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Out of Egypt

When fleeing means forgetting.

Joyce Zonana, author of Dream Homes: From Cairo to Katrina, an Exile’s Journey (Feminist Press, $15.95), was 18 months old when she emigrated with her Egyptian-Jewish parents from Cairo to Brooklyn. She remembers nothing of her country of birth, and her parents — all but forced into exile amid a rising tide of anti- Semitism in 1950s Egypt — seem to have willed themselves to forget what they’d left behind. “I have no memory,” Zonana’s mother says when asked about her life in Egypt, where an estimated 80,000 mostly Sephardic Jews lived in the middle of the 20th century. So it is with little help from her parents that Zonana embarks on a journey to piece together her family history, and to understand her own persistent feelings of dislocation.

In this absorbing, wide-ranging memoir, Zonana describes Jewish life in Egypt in the first half of the 20th century. At that time, many Jews did not embrace the nation’s dominant Arab-Muslim culture. They preferred to send their children to schools where they were steeped in French language, history, geography, and culture.

The author succeeds in weaving together stories of her parents’ youth with that of her own. She vividly details her proper Brooklyn childhood, complete with the plaintive wails of the Arabic music that her grandmother cherishes, and the pungent flavor of fresh-ground cumin that laces her mother’s tabbouleh salad. She goes on to detail an equally spicy journey of sexual discovery that includes intimate relationships with women and men, and the academic pursuits that take her outside of her comfort zone — specifically to Norman, Okla., where she accepts a professorship; there, she feels acutely her foreign roots and, at times, senses that she is only “playacting at being American.”

Zonana takes her readers along on her climactic mid-life trip to Egypt. She tours historic synagogues, meets with the leaders of Cairo’s now-tiny Jewish community, and discovers an “ancient home of dreams” — her visit to which inspires her elderly parents to open up, if only a little, about their motherland. While in Egypt, the author also assays the Islamic Ramadan fast “to atone for [my parents’] withdrawal from the culture within which they lived.”

The final chapter of Dream Homes, as the book’s subtitle suggests, is focused on an “exile” of another sort. In 1990, Zonana had moved to Louisiana to teach at the University of New Orleans, but she is forced to flee her adopted hometown as Hurricane Katrina approaches; and she decides to move from the city permanently in the storm’s devastating aftermath. It is Zonana’s heartwrenching decision to leave behind the life she had spent the past 15 years creating that enables her, at long last, to understand why her mother “never wanted to return to Cairo, did her best to forget it.”

Gabrielle Birkner is an editor at the Forward.