Members of a Sephardic Jewish family, driven out of Egypt, establish new lives in New York City in Sadok’s debut novel.
Young Sarah Salama must flee from Cairo to the United States in 1956 with her brothers when her father, Saleem, a native Syrian, is arrested for having “Israeli sympathies.” As Arab Jews in America, Sarah’s family is a minority within a minority, separated from their Yiddish-speaking Ashkenazi cousins by custom, cuisine, skin color, and language. (Sarah and her Middle Eastern relatives speak French and Arabic, call God “Allah,” and exclaim “Inshalla!”) Sarah hates New York, and she’s nostalgic for Cairo’s Corniche bridge, which was “dotted with lampposts that glittered on the river at night like a bracelet on the wrist of the Nile,” whereas the ocean at Coney Island seems to her like a “vast expanse of violent, angry water that would drown her.” In 1959, Sarah, now married, worries that a key act of disobedience she committed years ago caused Saleem’s arrest and death and that God is now punishing her with the inability to have children. She does eventually raise a family, including a biological daughter, Marcelle; and a free-spirited granddaughter, Lauren. Both of them face less physical deprivation than Sarah did in Syria, but they also face the threat of dishonor and even expulsion from their conservative community. They must also deal with political hatreds that Sarah thought she’d left behind on another continent. Then, unexpected news from Cairo changes everything. This epic story follows a total of five generations from 1930s Aleppo, Syria, to present-day Dallas as it delves into a complex culture and history that may be unknown to many Americans. Sadok’s descriptions—of home-cooked food, of the Ottoman baths of old Aleppo, and of sumptuous gifts at a bride’s swanee—are lush and arresting throughout. Unfortunately, the story doesn’t develop some of the male characters as well as it does the central women, though members of both genders chafe at societal strictures. Descriptions of sensual details sometimes give way to passages of frenzied arguments (between husband and wife and particularly between mother and daughter) that will draw readers in, as well. At these moments, some may be tempted to take sides with Marcelle and Lauren only to discover that traditionally minded grandmothers are more complicated than they thought.
A humorous, painful, and mesmerizing cultural and political journey that challenges stereotypes.