[Seagull Books; 2021]
Tr. from the French by Joyce Zonana
Tobie Nathan’s A Land Like You is a busy novel. A paragraph or two of history hems in each scene of the fictional narrative. That narrative spans two generations and dozens of characters, from Oum Jinane, the mystical chanteuse who breastfeeds both of the younger generation’s star-crossed lovers, Zohar and Masreya, to King Farouk of Egypt, the actual tenth ruler of Egypt and Sudan in the lineage of Muhammad Ali. The folklorish first half starts in 1925, outlining the story of Esther, the matriarch of the novel, and her path to marrying the blind and equally enchanted Motty and becoming a mother to Zohar thanks to some Arab occultism. The second half follows Zohar as a young entrepreneur. His ventures throughout a modernizing Cairo guide us through an economically and politically tumultuous decade and a half, until the novel ends in the 1950s, as the characters settle into the post-war world. This expansiveness gives the novel the feel of a 700-page epic in almost exactly half that count.
Given that breadth, it’s perhaps unsurprising that Zohar, the novel’s protagonist, doesn’t show up until well after 100 pages, at roughly a third of the novel. For that matter, at no point does one character’s perspective really take over the narrative for any sustained period — Esther dominates the first 100-plus pages, and Zohar the latter parts. But even as a community binding agent, Zohar is frequently doing that work remotely, providing context for other characters’ meetings and actions rather than being directly involved in their affairs. This has to be the case though as the characters grow apart; the ultimate tragedy of the novel is the intense segmentation of the population based on religion and ethnicity during World War II, which bends and eventually breaks many of Zohar’s relationships. In the end, there’s no way to pursue joy without the dark clouds of socioeconomics, politics, and religion raining on everyone’s picnic.
All of this breadth and historical detail could leave the novel without an emotional core — and you could still put together a small argument that this is the case — but the center of the tale is really Haret al-Yahud, the Jewish Quarter in Cairo known as the “Alley of the Jews,” or simply the hara. It’s the setting for the first 100 pages, and every character and theme can ultimately be tied back to this Jewish bubble: “All those who’d once carried their bundles in Haret al-Yahud, some in antiquity, others five hundred years or barely a generation ago and who were now making their way in Egyptian society. For it must be said that the Jews of Egypt, those in wool suits as much as the idlers in galabias, all came from the same cesspool, those few narrow streets crammed with synagogues and saints’ tombs, known as the hara, the alley.”
Within Haret al-Yahud, in the first part of the novel, the characters count on mystical protections and poetic justice to fulfill their destinies. This is evidenced by the demons that overtake Esther at times, like when she gets her first period: “A new crisis arose when she [Esther] got her first period. She lost consciousness, and this time no dog showed up to drag her back from the world of the dead.” Or when she has money stolen from her: “The hundred piastres Aunt Adina had stolen from Esther — had they reappeared in the form of spots on her body? The women counted them. There were indeed a hundred — exactly one hundred.”
In the latter half, with the love story between Zohar and Masreya at the heart of the narrative, there are very real sociopolitical stakes surrounding them, preventing them from enjoying any sustained periods of contentedness. Egypt is too busy fracturing into various camps for or against the Nazis — and in turn, against or for the British, whose military forces moved in for a while to secure an Allied relationship. By placing early scenes in the book in the alley’s dark mystical corners of folklore, grounded by the loyalty of the community in Haret al-Yahud, Nathan sets up a contrast with the shady characters lurking beyond the alley, in the economic and political halls of the city. And as World War II forces the country to make decisions about its future and its alliances, the city’s diverse populations fracture.
Zohar’s two best friends (and business partners) come to represent two endpoints on this spectrum of political reactions. Nino turns to Islam and offers a zealous jihadist pitch to Zohar. Joe becomes a communist and provides a more economically and civically minded counterpoint to Nino, one that paints the economic realities of Haret al-Yahud in a Marxist light: “Nino explained to Zohar the reasons for his poverty: ninety-five percent 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.”
And as these views diverge, Nathan takes a distinctly capitalistic focus in some of his runs of historical context. Making an appearance are all sorts of greedy types, looking to manipulate the king and grift off all of the military spending coming into the country. These are capitalism’s not-so-mystical demons. There’s “the imposing Joseph Asla de Cattaoui Pasha, King Fouad’s old Minister of Finance and president of the Jewish community,” and “the prince of finance, Salvatore Cicurel Bey, one of the owners and managers of Cicurel Department Stores in Cairo, who made heads turn when he sat at the wheel of his electric-blue, sixteen-cylinder, late-model Cadillac convertible, just like the president of the United States.” The list goes on: there’s a financier Daniel Curiel; Raymond di Piciotto, “another baron,”; industrial magnate Isaac Levi; the “celebrated” Mosseri bankers; and a few more. But for all of Zohar’s entrepreneurial instincts and successes, he clings to simpler days and hopes he and his friends can go back to making money selling their Blue Water without outside forces complicating things. He wants a bubble, he wants what Haret al-Yahud provided his parents.
All of these different threads, some historical, some religious, some mystical, some economic — they all intertwine to create a richly layered look at a fascinating time in Cairo’s modern history. In the center of it all, Zohar’s relatability stems from those attempts to cling to the traditions and comforts of community established through his parents’ experiences early in the novel in Haret al-Yahud. While the city around him fractured, “[Zohar] tried to throw a veil over the disintegration of the world around him.” But Cairo is not the bubble that Haret al-Yahud was for his parents, and Zohar eventually finds himself alone in unfamiliar surroundings, having learned the lesson provided just a hundred pages earlier by his father: “My eyes that don’t see teach me what is permanent in the world. That’s what you must cling to, my son. There where life is eternal.”
Justin Stephani is an editor and writer living in Milwaukee.