‘A Land Like You’ by Tobie Nathan: An Excerpt

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.

Translated by Joyce Zonana

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An Excerpt

Haret al-Yahud

Egyptians are cannibals. Consider a fava bean—study it well. You’ll see how much it looks like a foetus. Since antiquity, Egyptians have been fava-eaters, foetus-eaters. My mother’s name was Esther. She must have eaten thousands of foetuses before finally becoming pregnant . . .

Esther rose before dawn, as she did every morning. She made coffee by candlelight, black coffee, very black, in a kanaka, the little brass coffee pot with the long handle. Then she prepared ful. With a fork, she mashed boiled favas while ladling on oil and adding little bits of hard-boiled egg. She brought her face close: the fragrance of a happy morning. It wasn’t every day they could have favas and eggs for breakfast. Usually, it was a plain crust of bread and a cup of nearly translucent tea. But the night before, she’d stopped by to see her Aunt Maleka, who’d insisted. Of course, Esther had refused—they weren’t beggars after all. Out of pride, yes, but not just that—out of politeness as well. You never accepted gifts without being forced. First the other person had to stuff something into your pocket, to pretend to be angry, to swear it was a question of life and honour: ‘For the love of God, you have to take these favas—you have to!’ ‘But never! We don’t need them!’ ‘I swear you won’t leave here until—.’ It was only then, as if unwillingly, and after several offers, several refusals, that you agreed to accept anything. Sophisticated etiquette that grants the greatest generosity to the receiver. Thanks to this haggling, Esther had returned home with a basketful of dried favas, dates, coffee and apricot paste, the sweet we used to call qamar al-din, ‘moon of faith’.

She hadn’t admitted any of this to Motty, her husband. He would have been angry, she was sure of it. He might have stormed out, slamming the door. He’d done it before. And she would have had to seek him through the alleys of the Mouski. She was wild with anxiety whenever he went out alone. So she’d silently put the supplies away and waited for him to fall asleep before soaking the favas; later, she’d cooked them by the dawn’s first gleams.

She arranged everything on a tray and sat down beside the bed, waiting for the meal’s fragrance to filter into her husband’s dream. She sat still, her eyes unfocused, thinking back to last night’s sorrow. For the first time ever, Motty had been silent the entire evening. A tear had even rolled down his cheek. She knew what was troubling him—nothing good. A couple, she knew, owed its existence solely to joy. And she had to admit that during their seven years of marriage they’d had their share.

At twenty-one, Esther was a woman. Her breasts and buttocks bouncing under her light cotton gown; her brown hair with reddish highlights cascading like an Amazon’s over her shoulders; her open face; her fresh, blooming lips; her way of walking, as if her feet floated a few inches above the ground. Oh, she could drive men wild! But she didn’t mean to, for, when it came to men, Esther thought only of her own. In all of Haret al-Yahud—the Jewish Quarter known as the ‘Alley of the Jews’ or simply the hara—no one was happily married. People married because they breathed, because they walked, because they ate favas and onions, because it was time. These two had married like all the rest, but they’d been granted love as a bonus, truly a gift from God.