Jean’s very personal story is of a lost world of Sephardic Jews in Egypt. Biblical history repeated itself when the Jews once more had to flee Egypt. Jean was eighteen when shots rang out in Cairo.
Before expulsion, Jean and her extended family lived in a palatial home overlooking the silvery Nile River. The sky was almost always clear blue. Her childhood tasted of ripe mangoes, smelled of jasmine and sounded like the U.N. Her family spoke English, French, Italian, Hebrew and household Arabic. Jean was educated in England at Roedean and at the University of London, but Egypt was her home.
Jean walks you through the grand marbled halls leading to rooms with Arabic walls, oil paintings, mother-of-pearl inlaid furniture, well-thumbed leather-bound books and Venetian glass chandeliers. The balconies overhung a secret garden of tropical paradise. Jean’s Eden even had serpents! Her family enclosure in Cairo had its own synagogue that hosted local weddings and services.
Jean’s family was full of unforgettable characters like her outspoken Auntie Helen who collaborated with the fledgling Zionist movement to help create the State of Israel. Breaking convention, Helen never married. When she discovered Jean’s love of writing, Helen passed on her Olympus typewriter and shared her fabulous book collection. She was clearly a great influence on the future literary agent/author.
Then there is Jean’s mother, Joyce, who was so beautiful that she had to flee from a king’s unwelcome attention. Joyce’s milk white complexion, burnt sugar eyes, auburn hair and charm allowed her to rise to the cream of Cairo society. There’s a photo of Joyce in a Nina Ricci gown looking like a fairytale princess. The narrative is interspersed with photos of family, ornate chambers and old images of Cairo.
On these wintry days that aren’t breaking freezing in Maine, what a treat it is to lounge on the banks of the Nile! Jean spins a soothing tale of a happy childhood in a loving family. I won’t say any more because I’d only cheat you of the rich detail. Her words flower and bloom like the lush gardens. My garden in Maine is bare but for the red berries on the burning bush.
I was sad to reach the final page of Sipping from the Nile. A memoir is like a blog except that it has an end. I wanted to hear how this happy child of Egypt became one of the most respected and toughest agents in NYC. How did Jean find the strength and the courage to start over fresh in a foreign country?
Jean has lived the American dream. She was a young immigrant who crossed the Atlantic Ocean to marry a boy from her past. Sixteen years later Jean created a successful literary agency while raising three children. She is now also a very hands-on granny of seven. Jean longs to work on the garden behind her brownstone office in Manhattan. Her energy amazes me.
Jean Naggar’s Sipping from the Nile is available only on line. Shipping can be slow so order ahead. It’s a good read for Hanukkah. My mother really enjoyed this memoir too.
Congratulations, félicitations, brava, mazal tov and mabrouk, Jean!
Photo of Jean Naggar by Serge Naggar.
Blog Watch: next week I’m hosting a Blogger Book Boost in support of books as holiday gifts. The inspiration came from a discussion on holiday shopping at Bee Drunken. I’ll have instructions in my next post on Wednesday December 3rd.
Happy Thanksgiving and Good Reading!