Sipping from the Nile was my first pick from my book jar, which is basically a jar that contains folded up bits of paper with books from your TBR pile written on. When you feel overwhelmed with choice, you select randomly from the book jar, to take the decision out of your hands (you can see the original idea at Alex in Leeds' blog). All over my half term break, I was extremely indecisive when it came to reading; I kept picking things up, reading a few pages then putting them down again and it was getting annoying! So I decided to take charge of the situation by reading one book from my book jar then moving on to my Classics Club spin pick.
Jean Naggar comes from a wealthy Jewish family who had lived in Cairo for centuries. The early parts of Sipping from the Nile deal with an extravagant, sheltered childhood, as Jean and her family live comfortably in a large house overlooking the Nile. Servants take care of her every material need, she is sent to a prestigious English boarding school and the family summer in Europe, away from the stifling Egyptian heat. The initial chapters are full of Sephardic Jewish rituals and there's an overwhelming sense of a large and close-knit family. But after the Suez crisis in 1956, when Britain, France and Israel tried to stop the nationalisation of the vital Suez Canal, the atmosphere in Egypt changes for Jean's family. After surviving the horrors of World War Two, the Jewish Egyptian population comes under threat due to anti-Israeli and anti-Jewish sentiment. Eventually, Jean's family is forced to leave Egypt after some danger and the world of her childhood vanishes forever.
Sipping from the Nile is a very well written memoir. Naggar conjures up the atmosphere of upper class childhood perfectly and the love she clearly has for Egypt comes off of every page. Although the chapters dealing with boarding school and time abroad are also well written, the memoir truly comes to life when Naggar is writing about Egypt and the traditions of her family. I learned a lot about Sephardic Jews and felt like I was completely immersed in Naggar's world, a feeling that was helped by the photographs scattered through each chapter.
I must admit that whilst I was reading, I spent a lot of time waiting for the Suez crisis to turn up. For a book whose by-line is 'my exodus from Egypt', this event doesn't actually occur until quite late in the game, at least two thirds of the way through. Whilst the initial section dealing with her childhood felt leisurely and a bit over-long, the sections dealing with how it felt to leave Egypt behind could have been explored further. I appreciated the final chapters where Jean and her own family return to Egypt, but I wanted to know more about the intervening years, more about what it felt like to be unwelcome in your home land.
Sipping from the Nile is a decent, well written memoir about an interesting community. I enjoyed it, but it didn't set my world on fire.
Source: Personal copy (kindle)
First Published: 2012
Score: 3.5 out of 5