandonment, many Jews of Egyptian descent still see themselves as Egyptian Jews. The references to “The Song of Songs” are felt throughout Nathan’s beautiful novel and translator Joyce Zonana wonderfully captures it. The Jews of Egypt will never forget that they were cast out from their home and the feeling that I got while reading this was to hear Jews of all generations and physical locations coming together to sing “Hatikvah”, the hope of returning to the land. The difference is that for Egyptians, it was for a land they knew and that love of the land has been passed from generation to generation. For the rest of us, it was the hope of returning to a land that we personally never knew—an ideological return to the beginning of Judaic civilization.
The situation of the dislocation of Egyptian Jewry is real and as such, it is a haunting memory of a time that was and the thought of a time that will never be again. The Jews had to leave Egypt twice—once during the Exodus when they fled slavery to go to Canaan, the Biblical home of the Jewish people and to accept God to be their God. The second time was a political ousting with no possibility of ever returning.
Joyce Zonana’s translation of “A Land Like You” takes us into the novel and into the minds of the characters. It is a marvel of a translation from the French yet it is more than that since there are so many vernacular terms in a variety of languages including Arabic, Hebrew, Aramaic and others. Zonana is a member of an Egyptian Jewish family so this is a very special project for her. I can only imagine the tears she shed and the smiles she smiled as she brought this English translation into being.