Egypt—Abandoned but not Forgotten

4 October, 2020


A Land Like You, nov­el by Tobie Nathan
Trans­lat­ed by Joyce Zonana
Seag­ull Books (2020)
ISBN: 978–0857427885
Orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished as Ce pays qui te ressem­ble
Edi­tions Stock (2015)

Ella Shohat

In this breath­tak­ing mixed-genre fic­tion­al­ized his­to­ry and fan­tas­ti­cal tale, Tobie Nathan’s A Land Like You offers a poignant account of the last five decades of Cairo’s Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, pri­or to its calami­tous depar­ture for oth­er lands in the 1950s. The socio-polit­i­cal tur­bu­lence of the peri­od is mes­mer­iz­ing­ly inter­wo­ven with the ani­mat­ed quo­tid­i­an of life in the old Jew­ish quar­ter, Harat al-Yahud, rep­re­sent­ed with its man­i­fold class, gen­der, reli­gious and ide­o­log­i­cal dis­so­nances. Although the focal­ized Harat is endowed with sub­jec­tiv­i­ty, the nov­el eschews a ghet­toized prism; rather, it vivid­ly depicts a place of con­stant move­ment and flow between the city’s Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty (Rab­binates and Karaites) and mul­ti­ple oth­er com­mu­ni­ties, includ­ing Copts, Ortho­dox, Greeks, Arme­ni­ans, along with Mus­lims, espe­cial­ly those liv­ing in the old part of Bab Zuwayla.

  Through a cor­nu­copia of sen­su­ous allu­sions to aro­mas, dish­es, amulets, prayers, saints’ tombs, songs, dances, films, and wit­ty col­lo­qui­alisms, the read­er becomes a priv­i­leged wit­ness to an Egypt char­ac­ter­ized by an inti­mate cul­tur­al con­tin­u­um between Jews and their neigh­bor­ing Mus­lims. Sex, preg­nan­cies, birth, breast­feed­ing, ablu­tions, ill­ness­es, desire and death all inter­sect, reveal­ing shared rit­u­als, beliefs, hopes, and fears. Jews and Mus­lims live side by side, in the same way that a man, as the pro­tag­o­nist’s moth­er Esther puts it, “might live with his own innards.” After all, she reflects, Jew­ish tales fill the Qur’an, and the Ara­bic tongue fills Jew­ish mouths. So “why,” she mus­es “aren’t they us? Why aren’t we them?” Indeed, this cross-reli­gion inti­ma­cy is alle­go­rized in the for­bid­den desire between Esther’s son Zohar/Gohar (Ara­bic for jew­el, in the Egypt­ian pro­nun­ci­a­tion), and his Mus­lim milk-sis­ter, Mas­reya (Egypt­ian, in the Ara­bic fem­i­nine). Trans­gress­ing tra­di­tion­al taboos around rela­tion­ships between milk-sib­lings as well as between reli­gions, the romance cre­ates a ver­i­ta­ble “rup­ture in the world’s order.”

In the per­ilous post-par­ti­tion moment, their love and sep­a­ra­tion become entan­gled with the clash of new­ly emerg­ing polit­i­cal forces. The nov­el dis­plays a broad spec­trum of the var­i­ous ide­o­log­i­cal paths tak­en by Jew­ish youth—monarchism, cap­i­tal­ism, anti-colo­nial­ism, com­mu­nism, Zion­ism, Arab nation­al­ism, and even Islam­i­cism. Yet through­out, A Land Like You rejects the new­ly cir­cu­lat­ing idea that one can­not be both Jew­ish and Egypt­ian. The nov­el main­tains a con­sis­tent lyri­cal homage to the land, for exam­ple through the pro­tag­o­nist’s emphat­ic pro­nounce­ments that Egypt as umm al-dun­ya (the moth­er of the world) is also his moth­er. “Egypt is my moth­er,” he asserts defi­ant­ly, “the womb of all my thoughts. It is the sub­stance from which we were made,” and “the Nile is the artery that irri­gates our bod­ies.” In metaphor­i­cal claim to indi­gene­ity, he com­pares Egyp­t’s Jews to “the young water buf­fa­los, knead­ed from the Nile’s mud, the same dark col­or as the natives.” 

A Land Like You gives a pal­pa­ble sense of a com­mu­ni­ty that could not have imag­ined
its own uproot­ing out of Egypt.

A Land Like You gives a pal­pa­ble sense of a com­mu­ni­ty that could not have imag­ined its own uproot­ing out of Egypt. Writ­ing in 2015, more than half a cen­tu­ry after the dis­place­ment, the author con­fronts the momen­tous polit­i­cal shift that turned Jew­ish-Egyp­tians into “for­eign­ers”— result­ing from co-impli­cat­ed polit­i­cal upheavals in the wake of Palestine’s par­ti­tion, the estab­lish­ment of Israel, and the Arab/Israeli wars. Inter­laced through­out the nov­el, expres­sions con­cern­ing root­ed home­ness in the land come to form a response to the fixed notion of “the real Egypt­ian,” a dis­course that came to exclude Jews. Hence, the nov­el not only por­trays a com­mu­ni­ty immersed in Arab cul­ture but also relays a his­tor­i­cal nar­ra­tive of a pre-Arab Jew­ish past: “We Jews of Egypt, we were there with the Pharaohs, then with the Per­sians, the Baby­lo­ni­ans, the Greeks, the Romans; and when the Arabs arrived, we were still there … and also with the Turks, the Ottomans … We are indige­nous, like the ibis, like the water-buf­fa­lo calves, like the kites.” And this claim for a mil­len­ni­al his­to­ry in the land is soon jux­ta­posed with the ele­giac lament: “Today, we are no longer there. Not one remains. How can the Egyp­tians live with­out us?”

Cairo's Jewish cemetery is one of the oldest in the world (Photo: Philipp Breu)

The nov­el repeats this rhetor­i­cal ques­tion, high­light­ing a sense of rejec­tion, the injured ego of a lover aban­doned. And yet with­in his own inte­ri­or mono­logue, the pro­tag­o­nist refus­es to forego Egypt. Pos­sessed, as it were, by the divine voice of Asma­han, star of the Egypt­ian screen, he remem­bers her singing “Ya habibi ta‘ala” (“Come, O my beloved, come!”). Indeed, one of the book’s evoca­tive epigraphs cites the refrain from this song about love and the pain of sep­a­ra­tion: “Come, my beloved / Come join me / Look at me, see the effect of your absence / How I’m reduced to speak­ing with your ghost…”  With­in A Land Like You the quot­ed pas­sage comes to alle­go­rize the suf­fer­ing inflict­ed by a com­mu­nal absence, of becom­ing a specter in the land once your home. Medi­at­ed by Zohar’s rec­ol­lec­tion, the lyrics only re-accen­tu­ate a desire to become the addressee of the ta‘ala call. Farid al-Atrash’s com­po­si­tion as a hybrid of Latin-Arab Tan­go, allows for a mourn­ful sen­ti­ment to co-exist in dis­so­nance with the plea­sure of a sen­su­ous rhythm. In Nathan’s nov­el, the remem­brance of things past con­sti­tutes an emo­tion­al­ly ambiva­lent act.

  The read­er’s advance knowl­edge of the actu­al his­tor­i­cal out­comethe trau­mat­ic dis­lo­ca­tion of Jewshaunts the nov­el from the out­set, as if in an Egypt­ian vari­a­tion of the theme of the inex­orable Fate in Greek tragedy. In dif­fer­ent inter­tex­tu­al terms, the dis­per­sal accen­tu­ates the unhap­py con­flu­ence between two nar­ra­tives of depar­ture from Egypt—the Bib­li­cal exo­dus from slav­ery, on the one hand, and, on the oth­er, the mod­ern dis­lo­ca­tion of the Egypt­ian-Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty with­out a pos­si­bil­i­ty of return. The nov­el pro­vides a kind of emo­tion­al car­tog­ra­phy as each chap­ter is titled after the name of a street, a neigh­bor­hood, a loca­tion, end­ing up in Rue de Fleu­rus in Paris, in spa­tial terms encap­su­lat­ing a melan­choly exil­ic con­di­tion that can­not fath­om its own absence. The pro­tag­o­nist address­es his moth­er­land in a mixed tenor of long­ing and iron­ic resent­ment: “Today, we are no longer there. Egypt­ian broth­ers, dwellers in a land of relics, what you’re left with are pyra­mids and a few emp­ty syn­a­gogues. Take care of them! How can you live with­out us?”

read an excerpt of A Land Like You

Ren­dered in Joyce Zonana’s mas­ter­ful trans­la­tion, A Land Like You intro­duces the Eng­lish read­er to Nathan’s daz­zling nov­el, where French stands in, as it were, for the poly­glos­sia and het­eroglos­sia with­in and across lan­guages. The French prose medi­ates Ara­bic and its var­i­ous accen­tu­a­tions, along with invo­ca­tions of Hebrew, Ara­ma­ic, Span­ish, Greek, Ital­ian, Turk­ish, Eng­lish, and the lin­guis­tic amal­gam called Sabir. And although writ­ten in French, the lan­guage itself, in turn, is also medi­at­ed through the Ara­bic-speak­ing diegetic world as the Egypt­ian char­ac­ters learn or hap­pen to encounter the for­eign Euro­pean tongue. French in this sense becomes a dis­tanced object even though it is the lan­guage of the novel

Whether through their flu­ent or bro­ken form, the lan­guages con­verge in the text to stage Cairo’s mul­ti-lay­ered itin­er­aries of belong­ing. The trans­la­tor Joyce Zonana is her­self an author of a the­mat­i­cal­ly relat­ed mem­oir about her own dis­place­ment from Cairo to Brook­lyn, enti­tled Dream Homes: From Cairo to Kat­ri­na, an Exile’s Jour­ney. The trans­la­tion ben­e­fits from Zonana’s deep famil­iar­i­ty with the world depict­ed in the nov­el, mak­ing tan­gi­ble to the Eng­lish read­er the lin­guis­tic syn­cretism as shaped in the wake of impe­ri­al­ism and post­colo­nial dis­place­ments. Thus despite the Eng­lish trans­la­tion being under­tak­en in New York, and despite the nov­el hav­ing been writ­ten in Paris and in French, the text rever­ber­ates with the exil­ic impos­si­bil­i­ty of part­ing from umm al-dun­ya, epit­o­mized in the pro­tag­o­nist’s con­clud­ing sen­ti­ment: “Although I left Egypt, Egypt nev­er left my soul.”

Ella Shohat
Tobie Nathan

A TMR con­tribut­ing edi­tor, Pro­fes­sor Ella Shohat teach­es at the depart­ments of Art & Pub­lic Pol­i­cy and Mid­dle East­ern & Islam­ic Stud­ies at NYU. She is the author of many books, most recent­ly On the Arab-Jew, Pales­tine, and Oth­er Dis­place­ments: Select­ed Writ­ings (Plu­to Books, 2017). Her oth­er titles include Between the Mid­dle East and the Amer­i­c­as: The Cul­tur­al Pol­i­tics of Dias­po­ra (co-edit­ed, The Univ. of Michi­gan Press, 2013, Hon­or­able Men­tion in the Non-Fic­tion Cat­e­go­ry of the 2014 Arab Amer­i­can Book Award, The Arab Amer­i­can Muse­um); Israeli Cin­e­ma: East/West and the Pol­i­tics of Rep­re­sen­ta­tion (I.B. Tau­ris, 2010); Taboo Mem­o­ries, Dias­poric Voic­es (Duke Univ. Press, 2006); Talk­ing Visions: Mul­ti­cul­tur­al Fem­i­nism in a Transna­tion­al Age (MIT & The New Muse­um of Con­tem­po­rary Art, 1998); Dan­ger­ous Liaisons: Gen­der, Nation and Post­colo­nial Per­spec­tives (co-edit­ed, Univ. of Min­neso­ta Press, 1997). With Robert Stam she authored Unthink­ing Euro­cen­trism (win­ner of the Kather­ine Kovacs Singer Best Book Award, Rout­ledge, 1994; Sec­ond 20th Anniver­sary Edi­tion, with a new After­ward chap­ter, Rout­ledge, 2014); Mul­ti­cul­tur­al­ism, Post­colo­nial­i­ty and Transna­tion­al Media (Rut­gers Univ. Press, 2003); Flag­ging Patri­o­tism: Crises of Nar­cis­sism and Anti-Amer­i­can­ism (Rout­ledge, 2007); and Race in Trans­la­tion: Cul­ture Wars Around the Post­colo­nial Atlantic (NYU press, 2012).

Pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus of psy­chol­o­gy at 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. He has served as a diplo­mat in Israel and Africa and is a Cheva­lier de l’or­dre des Arts et des Let­tres. 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. 

Joyce Zonana is a writer and lit­er­ary trans­la­tor and pro­fes­sor emeri­ta of Eng­lish at the City Uni­ver­si­ty of New York.

A TMR contributing editor, Professor Ella Shohat teaches at the departments of Art & Public Policy and Middle Eastern & Islamic Studies at NYU. She is the author of many books, most recently On the Arab-Jew, Palestine, and Other Displacements: Selected Writings (Pluto Books, 2017). Her other titles include Between the Middle East and the Americas: The Cultural Politics of Diaspora (co-edited, The Univ. of Michigan Press, 2013, Honorable Mention in the Non-Fiction Category of the 2014 Arab American Book Award, The Arab American Museum); Israeli Cinema: East/West and the Politics of Representation (I.B. Tauris, 2010); Taboo Memories, Diasporic Voices (Duke Univ. Press, 2006); Talking Visions: Multicultural Feminism in a Transnational Age (MIT & The New Museum of Contemporary Art, 1998); Dangerous Liaisons: Gender, Nation and Postcolonial Perspectives (co-edited, Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1997). With Robert Stam she authored Unthinking Eurocentrism (winner of the Katherine Kovacs Singer Best Book Award, Routledge, 1994; Second 20th Anniversary Edition, with a new Afterward chapter, Routledge, 2014); Multiculturalism, Postcoloniality and Transnational Media (Rutgers Univ. Press, 2003); Flagging Patriotism: Crises of Narcissism and Anti-Americanism (Routledge, 2007); and Race in Translation: Culture Wars Around the Postcolonial Atlantic (NYU press, 2012).