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Out of Egypt

Feminism in the Levant

Toward the end of her troubled, troubling memoir of her own and her mother’s lives, Lucette Lagnado in The Arrogant Years: One Girl’s Search for Her Lost Youth, from Cairo to Brooklyn (Ecco, $25.99) finds herself longing for the “absolute protection” and love she experienced as a child in the women’s section of her Brooklyn synagogue. Although as an adolescent she had resented being behind the wooden divider separating the women from the men — going so far as to organize a stealthy rebellion — Lagnado now questions her own restlessness: “I was part of an entire generation that had escaped dividers,” she writes. “We had, together, reached the men’s section and exultantly sat down with them to find … To find what exactly?

In yearning for the security and stability of her youth, Lagnado frames her new memoir — like her first, the awardwinning The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit — as a narrative of paradise lost, appealing to the sense of loss and exile inherent in all human life. Lagnado’s family left Cairo in 1963, in the face of mounting anti-Semitism, when Lagnado (“Loulou” as she was called and as she calls herself ) was six years old. (Like the Lagnados, my own Jewish family also left Cairo, in 1951, when I was eighteen months old.) For Loulou, three intertwined Edens shimmer in her past: colonial Egypt; Orthodox Jewish girlhood; and a daughter’s bond with her mother.

But colonial Egypt was in fact a land of corruption and harsh exploitation; while many Jews flourished there, they did so at the price of ignoring the suffering around them. If Lagnado had stayed behind in the women’s section she would never have had her career as an investigative journalist. And her mother was in fact debilitated by a devastating marriage to a philandering older man. Lagnado paints her world in broad strokes, and while she manages to draw readers into her sentimental journey “from Cairo to Brooklyn” (and back), she fails to promote any deeper understanding of Egypt, Egyptian Jews, or even contemporary feminism, thus squandering the opportunity she earned with her popular first memoir.

In contrast, Jacqueline Kahanoff, an Egyptian Jewish writer of an earlier generation (born in 1917, just six years before Lagnado’s mother), offers us a nuanced, complex assessment of Egypt, Judaism, feminism, and the State of Israel, an entity startlingly absent from Lagnado’s narrative. Kahanoff (née Jacqueline Shohet) immigrated to the U.S. in 1940 at the age of twenty-two. She attended Columbia University and the New School, and began to work as a journalist and writer of fiction. In 1951 she moved to Paris, and in 1954 she settled in Israel, forging a career as a public intellectual committed to an ideal of “Levantinism,” in which Christians, Jews, and Muslims — as “free, different, and equal” people — might reinhabit a common “native” space in Israel and throughout the Middle East.

Kahanoff ’s work, written for the most part in English and published in Israeli and American journals, has never before been collected in a volume printed in English. So the publication of Mongrels or Marvels: The Levantine Writings of Jacqueline Shohet Kahanoff (edited by Deborah A. Starr and Sasson Somekh, Stanford University Press, $60.00) is an occasion to be celebrated. Although imperfect in many ways, the collection provides English readers access to the work of a pioneering foremother.

Unlike Lagnado, Kahanoff is unambivalently feminist, and she uses her feminism to imagine a transformed Judaism and a transformed larger world. In an early short story, a second-place winner of a 1946 Atlantic Monthly fiction contest, she portrays an elderly Egyptian Jewish patriarch deciding to bless his granddaughter with the task of carrying forward the family’s heritage: “She was worthy of being a son of his house and as a son he would treat her.” But Kahanoff ’s feminism extends beyond mere personal empowerment; it leads her to imagine radically new alliances. Writing in 1968, meditating on the relationship between Israelis and Palestinian Arabs, she reminds us that while the patriarchal Biblical story of the “enemy brothers” Isaac and Ishmael is often used to justify continuing conflict, “a patriarchal society is not the one most of us would choose to live in today.” Accordingly, she shifts the focus to Sarah and Hagar, arguing that “we need not be bound forever by the terms set by our ancient myths and holy scriptures.”

Nurtured by her Levantine experience of a world of Jewish-Christian-Muslim interconnection, Kahanoff envisions — and works for, through her politically engaged prose — a new Levantine future. Instead of lamenting paradise lost, Kahanoff points the way forward, suggesting how paradise might be regained by women (and men) willing to work together to create a world without dividers.

Joyce Zonana, professor of writing and literature at the City University of New York, is the author Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey.