Sunday, May 15, 2011

Egypt: Two Views of the Jewish Past

Cairo, Egypt. Haret El-Yehud in 1931. Photo: Keystone-Mast Collection, UCR/California Museum of Photography, University of California at Riverside.

Egypt: Two Views of the Jewish Past

I am indebted to the blog Point of No Return for links to the following two articles about (formerly) Jewish Egypt. The first, an article from Al-Ahram online, takes a tour of the Haret El-Yehud, what was once Cairo's "Jewish Alley," a site of Jewish habitation for centuries. It concludes with the ambiguous line "Over the past few years, the Supreme Council of Antiquities funded the restoration of most significant Jewish landmarks in Cairo. One thought that the council’s attempt was to enrich Egypt’s heritage. However, the quarter seems to have remained the same. If the Jewish buildings have been restored, they are empty of the people who once filled them."

Click here see beautiful images of some of the Jewish sites remaining in Cairo and Alexandria by photographer Zbigniew Kosc, and especially the 18th-century Italian inspired Haim Capusi Synagogue of Haret El-Yehud (prints of Kosc photographs can also be ordered). For more on the synagogue see: David Cassuto, The Rabbi Haim Capusi Synagogue in Cairo & its Uniqueness," (in Hebrew with English summary). (Misgav Yerushalayim, Institute for Research on the Sephardi and Oriental Jewish Heritage: Jerusalem, 1987). Unlike the more famous Ben Ezra and Ramban synagogues, The Capusi synagogue has not been restored.

Cairo, Egypt. Hayyim Capusi Synagogue of Haret El-Yehud. Photo: Zbigniew Kosc (2007).

Cairo, Egypt. Rambam Synagogue in 1948. Photo: Levana Zamir, The Golden Era of the Jews of Egypt.

In these days of attention to the Palestinian exodus from the land incorporated into the State of Israel - land that many Arabs assumed they would shortly regain - it is important to remember the hundreds of thousands of Jewish refugees from Egypt, Libya and elsewhere in the Arab world, who were uprooted from their homes during and after the 1948 and 1956 wars.

The second article presented here, from Foreign Policy, is a reminder of how different Egypt - and especially Alexandria - was a half century ago, when bikinis and other beachwear were more common than hijab. what the future brings for the city - and country- remains unknown. "The pictures from Moreno's collection, taken on the 1959 visit and several beach trips in previous years, capture the last days of an Alexandria that would be all but unrecognizable today, in which affluent young Egyptians of Arab, Sephardic, and European descent frolic in a landscape of white sand beaches, sailboats, and seaside cabanas. Two years later, in 1961, the structural steel company Moreno's father ran was nationalized by Nasser, and his family left for the United States shortly thereafter. Moreno, who went on to found a semiconductor company in Los Angeles, wouldn't visit his birthplace until he was well into middle age."

Street Smart: The Jewish alley of Old Cairo
Ahram Online visits part of Egypt’s lost heritage, the Jewish alley of Old Cairo, known as Haret El-Yahud by Farah Montasser (posted Wednesday 11 May 2011)

The journey begins at one of the gates of Old Cairo, Bab El-Fotouh (Renaissance Gate) that dates back to the Fatimid dynasty. To the right, the small street Seknet Borgwan (Borgwan District) that takes you to Darb El-Asfar (Yellow Alley) and Beit El-Seheimi (El-Seheimi House). Just next to Bab El-Fotouh, to the left, is the enchanted El-Akmar Mosque, built in 1120 AD. Opposite the mosque, the entire right side is full of small copperware houses and small antique shops that sell old home appliances that date back to the 1940s and 1950s.

Further down that pedestrian road, El-Moez Street is on the left with Le Riad Boutique Hotel, which opened in the past few years, to the right. "The entire area of Bab El-Fotouh and El-Moez Street has been renovated recently to attract tourists to this area of Old Cairo,” a policeman told Ahram Online.

Leading the way to Haret El-Yahud (the Jewish alley), the policeman stood at the corner of a narrow street, Khoronfoush Street, and pointed right to where the quarter is. Khoronfoush Street marks the first residential area outside the alley, where Jewish families once lived. It is also known as the former home of a six-year-old boy, Gamal Abdel Nasser, former president of Egypt, and his family.

“Being brought up within the Jewish community in 1936, didn’t stop him from forcing the Jews out of country from 1956 to 1967, on a 'Never to Return' agreement," argues communist thinker Youssef Darwish and journalist Jack Hasun in their book Jews Of The Nile. One of the local inhabitants of the small alley says he witnessed the departure of one of his Jewish neighbours. “Abdel Nasser forced the Jews of the alley out, allowing each family 20 Egyptian pounds only at the time, while leaving their fortunes and businesses behind,” said Hagg (Mr.) Assad.

Nasser’s evacuation of Egypt’s Jews , argues Joel Beinin in his book The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry, was borne from the embedding within Egyptian society of a large spy network from 1945, prior to Israel’s establishment as a country in 1948 following the defeat of Arabs in the Israeli-Arab War.

The network’s main mission, entitled “Suzanna”, was carried out in 1954. The mission involved bombing the main post office of Alexandria, the American Information Services Office in Cairo, Cairo’s Railway Station, in addition to a number of major cinemas across Alexandria and Cairo. In December 1954, the Egyptian police forces arrested the perpetrators. Following Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1955, Great Britain, France and Israel declared war on Egypt in 1956, triggering the idea to evacuate Egypt’s Jews.

Assad opened his carpenter warehouse in 1948 and has lived in the quarter for his entire life. “I had a lot of Jewish friends in the alley. They mostly worked in gold and silver and left their businesses to their young employees,” he told Ahram Online. “Those young employees eventually sold their businesses to new owners,” he stated.

Khoronfoush Street leads to both Haret El-Yahud and Haret El-Shaarani, which “once stood as Midan El-Kholafaa (Rulers’ Square) during the Fatimid dynasty next to the Castle of the West in the Muslim Empire,” says the policeman. The street takes you a few steps down into Haret Khoronfoush (Khoronfoush Quarter), which is full of small bakeries and local food shops, including falafel and seafood sandwiches, and the famous Egyptian dish, koshari.

The road to the Jewish quarter, known today as Darb El-Masreyeen (Alley of the Egyptians), get narrower and narrower. The Jewish Quarter was renowned as the home of the best jewellers of all Cairo, yet today only a few remain and have nothing to do with Jews.

Once upon a time in Egypt: Beaches and bikinis from when Alexandria was Club Med.

The late 1950s marked the end of an era in Alexandria that had begun in the late 19th century, when the port - then the largest on the eastern Mediterranean - emerged as one of the world's great cosmopolitan cities. Europeans -- Greeks, Italians, Armenians, and Germans -- had gravitated to Alexandria in the mid-19th century during the boom years of the Suez Canal's construction, staying through the British invasion of the port in 1882 and the permissive rule of King Farouk in the 1930s and 1940s. Foreign visitors and Egyptians alike flocked to the city's beaches in the summers, where revealing bathing suits were as ordinary as they would be extraordinary today.

But by mid-century, King Farouk - a lackadaisical ruler in the best of times - had grown deeply unpopular among Egyptians and was deposed in a CIA-backed coup in 1952. Cosmopolitan Alexandria's polyglot identity -- half a dozen languages were spoken on the city's streets -- and indelible links to Egypt's colonial past were an uncomfortable fit with the pan-Arab nationalism that took root under President Gamal Abdel Nasser in the late 1950s and 1960s. "[W]hat is this city of ours?" British novelist Lawrence Durrell, who served as a press attaché in the British Embassy in Alexandria during World War II, wrote despairingly in 1957 in the first volume of The Alexandria Quartet, his tetralogy set in the city during its heyday as an expatriate haven. "In a flash my mind's eye shows me a thousand dust-tormented streets. Flies and beggars own it today -- and those who enjoy an intermediate existence between either." By the time of Hosni Mubarak's rule (and largely in response to his secularism), Egypt's second-largest city had become synonymous with devout, and deeply conservative, Islam.

Read the full article and see all the pictures here.

See also: Letter from Alexandria: Grasping for the past, falling into the future by Sonia Farid in Al Arabiya (Wednesday, 11 May 2011)

Of Alexandria, she writes: "It is indeed very intriguing that the most liberal of Egypt’s cities has now become one of its most conservative and I sometimes think it is the former that led to the latter.

A city as diverse and multicultural as Alexandria was an ideal battleground for all those who took it upon themselves to eliminate “vice” and promote “virtue” and erasing a centuries-long history of tolerance and coexistence was the only way to do so. I am not going to go about babbling again about the role the regime played in fostering such bi-polar animosities throughout its 30 years of “leave them breathless” policies because this has now become quite ipso facto.

I would rather trace the whole thing more than 50 years back when the post 1952 Revolution regime embarked on what seemed like a purging campaign that might have had Jews as its main target, yet by doing so managed to undermine the basic social structure upon which Alexandria was based. Whether on purpose or unintentionally, the Nasser government established a direct link between the creation of the state of Israel and the presence of Jews and acted accordingly, announcing, “All Jews are Zionists and enemies of the state.”

As Jews, born and raised in Egypt, suddenly became a threat to national security and consequently expelled and having their property confiscated, the first nail was driven into the coffin of Alexandria’s religious and ethnic makeup. The disappearance of the Jewish community in Alexandria heralded the city’s fall as a model of diversity and shortly thereafter other communities followed, not necessarily because they were persecuted or kicked out, but simply because it was no longer the friendly homeland it had once been. The black-and-white era had begun and their “grey” identity had no place in it.

They are gone, but the purge is not over… only the target changed. And don’t fall into the trap of thinking that the Coptic community is the only opponent because all Egyptians who strive for a civil state are. It is a long process of alienation that ascribes to the same dichotomy promoted by former regimes and that aims to alienate any party considered “other,” be that Copts, Seculars, Leftists, moderate Muslims… you name it!"

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