A Land Like You

Tobie Nathan; Joyce Zonana, trans.

By – March 29, 2021

In his lat­est nov­el, A Land Like You (short-list­ed for the Prix Goncourt in 2015), Tobie Nathan has writ­ten a beau­ti­ful and immer­sive nov­el, plung­ing read­ers head­long into Egyp­t’s unique his­to­ry and extra­or­di­nary vari­ety of cul­tures. Nathan inter­weaves the worlds of the vol­u­ble Jews from Haret el Yahud—the Cairo Jew­ish Quar­ter — with those of the Mus­lims of Bab El Zuwey­la, along with the com­plex inter­na­tion­al com­mu­ni­ties that con­nect and divide them. Pro­pelled for­ward by vivid, unfor­get­table char­ac­ters, the lay­ers of polit­i­cal, his­toric, and mys­ti­cal Egypt tum­ble togeth­er into a rich mosa­ic, encom­pass­ing a peri­od of great change from 1918 to the 1950s.

With­in the crowd­ed Haret El Yahud, Esther, an orphaned child, suf­fers a trau­mat­ic acci­dent that reshapes her future. The trau­ma leaves Esther’s rel­a­tives, and the larg­er com­mu­ni­ty, con­vinced she is pos­sessed by alien spir­its and demons. Beau­ti­ful, wild, and ungovern­able, Esther clear­ly march­es to the beat of her own drum. Her inti­ma­cy with unseen forces com­mands con­ster­na­tion and respect, dis­tin­guish­ing her in the often claus­tro­pho­bic com­mu­ni­ty of Jews who inhab­it the twist­ed paths and teem­ing dwellings of the Haret El Yahud. For Jews and Arabs alike, reli­gious mys­ti­cism and close con­tact with the spir­it world imbues their dai­ly lives with won­der and dra­ma. Urged on by a mul­ti­tude of anx­ious rel­a­tives, Esther mar­ries at four­teen, and finds deep love and hap­pi­ness with Mot­ty, an old­er man, blind from birth. Sad­ly, the love between them pro­duces no child in sev­en years of mar­riage. Her quest for moth­er­hood even­tu­al­ly results in a son, Zohar, but she has no milk with which to feed him, so she seeks out a woman in the Mus­lim quar­ter who has recent­ly giv­en birth to a daugh­ter, Masreya.

Time and dis­tance sep­a­rate the milk-twins, until chance casts teenage Zohar into a desert vil­lage, where he comes upon Mas­reya — a tal­ent­ed dancer, an enig­mat­ic beau­ty. Not rec­og­niz­ing her, and not under­stand­ing the forces that bind and sep­a­rate them, he falls deeply in love with her. Inex­tri­ca­bly linked by des­tiny, they form a for­bid­den pas­sion­ate attach­ment that con­nects them as they inter­act with pil­lars of the Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty, the movers and shak­ers of the wartime British occu­pa­tion, and the young King Farouk among oth­er icon­ic figures.

A true tour-de-force, the nov­el is deeply embed­ded in the human­i­ty of its char­ac­ters, his­toric and imag­ined. The sto­ry holds the read­er in thrall from begin­ning to end. The nov­el is dri­ven by the many unfor­get­table per­son­al­i­ties, leap­ing from splen­did palaces of the rich and famous, to the hid­den pas­sage­ways of the Jew­ish and Arab quar­ters. At the cen­ter of it all are Zohar and Mas­reya. This mul­ti­fac­eted sto­ry is fueled by pas­sion and pol­i­tics, burst­ing with sen­su­al­i­ty, where char­ac­ters must nav­i­gate tur­bu­lent sce­nar­ios of love and death. It incor­po­rates mys­ti­cism, mag­ic real­ism, and the beliefs of a diverse pop­u­lace through gen­er­a­tions of interconnectivity.

Decades lat­er, Zohar is final­ly sev­ered from Egypt; that land of con­tra­dic­tions, beau­ty, and pos­si­bil­i­ty spits him out into an alien world. Ulti­mate­ly, his sto­ry also serves as a bril­liant metaphor for the Dias­po­ra as a whole. Like many oth­er Jew­ish exiles through­out his­to­ry, Zohar feels deeply attuned to a coun­try that ejects him nonethe­less; he is left with the sounds and scents of the lost world, and the expe­ri­ences and his­to­ries that came togeth­er in him but are almost impos­si­ble to rec­on­cile or to communicate.

This is a riv­et­ing nov­el — a must-read. Not only is it a sto­ry of great beau­ty and lyri­cism, but also it has been superbly trans­lat­ed from French into Eng­lish by Joyce Zonana, so that the essence of mean­ing — both lit­er­al and esthet­ic — reach­es the read­er in all its power.

Discussion Questions

Cour­tesy of Joyce Zonana

  1. Tobie Nathan is an eth­no-psy­chi­a­trist, com­mit­ted to hon­or­ing the belief sys­tems of diverse pop­u­la­tions. Ear­ly in A Land Like You, we learn that the Jews of Haret al-Yahud believe in mag­ic and demons. What instances of mag­ic or pos­ses­sion occur through­out the nov­el, and what do you think about them?

  2. Even while there is all this mag­ic and mys­ti­cism, there are also ter­ri­bly real his­tor­i­cal events and char­ac­ters. What did you think of this min­gling of the fan­tas­tic” and the real”? Which has more influ­ence on the char­ac­ters’ fates? What will you remember?

  3. Ear­ly on, Esther says about Mus­lims, Our tales fill their Qur’an, their tongue fills our mouths,” and asks Why are they not us? Why are we not them?” What does she mean by this? Does the nov­el bear out her obser­va­tion? How does the rela­tion between Jews and Mus­lims in the nov­el com­pare to the rela­tion of Jews and Mus­lims in your com­mu­ni­ty and the larg­er world today?

  4. Although both Mus­lim and Jew­ish cul­tures in Egypt are decid­ed­ly patri­ar­chal, the nov­el fea­tures many very strong, deter­mined women, includ­ing Esther, Oum Jinane, Mas­reya, and the kudiya. How do you feel about these women and the lives they lead?

  5. Zohar is named after one of the most impor­tant books of Jew­ish mys­ti­cism: The Zohar, trans­lat­ed as the splen­dor.” Masreya’s name lit­er­al­ly means the female Egypt­ian.” How do their names play a role in the sto­ry that unfolds between and around them?

  6. Why is Nino drawn, first to Egypt­ian Nation­al­ism, and then to jihad in alliance with the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood? How do you feel about his transformation?

  7. What about Joe’s attrac­tion to Zion­ism? Does it make sense to you? How do you feel about his ulti­mate fate and the way it is portrayed?

  8. Although Nino becomes an Arab nation­al­ist and Joe becomes a Zion­ist, Zohar is just Zohar, Zohar Zohar.” Why do you think the author makes him so apo­lit­i­cal? Is this a flaw or a virtue for him? A prob­lem or a solution?

  9. Sev­er­al times in the nov­el, there are warn­ings about the ulti­mate fate of Egypt­ian Jews. Why do you think the author puts these warn­ings into his sto­ry, and why do you think his char­ac­ters ignore these warnings?

  10. The sto­ry is told by Zohar as an old man, liv­ing in Paris and look­ing back on his life in Egypt. How does this frame influ­ence the sto­ry you read? What does the char­ac­ter feel about his ulti­mate depar­ture from Egypt? How is the title of the nov­el significant?

  11. What did you know about the Jews of Egypt before read­ing A Land Like You? How did this nov­el influ­ence or increase your under­stand­ing of their lives and their his­tor­i­cal sit­u­a­tion? What ques­tions does it leave you with?