However politically controversial immigration is, America is a country of immigrants and a land of second chances, so it’s not surprising that immigrant literature is a popular genre. Such stories frequently have a neo-liberal moral that hard work pays off, but there are exceptions. What about the immigrant who never fully assimilates nor attains the same socio-economic status she enjoyed in her native land? Suppose she does not have the option of returning to a country of origin that ethnically cleansed her.
When Israel was founded in 1948 Egypt’s Jewish community numbered about 80,000 the majority of whom initially stayed put. After the 1956 war Egyptian President Nasser started forcing Egypt’s Jews to leave, and after the Six Day War in 1967 those remaining Egyptian Jews were expelled. Egyptian Jews were dispersed to Israel, France, and the United States, and many members of the community were traumatized by the dislocation and never regained their former affluence and social status.
American readers were introduced to one such Egyptian Jewish exile in Lucette Lagnato’s 2007 memoir of her father,The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit. In it Lagnado compare’s her father’s cosmopolitan affluence and self-confidence in Cairo with the traumatized immigrant he became who never felt at home in New York where the family lived in socially marginal and economically reduced circumstances.
A fictional and more literary tale of an Egyptian Jewish family’s diminished circumstances after immigrating to Israel is The Sound of Our Steps by Ronit Matalon, a novel published today in Dalya Bilu’s English translation by Metropolitan Books. In my New York Journal of Books review I praise it as a “beautifully written and skillfully translated book that rewards rereading.”
The book, whose Hebrew title is Kol Tsa’adenu, won Matalon several awards including Israel’s Bernstein Prize (2009), Bar-Ilan University’s Neuman Prize (2010), and France’s Alberto Benveniste Prize (2013). In 2010 The Hebrew University in Jerusalem awarded her an honorary Ph.D. for her contributions to literature and for her social activism.
The Sound of Our Steps’ non-linear narrative is fragmented into very short chapters whose titles often are the last words of the previous chapter in the manner of arabesque visual arts and literary styles (Matalon once mentioned in an interview that one of her most prized possessions is her father’s Arabic edition of The 1001 Nights) and is shaped in the author’s varied prose styles to create impressionist, cubist, and collage portraits of the immigrant family members in individual chapters and a kaleidoscopic effect overall.
Often readers cannot be sure where a particular chapter fits in the family’s chronology or what precisely is the child narrator’s age, but Matalon does provide a few clues. We know that the mother was 16 when she had her first child, that the oldest child was four when the family immigrated from Egypt to Israel, and that the narrator, who is the author’s alter-ego, is 14 years younger than her oldest sibling, which means her mother was 30 when the narrator was born, and towards the end of the novel when the mother is 70 the narrator is 40. For most of the novel the narrator’s age ranges between pre-school and middle school.
Matalon was born in 1959. If the narrator is her age then the oldest sibling would have been born in 1945 and the family would have immigrated in 1949, and though the characters are fictional and their ages are imprecise, Matalon provides sign posts such as the father’s references to the 1956 war and the Ben Gurionists (David Ben-Gurion resigned as Prime Minister of Israel in 1963), as well as other historical events, such as the 1967 Six Day War and the 1979 Peace Treaty with Egypt.
For a fuller discussion of The Sound of Our Steps see my NYJB review, which includes character and plot outlines as well as an excerpt from one of the novel’s lyrical passages. Let’s close this article with an excerpt in which Ms. Matalon employs anaphora:
“Apparently she was married against her will.
“Apparently she was tortured.
“Apparently she was beaten during pregnancy.
“Apparently she escaped from her husband’s house in the dead of night, dressed only in her nightgown
“Apparently she was in the seventh month of her pregnancy with my brother when she ran away.
“Apparently there was a scandal: Egypt, Cairo, a girl from a good family.
“Apparently her husband divorced her, he never saw her again, he never acknowledged the child as his son.
“Apparently Maurice (a close friend of her elder brother, a frequent visitor to her parents’ home) was waiting only for this, for her, never mind her condition.
“Apparently they got married, she and Maurice, when she was about to give birth.
“Apparently ‘he was the only one who would have done such a thing,’ only Maurice: to not give a damn about convention or blood ties, to take the child as his son, to love him like a son, to raise him or not, just as he didn’t raise his biological children, with no discrimination.”