Krikus Review: Schlepping Across the Nile | June 6, 2023

Zevy offers episodic reminiscences of his life and family history in this memoir.

The stories with which the author begins this volume look back to his family’s history of membership in the huge Jewish community that existed in Egypt before the 1956 Suez Crisis, which precipitated the emigration of his mother, father, aunts, and uncles to Montreal, Canada. The stories his relatives tell about these years have a resigned quality: “If anything, they all remembered their life in Egypt as halcyon days,” Zevy writes. “It had been a place which was good for the Jews. And then it wasn’t.” From this beginning, the narrative expands in many directions, most of which reflect on some aspect of the author’s Jewishness. Recalling an encounter with a Galilean rabbi, for instance, Zevy writes, “I eat bread on Passover, I do not fast on Yom Kippur, I drive a car and light a fire on shabbat,” adding puckishly, “and I have, more than once, coveted my neighbor’s wife.” There are more generalized stories balancing these Judaism-themed chapters; “I Shall Be Released,” for example, is the story of the Angel of Death visiting the narrator and needing to use the bathroom (“He has the requisite goatee and a cowlick which looks like it is held down by gel. He is wearing khakis and a button-down shirt. If I didn’t know he was the Angel of Death I would have guessed he was an assistant manager at Whole Foods”); the two end up playing chess and talking about music. In “Looking for Maurice,” the author is inspired by the appearance of a picture by the French painter Maurice Utrillo in the background of a family photo to talk about the artist and reflect on the painting.

This kind of mish-mash of autobiographical whimsy and nostalgia is usually as tedious as listening to someone narrate a large family album, but Zevy spares his readers this discomfort. He mainly does so through zestful storytelling and a persistent wry humor that almost always lands (in the story “Straight Sets,” for instance, he writes of his father, “If you closed your eyes, you would think you were listening to the late Egyptian President Anwar Sadat,” adding: “If Sadat was the owner of a powder coating company and not the President of Egypt”). The author creates the feeling of a warm story-session in the living room of a funny, charismatic friend skilled at keeping his audience engaged. At almost every point, he’s ready with a sharp observation or a punchy zinger, as in the story “Shesh Besh,” which recounts the narrator’s blind dinner date with an online match (TorontoCityGirl44): “She does not fake-reach for her purse when the bill arrives,” Zevy writes. “Which, to be honest, I appreciate.” Some will enjoy the droll “kids-these-days” notes that the author occasionally strikes (deadpan observations about emojis and the like). Throughout the book, the narrative momentum is sustained—readers will seldom be tempted to stop turning the pages.

A consistently engaging collection of family stories and personal anecdotes.