Click here to see larg­er image. Image by Kather­ine Messenger

This is the bread of afflic­tion which our ances­tors ate in the land of Egypt,” we read in the Hag­gadah, which tells the sto­ry of the Jews’ bib­li­cal exo­dus from a coun­try where they had risen to be Pharaon­ic coun­selors and end­ed as slaves. The exis­tence of Jews in Egypt — and lit­er­a­ture con­cern­ing it — stretch­es far into the past. It is also inex­tri­ca­ble from loss and exile.

As Adi­na Hoff­man and Peter Cole relate in Sacred Trash, the Cairo Geniza — a trove of doc­u­ments and reli­gious texts dis­card­ed by Cairo’s Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty — was dis­cov­ered in an attic above the Ibn Ezra Syn­a­gogue in 1896. These doc­u­ments, which attest to a thou­sand-year span of Jew­ish life in North Africa and the East­ern Mediter­ranean, have inspired mod­ern-day writ­ers to exam­ine over­looked eras of the region. Schol­ar Eve Krakows­ki, for exam­ple, has used them to recon­struct the life of ado­les­cent Jew­ish girls in Egypt in medieval times.

The 1700s saw an influx of Jew­ish immi­grants — some from Europe, oth­ers from Syr­ia, Turkey, Iraq, and else­where in the Mid­dle East — who set­tled in Cairo and Alexan­dria. Many of them embraced Egypt­ian nation­al­i­ty, and enjoyed com­fort and oppor­tu­ni­ty for gen­er­a­tions. Jacque­line Shohet Kahanoff, born in 1917 in Cairo, grew up at a time when the coun­try was still home to a plu­ral­is­tic, cos­mopoli­tan soci­ety. Although she emi­grat­ed when she was in her twen­ties, she remained deeply attached to her Egypt­ian ori­gins. For the young pro­tag­o­nist of her unfin­ished nov­el Tam­ra, the three tri­an­gles of the pyra­mids, out­lined against the sky, or dim­ly per­ceived through a veil of haze” have become a source of nos­tal­gia, link­ing her to a more dis­tant past: because at the dawn of his­to­ry her own Hebrew ances­tors had been so dra­mat­i­cal­ly involved in Egypt, she felt this world clos­er to her than any in which she had lived in so tran­sient a manner.”

Nos­tal­gia is also a pre­dom­i­nant emo­tion in lit­er­a­ture writ­ten by Jews who were forced to leave the coun­try decades lat­er. My own pater­nal ances­tors were among those who set­tled in Egypt in the 1700s. Seat­ed at our seder table in Cairo in the mid-twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry, my fam­i­ly nev­er con­sid­ered the Hag­gadah prophet­ic. But in 1956, the reli­gious free­dom and diver­si­ty encour­aged dur­ing the Ottoman occu­pa­tion of Egypt van­ished. With­in a few years after the Suez Cri­sis, approx­i­mate­ly 25,000 Jews were expelled from or fled the coun­try, many los­ing their Egypt­ian pass­ports as well as the land they con­sid­ered home.

Nos­tal­gia is also a pre­dom­i­nant emo­tion in lit­er­a­ture writ­ten by Jews who were forced to leave the coun­try decades later.

Intent on gain­ing a new foothold in the world, Jew­ish refugees from Egypt focused on rebuild­ing their lives — main­tain­ing scat­tered fam­i­ly con­nec­tions and cling­ing to famil­iar rit­u­als while find­ing homes and careers. At first, many were unable emo­tion­al­ly to look back. But as the years went by, we felt a grow­ing need to pre­serve the mem­o­ries that made each of us who we are — and made Egypt what it once was.

Until I read AndréAci­man’s mem­oir, Out of Egypt, I’d nev­er encoun­tered a book that reflect­ed the world of my child­hood to me. I mar­veled at the beau­ty and evoca­tive ener­gy of Aciman’s writ­ing. Lat­er I dis­cov­ered oth­er books that gave me a new sense of the com­plex social, eco­nom­ic, and cul­tur­al diver­si­ty that informed the Jew­ish Egypt­ian expe­ri­ence, such as Joyce Zonana’s Dream Homes, Luci­enne Carasso’s Grow­ing Up Jew­ish in Alexan­dria, and Yitzhak Gormezano Goren’s Alexan­dri­an Sum­mer.

For Amer­i­can read­ers, one of the most impact­ful books on the sub­ject has been Lucette Lagnado’s best­selling mem­oir The Man in the White Shark­skin Suit.Born in Cairo the year of the Suez Cri­sis, Lagna­do immi­grat­ed to New York when she was a young child, and even­tu­al­ly became a reporter for The Wall Street Jour­nal. Her mem­oir about her father high­lights the pain of exile for those who had been thrown into a con­text for which they had no lan­guage. It also intro­duced read­ers to a Sephardic his­to­ry of which many peo­ple were unaware.

Poets of the Jew­ish Egypt­ian dias­po­ra have also described the anguish of expul­sion. Edmond Jabès, for exam­ple — whose family’s roots in Egypt stretched back to the fif­teenth cen­tu­ry — was among those who left Cairo for France in 1956. His lat­er work reflect­ed a deep sense of melan­choly, and the real­iza­tion that exile is a per­ma­nent state of mind for Jews no mat­ter their ori­gins or cur­rent home.

His lat­er work reflect­ed a deep sense of melan­choly, and the real­iza­tion that exile is a per­ma­nent state of mind for Jews no mat­ter their ori­gins or cur­rent home.

Jew­ish Egypt­ian lit­er­a­ture rev­els in the taste and scent of food. Lagna­do recounts that her Syr­i­an grand­moth­er believed apri­cots were the fruit of God” and fla­vored near­ly every dish she cooked with their tangy sweet­ness; both Lagna­do and Aci­man remem­ber eat­ing pas­tries in Cairo’s cafes. The most icon­ic Jew­ish food writer to have emerged from Egypt is undoubt­ed­ly Clau­dia Roden. Although many of her cook­books are wide in geo­graph­ic reach, Roden acknowl­edges the impor­tance that her for­ma­tive years in Egypt had on her career. In The New Book of Mid­dle East­ern Food, she explains that the Egypt­ian megadar­ra (rice, lentils, and caramelized onions) was known as Esau’s favorite.” It was a favorite in our house­hold as well as in hers; my grand­moth­er from Dam­as­cus pro­nounced it muju­dra,” and ate it with yogurt.

One of the most deeply evoca­tive nov­els about Egypt from the past few years is Michael David Lukas’s The Last Watch­man of Old Cairo. Inter­twin­ing plot­lines from three dif­fer­ent eras, it fol­lows Jew­ish, Mus­lim, and Chris­t­ian char­ac­ters con­nect­ed to the Ibn Ezra Syn­a­gogue and its extra­or­di­nary geniza. In addi­tion to the country’s unique mix of reli­gions and cul­tures, Lukas con­veys the mag­ic that draws those who left to dream of Egypt still — the Egypt each of us knew and loved, the Egypt that is often entan­gled with the warmth of home, the mys­ter­ies of child­hood, and the desire for what is past and will nev­er return.