Too Jewish for Cairo University

David Hamaoui knew there was no future for him in Egypt. He wanted to go to the university in Cairo. His teacher had told him that he should change his name from David to Daoud to make sure he would be admitted as David was too Jewish a name. That was enough for David to make a decision. So, in 1962, as a young man David decided to leave. (Via JIMENA March newsletter).

Before 1948 Jews in Egypt were very prosperous. Jews owned most of the big department stores, financial institutions and big businesses.

“I was sleeping and I heard a banging on the door,” he says. It was 1948 and he was six years old. The Egyptian secret police [el mokhabarat] had come to search his family’s Cairo home. “There were half a dozen of them. We were all scared and my father was even more so. I remember his face as white as the wall behind him.”

In the previous days the house had been filled with celebration over the engagement of David’s sister, Rosette. A neighbor had told the secret police that David’s family was holding Zionist meetings and the police came in the night to search for evidence and weapons.

They tore the house apart, David says. They ripped the mattresses in two and pulled outthe contents of drawers while the family huddled on the couch.

The same morning David’s father had a heart attack. David thinks the stress of the search brought the attack on. “My father was a very strong man.” For the next four years David’s father the patron of a textile-manufacturing firm and real estate developer,battled with his unhealthy heart and passed away at age 48.

“I also remember, as a Jew in Cairo during the revolution in July of 1952, that Cairo was covered in smoke,” David says. It was in the days after King Farouk had been deported to Italy and Nasser had taken control. “My father had passed away a few months before the revolution and we were alone with my mother. We didn’t know what our fate would be with Nasser. We knew that he was anti-Israel and anti-Jewish. So we were scared.”

In 1956, when the Suez Canal war broke out, David and his family hid in the countryside outside of Cairo. He remembers the roar of the planes and the crackle of the anti-aircraft guns. He remembers he hid under the bed. He helped to paint the light bulbs blue so that the planes would not see the house from above. During the same period Nasser started deporting Jews and nationalized all their belongings. David’s sister and brother- in-law were forced to leave. They got on the first plane out of Egypt with 20 Egyptian pounds; their bank accounts were closed; their home abandoned.

David’s family was spared. “My mother was a widow with small children. They didn’t think we were a threat.”

In 1962, when David left, he was confused. “I didn’t know what I was thinking.” He first went to France where HIAS (a Jewish agency, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society) received him. “They were sent from God,” he says.

But he didn’t want to stay in France. “I was stopped by the French police while waiting for a bus and was asked for my identification. At the time they were looking for Algerians. I didn’t like it and decided not to stay in France and go to the United States”

So, again through HIAS, he made it to Syracuse, New York, where he saw snow for the first time, and met his wife Mireille whom he married in 1966.

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This website is dedicated to preserving the memory of the near-extinct Jewish communities, of the Middle East and North Africa, documenting the stories of the Jewish refugees and their current struggle for recognition and restitution.

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