A Land Like You
Cairo 1925, Haret al-Yahud, the old Jewish Quarter. Esther, a beautiful young woman believed to be possessed by demons, longs to give birth after seven blissful years of marriage. Her husband, blind since childhood, does not object when, in her effort to conceive, she participates in Muslim zar rituals. Zohar, the novel’s narrator, comes into the world, but because his mother’s breasts are dry, he is nursed by a Muslim peasant—also believed to be possessed—who has just given birth to a girl, Masreya. Suckled at the same breasts and united by a rabbi’s amulet, the milk-twins will be consumed by a passionate, earth-shaking love.
Part fantastical fable, part realistic history, A Land Like You draws on ethno-psychiatrist Tobie Nathan’s own Jewish Egyptian heritage and deep knowledge of North African folk beliefs to create a glittering tapestry in which spirit possession and religious mysticism exist side by side with sober facts about the British occupation of Egypt and the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood and the Free Officers’ Movement. Historical figures such as Gamel Abdel Nasser, Anwar Sadat, and King Farouk mingle with Nathan’s fictional characters in this riveting and revealing tale of an Egypt caught between tradition and modernity, multiculturalism and nationalism, oppression and freedom.
‘Set in the first half of the twentieth century, Tobie Nathan’s A Land Like You tells an interesting, poignant, and humorous generational tale of a family in Cairo’s fabled Jewish Quarter. Through the odysseys of his characters, Nathan, in his novel expressively rendered into English by Joyce Zonana, mirrors a once-thriving cosmopolitan nation ruled by a monarch and under British occupation.’—Alaa Al Aswany, author of The Yacoubian Building and The Automobile Club of Egypt
‘In this breathtaking mixed-genre fictionalized history and fantastical tale, Tobie Nathan 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. 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. Throughout, A Land Like You rejects the emerging idea that one cannot be both Jewish and Egyptian. In a kind of a metaphorical claim to indigeneity, the novel maintains a consistent lyrical homage to the land through the protagonist’s emphatic pronouncements that Egypt as umm al-dunya (the mother of the world) is also his mother. In this dazzling novel, French stands in, as it were, for Arabic, while also making tangible to the reader the linguistic syncretism as shaped in the wake of imperialism and postcolonial displacements—all rendered in Joyce Zonana’s masterful translation.’—Ella Shohat, author of Taboo Memories, Diasporic Voices
Praise for the French original
‘A magnificent novel . . . in which Tobie Nathan, nourished by his deep knowledge of ancient rites and traditions and his long intimacy with society’s outcasts, assumes the voice of the common people of Cairo.’—Le Monde
‘A bewitching fresco, embellished with pharaonic culture and orientalism, retracing the path of the author’s Egyptian childhood.’—L’Express
‘Tobie Nathan’s Egypt is prodigious. It is burning, loving, intrepid. It is made of men and women, mothers and fathers, child-kings and British soldiers. It is made of Egyptians and foreigners and stateless people. Of Arabs, Jews, and Copts. Of dates, pastries, and bread. It is made of the Nile, pyramids, and palaces. Of magic and tragedy.’—Le Point
‘A captivating tale that moves from street to street . . . from era to era . . . a world where Jews and Arabs lived together . . .’—Le Figaro
‘Tobie Nathan recreates an Egypt that is complex, luminous, sensual, multiple and eternal, subject to the vagaries of History, and whose echoes are current . . . An ode to the Egyptian land, to its inhabitants—humans or spirits—and most of all to its mothers, magicians and nurses.’—Sylvie Koneski, Parutions
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