The author’s moth­er on horse­back in front of the pyramids. 

What kind of a Jew are you? ” My lit­tle class­mates in 1950s Brook­lyn would chal­lenge me when I con­fessed that my par­ents didn’t speak Yid­dish, I’d nev­er tast­ed gefilte fish, and we spoke French and Ara­bic at home.

Egypt­ian,” I’d stam­mer. We’re Egypt­ian Jews,” though my answer mys­ti­fied me as much as it did them.

There are no Egypt­ian Jews,” would come the inevitable retort. All the Jews left Egypt with Moses. Isn’t that what Passover is about?”

I knew no oth­er Jews from Egypt aside from a hand­ful of rel­a­tives, and my par­ents were reluc­tant to speak about their past. I knew only that they’d left their home in Cairo in 1951, cor­rect­ly fear­ing that with the estab­lish­ment of the State of Israel and the con­cur­rent rise of Arab nation­al­ism there would be no future for us there. I was eigh­teen months old at the time. All I retained of our life in Egypt was the imprint of my par­ents’ grief and fear; theirs was a break that brooked no back­ward glances.

And so I grew up hun­gry for sto­ries, for some tan­gi­ble link to our ori­gins; I was met with a void. In school we read books by Amer­i­can and British writ­ers; on the streets I played with Ashke­nazi Jew­ish and Irish and Ital­ian Catholic chil­dren. Unable to find my reflec­tion, I flung myself into full-on assim­i­la­tion: I would mas­ter the Eng­lish lan­guage, I would eat bagels and cream cheese and lox, I would become Amer­i­can. Even­tu­al­ly I earned a Ph.D. in Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture and moved to Nor­man, Okla­homa, for my first teach­ing job. There I found myself still lame­ly explain­ing what kind of a Jew I was, even as I began my more delib­er­ate quest to learn our his­to­ry — and to share that his­to­ry with others.

Amer­i­ca in the sec­ond half of the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry was drenched in the lit­er­a­ture of Ashke­nazi Jews, with sto­ries about the Holo­caust, shtetl life, grow­ing up Jew­ish in Chica­go, Brook­lyn, or Newark. Where was our lit­er­a­ture? Where were our sto­ries about Arab-Jew­ish lives in North Africa? (I hadn’t heard then about Jacque­line Kahanoff or Edmond Jabès, bril­liant Egypt­ian Jew­ish authors who nev­er made it into the main­stream.) Where were the tales that described what hap­pened to our com­mu­ni­ties? Why were there no cel­e­brat­ed Egypt­ian, Moroc­can, or Alger­ian Jew­ish writ­ers, like the Pol­ish, Ger­man, and Russ­ian Jew­ish authors who’d gained such well-deserved acclaim?

The author’s grand­par­ents, aunts, and uncles on a bal­cony in Cairo.

At long last, in 1993, André Aci­man pub­lished Out of Egypt, and it seemed we’d final­ly gained a seat at the table of Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture. But Aciman’s ele­gant mem­oir — about a wealthy, eccen­tric, cos­mopoli­tan fam­i­ly in Alexan­dria — did not ful­ly res­onate with what I’d gleaned of my family’s more mod­est and con­ven­tion­al lives in Cairo.

Gini Alhadeff’s beau­ti­ful 1997 The Sun at Mid­day: Tales of a Mediter­ranean Fam­i­ly also seemed dis­tant to me in its focus on a rich, world­ly, Alexan­dri­an clan whose mem­bers con­vert­ed to Catholicism.

I grew up hun­gry for sto­ries, for some tan­gi­ble link to our ori­gins; I was met with a void.

I decid­ed I had to write our sto­ry myself. I ques­tioned my par­ents and rel­a­tives. I insist­ed they speak to me and I began to piece togeth­er the frag­ments they shared. I trav­eled to Cairo and breathed the air, walked the streets that formed the back­drop of their lives. I read every­thing I could get my hands on. My mem­oir Dream Homes: From Cairo to Kat­ri­na, an Exile’s Jour­ney was pub­lished in 2008, around the same time as Lucette Lagnado’s The Man in the White Shark­skin Suit. More mem­oirs and a few nov­els fol­lowed, includ­ing Jean Naggar’s evoca­tive Sip­ping from the Nile, and most recent­ly her Foot­prints on the Heart. We were begin­ning not only to have a place at the table, but also to be set­ting the table ourselves.

Yet it wasn’t until I came across Tobie Nathan’s 2015 Ce pays qui te ressem­bleA Land Like Youthat I found my true lit­er­ary home, the deep, mir­ror­ing con­nec­tion I’d sought since child­hood. The nov­el ful­ly immersed me in the life of Cairo in the first half of the twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry — my par­ents’ Cairo — in all its allur­ing, con­tra­dic­to­ry, mad­den­ing fer­vor. Nathan, an eth­no-psy­chi­a­trist whose fam­i­ly left Egypt in 1957 when he was nine, had pre­vi­ous­ly pub­lished an award-win­ning mem­oir, Eth­no-roman. Although A Land Like You, was a wild­ly fic­tion­al free imag­in­ing of his par­ents’ milieu, it seemed to con­tain more truth than all the metic­u­lous­ly researched, nos­tal­gic mem­oirs put together.

Per­haps because it was writ­ten in French, my first lan­guage, the nov­el brought me back to my ear­li­est days, to the dense­ly tex­tured world my par­ents car­ried with­in them and con­veyed to me despite their efforts to leave it behind. In Nathan’s char­ac­ters, I heard and saw the speech and ges­tures of my own loud­ly expres­sive, for­ev­er med­dling, con­stant­ly teas­ing rel­a­tives. This was not the gen­teel lit­er­ary French I’d stud­ied in high school and col­lege, but the spo­ken French of our fam­i­ly — a col­lo­qui­al French inflect­ed with Ara­bic, Ital­ian, and Hebrew. This was a French that sac­ri­ficed ele­gance and cor­rect­ness for direct­ness and can­dor. From the first scene where a young Jew­ish woman pre­pares ful mudammas, the ubiq­ui­tous fava bean stew we savored every Sun­day in our home, I was hooked.

I imme­di­ate­ly deter­mined that this would be my next project as an emerg­ing lit­er­ary trans­la­tor: I would bring Tobie Nathan’s exhil­a­rat­ing recre­ation of ear­ly twen­ti­eth-cen­tu­ry Egypt to an Eng­lish-speak­ing audi­ence. Despite the chal­lenges — find­ing a pub­lish­er, choos­ing the right words, reach­ing an audi­ence — I nev­er doubt­ed that this was a task meant pre­cise­ly for me.

The nov­el more than ful­filled its ini­tial, tan­ta­liz­ing promise. In its pages I met rab­bis and sheikhas, dancers and zbib-drinkers, peas­ants and pashas, heroes and vil­lains. I heard the sounds of Egypt­ian music and smelled the scents of Egypt­ian spices; I felt warm breezes along the Nile and was daz­zled by the desert sun. I encoun­tered the real his­tor­i­cal fig­ures and events that deter­mined my family’s fate, even while I shared the dreams and dai­ly lives of the most ordi­nary folk.

I heard the sounds of Egypt­ian music and smelled the scents of Egypt­ian spices; I felt warm breezes along the Nile and was daz­zled by the desert sun.

More than any­thing, Nathan in this nov­el is a fab­u­list, fab­ri­cat­ing fan­tas­ti­cal tales — like the infi­nite sto­ries in the Thou­sand and One Nights, or the haunt­ing fic­tions of Isaac Bashe­vis Singer — that play along the bor­ders of belief while ren­der­ing time­less truths. The novel’s cen­tral char­ac­ters live in the hara, the nar­row, wind­ing alleys of Cairo’s ancient Jew­ish quar­ter; they are poor, indige­nous Jews who wor­ship in crum­bling syn­a­gogues and implore their rab­bis to craft pro­tec­tive amulets and expel demons. Their pres­ence in Egypt goes back cen­turies and might well have gone on for cen­turies to come, had not the world stage changed. As Nathan’s nar­ra­tor pro­claims, these Jews are Knead­ed from the Nile’s mud, the same dark col­or, native.” They live side by side with Mus­lims, know­ing they could well be one: Our tales fill their Qur’an, their tongue fills our mouth. Why are they not us? Why are we not them?”

My own fam­i­ly immi­grat­ed to Egypt from Syr­ia and Iraq in the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry. We nev­er lived in the hara, hard­ly asso­ci­at­ed with non-Jews, and spoke more French than Ara­bic. But as Nathan asserts in Eth­no-roman, no mat­ter where we came from or when we arrived in Egypt, no mat­ter how we dressed or how we spoke, the ancient hara—for all the Jews of Egypt — is our ori­gin, notre source.”

Nathan means source” in the sense of a liv­ing spring, the place where we find the strength to regen­er­ate our­selves,” the place where we are indis­sol­ubly bound to the land and its peo­ple. And as he fur­ther spec­i­fies, If one does not know one’s ori­gin, or play a part in it, cul­ti­vate it, then it will with­er away and dry up like a spring.… It’s not just the past that makes ori­gins, but also the present and the future.”

As I read and re-read Nathan’s book — near­ly com­mit­ting all its 340 pages to mem­o­ry — I found myself drink­ing dai­ly from this refresh­ing source, bathing in it actu­al­ly. A Land Like You grant­ed me the his­to­ry that his­to­ry denied me. In shar­ing it now with oth­ers, my hope is to keep that his­to­ry alive, so that no one will ever again need to ask me what kind of a Jew I am. With Nathan and his pro­tag­o­nist I can now proud­ly say, Although I left Egypt, Egypt nev­er left me.” In this one small way I hope to have helped Egypt­ian Jew­ish lit­er­a­ture flow into the main­stream of Anglo­phone cul­ture, allow­ing our rich, nur­tur­ing tales to flour­ish beside those of our beloved Yid­dishkeit cousins.

Joyce Zonana is an award-win­ning writer and lit­er­ary trans­la­tor, born in Cairo, Egypt, and liv­ing in New York. Her mem­oir, Dream Homes: From Cairo to Kat­ri­na, An Exile’s Jour­ney, recounts her own expe­ri­ence grow­ing up as an immi­grant in New York City. A Land Like You is her third translation.