A powerful , bittersweet memoir of multicultural existence

East of the Sun: a Memoir, by Noha Shaath Ismail. Authorhouse. 196 pages. $24.95 hardback, $16.95 paperback. E-book available.

Noha Ismail’s odyssey is one in which her world keeps changing and an idyllic sense of the past is challenged, even threatened, by each change. Many of the changes involve shifts – or confusions – of identity. Ms. Ismail was born in British Mandate Palestine to a Lebanese mother and a father born in Gaza. The family lived in Jaffa, moving to Alexandria, Egypt five years after she was born, but she carries nonetheless a sense of loss for what she calls her homeland, since 1948 under Israeli sovereignty. 

When the author speaks of having “lost her country” and of spending her life “hitched to a place that did not appear on the map,” one can empathize with the emotional truth while recognizing that the existence of an independent Palestinian nation is a continuing matter of debate among historians and political leaders. Early 20th-century maps of the region show Palestine as an outpost of the Ottoman Empire or a ward of the British Mandate. One cannot find a recognized nation or country, but certainly British Mandate Palestine’s predominantly Arab city of Jaffa was her first homeland.

Thriving in the cosmopolitan, Western-influenced Alexandria of her youth, Noha is placed in English speaking schools, including the Sacred Heart School and the prestigious English Girls’ College (renamed the El-Nasr Girls’ College). She is selected for admission to the University of Alexandria and earns a degree in English Literature. As a young woman, Noha Shaath makes an adventurous relocation to the U. S., earning a Master’s Degree in Library Science at Philadelphia’s Drexel University. She soaks up the spirit and energy of the tumultuous 1960s, including student protest movements.

The Alexandria that is functionally her first home, the home she can truly remember, loses the charm it once held as Egypt suffers setbacks of national confidence and prestige. Europeans leave. Many Arabs look for opportunities elsewhere. After the Suez War in 1956, Arab nationalism swells while repressive measures set gloom against expectation. Nasser’s humiliation in what the west calls the Six Day War (1967) furthers the flight of important segments of cosmopolitan Alexandria, changing the mood and character of the city.

Ms.  Ismail looks carefully and lovingly at the lives of her parents and her husband’s parents. Through these remarkable biographies, she paints luminous portraits of times and places across the spectrums of class and culture. She gives readers an education in Arab and Muslim sensibilities: what bonds them and what (like the various dialects of the Arabic language) separates them. The lost world motif remains in focus. . . .

To read this review in its entirety, as it appears in the May 23, 2012 issue of the Fort Myers Florida Weekly and the May 24 Naples edition, click here: Florida Weekly – Ismail 1 pdf and here: Florida Weekly – Ismail 2 pdf

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