Paula Jacques is the pen name of Paula Abadi (b. Cairo, May 8, 1949). Since 1975 a talk show hostess on the French radio networks France Culture and France Inter, she is also a novelist, many of whose books achieve second editions as paperbacks. Paula Jacques’s work reconstructs the life of the mostly French-speaking Egyptian Jewish community prior to their expulsion at the time of the Suez crisis. She is reputed to have referred to herself, somewhat humorously but aptly, as “the Isaac Bashevis Singer of Egyptian Jewry.”
Her father, Jacques Abadi, was a merchant; her mother was born Esther Sasson. Paula left Egypt in 1957 for Israel, where she spent a short time on a Marxist kibbutz that left her a “painful memory of regimentation” (quoted by Armelle Cressard in Le Monde). Still a teenager, she left for Paris. By the age of seventeen she had married and settled in the provincial city Saint-Étienne. There, from 1967 to 1971, she was cultural director of a theater, La Comédie Jean Dasté. Her marriage soon ended. In 1971, she headed a troupe of actors that toured Africa; she then entered Radio France Internationale as a reporter. She is quoted by Cressard as saying, “I am an autodidact, to whom nothing has been given.”
In 1980, she published her first book, Lumière de l’oeil (Light of the Eye), which recounts her childhood years in Egypt. One reviewer has described it as “colorful and lively, a bit chaotic” (Michel). Paula Jacques’s novels, which in France appeal more to a popular than to an intellectual audience, might disconcert the English-language reader because of their baroque—or perhaps orientalistic—exuberance of detail and their slightly disjointed narrative, somewhat reminiscent of the so-called French “new novel” launched in the 1950s. More alluring, no doubt, is Paula Jacques’s ability to combine genuine warmth, gentle irony and caustic humor in her portrayal of the Egyptian Jewish community’s courageous response to antisemitism even while some of its members engaged in clownish social climbing or career schemes.
Typical of Paula Jacques’s bemused but caring contemplation of her co-religionists is her 1988 novel, L’Héritage de Tante Carlotta, an excerpt of which has been translated into English as Aunt Carlotta’s Legacy.
Though Paula Jacques centers her descriptions on the French-speaking Jews of Egypt she also provides glimpses into other Jewish groups who lived there. Deborah ou les anges dissipés (Deborah, or The Dissipated Angels)—her first prize-winning novel, set in 1948, shortly before the establishment of the state of Israel, was granted the coveted Femina award in 1991.
Respectable, impoverished widows in Paris set against their dissolute Jewish belly dancer sister in Cairo; a wealthy American Jewish old maid versus the third-world Jewish whores who would benefit from her father’s largesse: such feminine dyads often appear in the work of Paula Jacques. For example, Les femmes avec leur amour (Women and Their Love, 1999) recounts the bond between a pre-teen Jewish girl and her Muslim maid in Cairo. Jacques’s most recent novel, Gilda Stambouli souffre et se plaint (Gilda Stambouli Suffers and Complains, 2002), depicts the far more wrenching relationship between the merry widow Gilda Stambouli, who leaves Cairo for Paris while her daughter Juliette—largely modeled on Paula Jacques herself—is relegated to a kibbutz. The enthusiastic Le Monde reviewer Hugo Marsan writes: “With Gilda as her mouthpiece, Paula Jacques says that nothing—not even maternal love—should allow one to deny one’s identity or give up one’s chances for happiness. A good novel is always amoral, and its author must have the courage to cut into the very marrow of the characters and prove their authenticity, beyond considerations of good and evil.” Gilda Stambouli souffre et se plaint received the 2002 Book Award of the Europe 1 radio network and the city of Nice’s Baie des Anges Prize of the same year.
Un baiser froid comme la lune (A Kiss as Cold as the Moon). Paris: 1983; Deborah ou les anges dissipés. Paris: 1991, second edition 1994; La descente au paradis (Descent to Paradise). Paris: 1995, second edition 1997; Les femmes avec leur amour. Paris: 1997, second edition 1999; Gilda Stambouli souffre et se plaint. Paris: 2002; L’héritage de Tante Carlotta. Paris: 1987, second edition 1990. Excerpt translated by Michael T. Ward as Aunt Carlotta’s Legacy. Yale French Studies 85 (1994): 41–50; Lumière de l’oeil. Paris: 1980, second edition 1983; Samia la rebelle (Samia the Rebel). Paris: 2000; Marsan, Hugo. “Rien qu’une femme” (Nothing but a woman). Review of Paula Jacques’s Gilda Stambouli se plaint. Le Monde, April 26, 2002.
Braudeau, Michel. “Le sexe des métaphores” (The sex of metaphors). Review of Paula Jacques’s Deborah ou les anges dissipés. Le Monde, October 11, 1991; Cressard, Armelle. “Portrait: Ce que veut Paula Jacques” (What Paula Jacques Wants). Le Monde, January 4, 1998; “Paula Jacques.” In Who’s Who in France. 34th ed. Levallois-Perret, France, 2002–2003, p. 1001.