"The events precipitated by the nationalization of the Suez Canal in 1956 spun the Egyptian Jews relentlessly out of their comfortable homes and influential positions and scattered them around the globe. To that privileged community, the crisis had exploded with the force of an asteroid colliding with the earth, destroying the work of many generations and forcing many lives, including mine, out of what had appeared to be their destined path." These words are the crux of this family history, written by someone whose idyllic youth was fractured by international events, ethnic hatreds, and ancient religious divides.
"SIPPING FROM THE NILE is a lush reminiscence of her childhood, a time when she lived in peaceful security among her relatives and friends, multicultural, multilingual Sephardic Jews with ties to Europe as well as to the Middle East."
Jean Naggar, now a grandmother, poet, literary agent and author living in New York, was born in Alexandria, Egypt. SIPPING FROM THE NILE is a lush reminiscence of her childhood, a time when she lived in peaceful security among her relatives and friends, multicultural, multilingual Sephardic Jews with ties to Europe as well as to the Middle East. “I took for granted the majesty of my surroundings as much as I did the rich variety of people, generations, and languages that flowed about me in those early years.” The only hint of danger was the occasional black snake that found its way into the family garden, and even such intruders could be magically banished.
However, politics and international conflict interrupted this placid existence, and Naggar's family was forced to emigrate after a stressful and at times frightening period the author calls "the year of Suez." Suddenly the country of Naggar's birth was hostile to her religion and, has had happened many times to Jewish people throughout history, another diaspora began.
This is not a sorrowful tale, though, but a celebratory family saga. Had the “year of Suez” not happened, Naggar might not have settled in England, nor have met her future husband in Switzerland. Her story carries us through those events into the present, complete with children and grandchildren, and a visit back as a tourist to the Cairo of her youth. In a remarkable twist, the family finds itself at the very synagogue where her husband had his bar mitzvah, and where her father had prayed "to be able to leave the country the day before he received the visa that took us away from an Egypt we loved and feared into an unknown future." Though some people might wish to forget such a distressing past, Naggar says, "The past is never gone."
In this international adventure of love and flight, Naggar focuses our attention on simple, homey realities, such as the preparations for Passover in her youth, and the superstitions she brought with her from childhood. While many are common to all cultures, one was unique to the Egyptians: the importance of drinking the water of the Nile before setting out on a journey. It was a guarantee that the traveler would return. This memoir is Naggar’s way of getting back home.
Reviewed by Barbara Bamberger Scott on February 27, 2012