Growing up, I always knew I would have something to do with books. I even dared to hope that I might write one. Books were my initiation into worlds far removed from my quiet nursery life in a majestic home on the banks of the Nile. They exerted an irresistible pull on my childhood, a magnetic component of adventure, companionship, exotica, and escape. I was a voracious reader, often to my mother’s despair.
For years I shuttled to and from a British boarding school, graduated, and returned to Egypt just before the Suez Canal crisis hurled my family out. Although Nasser’s move to take over the Suez Canal caused no more than a shudder on the global political landscape, the Suez crisis of 1956 brought chaos to everything I knew. Deep roots were wrenched from Egyptian soil.
In 1962, I married, and followed my husband to America. I eagerly embraced a new life and plunged headlong into a future rich with possibility. I had three children and found work in the world of books as a literary agent, where I discovered an extended cosmopolitan family in the publishing community. I locked away Egypt, and my losses.
As a literary agent, I’ve been incredibly privileged to work with writers whose work I most respect and admire. Immersed in words and in books, I felt deeply fulfilled, and without conflict. I buried my own stories deep in the recesses of memory and attended to the demands of a full, busy life.
Many years later, I began to feel compelled to jot down memories of my two grandmothers. I was surprised at how little I really knew them, and I realized that others who might recall the rich and diverse world of my youth were fast disappearing. As I wrote, I reveled in the ability of words to feed memory. Unexpected doors creaked open, serving up detail and drama, rich personalities and historical connections. I loved writing. The more I wrote, the more scenes took shape; colors, scents, and sounds flooding my mind.
For most of my life, I had not spoken about my past except to those who had shared it. It was too complicated, too strange. The prospect of publishing a memoir meant leaving the safer shores of the agenting world I had come to understand, to dive into the unknown. I had come full circle. I now had a chance to be the writer I once thought my future might hold.
Writing a memoir became an immersion, cathartic and terrifying. Gradually, as years passed, draft after draft took shape, painstakingly recreating the lost world of my childhood. And the world outside began to shift as well. Rumbles leading to the Arab Spring in the Middle East brought back painful memories of shouting crowds, violence, fear, and loss. Unique sights and smells poured themselves onto the page, and lost their power to hurt. As friends and family read the pages of my manuscript, they insisted that the vanished community of Sephardic Jews I had taken for granted needed a voice, and a book was born.
Few people I encounter are aware of the Suez crisis and its repercussions on disenfranchised individuals. So I wrote my memoir and sent it out into the world, as fearful as I had been when I sent each of my children off for their first day at school. Now, I read with delight the comments of readers who find commonalities I never suspected, as Egypt once more heaves with revolution.
“What do you think of it all?” friends and strangers ask. I think of my Egypt, gone forever, and I realize that somehow the present always hides its seeds in the past. Repercussions from the terrifying anger and pain I heard in 1956 resound today in Tahrir Square. But I take comfort that my Egypt and the vibrant community I once knew will live on in the pages of my book.
Jean Naggar is founder and president of the Jean V. Naggar Literary Agency Inc. Her memoir, Sipping from the Nile: My Exodus from Egypt, is available in print and e-book (Encore), and audio (Brilliance).