Reviewer Lily Azerad-Goldman, B.F.A. Lily is an artist and a children's author. Follow Here to view Lily's art work. She is also the author and illustrator of the children's book Mrs.Nosy -A Composting Story For Children & Adults.
Author: Jean Naggar
Today, Lily Azerad-Goldman, one of bookpleasures' reviewers interviews Jean Naggar author of Sipping From The Nile: My Exodus from Egypt.
Good day Jean and thanks for participating in our interview. I have to tell you that I loved reading your memoir of your exodus from Egypt. Your souvenirs are quite similar to mine, although my family and I lived in Heliopolis in a modest apartment. We used to love to go to Alexandria every summer, where we rented a small house on Sidi Bishr with a bunch of family and friends. These were the good times!
How did you decide you
were ready to write Sipping From The Nile: My Exodus from Egypt?
I never planned to write
a memoir. Sipping From The Nile: My Exodus from Egypt. The memoir grew out of my love for my
grandchildren, as I realized how much they meant to me, and I also
realized that there would be no path for them to join me in my
memories of such a different childhood. Now that I had myself
attained the venerable position of grandmother, I thought I might
take a few moments to jot down some sentences about my own beloved
grandmothers, but as I began to write, I realized that I only knew
them as “Granny.”
I had never thought to ask them much about their lives and feelings before they became my grandmothers. It made me suddenly conscious how many questions starting to float to the surface of my mind, would never have answers. It dawned on me that the world I grew up in had completely disappeared. There would be no point of reference for my grandchildren unless I attempted to recreate, with words, the unusual, rich, diverse and complicated world of my own childhood for them. So whenever I had a moment, I added an anecdote, or described something I remembered, and the more I wrote, the more memories came flooding back in a rich sensory tsunami of detail.
Who is the audience for your book? As a follow up, what was the most difficult part of writing your book?
At first, I thought I was writing for my family. As I checked facts with my many cousins, they were so supportive and became so excited that I was recreating the worlds of our mutual childhood. They read early pages, suggested facts and stories, and kept pressing me to get it done, eager to know when they could have the book for their own families. Gradually, I began to think about it as a book, and I showed it to a couple of friends who happened not to be Sephardic, finding that they were totally fascinated by a story about Jews they had known absolutely nothing about.
They urged me to write
more, and to seek publication, insisting that the story needed to
reach a wider readership than I had envisioned. In the end, I have
come to the conclusion that the audience for my book spreads way
beyond those who shared my experience growing up in Egypt or who have
a point of reference to the person I have become. I hear from readers
whose backgrounds differ widely from mine but who seem to find points
of contact with my life and story, and who love reading and learning
about a community they had never encountered before.
The most difficult part of writing my memoir was in the editing of it. I remembered a few details about a vast cast of characters, a huge extended family, and I started out by giving each of them a walk-on part! But gradually, I realized that I needed to create a shape for my story, and I needed to pull out those cousins of my mother and father whose names I remembered, and had wanted to record for posterity, but whose dimensional lives would forever remain a mystery to me. It was very hard to decide who to leave in and who to take out. My sister helped greatly by pointing out that with computers, I could just slip the discarded passages into another file and keep them forever, but not actually in the book. So I dug in and tried to forget that this was about my relatives and set out to apply the objective criteria I used on the work of others!
Tell us your philosophy of writing.
Writing, while it was my
first love, sat on a back burner in a very busy life for many years.
I learned to write when I could steal an hour here or there, and then
let it rest, rewrite, again let it rest, and finally to distill
without mercy until the essence of the mood or scene is exactly as I
wanted it to be. I wrote without restraint at first, then pulled my
editing hat well over my ears and jumped in to refine and reorganize
material from a much more objective point of view. The book is the
result of many many drafts. I thought each of them was the final
draft until I revisited it some weeks later and plunged up to my
elbows into tweaking and sharpening again and again. I read the
entire book aloud for the recording of the audio publication, and
after so many years and so much work, I was happy to feel comfortable
with the words I had chosen. Everything can always be better, but I
know this is my best.
Can you tell us how you found representation for your book? Did you pitch it to an agent, or query publishers who would most likely publish this type of book? Any rejections? Did you self-publish?
I first approached an
agent friend and asked if she would like to read it, and would
promise to tell me without restraint if she felt it was not
publishable. She called to tell me that she loved it, could not get
it out of her mind, saying “this is one of those rare ones that
sticks to the gut.” And she said she wanted to represent it. Since
I am, myself, a literary agent, we collaborated on where to send it.
Some rave rejection letters sit in my files.
Meanwhile, my cousins were clamoring for “the book.” Valuable time was passing. I realized that we were all getting older by the day. That was when I decided to self-publish. Five-star customer reviews began to pile up on my Amazon page, and some months later, Encore came a-courting. They had read the reviews, read and loved the book, felt it had a much broader market than I could reach alone, and offered to publish it.
You have a chapter on returning to Cairo. Have you been back to Alexandria?
Indeed, we had planned a day in Alexandria, even though we had been told that there would be no way to visit or even approach my Smouha grandparents' house, which is now a government agency, I believe. However, we succumbed to “gippy tummy” in Luxor and were all feeling too tired and too sick to get to the plane in time, so we decided to stay an extra day in Luxor and recuperate before our scheduled return to the States.
At the beginning of your book you mention slithering snakes in your garden. Was that a sign that things were changing in Egypt?
My granddaughter said to her mother “Granny is very metaphorical!” She had just learned the word in school. It gave me a chuckle, but I did consciously use the snakes as a metaphor, although the incident with the snake charmer really took place exactly as I described it.
Your writing style is very poetic. Is that something that was encouraged in Egypt or in school in England?
I don't know. I have
always loved to write poetry, and to some extent I guess I see the
world through a somewhat poetic lens. I studied English literature
both at Roedean and at University, and that involved many famous
poets and their work.
You mention your Egyptian chauffeur in your book. Do you miss him?
We have all missed his presence in our lives. My brother returned to Egypt and was able to track him down. He had become blind, and when his son took my brother in to see him, he wept, hugged him, and said “My son has returned.”
The other day, I met the Consul of Egypt in Montreal. I had a very funny feeling shaking hands with him. Although he is a very nice chap, I couldn't help remembering that his "brothers" threw us out of Egypt with just the shirts on our backs! How would you feel meeting such a person? Do you remember the army officer who had leery eyes for you? Do you let bygones be bygones or does it still bother you?
Truthfully, it doesn't
bother me anymore. I don't intend to return to Egypt in the current
climate, and when I hear the accent, it is with more with nostalgia
than anger, or fear, or anything else.
You mention "en passant" how you met your husband and that you have 3 wonderful children. Do you have another book in mind as to how you spent your life in New York as well as something more about your husband and children?
I have no plans to write another memoir. I am now trying my hand at a contemporary novel set in New York City.
Do you still celebrate Passover with all the traditional cooking and baking?
My daughter makes the
haroseth now, and this year she will also make the hamin eggs. I am
taking care of the shoulders of lamb, and the dinner.
It was very sweet of
you to share your father's letter at the end of your book. It is very
touching, especially in French. His style reminds me of my
father's writings and sweetness. I had "tears in my eyes"
(larmes aux yeux)! especially that he is also gone! Would you care to
comment as to why you included the letter?
My father always believed I would write. He loved to write himself and took great pleasure in words. Because he died relatively young, I wanted very much to include him in the book, and to include his words about the vision he had for my life when I was only fifteen.
On a lighter touch, do you still have pictures of the “haute couture” dresses that you and your family ordered in Paris? Or could you describe some of them?
I don't think so. I included a photo of my mother in a Nina Ricci evening gown, in the book.
How did you become a literary agent in New York? Has being a literary agent helped you in any way in writing your book?
I loved anything to do with books, and felt enormously privileged to be able to work in publishing at all. When the publisher I worked with as an editor was sold to a larger house, I was devastated, and determined to find another job as an editor. However, through a series of circumstances, opportunities came up that propelled me into agenting, and I found – somewhat to my surprise – that I loved it. I loved being so clearly the writer's advocate, and fighting to get the best possible context and deal for each author. In some way, the years spent as an agent taught me a great deal, but mostly what I learned that had relevance to my own writing was about technique, from my wonderful writers. When it came to selling my own book, the fact that editors knew me with a different hat on only worked to the point where they were eager to read something by someone they knew in a different context, but beyond that, the work itself had to make its own way.
What are your thoughts about the present political winds in Egypt? Do you think the Muslim brotherhood with take over ever against the will of the military?
I think this is a distinct
probability, but I hope, nonetheless, that the Egyptian people who
deserve better will get the government they fought for and need.
Have you read The Man in a Sharkskin Suit by Lucette Lagnado? She is another escapee from Egypt and recounts her souvenirs from her father's point of view.
I have read it, but found it very different from my own experience. She is, of course, younger than I, and therefore is not able to draw on immediate memories as much. I concluded elsewhere that memoirs are both unique and universal, and that what creates a unique experience for the reader is that every individual views the same events through a different prism. Our experiences of living in Egypt and of leaving Egypt, and our personal philosophies, are totally different.
Are you aware that there is an organization of “Jews from Egypt” founded by Irene Buenavida of the Montreal Spanish and Portuguese Synagogue. Perhaps you would be interested in giving a lecture in Montreal if I introduce you to her?
If the Montreal Spanish
and Portuguese Synagogue invites me, I would be delighted to go to
Montreal to give a talk/reading. My brother, Jeff Mosseri, lived and
worked in Montreal for a few years. Irene Buenavida may remember him,
and may be interested to read the memoir. Thank you for the offer of
Where can our readers
find out more about you and Sipping From The Nile?
My Personal Website has some photos, links to various reviews, blogs
and research materials, and some unpublished reflections on writing.
My Professional Website as
a Literary Agent. You may enjoy seeing the books and
authors we have published over the years.
I would be happy to respond to emails from people who have read SIPPING FROM THE NILE, and to offer to chat by phone or email, or if close by, in person, for book clubs who have read the book and want me to participate in their discussions.
My personal website also has a Contact page, where readers can share their thoughts about the book with me, and communicate their email addresses to receive notifications about other publications in the future.
Before we close, is there anything I didn’t ask that you would like to share?
Actually, after this
delightful virtual conversation, I would love to meet you in person,
and learn more about your own experiences, living in Egypt and
leaving Egypt. I am so glad that you liked my book. Please do stay in
Thank you so much for this interview and for your interesting questions.
Thanks once again and good luck with all of your future endeavors.
Follow Here To Purchase Sipping from the Nile: My Exodus from Egypt