In telling the story of Egypt's vanished Jewish community, a new documentary sheds light on a forgotten chapter of history.
Friday 29 March 2013
As someone who is keenly interested not only in the Arab-Israeli conflict, but also its human ramifications and implications, I was excitedly looking forward to the opportunity to see the much-awaited documentary upon my next visit to Egypt. In fact, so keen was I to view this ground-breaking documentary, and to meet its maker, that I travelled especially to Rotterdam a couple of months ago, but through some misunderstanding, director Amir Ramses did not manage to make the rendez-vous.
“I was very enthusiastic for the commercial release,” a jet-lagged Ramses told me from Cairo, shortly after getting off the plane from New York. “I thought that three years of work might finally be worth something and that the message I wanted to transmit was going to reach audiences on a larger scale.”
And the message? Through a mix of personal testimonies from Egyptian Jews in exile, statements from historians specialising in the era and archive footage, Ramses sought to shed light on a largely forgotten chapter of Egyptian history. He wanted to show that once upon a time Jews were an integral part of Egypt's cosmopolitan social fabric and felt just as Egyptian as their Muslim and Christian compatriots.
In my view, this message is an incredibly important and relevant one. Decades of animosity and conflict have led to the redacting by both sides of the inconvenient chapters in which Arabs and Jews coexisted largely peacefully, leaving the impression that “Oceania had always been at war with Eurasia”.
Though I have personally been aware for years of the kaleidoscope of Egypt's Jewish past, The Jews of Egypt was a golden opportunity to reacquaint a new generation of Egyptian audiences, beyond older people and a narrow intellectual elite, with this suppressed aspect of the nation's identity.
In addition, the documentary represents some much-overdue recognition of the historical wrong committed against Egyptian Jews. Caught as they were in the crossfire of the Arab-Israeli conflict, between the rock of pan-Arabism and the hard place of Zionism, the Jews of Egypt first became ostracised and then were unfairly expelled or pressurised out of their homeland.
An Egyptian Jew I know from London, who was forced out of his homeland in his teens but still maintains ties with Egypt, shares these sentiments. “The film not only showed that Jews from Egypt felt strongly towards their time in the country and are fond of their experience there, but it would also have opened the eyes of a number of people concerning a past that seems to have been obliterated from their history,” said the man who wished for personal reasons to conceal his identity.
Sadly, however, it looked like this might not happen, after all. Even though Jews of Egypt had received the necessary green light from the censor (and had even been viewed by the minister of culture as recently as December 2012), national security stepped in at the last moment and called off the release. Whether or not the film has actually been banned was unclear.
The sudden eleventh-hour decision to stop the screening left Ramses – who, along with producer Haitham el-Khameesy, self-financed this indie production in order to maintain its independence and ensure it does not serve one agenda or the other – unsurprisingly miffed, bewildered and furious. Interpreting the move as a means to “terrorise freedom of expression and suppress creativity”, el-Khameesy has indicated their intention to sue all the relevant authorities.
And it seems that efforts by the filmmakers and their supporters, and the ensuing stink abroad, led to a reversal of the decision and the film got another green light and was set to appear in theatres last Wednesday.
“I expected harassment before I got my permit, but I was ready for that and prepared to discuss the film with censorship committees. But they gave me the permit and I was relieved,” Ramses reflected. “But for national security to do something that is constitutionally not their right, that was a total shock.”
But what is behind this mysterious move – the sort of cloak and dagger arbitrary authoritarianism that Egypt's revolutionaries had hoped would become a thing of the past?
“I think it must be the usual paranoia of the Egyptian authorities towards the word ‘Jewish',” Ramses hypothesises, citing as an example of this, “when you say Jewish to a policeman, it's like saying bogeyman.”
For his part, the director of the censorship committee, Abdel-Satar Fathi, who has “supported the film all along”, says he called national security for an explanation. In confirmation of Ramses's speculation about the state's state of paranoia, the censor was told that “the film's title might cause public uproar”.
The Egyptian Jew from London, who is now in his 70s, finds this contemporary distrust and hostility inexplicable and surreal. “It is ironic that when there were some 80,000 Jews in Egypt there was no rampant anti-Jewish feeling as there is today when there are hardly any Jews in the country,” he poses.
In my view, the fact that there are currently probably fewer than 100 indigenous Jews left in Egypt actually makes easier the strong anti-Jewish sentiment gripping most strata of Egyptian society. Most Egyptians never come into contact with Jews, and the only Jews they are regularly exposed to, through the media and popular culture, are two-dimensional Israelis who oppress Palestinians and deny them their rights.
This anger at Israel's excesses towards the Palestinians has been accompanied by Arab powerlessness to do much about it. Rather than admit that Arab defeat is largely a symptom of Arab weakness and disarray, there are those who exaggerate the power of their enemy, which makes some subconsciously seek solace in the anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, first floated in Tsarist Russia, relating to Jewish plots for world dominance.
In contrast, when Egypt was home to a prominent, visible and diverse Jewish community, the fact that many people knew Jews personally or saw positive Jewish role models all around them not only tempered the suspicion with which majorities often view minorities but also presented a picture of surprising harmony. In fact, it would strike many as surprising today, but Egypt, particularly then-cosmopolitan Alexandria, was regarded as a safe haven, and land of opportunity, for Jews fleeing persecution elsewhere.
Jews, perhaps unsurprisingly, were prominent in business, banking and industry – establishing Egypt's most famous department stores and helping set up its first national bank as part of economic efforts to resist British domination.
Like Hollywood, Egyptian cinema, widely known as the Hollywood of the Middle East, was at first dominated by foreigners and minorities, partly because in the early days, people from “good families” did not go into acting and partly because of the creative insight being a relative outsider affords.
Though Jews were more often involved in production and direction, some of Egypt's best-loved stars were Jewish. One example was the singer-actress Leila Mourad, who captivated an entire generation with her ethereal voice and girl-next-door demeanour, and whose films even brought Jews and Arabs together in mandate Palestine.
Although Mourad's diva status was second only to that of Um Kulthum and she managed to hold on to her place in people's hearts until she died, the Arab-Israeli conflict cast a long shadow over her later career.
She took early retirement at the peak of her fame in the mid-1950s, perhaps troubled by the Syrian-led Arab boycott of her films and music, though Egypt's revolutionary regime defended her, and she was even briefly the first “voice of the revolution”. However, as a sign of her enduring popularity, a popular Ramadan bio-soap was made about Mourad – ironically, a Syrian production – which dealt sensitively with her Jewish heritage.
Looking back from my vantage point a couple of generations down the line, the thing that has most caught my eye as my awareness of Egyptian Jewry has deepened is just how closely involved Egyptian Jews were in Egyptian nationalism and the country's struggle for independence.
For example, the name Yaqub Sannu might not ring many bells today, but in the 19th century he was a big deal in Egypt's nascent nationalistic movement. This Egyptian Free Mason and Jew, whom my brother drew my attention to, established one of the country's first anti-imperialist publications, The Man in the Blue Glasses.
One extremely colourful revolutionary political agitator featured in Ramses's documentary is Henri Curiel, the son of Egypt who spoke poor Arabic and the son of a wealthy banker who became a communist revolutionary. Even after he was exiled from Egypt and stripped of his nationality, Curiel continued to feel Egyptian and supported the region's independence struggles from his base in France, especially in Algeria. According to Jews of Egypt, Curiel warned Nasser of the impending tripartite attack by France, Britain and Israel in 1956, though the Egyptian president did not take the warning seriously.
“I was surprised the most by the passion of the Jews of Egypt even after they were expelled. They never stopped loving their country. They never lost their sense of belonging,” Amir Ramses told me. “I made this film as a tribute to that time in history when Egypt was a cosmopolitan and tolerant country.”
Although there was a lot wrong with that era and I try to resist rosy-coloured nostalgia, narrow nationalism has caused Egypt and the Middle East to fall out of love with diversity and to become less tolerant towards difference. I hope in the future the region will be able to rediscover this spirit of acceptance.
This article first appeared in Haaretz on 24 March 2013.