The Arty Semite

'On the Brink of Oblivion': Paula Jacques's Egyptian Lore

By Benjamin Ivry

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Paula Jacques, the Cairo-born French novelist of Egyptian Jewish descent, has long been a lively presence on the Paris literary scene.

Born Paula Abadi in 1949, she moved to France as a teenager, after rebelling against the “regimentation” of a “Marxist kibbutz” in Israel during a short stay there. Less regimented, although doubtless just as rigorous, France’s literary world has made Jacques into a hard-working guest on frequent radio and TV programs, and reserves for her an honored place on the jury of the prestigious literary award, le prix Femina.

Jacques’s novels, of which “Light of My Eye” appeared last year in English translation from Holmes & Meier Publishers, tend to focus on the Egyptian Jewish milieu of her childhood. Jacques’ new novel, “Kayro Jacobi: on the Brink of Oblivion,” just published by Les éditions Mercure de France, is no exception.

“Kayro Jacobi” is about a big-shot Egyptian Jewish director whose career capsizes in his homeland in 1952, after rampant, government-approved anti-Semitic violence begins to drive the vast majority of Jews out of the country.

Jacobi’s claim to fame is inventing the comic character Bolbol Bey (or Milord Nightingale), a sort of half-Charlie Chaplin and half-Goha, or popular fool/wise man/trickster of Egyptian folklore. Jacobi is also credited with discovering real-life Egyptian Jewish movie actresses such as the singer Leila Mourad, daughter of a synagogue cantor, and Zeinat Sedki, who specialized in 1930’s comic maid roles.

Jacobi nonetheless finds he has no future in Egypt. Before departing for good, the best work he can get is as a low-level assistant on a schlocky Hollywood epic, the real-life 1955 kitsch-fest Land of the Pharaohs. This Cinemascope spectacular starred Joan Collins, no less, and was co-written by the left-wing American Jewish screenwriter Harry Kurnitz, who was fleeing McCarthyite America at the time.

In search of a location scout, Kurnitz gossips to Jacobi about the rumored anti-Semitism of the movie’s director Howard Hawks, despite Hawks’s blatant adoration of “Ben Hecht, Lauren Bacall, Groucho Marx, and, incidentally, Harry Kurnitz.”

With its lively mix of fact and fiction, “Kayro Jacobi” is a compelling evocation of the tragic destiny of Egyptian Jewry.

Watch Paula Jacques moderating a 2008 Paris discussion about Mendele Mocher Sforim here.


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