Bat Ye’or has carved out an impressive name for herself as the pioneering researcher into ‘Dhimmitude’. Less well known is the saga of her exile from Egypt in 1956. In this interview with Jerry Gordon in the New English Review, she gives a graphic but lyrical description of her family’s dislocation. (With thanks: Eliyahu)
Jerry Gordon: Bat Ye’or, thank you for consenting to this interview.
Bat Ye’or: Thank you for inviting me.
Jerry Gordon: You were born and raised in Egypt. Could you tell us about your family’s heritage?
Bat Ye’or: I was born in a family of mixed heritage. My mother was French and grew up in Paris. Her mother, who was British, had married a Frenchman. They were emancipated and non-observant Jews, well integrated into French culture, counting among their family painters and writers. Members of my mother’s family were also living in Egypt and were prominent leaders of the Alexandrine Jewish community.The picture was very different on my father’s side. The Orebi were observant Italian Jews, who spoke Arabic, several other languages and were less Westernized. My grand-father received the title of Bey under the last Ottoman sultan. He died when my father was thirteen years old.Both families were related and belonged to the same educated and wealthy Westernized Jewish bourgeoisie, sharing the same social milieu. My mother loved reading and followed the cultural events in France. She gave us her taste for literature. We always had plenty of books at home. As far as I can remember, I was always reading.
After the Italian racial laws were decreed by Mussolini in 1938, my father requested Egyptian nationality that had been established only in 1924. Usually it was denied to Jews, but he did obtain it. He could hardly guess then, that less then 20 years later he would leave Egypt stripped of everything, including his nationality.
Jerry Gordon: What was it like growing up as a Jew in Egypt prior to the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948?
Bat Ye’or: In my childhood we were more worried by the Nazi advance toward Alexandria and the war in Europe. In Egypt we knew about the extermination of European Jewry, my mother worried about her parents living in occupied Paris, wearing the yellow star. Her two brothers and uncles were hiding in the so-called free zone. When the Germans approached Alexandria, the populace around us grew menacing and we left Cairo and hide in the countryside. Later, after the war, the Muslim Brotherhood and the nationalists triggered a wave of assassinations and violent demonstrations against the British and mainly against Jews. I only knew of the ordeals suffered by the Jews living in the poor quarters from my parents. We lived in a residential area, with many Europeans. We were protected children, going out only with our nannies and chauffeur.
My parents recommended that we never speak of Israel or of any policy even with friends. We had the feeling of being spied upon, even by our Muslim servant. Then when Jews were arbitrarily jailed or expelled from their jobs, or the country, a climate of fear and insecurity shrouded us. Violent pogroms erupted; mobs killed Jews in the street, raped Jewish women, vandalized Jewish shops, and burned Jewish schools and hospitals. All Jewish assets were sequestered, including those of my father. Jews were fired from administrative jobs and liberal professions. We lived with the fear that life could end at any moment.
During WWII, the Jewish Palestinian soldiers in the British army had trained the young Egyptian Jews for self-defense and as Zionists. Hence the Jewish quarter could be defended when attacked and young Zionists could clandestinely reach Palestine.
Jerry Gordon: After the Revolt of the Free Officers Movement in 1952 and toppling of the aristocracy under King Farouk I, were restrictions placed on the Egyptian Jewish community?
Bat Ye’or: The restrictions of 1947-48 were never totally removed. Jews could hardly find a job and were under police supervision. The anti-Jewish hatred became customary, especially with the arrivals of numerous German Nazi criminals who organized the anti Jewish policy of the new government. Jews were attacked and humiliated in public places and they could not answer or defend themselves. They found themselves at the mercy of anonymous denunciations. Young people realized they had no future in Egypt and many left for Israel or to study in Europe. The community was already organizing the last phase of its 3.000 years of history.
Jerry Gordon: What affect did the Israeli spy scandal, the Lavon Affair of 1954, have on the status of Egypt’s Jews and your family? It increased the animosity against the Jews, their segregation, isolation and close watch by the secret police. What happened to you and your family after the outbreak of the Suez Crisis and First Sinai War in 1956?
Bat Ye’or: The anti-Jewish apartheid system deepened. Jews were expelled from clubs, forbidden to go to restaurants, cinemas and public places. Many were immediately expelled from the country or thrown into jail. The secret police would come at night to arrest them. Others, like my mother, were under house arrest and their bank assets frozen. Their telephones were suppressed. Many Jews were isolated and could not communicate. Many left the country immediately, abandoning everything. I remember seeing their flats and beautiful villas ransacked. Each one was leaving in secret, fearing to be prevented from leaving their country which had become a jail.
Just before my mother was put under house arrest, I accompanied her to the bank where she quickly withdrew her jewels. We sold our flat for nothing since the pillage of Jewish homes had lowered prices. I choose twenty books among the hundreds we had and we sold all the rest. This was heart-breaking, as I always wanted to be a writer. I had accumulated many diaries since an early age, and later essays and literary criticisms. I realized that I was witnessing the agony of the Egyptian Jewish community and I made notes for a book. One night I burnt them all in the chimney. It was like dying. I knew we could only leave with two cases each and that the censors would read every piece of paper.
Families were dispersed in all directions. One sister went to London with her husband and child, another planned to go to Belgium, cousins went to Brazil, others went to Switzerland and France. As people were leaving secretly, I never knew whether I would be seeing them for the last time. I was living through the death of a world, not knowing if I would survive the next day. While the mob rejoiced in pillaging, I observed closely the inner destruction of family, friendships, bonds, society and the dignity and resolve of the victims.
By then, I had very few friends remaining. For me they belonged to a beloved and disappearing world that was dying with a part of my life, where everything being so transient also became so precious. In the last months preceding our departure, I walked alone throughout Cairo and Alexandria, their old quarters, their museums and every place that now was deserted of friends and family. For years I was fascinated by Egyptology, art and history. I knew I would never see these treasures again.
We left at night in secret. My father and mother could hardly walk. Thanks to a lawyer my father had at last sold a parcel of land. The proceeds from this sale, together with my mother’s jewels were sent out of the country through a clandestine channel. The Swiss consulate gave us a Nansen passport since Egyptian Jews were allowed to leave Egypt only on condition that they renounce their nationality and all their belongings in Egypt and never come back. We all signed such a declaration.
We had reservations on a KLM flight. We were kept at the airport for hours, our bodies searched, our cases emptied on the floor, insulted, humiliated and threatened by an Egyptian Sudanese officer who was cracking a whip (curbash) around us. My meager twenty Egyptian pounds were confiscated. Finally, they let us depart. We stopped at Amsterdam where my other sister came from Belgium, with her husband and baby to see us and tell us that money and jewels were safely deposited in a bank.It was strange to see them in an Amsterdam hotel. We were now refugees, homeless, stateless, in a world where we knew no one. We were full of apprehension on the threshold of a new life, where we would destroy our past to build the future. It was my first night in exile.
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