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When Uncle Elie came back to Egypt

By N. SHARAF ELDIN | 22 December 2010

It was at the café overlooking the Baron Empain Palace in Greater Cairo that I met for the first time recently with “Uncle Elie.” His full name is Elie Amin Kheder, and he is one of tens of thousands of Egyptian Jews who were forced out of their homeland by Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser’s regime in the wake of the 1967 defeat.

Uncle Elie settled in the United States and I had come to “know” him via the Internet – blessed be its innovator. We had corresponded for a long time, and he was my fellow guest on several editions of Al-Hakika (the Truth), a talk show aired on the Egyptian satellite station “Dream,” where we discussed Egypt’s Jewish community. He was always firm and clear in countering all the baseless lies that have long stained one of Egypt’s noblest religious communities, the Karaite Jews.
 
Over the years, Uncle Elie had told me about his small family – he, his wife Mona, and their son, who apparently did not share their enthusiasm for a visit. Unlike his parents, he is evidently not obsessed with nostalgia for Abbaseya, Al-Dhaher, Al-Sakakini and the other old Cairo districts where Jews used to live.
 
The chemistry between me and Elie and Mona was marvelous from the start. For me, he was no alien, but rather an Egyptian to the core. This was obvious from his body language, his comments and his satiric spirit – ridiculing everything, even himself. Hotel workers who know me from my frequent visits also quickly began dealing with Uncle Elie as though he were any average Egyptian.
 
I wondered to myself how they would have behaved if they had known he was Jewish. If they had known that he and his family were long ago forced out of their homeland, pariahs, unwanted both by the state and by society, obliged to migrate from a country where at least 10 generations of Uncle Elie’s ancestors had lived. Those roots counted for nothing when he and his family were thrown into jail for the crime of being Jewish, and then coerced into a voyage to the unknown, their passports stamped with the words: “A Journey of No Return.”
 
For reasons that only God knows, Uncle Elie was born to a Karaite Jewish family, me to a Muslim Sunni and my friend Awny Ramzy to a Coptic Christian one. Why not accept each other and live together in peace and friendship? 
 
BACK TO Uncle Elie’s visit. A luxury car with a professional driver had been placed at his disposal by his boyhood friends. But I insisted that he and Mona ride in my car. I didn’t want to miss a moment of what might be a once-in-a lifetime meeting.
 
As we started our trip through Cairo streets packed with the customary traffic, I turned on the cassette player, and, fortuitously, it was playing a song by my favorite singer Muhammad Qandil, who passed away in 2004. “Oh my,” Mona exclaimed. “It’s been a very long time since I last heard Qandil. I remember our life in Egypt when I see him in old Arabic movies.”
 
I’ll admit I was taken by surprise that she knew Qandil. There are millions of Egyptian youths who have no knowledge of our classic and iconic singers.
 
Uncle Elie and Mona, both in their 60s, were taking in the hubbub, the people, the vehicles, signs, buildings, tunnels and bridges. “As if it’s not Egypt, and I am not me,” I read in his eyes. He was a man from 1950s Egypt, emerging from a black and white movie.
 
We were on our way to fulfill what Uncle Elie had described ahead of the trip as “a dear wish” – to visit the Moses al-Dar’i Karaite synagogue, in eastern Cairo’s Abbaseya district, the synagogue of his youth.
 
I had tried in vain to obtain the necessary security permit for us to enter, and no sooner had we arrived at the building than security guards quickly approached to ask us why we were there. I tried to convince them that the man and his wife only wanted to have a look at a place that was dear to them, but they were resolute, directing us to the police station for a permit. While we were negotiating, Uncle Elie and Mona were able to at least catch a glance, and there we left it. It is not prudent to enter the maze of police station bureaucracy in pursuit of “a dear wish”; these institutions are not the right place for fulfilling wishes. We backed down and drove off.
 
We have been applying double standards for more than half a century and a stupid fascist tone is now escalating, classifying all Jews as Zionists and all Christians as crusaders. Millions of Muslims are quickly mobilized when an extremist, whether from the East or the West, links terrorism to all Muslims. We dismiss such characterizations as both racist and as unacceptable generalization. Yet, we do the same, giving ourselves the right to generalize about others and sometimes antagonize them.
 
On our way to the house where Uncle Elie was born and raised, near the Sakakini Pasha palace, I asked him what was he feeling at this early stage of his return, and he immediately responded, bitterly: “Why are we made to face this? We were born Jews, but also Egyptians, and rejecting us, is tantamount to removing a chapter of Egypt’s history.”
 
Then he held his peace. Perhaps he was internalizing the sorry truth that while half a century was enough time for the Germans to repudiate Nazism, for the Italians to throw Fascism into the dustbin of history and for the Japanese to move beyond the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, it was all very different for Egypt and the rest of the Middle East.
 
UNCLE ELIE and Mona had grown up and met around Sheikh Qamar Street and Sakakini Square, but everything bar the palace, constructed in 1897, had changed since their day.
 
Built by Habib Sakakini Pasha, a Jew of Levantine origin whose family migrated to Egypt in the mid-19th century when he was 16, the palace was constructed in the style of a grand edifice he had seen on his travels in Italy and located in what were then the outskirts of Fatimid and Mamluk Cairo. As the slum neighborhoods expanded, it found itself ever closer to the heart of the overpopulated capital. Though encircled today by garbage-strewn, matchbox-style, high-rises, the palace has somehow maintained its grandeur.
 
Searching for the house where Uncle Elie had lived, we asked a young man working at a shop on Sheikh Qamar Street for guidance. It turned out that Uncle Elie had lived at this very address, but the original building had been demolished and replaced.
 
An adjacent French bakery where the family had shopped was still here, though. Uncle Elie recalled the special loaves it had produced for Jewish festivals. There is no demand for them today; one would not now find a single surviving Jew in the area.
 
While Uncle Elie took photographs of his former neighborhood and Mona toured the Sakakini palace, I visualized the two of them here in their 20s, helped by a “soundtrack” of songs by the late Egyptian singer Laila Morad which was echoing from afar: she a charming and alluring young woman, he an exuberant young man, intent on enjoying life.
 
At that moment, an elderly local man, Amm Jihad, appeared. He claimed (imagined) to have recognized Uncle Elie, and volunteered to guide us around the neighborhood, focusing his narrative on the changes that had taken place here and nationwide since the officers’ coup of July 1952 that paved the way for Nasser to take power four years later.
 
Amm Jihad seemed to remember every building like his own home: That was where the Samhoun family had lived. At the end of the street was the Isaacs’ home. Here was the school the Jews had established, with the Stars of David still recognizable on its façade and walls. And there was an abandoned house, still standing only because its Jewish heirs overseas were contesting ownership.
 
Addressing Elie and Mona in the language of simple Cairene, he said: “You were the best. Your days were the most beautiful.”
 
The modern era, its intruders and developments, he said, had spoiled everything.
 
How sad it was, I added, that the former Egypt of coexistence, not only between Jews and Muslims, but between all Egyptians from different strands and even foreign communities such as Armenians, Greek, Italians and others, had been abducted by adventurers, clowns and propagandists.
 
PERSONALLY, I believe we owe our Egyptian Jewish brothers an apology for what was inflicted upon them, for the demise of an authentic Egyptian sect that has roots dating back the time of the Prophet Moses. Its members contributed to Egypt’s renaissance in economics, literature and law – all the manifestations of life. But these contributions were not enough to save them from nationalistic and religious maniacs.
 
We could have provided the necessary ambiance for them to stay within the country. We had never been in enmity with Judaism nor should we have been. Such enmity is not humane. As far as I know, it is also rejected by Islamic Shari’a law.
 
The latest official statistics, which date from 2003, indicated that 4,088 Jews still live in Egypt. Until 1952, that number was as many as 100,000.
 
Cairo’s prestigious Al-Maady district was established by the Jewish company Al-Delta. That’s why the area’s main streets still bear the names of Jewish families such as Sawares and Qatawi. It was a Jewish scholar who pioneered the study of fine arts in Egypt at the start of the 20th century, and also founded the vegetable marketplace in the district of Bab el-Louk, an architectural masterpiece.
 
Local Jews helped pioneer the modern shopping malls here, through brands such as Omar Effendi, Sidnawi, Cicurel and Shamla. Yacoub Sannou was known as “the father of Egyptian theater.” The Mosairy and Edward Levy companies were central to production and distribution in the local film industry. Togo Misrahi was a leading director; Lilian Levy Cohen, “Kamilia,” was a star actress, as was Rachel Abraham Levy, known as Raqia Ibrahim. Negma Ibrahim participated in plays whose revenue was dedicated to the Egyptian army.
 
Nazira Mousa Shehata, nicknamed Nagwa Salem, was the only Egyptian artist to win the “Jihad” shield for her role during the War of Attrition. Then there was the legendary singer Laila Mourad, her musician brother Munir and the great artist Dawoud Hosni.
 
 
This talk about Egypt’s Jews, prompted by Uncle Elie’s visit, is not mere nostalgia for a bygone era that certainly will not return. Rather, it is a cause for reflection.
 
We have to learn from our errors, as all civilized nations do, including the Germans, the Italians and the Japanese. Otherwise, our descendants will pay the price. And the first step is to end the blame game and acknowledge: Yes, where Egypt’s Jews are concerned, we made a mistake.
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