A Land Like You

Tobie Nathan, Joyce Zonana (trans­la­tor)

  • Review
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