In A Land Like You, published by Seagull Books, author Tobie Nathan takes us to an Egypt that will be unfamiliar to most readers. First the book is told mainly from the perspective of Cairo’s Jewish community and secondly the events described take place roughly from the end of WWI to the early years of WWII.
We follow the fortunes of one family who live in the old Jewish quarter of Cairo, Haret al-Yahud. Aside from poverty the area is also rife with superstition and folk beliefs. As befits people who identify as having been part of Egypt since the times of Moses the poor Jews have assimilated many of their Arabic neighbours’ beliefs and superstitions.
So when young Esther is beset with fits and spells after a fall which cause her to pass out for no reason, the natural assumption is she’s being beset with demons, which her family refer to them by their Arabic name, Afrits. Nobody knows what to do about Esther, a strange child who gives advice to the neighbouring women about matters she should nothing about, until her blind cousin, Motty, asks for her hand in marriage.
In spit of their age difference, theirs is a happy marriage, save for one thing. They can’t seem to have children. Desperate for a child Esther turns to a secret ritual practiced by an Islamic sect that eventually sees her impregnated. However, Esther can’t produce milk to feed her son and the family recruits an Arabic dancer who has a new born daughter, and more than enough milk for two, to act as wet nurse.
According to the tales of the people milk siblings, children who share the same mother’s milk, are related even more closely than actual brother and sister. However, fate is fate, and when young Zohar and his milk sister Masreya meet again after being separated at two, it’s no surprise they are immediately attracted to each other in spite of the taboo.
While Nathan has created a story filled with magic and romance, drawing upon his familiarity with the folklore of the region, he has not ignored the realities of the times. For after the conclusion of WWI, and the liberation of the Middle East from the rule of the Ottoman Empire, Arab nationalists expected to be granted independence.
Unfortunately for the Egyptians the British didn’t seem in any hurry to follow through on their promises. So is it any wonder Arab nationalists in the 1930s were easily persuaded by the Germans they were the best chance for liberation and freedom?
Nathan not only conveys the events of the time, his story reflects its harsh realities. For not only are the streets of Cairo rife with plots an counterplots, the magic gradually seeps out of the story. The Afrits of the the book’s early pages are relegated to the back seat as troop movements and politics become more predominant. A world of beauty and magic is being crushed beneath the treads of tanks.
A Land Like You, by Tobie Nathan, is a wonderful and magical love story that brings to life an Egypt very few of us will recognize. Filled with amazing characters and glorious details of their lives and loves readers will be delighted by what they discover within the book’s pages.