Cairo 1941: Excerpt from “A Land Like You”

27 December, 2020

 


A novel of Egypt, A Land Like You from Seagull Books.

A nov­el of Egypt, A Land Like You from Seag­ull Books.

Tobie Nathan’s his­tor­i­cal nov­el, A Land Like You, set in Cairo in the first half of the 20th cen­tu­ry, jux­ta­pos­es real­is­ti­cal­ly ren­dered his­tor­i­cal figures—among them King Farouk, Gamal Abdel Nass­er, and Anwar Sadat—with vivid­ly imag­ined fic­tion­al char­ac­ters. Chief among these is Zohar Zohar, a shapeshift­ing young scamp, born to two poor res­i­dents of the city’s ancient Jew­ish quar­ter, Haret al-Yahud. In the pas­sage excerpt­ed here, Zohar brings togeth­er his two clos­est friends in prepa­ra­tion for what will become, first an amorous adven­ture, and then an unlike­ly busi­ness partnership. 

From the Bal­four Dec­la­ra­tion in 1917 through the Free Offi­cers’ Rev­o­lu­tion in 1952, A Land Like You explores the forces and ten­sions that would trans­form the Mid­dle East. And in the three char­ac­ters of Joe, Nino, and Zohar, Tobie Nathan sug­gests three pos­si­bil­i­ties for Egypt­ian Jews in the 1940s:  Zion­ist; Egypt­ian nation­al­ist; and apo­lit­i­cal sur­vivor, loy­al only to an unknown spir­i­tu­al mas­ter. Though as Zohar will lat­er say, “Egypt is my moth­er, the womb of all my thoughts.” —Joyce Zonana, translator

Khamis al-Ads Cul-de-Sac

Excerpt from A Land Like You, a nov­el by Tobie Nathan
Seag­ull Books, 2020
trans­lat­ed by Joyce Zonana

1941. THREE YEARS HAD PASSED. Dark black hair, metic­u­lous­ly combed and part­ed on the side in the British fash­ion; large, slight­ly bulging black eyes, always startled—at six­teen, Zohar had become a hand­some young man of refined ele­gance. He wore pleat­ed trousers that rose high above his navel, in a style set by Hol­ly­wood films; along with light, open-col­lared shirts, always immac­u­late. He nev­er went any­where with­out his two-toned shoes, click­ing their met­al taps on the hara’s cob­ble­stones. And even though no one knew where he spent his days and nights, every so often he returned to sleep in Uncle Elie’s gro­cery, on the lit­tle bed his par­ents had placed beside theirs.

He con­tin­ued to make and sell his cig­a­rettes; day by day, his busi­ness flour­ished more and more, espe­cial­ly after he expand­ed his offer­ings to include less lic­it items along with tobac­co. One night, a work night when he was roam­ing the city in search of cus­tomers, he had what would prove to be a fate­ful encounter.



Central Cairo 1941 (photo courtesy Micky Salem)

Cen­tral Cairo 1941 (pho­to cour­tesy Micky Salem)


Not far from Haret al-Yahud, in the Karaite neigh­bor­hood of Khoron­fesh, a tiny cul-de-sac, Khamis al-Ads, thread­ed its way through the small, run-down build­ings. There, in the house owned by the Karaite Samuel, lived the Cohen fam­i­ly, not Karaite but just as poor as the oth­er tenants—Muslim, Copt, Karaite or rab­binate. Over the course of some fifty years, the father, Gaby Cohen, who worked for the watch­mak­er Mous­sa Farag, had ruined his eyes repair­ing the neighborhood’s watch­es. He died right at the start of the war, the day Ger­many invad­ed Poland, the first of Sep­tem­ber 1939, in the small hours of the morn­ing. No doubt about it, he was dead too young, bare­ly six­ty years old, leav­ing a wife in tears, plus five grown chil­dren from a first mar­riage and three from a sec­ond. The old­est of the three was named Abra­ham or Albert—but this hard­ly mat­tered, since every­one called him Nino.

At the death of his father when he was sev­en­teen, Nino was already in his sec­ond year of med­ical stud­ies at Fouad I Uni­ver­si­ty on Kasr al-‘Aini Street. An intel­lec­tu­al, most def­i­nite­ly, who cared more about read­ing than about his stud­ies. He read equal­ly well in three languages—Arabic of course, but also French and Eng­lish. A tall young man, strik­ing­ly hand­some, the apt­ly named Gamal, lodged in the same build­ing. This law stu­dent, four years Nino’s senior, had for a long time served as a men­tor, rec­om­mend­ing books and encour­ag­ing him to view life in polit­i­cal terms. A pas­sion­ate mil­i­tant nation­al­ist, he’d led Nino to dis­cov­er the biogra­phies of Kamal Ataturk and Bis­mar­ck, the works of Karl Marx and Paul Lafar­gue, but also the poems of Ahmed Chaw­ki and the nov­els of Taw­fik al-Hakim. Gamal, who’d joined the Offi­cers’ School, had grown scarce of late, but reap­peared when­ev­er he was on leave, and the two con­tin­ued their unend­ing dis­cus­sion of Egypt’s future.

Gamal was con­vinced that Egypt, moth­er of the world, would spawn a new era—when Arabs, the wretched of the earth, would final­ly regain their place among the nations. Nino, who shared his ideals, asked him what role the Jews would play. Gamal replied that in Egypt there were no Jews, only Egyp­tians and for­eign­ers. And he explained further—the people’s pover­ty stemmed from the for­eign­ers’ brazen exploita­tion of resources: the British pri­mar­i­ly, but also the French, the Turks and all the oth­er impe­ri­al­ist vul­tures prey­ing on the coun­try. The new Egypt would be Egyptian.

His pow­er­ful voice car­ried; he spoke well, he spoke tru­ly, he spoke for the peo­ple. Ema­nat­ing from Gamal was such con­vic­tion, such author­i­ty, that Nino didn’t dare con­fess that he, although Egypt­ian since time immemo­r­i­al, had no nationality—neither Egypt­ian nor for­eign: he was state­less. Ever since the father’s death, the Cohen family’s income had been pro­gres­sive­ly reduced to a pit­tance, so much so that Nino took a job work­ing as a com­pounder for Assiouty, the phar­ma­cist on Naz­mi Street. Dur­ing the day, he worked there mak­ing lotions and creams; at night, he stud­ied. To stay awake, he’d devel­oped the habit of smok­ing hashish. Unlike his fel­lows who fre­quent­ed the smok­ing dens on Cham­pol­lion or Ma’ruf Streets, he smoked alone, at home, cig­a­rettes he rolled mechan­i­cal­ly, with­out look­ing up from his anato­my assign­ments. One night, when he’d gone out in search of the drug, he came across Zohar patrolling Suares Square, not far from the Ital­ian Con­sulate, near the Bentzion build­ing. Nino, his lit­tle eyes hid­den behind thick glass­es and his neck stick­ing out above a shirt with too big a col­lar, was so gaunt he seemed afflict­ed by a seri­ous dis­ease. He was painful to look at.

“What’s wrong, my broth­er?” Zohar began. “Your head seeks the vapors of the night, but your feet don’t know where to take you. I know what you need, the paste that opens the paths of the spir­it, the blue dust that makes your eyes sparkle, or would you rather the jel­ly that makes you lusti­er than a lion?”

Struck by the young man’s pat­ter, Nino smiled. And so it was anoth­er face Zohar saw, a face of intel­li­gence and joy. It was impos­si­ble to resist Nino’s smile. 

“And what would be best for me, Doc­tor Smoke?”

“First of all, some green, very fresh, straight from the fields of the Delta, and your week will be green. Then, you’ll sprin­kle your Craven A with some blue and you’ll float on an ocean of truth. When you close your eyes, a nude woman with long hair will sit on your lap and her ass will dance between your thighs. That’s what you need, my brother.”

They walked the length of the new bridge that was now called Qasr al-Nil, chat­ting. Find­ing an intel­li­gent and clever boy who hadn’t been to school, Nino under­took to con­vince Zohar to earn his bac­calau­re­ate. Zohar was hap­py to meet a young man who liked to talk, to debate, to prove, to argue. Nino spoke of Egypt, Zohar of the Jews; the first thrust him­self into his­to­ry; the sec­ond sang of ori­gins. Nino explained to Zohar the rea­sons for his pover­ty: nine­ty-five per cent of the land belonged to a hand­ful of wealthy fam­i­lies, who leased it to the fel­lahs, peas­ants who couldn’t even make enough to pay the rent. “Look! I’m not poor!” Zohar replied, draw­ing wads of bills from his pock­ets. “You are poor!” Nino replied. “You’re poor and you don’t know it. You’re poor because you’re all alone.” And Zohar burst out laugh­ing, explain­ing that he was not alone, quite the oppo­site! He was a scout, the explor­er assigned by the great Zohar fam­i­ly to dis­cov­er the new Egypt­ian soci­ety. And he took hold of it exact­ly where peo­ple couldn’t resist, where they’d become slaves to their only plea­sure. “What a strange idea,” Nino inter­ject­ed. “Plea­sure is the path to alien­ation.” Zohar didn’t under­stand the word. Nino explained: To be alien­at­ed is to lose your strength, your essence, for a third party’s prof­it. The fel­lahs are alien­at­ed because all their strength serves only to enrich the wealthy landown­ers. The work­ers are alien­at­ed because their back­break­ing labor serves only to enrich the fac­to­ry own­er. Had he ever seen a rich fel­lah? Or a rich work­er? No! No one had ever seen any. They were alien­at­ed. The fruit of their labor was con­fis­cat­ed. Did he under­stand that? And the Egypt­ian peo­ple were alien­at­ed, since the prof­its of the nation’s work went else­where, to for­eign­ers, the British, the French.


Yahya al-Hub, directed by Mohammed Karim, original movie poster of the era, starring Mohammed Abdel Wahab and Leila Mourad.

Yahya al-Hub, direct­ed by Mohammed Karim, orig­i­nal movie poster of the era, star­ring Mohammed Abdel Wahab and Leila Mourad.

“But I have only one mas­ter!” Zohar replied.

Nino inter­rupt­ed him. “You think you’re your own mas­ter? You think the prof­its of your labor belong to you? Is that what you think?”

“No,” cut in Zohar, “No. I have only one mas­ter and I don’t know him.”

Nino was speech­less before the strange reply of his night­time com­pan­ion. He bought some green from him, hugged him, and said only “I love you, my broth­er!” And they walked side by side, hand in hand, as far as Shepheard’s Hotel which was open all night. They part­ed there, promis­ing to find each oth­er again soon.

Zohar fre­quent­ly met Nino at night, some­times for busi­ness, some­times sole­ly for the plea­sure of talk. That year, 1941, war broke out in the Mid­dle East. In accor­dance with the treaty signed in 1936 by young King Farouk, Egypt had been con­strained to wel­come British forces. Cairo was crawl­ing with sol­diers, Eng­lish­men of course, but also Aus­tralians, New Zealan­ders, Indi­ans, Poles, French­men from unoc­cu­pied France. In the wealthy neigh­bor­hoods, there were now more for­eign­ers than Egyp­tians. All these men, espe­cial­ly needy since they were sep­a­rat­ed from their fam­i­lies and con­front­ed with the anx­i­eties of com­bat, had to be fed, dressed, housed, enter­tained. Bars sprang up like mush­rooms; night­clubs and broth­els fell clang­ing onto the city. Com­merce under­went an extra­or­di­nary expan­sion, as pounds ster­ling and shillings joined pias­tres and dol­lars. What’s more, every­thing was for sale—at a pre­mi­um, and in for­eign cur­ren­cy! From old bicy­cle tires to cos­tume jew­el­ry, from bat­tered pots to ancient cars. Prices climbed faster than a mon­key chased by a pan­ther. The offi­cial mar­ket col­lapsed, the black mar­ket exploded.

Zohar’s traf­fic thrived now that he’d giv­en up cig­a­rettes as too cum­ber­some. He pro­cured all sorts of drugs for mil­i­tary men, from hashish whose price had sky­rock­et­ed, to rar­er pow­ders he found thanks to Nino’s con­nec­tions with phar­ma­cists. Hav­ing grown rich from one day to the next, Zohar labored alone, spend­ing his nights scur­ry­ing through night­clubs and hotel bars, here to obtain the mer­chan­dise, there to sell it. Numer­ous British offi­cers relied on his ser­vices; he had entry into the capital’s exclu­sive clubs: White’s, St James, the Auto­mo­bile Club.

Under Gamal’s aus­pices, Nino was meet­ing Egypt­ian mil­i­tary men more and more hos­tile to the British pres­ence. He’d been admit­ted to gath­er­ings where they were plot­ting against the British and against the King, where they were plan­ning dif­fer­ent kinds of revolution—communist, social­ist, Islam­ic. Imbued with their ideas, Nino was begin­ning to long for the vic­to­ry of the Axis forces: the Ital­ians who were occu­py­ing Ethiopia, part of Soma­lia, and above all near­by Libya; and the Ger­mans, whose armies were begin­ning to dis­em­bark in Cyre­naica, the east coast of Libya. He some­times said strange things that star­tled Zohar, things like, “If we Egyp­tians were to sign a secret accord with the Ger­mans, once the British were rout­ed, Egypt would final­ly be independent.”

Zohar was deeply opposed to these ideas, first of all because the depar­ture of the British would mark the end of his busi­ness. Then there were all those sto­ries cir­cu­lat­ing about the vis­cer­al, bes­tial, deliri­ous hatred of the Ger­mans. Did he want to find him­self in a con­cen­tra­tion camp because he was Jew­ish? Nino would reply, “There are no Jews, only exploiters and exploit­ed.” And the debate went on—the same, always. Zohar liked this debate, which remind­ed him of Rav Bensimon’s arcane rea­son­ing about for­bid­den foods.

It was dur­ing that same year of 1941, in March, a few days after the announce­ment of Gen­er­al Rom­mel and his Afri­ka Korps’ vic­to­ry in Libya, that Zohar intro­duced Joe di Reg­gio, his long­time friend, to Nino Cohen, whom he’d nick­named “the Pro­fes­sor.” “You’ll see,” he told him, “his blood is light, like orgeat syrup, and he’s as learned as a rab­bi. A professor.”

Dur­ing the inter­ven­ing three years, Joe had cho­sen a total­ly dif­fer­ent path. The year before his bac­calau­re­ate, he’d sud­den­ly grown enam­ored of sports, ten­nis and polo, which he prac­ticed on the grounds of the Gezi­ra Sport­ing Club—but above all bas­ket­ball, for which he’d joined the Mac­cabees, a Zion­ist club that sought to impart its ideals to Jew­ish youth. There, he was part of a top-ranked team, but he also learnt songs of Jew­ish resis­tance against British occu­pa­tion and began to dream of the strug­gle to cre­ate a new Jew­ish state. This sud­den ori­en­ta­tion pro­found­ly dis­pleased his parents—his father who despised the social­ist ideas of the Jew­ish colonists in Pales­tine, and his moth­er, allied (at least in her mind) with the com­mu­nists, and who could not under­stand a lib­er­a­tion strug­gle for Jews alone. She, sev­er­al times a mil­lion­aire in pounds ster­ling, longed for a rev­o­lu­tion sprung from the mass­es that would estab­lish jus­tice and equal­i­ty for all, not just for one group. The baroness’ polit­i­cal sal­lies pro­voked a reac­tion in the salons; a scent of scan­dal spread all around her.

So it was that one night, all three of them found them­selves at Shepheard’s Hotel—Joe the Zion­ist, Nino the com­mu­nist, and Zohar, who was sim­ply Zohar, Zohar Zohar.

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Read TMR’s review of A Land Like You

Pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of psy­chol­o­gy at the Uni­ver­sité Paris VIII, Tobie Nathan is the author of a dozen nov­els and numer­ous psy­cho­an­a­lyt­ic stud­ies. Born to a Jew­ish fam­i­ly in Cairo in 1948, Nathan had to flee his coun­try with his fam­i­ly fol­low­ing the 1957 Egypt­ian Rev­o­lu­tion. Edu­cat­ed in France, Nathan is a pio­neer­ing prac­ti­tion­er of eth­no-psy­chi­a­try, and in 1993 he found­ed the Cen­tre George Dev­ereux where he worked pri­mar­i­ly with migrants and refugees. In 2012, he received the pres­ti­gious Prix fem­i­na de l’essai for his mem­oir, Eth­no-Roman, about his life as an Egypt­ian Jew­ish immi­grant in France. The orig­i­nal French edi­tion of A Land Like You was short­list­ed for the Prix Goncourt in 2015.