Foot­prints on the Heart

  • Review
By – June 15, 2020

What hap­pens to peo­ple forced into exile? How do dif­fer­ent indi­vid­u­als react and deal with their new sta­tus as immi­grants? Jean Naggar’s Foot­prints on the Heart explores the decades long sto­ry of two fam­i­lies who are thrust into such life alter­ing events.

Aldo and Eliane Mizrahi and their sev­en­teen-year-old son, Sol, are wealthy Egypt­ian Jews liv­ing a priv­i­leged life in Cairo where their ances­tors have thrived for gen­er­a­tions. When Nass­er annex­es the Suez Canal in 1956 and Israel sides with the British and French, Egypt­ian Jews find them­selves in a pre­car­i­ous posi­tion. The ten­sion-filled ter­ri­fy­ing atmos­phere cul­mi­nates in the Jews’ expul­sion. They must leave their homes and lifestyles with only a suit­case and a pass­port that will soon be revoked. The Mizrahis spend a mis­er­able, anx­ious, and unnerv­ing time in a run­down Parisian hotel before even­tu­al­ly locat­ing to New York. Eliane finds pur­pose and tal­ent in her work as she steadi­ly and patient­ly suc­ceeds and embraces her new life. Aldo is bro­ken and is nev­er able to cope with what he has left behind. Sol, a great believ­er in the Amer­i­can can-do spir­it, thrives in his new country.

Jami­la, the eldest of Sal­wa and Sadik’s many chil­dren, leads a sim­ple poor life in her tiny Egypt­ian upper Nile vil­lage. She spends her days tend­ing to the oth­er chil­dren, watch­ing the goats with her friend Walid, and roam­ing the Nile’s banks with her broth­er Ali, all the while know­ing she will be promised to an old man in mar­riage, endure harm­ful bod­i­ly rites, and live a life of lit­tle hope or mobility.

Malv­ina, an Amer­i­can mod­el­ing agency own­er, vis­its Jamila’s vil­lage while sight­see­ing. She imme­di­ate­ly rec­og­nizes the mod­el­ing poten­tial in the love­ly green-eyed exot­ic beau­ty of Jami­la. Malv­ina cham­pi­ons Jamila’s cause and per­suades her par­ents to let her go back to New York with her. Sal­wa rec­og­nizes the oppor­tu­ni­ty for a dif­fer­ent life being afford­ed to her daugh­ter. Jami­la is trou­bled, ter­ri­fied, and yet excit­ed by what lies ahead. She spends many years won­der­ing about her for­mer life, fam­i­ly, and friends even as she acquires a new glam­orous exis­tence in exile.

Jami­la (now renamed as the famous mod­el, Jas­mine) and Sol both go on to great suc­cess. Their sto­ries, which more than coin­ci­den­tal­ly began in Egypt, lat­er inter­sect and mesh by both hap­pen­stance and fate. Their con­nec­tions lie at the heart of the plot.

Oth­er char­ac­ters, epit­o­miz­ing the immi­grant expe­ri­ence, are intro­duced through­out the nov­el. Many suc­ceed and pros­per through sheer deter­mi­na­tion and per­sis­tence while oth­ers floun­der and strug­gle with the trau­ma of los­ing their past lives.

The author was born and raised in Egypt and the nov­el mir­rors some of her own expe­ri­ences. Her pre­vi­ous book, Sip­ping from the Nile, chron­i­cles her life in Cairo. Read­ers will enjoy the his­tor­i­cal con­tent of the Jew­ish Egypt­ian expe­ri­ence, the years of Farouk and Nass­er, the begin­nings of the Mus­lim Broth­er­hood, the Suez Canal cri­sis, and the once hope­ful Arab Spring. Nag­gar also address­es the class con­flicts in Egypt­ian and Amer­i­can soci­eties and their reper­cus­sions. A use­ful glos­sary of Egypt­ian terms and words is also included.

The beau­ti­ful lan­guage and exten­sive descrip­tive details evoke the sights, smells, and tastes of old Cairo, Paris, and New York. There are har­row­ing scenes of the chaos play­ing out on 9/11 at the World Trade Cen­ter and the ter­ror of being caught in Tahrir Square when the Arab Spring demon­stra­tions turn dead­ly. There are also fun juicy items about the New York social scene, the mod­el­ing indus­try, and the world of fashion.

This is a rich­ly woven and mov­ing sto­ry. At times, the plot may seem a bit too pre­dictable, but the char­ac­ters’ imper­fect lives and their truths pro­vide the read­er with an emo­tion­al­ly grip­ping and sat­is­fy­ing storyline.

This is a nar­ra­tive of loss and hope and love and strength.

Reni­ta Last is a mem­ber of the Nas­sau Region of Hadassah’s Exec­u­tive Board. She has coor­di­nat­ed the Film Forum Series for the Region and served as Pro­gram­ming and Health Coor­di­na­tors and as a mem­ber of the Advo­ca­cy Committee.

She has vol­un­teered as a docent at the Holo­caust Memo­r­i­al and Tol­er­ance Cen­ter of Nas­sau Coun­ty teach­ing the all- impor­tant lessons of the Holo­caust and tol­er­ance. A retired teacher of the Gift­ed and Tal­ent­ed, she loves par­tic­i­pat­ing in book clubs and writ­ing projects.

Discussion Questions