A Land Like You
by Tobie Nathan
Seagull Books, 340 pp.
Reviewed by Janice Weizman
Towards the end of A Land Like You, when Egypt is in falling into the downward spiral of disintegration and anarchy that will lead to the 1952 Free Officers coup d’état, the narrator, recalling the turbulent, ominous atmosphere of the times, notes, “But people said so many things. In the Orient, speech is made to sing its dreams and to tremble at its nightmares, not to inform!” It’s a sly sentence that both subverts the power of language and celebrates it. The challenge facing the author, as well as the translator of this exuberant novel, is to communicate the dreams and the nightmares, even as they bear witness to a lost world – in this case, the tumultuous, precarious world of Egypt in the first half of the twentieth century.
Zohar Zohar is born in 1925 to a blind father and a mother believed to be possessed by demons, in the Harat al-Yahud, or “Alley of the Jews,” the centuries-old neighborhood where modern medicine is non-existent, troubling events are explained as the work of supernatural nefarious forces, and gossip is the primary news outlet. Zohar is charismatic, resourceful, and daring. Too restless and quick-witted for school, he soon finds a way to earn money:
He assumed a trade known only to Cairo’s inhabitants –sabbarasgueya, which might
be translated as ‘untiring collector of cigarette butts’. He scoured the pavement,
foraging in gutters, a battered aluminum cup dangling from a string on his wrist. But
although all the others sold their harvest by weight to a boss who made other children
extract the old tobacco and roll new cigarettes in a shed, Zohar did all the work
himself. He managed the whole cycle, from gathering the raw material to packaging
the final product. Then he sold his cigarettes on the street at prices that defied all
It is this larger than life, thinking-on-your- feet resilience that will shape Zohar’s story, winning him rich and powerful friends, propelling him out of tight situations and turning misfortune into success. The novel, which was nominated for the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 2015, features a large and colorful cast of characters that come together in a panoramic vision of a lost place and time. Cairo itself is a vivid protagonist here, and though Nathan, a renowned Professor Emeritus of Psychology and the author of numerous novels and academic works, was expelled from Egypt (along with the entire Egyptian Jewish community) in 1957 at the age of nine, he skilfully evokes the feel of the city, with its rich history, singular geography, and multicultural mosaic of Muslims, Copts, Jews, Armenians, Greeks, European travelers, refugees, British colonialists and Nazis.
Winding through the narrative is Zohar’s lifelong relationship with Masreya, a dancer in Cairo’s nightclubs. Masriya is Zohar’s ‘milk twin’, as they were both nursed by her mother as infants. Despite severe warnings, the two are drawn to each other, becoming companions and lovers. Masryia’s charms and talents win her wealth, fame, and suitors in high places, including King Farouk himself. Other supporting characters include Joe − son of the wealthy Barron Ephraim Di Reggio − who becomes an avid Zionist, and Nino, a medical student and communist, who following his imprisonment, leaves Judaism and turns to radical Islam.
The book joins well-known accounts of the vibrant Egyptian Jewish community, and its exile and demise, such as Lucette Langado’s The Man in the White Sharksin Suit, and Andre Aciman’s Out of Egypt, yet it differs from these in that, as fiction, it is able to push boundaries of plausibility that challenge the limits of memoir. Like a levantine Forest Gump, Zohar has a knack for being in the right place at the right time, impressing and winning over the right people, and breaking rules while evading consequences.
Yet what is most winning about this book is the way it depicts the mindset of its characters in their specific place and time. Joyce Zonana’s superb translation from the French, for which she received a PEN Translation Fund Award, manages to convey the music and flavor of Arabic speech. Here, for example, are Zohar’s relatives discussing a German Jewish communist:
The year the Sphinx emerged from the sand was also the year the communists tried
to get a foothold in the Alley of the Jews. For several weeks, Joseph Rosenthal,
founder of the party, set himself up on the edge of the Mouski, in the café next to
the Nile Hotel. He accosted the men of the hara with a German accent you could
cut with a knife. “Proletarians, unite!” He handed out tracts written in Arabic
which he himself couldn’t read. And he used the French word for 'proletarian’.
"What does it mean, broletraires, what does it mean?" asked Uncle Doudou.
"You know,' Ellie replied. 'Rosenthal is a shlecht."
"A shlecht. What does that mean?"
"A shlecht is a Russian or German who doesn’t like semolina cake with honey."
"Can anyone not like basbouusa?"
"Huh? What are you talking about?"
"It’s true!" Elie explained. "Aunt Oro offered him a piece. He tasted it and then
spat it onto the ground saying, 'Shlecht shlecht!' Ever since, we call people like
And here is Zohar as an adult, in conversation with King Farouk:
...suddenly a thought crossed his mind. "But you haven’t said anything about your
sister." Zohar leant his face to one side. "My sister, Your Majesty?" He hesitated.
"What can I say? She’s walled up in sorrow. Someone who has once spoken with
angels no longer enjoys dialogue with her peers. She lives cloistered in her house
on Rhoda, and I fear—" He was silent a moment. "I even fear for her life, sire."
Masreya was still performing in the capital’s clubs. Her radiant face was plastered
on Cairo’s walls, touting the virtues of a French brand of soap. Her romantic
adventures with ministers and businessmen were regularly featured in news stories.
Zohar and Farouk both knew she was most certainly not shrouded in melancholy.
But that’s how Levantine speech moves—generous, sensitive to the desires of the
interlocutor, anticipating him, paving the way for him to move forward.
Zohar’s rollicking, high-spirited tale does not end well. It concludes with crazed mobs, riots, devastation, fires in the streets, hatred and murder. There is something heartbreaking in the way Nathan depicts the end of a community that existed for millenniums, watching the rise and fall of civilizations, even as it clung to its rhythms, texts and traditions.
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. Today, we are no longer there.
Not one remains… 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
Katherine E. Young