To Nurse at the Same Breasts: Muslim-Jewish Kinship in Literature and Life by Joyce Zonana

It is tempting to read these recurring images of milk twins in Arab-Jewish literature as no more than a symbol, albeit a powerful one, of the profoundly intimate “brother- (and sister-)hood” of Jews and Muslims in the  pre-partition culture of the Middle East and North Africa.

But the image of “milk twins” is much more than a metaphor or a symbol: it represents a reality. For it seems that many Jewish and Muslim women, living side by side as they did, had in fact regularly nursed one another’s children.

Joyce Zonana. headshotTobie Nathan’s panoramic novel about Jews and Muslims (and Christians) in early twentieth-century Egypt, A Land Like You, revolves around one central image: two infants—one Jewish, one Muslim; one male, one female—peacefully nursing at the breasts of a young Muslim woman, Oum Jinane (“Mother Paradise”).

After the birth of her long-desired daughter Masreya (“The Egyptian Woman”), Jinane travels from her poor Muslim neighborhood to a poor Jewish neighborhood to help another young mother whose long-desired infant son is languishing because she has no milk.  “It’s a miracle, a great miracle,” the Jewish boy’s relatives declare:

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Never had any neighborhood in Cairo been so excited by a baby’s nursing. Until bedtime, the child nursed three more times at the breasts of abundance. He took hold of one nipple, little Masreya  another, and the two children’s hands sometimes touched. You would have thought they were two lovers entering Paradise as they held each other’s hands.

Continue reading “To Nurse at the Same Breasts: Muslim-Jewish Kinship in Literature and Life by Joyce Zonana”

God’s Womb by Joyce Zonana

The first time I came across the phrase, I thought I must be making a mistake. “Que Dieu l’enveloppe dans sa matrice,” the passage read in French, “May God’s womb enfold her.” or possibly, “May God enfold her in His womb.” His womb?

Joyce Zonana
The first time I came across the phrase, I thought I must be making a mistake. “Que Dieu l’enveloppe dans sa matrice,” the passage read in French, “May God’s womb enfold her,” or possibly, “May God enfold her in His womb.” His womb?

I’d just started translating Ce pays qui te ressemble [A Land Like You], Tobie Nathan’s remarkable novel of Egypt’s Jews in the first half of the twentieth-century, and I couldn’t be sure I was correct in thinking that “womb” was the proper rendering for “matrice.” But a quick search confirmed my hunch. Matrice (from the Latin matrix < mater) might be translated as “matrix” or “mould,” but that made no sense here. “Uterus or womb” was the anatomical meaning, and it was the first meaning listed in my French dictionary.

The phrase, or something very like it, kept turning up, always after a dead person was named:  

Que Dieu accueille son âme en sa matrice.

Que Dieu l’enveloppe dans sa matrice.

Que Dieu la berce dans sa matrice. 

May God’s womb welcome his soul.

May God’s womb enfold him.

May God’s womb cradle her.

In all, “God’s womb” is mentioned seven times in this novel set in Cairo’s ancient Jewish quarter, Haret al-Yahud. Each time, it’s part of a ritual prayer, a formulaic wish for the wellbeing of a departed soul. But what extraordinary wellbeing is wished for here, what a remarkable envisioning of God as the possessor of a welcoming, warm womb. Continue reading “God’s Womb by Joyce Zonana”

A Healing Home of Dreams by Joyce Zonana

I had few expectations before my visit in the winter of 1999 to Cairo’s Rav Moshe Synagogue, also called the “Rambam.” I only knew it to be an obscure synagogue and yeshiva associated with the renowned twelfth-century theologian, sage, and physician, Moses Maimonides.

I left Egypt as an infant with my parents in 1951. Now I was finally back, hoping to experience the place that had shaped my family. Accompanied by a Muslim Egyptian friend, I walked the streets my parents had walked, attended services in the elegant downtown synagogue where they’d been married, tasted the familiar foods of my childhood, listened with delight to the melodious sounds of Egyptian Arabic. But seeking the Rambam was little more than a whim, sparked by a few lines in a Guide to Jewish Travel in Egypt. “Not on any tourist itinerary,” the brief blurb stated about the derelict synagogue in ‘Haret al Yahud, the city’s medieval Jewish quarter, far from where my parents had lived. Still, I had to go.

Continue reading “A Healing Home of Dreams by Joyce Zonana”

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