Resident Juliana Maio To Discuss Debut Love Story/Political Thriller ‘City Of The Sun’ Thursday
Posted: Monday, September 29, 2014 – 12:45 PM
Longtime resident Juliana Maio will discuss her debut novel City of the Sun at 7 p.m., Thursday, Oct. 2 at the Levantine Cultural Center, 5998 W. Pico Blvd.
Maio’s book combines history, espionage and a central love story with characters ranging from spies to scientists, in Cairo’s bustling Jewish community in 1941 – a location greatly overlooked during WWII. Maio’s fusion of historical detail with suspenseful narrative offers a portrait of a time and place that was not only pivotal for the war, but sowed much of the turbulence in today’s Middle East.
Maio connects the root of much of today’s turmoil in the Middle East to World War II, with the Axis-Allied struggle for control of the Suez Canal, and the early history of the Muslim Brotherhood.
“It’s important to understand what’s happening now in a historical context,” says Maio. “ISIS is a chapter in a century-old conflict.”
The crisis in Egypt, Iraq, and Syria dates back to the end of World War I, when the English and French partitioned the Middle East according to their own interests, creating arbitrary boundaries,” Maio says.
Her inspiration was twofold. “I always knew this story was inside of me; and that one of these days I would tell it,” reveals Maio. “I was born in Egypt and life changed when I was 3-1/2 and my family was kicked out of the country during the Suez Crisis. It was the end of life as we knew it.
“We had a week to get out, leaving everything and everybody behind,” she said. “I still remember the chaos and the smells.” She was sent to boarding school in Paris until she was 12. “So as a result, I became very French, with less influence from family, who little by little, stopped coming to France.” Relatives were scattered all over the world—to Brazil, Canada and Palestine.
So “survival,” not exploring her background was her goal. At 18 she went to law school “and built a life for myself.” When her daughter was born, as many parent do, she wanted to share her story “and it seemed very important to me. I knew she was an American girl, and her world would be American. I only spoke to her in French and gave her as much of a French education as possible; but when she turned around 12, I decided it was time to tell her about my Egyptian/Jewish roots.”
While she initially saw the book as her chance to explain her unique background to her daughter, it became a portrait of a time when Jews where an integral part of a pluralistic Egyptian and Cairo society where Egyptian Jews and Muslims lived and worked together.
She became 100 percent entrenched in reading about the period. “My quest for identity became a mission. Not just to tell my story; but the world about this incredible Jewish community in Egypt that has been completely extinguished.”
She interviewed other refugees, and read interviews, biographies, novels of the time, and had the diaries of the British ambassador of the period. “He dealt with everything and everyone and wrote every single day,” reports Maio. “He knew what movies they saw, which ones they wanted, and how they felt about the king.”
When she began investigating this time and place, she found a cast of historical figures and a “truth is stranger than fiction” story including an Egyptian Nazi spy, a belly dancer named Hekmet, and a young King Farouk. Drawing from her experience as as a refugee and immigrant, Maio has tied all these historical figures together.
“I knew I could reach more people if I wrote a romantic thriller, rather than a history or biography.” Her fact-packed book has been termed an “entertaining history lesson.”
“This is a story that could have happened,” says Maio about her tale of Maya, a Jewish refugee fleeing Paris with her brother and father who meets an American journalist recruited by the US embassy to locate a German refugee nuclear physicist.
“I just wrote a skeleton of a plot,” reveals Maio, “and history started to fill in all the pieces”
Before Egypt entered the throes of WWII, Jews were an integral part of the society, as bankers, athletes, filmmakers, doctors, and teachers. Egyptian Jews and Muslims harmoniously worked together, Maio says. As the Muslim Brotherhood gained power in the 1940s, and Egyptians felt increasingly oppressed by English occupancy, Egypt began to ally with the Nazis.
During WWII, the British “imposed themselves” in Egypt, an independent country,” Maio explains. “This was unacceptable and created a deep distrust and rejection of Western values. “Thousands of solders were dropped into Cairo, drinking and carousing, These were a deeply religious people repulsed by what they saw as debauchery.”
Anwar Sadat and Gamel Abdel Nasser didn’t like the Germans, Maio says, but they collaborated because the Germans would expel the British and promised independence.
“So they finally had enough influence and got rid of the British in a coup and the army installed itself and the army is still in power,” Maio says.
“The Egyptian people’s hearts were hijacked by political events,” says Maio. “The Muslim Brotherhood sided with Hitler. They exploited the conflict between the Jews and Arabs in Palestine, and made the Jews the enemy. And the Jews had worked closely with the British. The anti-semitism wasn’t inbred or economic.” This was not just the beginning of anti semitism in the Arab world, Maio believes, but it was also the formation of modern Egypt and the and modern Middle East.
“But what I want to stress, and the world needs to know,” says Maio, “is there was a wonderful relationship between Jews and Muslims. It existed once and can happen again—I think that’s an important message. It’s nice to have a bit of hope of light in such a dark place.”
Maio, an entertainment lawyer and 35-year resident, lives with her husband, film producer Michael Phillips.
The book has drawn enthusiastic reviews, praise from Publisher’s Weekly, was the best-selling historical fiction novel on Amazon in July and there’s talk of a film adaptation.
Maio, who has spoken domestically and abroad about the Arab Spring, will present her novel in conversation with Egyptian-born Nubar Hovsepian, associate professor of political science and international studies at Chapman University.
General admission is $10 or $15 with a signed copy of the novel. Seating is limited and reservations are recommended to 323-413-2001. —Steve Simmons