The Egypt that I remember

More and more Jews from Arab countries are writing their memoirs. Invariably, their childhood is idyllic, but brutally cut short by events beyond their control. Here’s a short extract translated from an article in French by Sam Mezrahi from Cairo. (With thanks: Moise Rahmani)

“It was more than 50 years ago and I am remembering it, but for a long period I tried not to remember it. Not to look back, but to go forward, rebuild myself after the exodus…Forget a past that had turned its back on me.

“Make a future for oneself, to try to put down new roots, while erasing the old ones, so as not to fall apart. Most of all, not to stumble and re-open sentimental wounds – you never know how deep the scars will be.

“Here I am on the threshold of my 60th year and I feel brave enough to abandon myself to the gentle nostalgia of my childhood. I thought my memories would be blurred but they are coming back to me in a random whirl of smells and sounds and feelings – like a flashback which gradually comes into focus.

The author reminisces about his visits to the Heliopolis Sporting Club where he learned to swim, the assortment of goodies sold by the street vendors, the incomparably flavourful dates, yellow melons, Alphonso mangoes, pomegranates, grapes of every hue, apricots, the vegetables the dishes, the desserts, the street theatre and entertainers. He recalls the first time he swam across the Nile and back, bathing in the sea along with gentle dolphins. Although educated in French or English, the Jewish children spoke Arabic with their Egyptian nannies.

“The Egyptians got along well with the other communities – the Christian Copts, the Greek Orthodox, the Armenians, Turks who used to run the Ottoman empire, Syrian Muslims or Catholics, Lebanese, and Sudanese who used to do the menial jobs an”d the few English or French stationed in Egypt after having fought over the Egyptian protectorate with Muhammed Ali and who then backed Montgomery against Rommel in the Second World War.

“The Jews had their own Quarter, the Haret-el Yahoud but did not stand out and mingled with everyone else. Differences were accepted. They were not a provocation but served to enrich life. Each borrowed customs, culture or traditions from the other. After a death I remember my parents would say Rabaina Kebir.

Egypt was then the cultural lighthouse of the Arab-Muslim world. Its films, musicals, novels and plays spread all over the Arabic-speaking world. Its actors were famous well beyond Egypt’s boundaries.

“…And then we were taken by surprise. The sorry Suez campaign in 1956 brutally put an end to the good life.(…) Nasser expelled most of the non-Muslims who had lived there for generations, confiscating their property without notice, without compensation.

“Time has passed and with hindsight one can see these events as inevitable, written in the stars. In spite of their brutality we were lucky not to have been subject to the atrocities all too common nowadays. Hamdoullalah!

“I still have tender feelings for the Egyptian people, who generally-speaking were loyal, never bloodthirsty and non-violent except when they were pushed into violence by false prophets. Nevertheless I remember crying on the Swissair refugee plane that took my family to Geneva, when the airhostess gave me my first glass of exile water, fizzy and unpleasant for a child of ten. I remember thinking,” everything is about to change – even drinking water will be an ordeal.”

“Soon I will be sixty and in life’s journey I was a fascinated but reluctant passenger, at the mercy of wind and sail, knowing neither the destination nor the port, on my way to the way, travelling for the sake of travelling.

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