The Jewishness of Cairo

In this long and whimsical Haaretz feature, Benny Ziffer sees Jewishness everywhere in Cairo, real or imaginary:

“I glanced at my watch. In about four hours, I was due to meet several Cairene friends, whom I’d promised to take on a tour of the Ibn Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo. Time after time I’d evaded such a trip, with the excuse that the nostalgia for the Jews who left Cairo wouldn’t be genuine and that it was impossible anyway to turn back history, and even if it were possible, it wouldn’t turn out to be worth the effort. Nevertheless, in order to prepare for the guided tour, I bought a recently published book on the subject, by historian Joel Beinin: “The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry: Culture, Politics and the Formation of a Modern Diaspora.” The lengthy bibliography includes such names as Israeli writer Ronit Matalon, the Jewish communist Henri Curiel who was murdered in mysterious circumstances, and the essayist Jacqueline Kahanoff (author of “Childhood in Egypt, (who was a tremendous inspiration for an entire generation of Sephardi intellectuals, who through her, discovered their roots in the east, which were really European roots (Kahanoff wrote in English and was much more of a journalist than the leader of a return-to-roots movement. I read her articles in the journal Keshet in the 1970s when I was at an age when I wasn’t able to fully understand them. The title of one of them,”We, the Levantines,” affected me, though I no longer have any recollection of what the article was about). It’s too bad that Jacqueline Kahanoff was totally co-opted by Ronit Matalon and others. Because as soon as I saw that she’d become the bon ton, I completely washed my hands of her. Yes, I admit it: This is the typical reaction of a snob who is incapable of enjoying anything that lots of other people are enjoying.

(…)“I’ve been to Fustat, the ancient quarter of Cairo where the Ibn Ezra Synagogue is located, countless times. I recently went there with my wife and together we watched a group of Poles pouncing on the souvenir stand at the entrance to the synagogue. A few bought postcards of the colorful Shiviti calendar, attracted by the quaint-looking Hebrew characters. One family lingered there longer than the others and I told myself that they must be Jews, or have Jewish ancestors and are rediscovering their roots. In the synagogue’s rear courtyard, we saw three Dutch youths studiously poring over their guidebook. Given the looks on their faces, I speculated that they were the progeny of anti-Semites who imagined that by being here they were somehow getting back at their parents.

“The postcard vendor was a cheerful young woman. When she saw us and apparently recognized us she pulled out a little piece of paper with a phone number on it: of her aunt in Rishon Letzion with whom she had lost contact. She asked my wife to call her for her upon her return to Israel because every time she tried to call herself, people answered in Hebrew and she didn’t understand what they were saying to her. Her name is Aisha and she is part-Jewish, on her mother’s side. The aunt had managed to arrange for her sister to marry a Jewish man in New Jersey, so she alone of the whole family was left here and was able to earn a living thanks to the kindness of the community president Carmen Weinstein, who gave her this job.

“The other person who works at the site is an inspector from the Egyptian Antiquities Authority, Abdel Hamid, who studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He opened his briefcase and pulled out computer printouts of the op-eds printed in Haaretz that Friday and asked for my help with some words he didn’t get in Doron Rosenblum’s piece. It was an article denouncing opponents of the disengagement. Abdel Hamid opened up the room containing the synagogue’s library, which is situated in a separate building in the yard. The library contains primarily holy books that were collected from Jewish institutions and Jewish homes that were abandoned, and it is one of three Hebrew libraries in the city. In an unusual move, the guards had opened the door leading to the mikveh in the cellar of the synagogue and the well from which the mikveh waters come. Some of the guards at the synagogue have a profitable little sideline from this well, in which, according to some vague tradition, the basket that carried baby Moses is said to be preserved. From the corner of my eye, I saw two innocent victims fair-haired tourists being led to the back yard. There they would gaze into the gloom of the well and nod their heads, and the guard would demand a special tip for this revelation.

“I waited for my friends, who were late in arriving, by the entrance to this ancient part of the city. The streets around Old Cairo are blocked and protected by military men, some of whom stand behind steel defenses with weapons cocked. The row of stores within the compound has been a tourist trap since time immemorial. The peddlers have all learned the special phrases a tourist likes to hear, such as, “Come have a look, very cheap price.” One shopkeeper who has evidently guessed where I’m from pulls out of his desk drawer a Jewish prayer book, or siddur, in French translation, whose first page is decorated with a beautiful lithograph. He found the book amid the recently sold contents of a Jewish home on Al-Jaysh Street. Along with the siddur, he found a bunch of old family photos in an envelope. The photos were taken in France or somewhere else in Europe. Apparently, the son of the people who lived in the house whose contents were sold had emigrated to Europe and sent from there a photograph of himself sitting in front of a shop, and a photograph of his wife and children. And there was another family photograph, evidently taken during a visit by the grandmother from Cairo to her son who had done well for himself in Europe. The hunched and wizened grandmother is in the middle, and the group is posed in front of a neatly tended garden. I turned over the photographs to see if I could find any trace of written information, but there was none. Mutely, the pictures told me the story of the disappearance of a Jewish family from Cairo. But what point is there in trying to turn back history, I asked myself again.

“Here is the proof that the Jewishness of Cairo is everywhere and not confined to any specific site. To me, for example, a totally Jewish place is the Sa’ad Zaghlul underground metro station and Al-Falaki Street that passes above it, because on Al-Falaki Street is the library of the French Cultural Center, an institution that in my mind is as Jewish as they come, even if not a single Jew still uses its services. After all, the deep and sometimes tragic bond that Oriental Jews once had with French culture is well known. And sadder than that is the slow fading away of this love that Jews once had for everything that France represents, and its replacement by hostility. Lost in such dreary musings, after coming out of the metro station, I mistakenly walked in the wrong direction and instead of getting closer to the French Cultural Center I moved farther away from it, and when I realized my mistake, I had to retrace my steps. I was holding out a sliver of hope of finding a book there that I had been searching for for quite some time: a novel entitled “Les Couleurs de l’Infamie” (“The Colors of Infamy”) by Albert Cossery, a French-Jewish writer from Cairo, who writes novels about Cairo (and excellent ones at that, apparently), though he lives in total anonymity in France. I wouldn’t have known anything about him either had I not taken the bus to Be’er Sheva one winter and sat next to someone who was reading a book of his that he warmly recommended. So I thought that this might be my chance to take a peek at it, if it was really on the shelf there.”

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