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The Arbor Vitae 2013

Jean's Blog (Check out links to Guest Blogs in lefthand Column)

My Lost Egypt

September 28, 2012

Tags: Friendship, Facebook, Egypt, grandchildren, writing, memoir

I am constantly amazed at the serendipity of life. The longer I live, the more I see patterns and an architecture connecting and ordering the random moments that punctuate my days. In this unexpected season of white hair and stiff muscles, I see re-connections and closure in so many ways, voices from the past rising out of nowhere, or facilitated by the internet and emerging again to touch my consciousness and my life. Dorothy Wills-Raftery is one such. We met briefly some twenty-five years ago in Upstate New York, where my husband and I had just begun to reach out from our newly acquired weekend house to explore the community around us. Friendship was difficult to cultivate when we were there so little, and so absorbed in our young family, in reading manuscripts for work, and in dealing with the unfamiliar demands of a 200-year-old second home. Dorothy and I lost touch and went our separate ways. Years went by. Facebook brought us together, and Dorothy, deep into her writing career, having read SIPPING FROM THE NILE, included me in a blog-network to which she had been invited. Answering the same questions here that she answered in her blog, (her book is "Getting Healthy With Harley") I have now handed the torch to five other wonderful writers who will do the same.

What is the working title of your book?
SIPPING FROM THE NILE, My Exodus from Egypt. Everyone loves the title, and I have my son-in-law to thank for it. The memoir originally had a working title, A FRAGMENT IN TIME, because the more I delved into my own past and the past of my parents and grandparents, the more I began to see myself as a tiny speck floating in a vast ocean of time past and to come.

Where did the idea come from for the book?
When I became a grandmother, I realized that I wanted to record some of my unusual childhood for my grandchildren, who were growing up in such a different world that they would never be able to find a path to mine. I wanted them to be able to find answers to questions they might not think of asking until I was no longer around.

What genre does your book fall under?
It is a memoir. I called it an impressionistic memoir when I first started to conceive of it as a book rather than a series of unrelated portraits and anecdotes.

Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition?
What a difficult question. I suppose I would love Meryl Streep to play my mother! Who would be my father? My eldest son Alan, who is an actor in Hollywood. Me? There I stall. I cannot begin to imagine it!

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?
Memoir of an unusual childhood in a vanished world, and the loss of that world after the Suez crisis of 1957.

Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?
It was initially represented by an agency ( not my own!) but after months of gazing forlornly at rave rejections, I decided to self-publish. Subsequently, Amazon Encore approached me and acquired the memoir, successfully taking it out into a much larger world.

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?
I was working full time as a literary agent, and was also a busy mother and grandmother. I wrote many drafts in stolen moments, so it took a few years before I had a final draft. The first draft - very incomplete and shapeless - was done in about a year.

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?
It is very hard to make comparisons, because every memoir is seen through the unique prism of one individual's story and recollections. While other books may explore similar territory, there is no real way to categorize a voice, a view of life, or the distant memories of a child. Mine is a coming of age memoir, but that could be applied to so many. A common thread of a lost Egypt can be found in Colette Rossant's MEMORIES OF A LOST EGYPT, and Andre Aciman's OUT OF EGYPT.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?
My love for my grandchildren, and later, a desire for the world to understand the expulsion and losses of the thousands of Jews from Arab lands in the last half century. The losses were obviously material losses of property, but far greater have been the losses of close, large extended families scattered to the four winds, and a way of life gone forever. I had wanted to be a writer since I was nine years old, and as I began to give myself permission to explore the writing side of myself, I became totally addicted, and had to discipline myself ruthlessly so that other commitments would not fall by the wayside. Now that more time is actually mine, I know that when I am writing, hours fall away without my noticing. All I want to do is to continue to be able to express my stories in the written word and to work at the craft of writing. My next project is a novel, and I am wrestling with the problems of structure and story, and narrative arc. I have the story, the beginning and the end, but how to avoid a sagging middle?

What else about your book might pique the readerís interest?
It is almost easier to say what it is not. It is not a history, or a travelogue. It is a very personal story that unfolded within dramatic world events, seeking to present both the unique and the universal. My book is about a coming of age at a time and in a place that have vanished, never to return. While the Egypt of my childhood is not the Egypt of Tahrir Square, the seeds of revolution were planted then. The memoir offers a glimpse of a little-known international community of Sephardic Jews in Egypt, and the vibrant individuals who flourished within it and nurtured my life. It attempts to recreate the magic of a happy childhood. It is worth mentioning that a mere handful of Jews remain in Egypt from the 80,000 who had been rooted there for generations.

Echoes of a past and intimations of a future

September 14, 2012

Tags: Egypt, Jews, Copts, Rosh Hashana, chaos, parents

My parents on their honeymoon in Luxor in 1937
In 1937, my parents, Guido Mosseri and Joyce Smouha, were married in the Nebi Daniel synagogue, in Alexandria, Egypt. The synagogue was ablaze with flowers and candles and packed with relatives and guests. So it was with a gathering sadness that I read a recent blog in Tablet Magazine (see my biography page for the link) and learned that a handful of elderly Jews -all that was left in Egypt from a community 80,000 strong - will in fact be deprived of a rabbi and cantor and do not have enough men for a minyan as we approach the High Holidays. Rosh Hashana services will not be performed in Egypt in 2012, probably the first time in 2000 years.
As Egyptians riot in self-righteous clamor in the name of insults to their faith, and Libyans commit murder in the name of outraged religious fervor, I am struck by the irony lived by the Egyptian Jews, last guardians of their past, elderly, vulnerable, and unable to rise above the menace that surrounds them.
And what of the Coptic Christians? They who claim to possibly be descended from the Pharaonic splendors of old? Their churches are burned and their populations suffer silently in fear of exile from the only country that holds their roots.
Why is there not more clamor? Human values are at issue here. The Middle East hosts a war that destroys history and leaves the Arab lands in economic chaos, unable to fill the void they themselves have caused. This virus will not die, and it will compromise everything we hold dear unless an antidote is found soon. (more…)

The last Seder in Egypt

April 10, 2012

Tags: Passover, Egypt, Seder, Nile

SEDER NIGHT in Egypt, 1957

The preparations for Passover went on for days as they had done for years in our large echoing house in Cairo. Carpets were marched out to the lawn outside the dining room window and beaten with flat bamboo beaters to eliminate the last crumb. My aunt Helen wielded her cane and her stentorian tones, berated the butcher, raided the store cupboard to make our traditional family haroseth, pounding nuts relentlessly into powder with mortar and pestle. We scoured our upstairs nursery rooms, emptying every closet, dusting every book and toy, knowing our rooms would have to pass our mother's eagle-eyed inspection. (more…)

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