Month: July 2015

Goren’s Egyptian paradise at variance with Aciman’s

Jews in Egypt ( Photo: Nebi Daniel)

“Alexandrian Summer is a return to a mythical past, to a lost
paradise that was not really a paradise but that, being lost, has, over
the years, acquired all the makings of one.” So says Andre Aciman in his introduction to the novel  by Yitzhak Gormezano Goren, reproduced in The Tablet. But his own family’s last year in Alexandria was anything but paradisiac:

 One’s childhood is always
yearned for, and this is young Yitzhak’s—or Robert, as he is called in
the book—paradise.

I still remember our last year in Alexandria. By then, our assets had
been frozen and my father’s factory nationalized, and even our cars
were no longer ours, though we were allowed to drive them. Our days were
numbered, and we knew it.

Or did we? My father claimed that he would have remained in Egypt
even without an income. Come to think of it I myself could not even
conceive of a life outside Egypt. Our living room and in the end even
the round room in the back were packed with suitcases, and still all of
us were convinced this was all for show, as if by going through the
motions of packing and pretending we were indeed leaving, we were merely
placating a hostile deity who would, at the last instant, spare us the
final leave taking and tell us it was all a test, just a test. We were
never going away.

Ironically, that final year is the one I remember best, because it
was the most tumultuous I remember my grandmother and her sister, my
great aunt, and I remember the bickering with neighbors and the tussles
with my brother and the fights between my parents, and the loud screams
when our servants fought with those of our neighbors; everyone’s temper
was volcanic that year, because it was clear that things were falling
apart and that we were on our last legs and still couldn’t believe that
the end was near.

But I remember Saturdays. We weren’t religious, though I recall my
great aunt turning on the radio loud on Saturday mornings to hear songs
in both Yiddish and Ladino. She preferred the Ashkenazi songs and
prayers, and to the sound of these songs I remember she would start
preparing for Saturday’s lunch, because there were always guests on
Saturdays. And even if we didn’t exaggerate the Sabbath spirit, still
there was a festive air about the household, and our cook Abdou, who
spoke Ladino, would put on his cleanest outfit and utter those few words
in Hebrew that he knew far better than I did. In Gormezano Goren’s own
words, “A pleasant breeze blew from the sea. The tumult of bathers
sounded from afar: Muslims, Christians, and Jews desecrating the
Sabbath. On the street, cars honked hysterically. The entire city
rumbled and roared, and nevertheless a Sabbath serenity was felt all

Every Alexandrian remembers this way of life and knows it is forever lost. At the very least, Alexandrian Summer gives us one final, splendid season in this mythical metropolis.

Read article in full 

The Jewish lotus-eaters of Alexandria

Israeli artists create virtual Iranian embassy

A plot of land lies vacant in Tel Aviv: it was intended in the 1970s for the Iranian embassy to Israel – before the Ayatollahs’ regime declared that the annihilation of Israel was its strategic goal. Now a group of Israeli artists are trying to make the Iranian embassy into more than a pipe-dream. NPR reports:

Israeli artist Matan Pincus sits in the ‘Iranian embassy in Jerusalem’ (Photo: Daniel Estrin)

Everything in Baradarian’s shop seems to remind him of the world he
left behind. Take pistachios: The U.S. bans the import of Iranian
pistachios; Israel does, too. So, the pistachios in Baradarian’s shop
come from California.

He says the California variety is second-rate.

that sanctions on Iran are set to be lifted, maybe Iranian pistachios
will eventually make their way back onto the market,” he says. Even so,
he adds, that would not make the nuclear deal with Iran worth it.

“Pistachios won’t solve the problem,” he says. “Iran says it wants to destroy us.”

There’s a paradox here: Iran is hostile to the Jewish state, but it also is home to an ancient Jewish community.

Baradarian keeps in touch with his relatives in Iran on the phone
and on the Internet. Jews in Iran can travel discreetly, via a third
country, to visit relatives in Israel. Some even pack specialty Iranian
tea blends to sell to Baradarian.

Small numbers of Iranian Jews
are still moving to Israel each year. In an ideal world, they could be a
good bridge between Israel and Iran. But an Israeli government
spokesman refused to discuss immigration statistics, so as not to anger
the Iranian government and endanger Iran’s Jewish community.

Penhasi, a Jewish immigrant in Israel who runs an online magazine in
Farsi, says he has readers back in Iran. But he says Iranian
regime-affiliated websites have posted his photo and accused him of
being an Israeli spy.

“I am a simple citizen, Iranian-Israeli
citizen,” Penhasi says. “I love my country, I love this country. I hope
to see peace between the two nations. That’s all.”

between Iran and Israel weren’t always this bad. During the rule of the
Shah in the 1970s, Iran purchased a plot of land in an upscale Tel Aviv
district to build a new embassy. Then came the 1979 Iranian Revolution,
and diplomatic ties broke off.

That land still belongs to Iran.
Today, there’s a small playground and benches, but Israel won’t let
anything be built — in case Iran ever renews ties with Israel and builds
its embassy.

Read article in full

PBS projects reductive Moroccan history


The transcript of a televised PBS report, this article is an example of  how journalists and Moroccan officials work together to write a sloppy and reductive history of the Jews – a mix of half-truths and cliches –  designed to project ‘coexistence’ and a positive image of the kingdom. My comments in italics:

For many people, Judaism in the Middle East conjures images of
discord. But the Islamic nation of Morocco is an exception — it’s a
place where Jews are not just tolerated but embraced in some circles as
an important part of the country’s history and culture.

before the arrival of Islam in Morocco, Jews called this North African
coastal nation their home. About 400 years ago, the Moroccan Jewish
community forged a strong connection and alliance with the country’s
ruling dynasty, the Alaouites.

A gross oversimplification. The so-called philosemitic Moulay Ismael sent his troops into the Meknes mellah to plunder Jewish possessions in order to finance his disastrous war against the Turks in Algiers (Assaraf, p 18). Jews and Muslims suffered from his sons’ wars of succession.  The 19th century saw a major wave of Jewish emigration.The push factors include the precariousness and degradation of ‘dhimmi’ status and the pressure of forced conversion to Islam.

In the 20th century, persecutions
across Europe brought new waves of Jewish immigrants to Morocco seeking
safe haven. Their hope was not in vain — in 1940, when the
Nazi-controlled French government in Morocco issued anti-Semitic
decrees, the Alaouite Sultan Mohammed V rejected the racist laws.

one oft-repeated story, he refused to ask his Jewish subjects to wear
the yellow stars. “There are no Jews in Morocco,” he reportedly said.
“There are only subjects.”

‘Waves’ is an exaggeration. And what about the existence of labour campson Moroccan soil in which Jewish prisoners were tortured to death? The ‘yellow star’ story is pure legend. It is simply not true that Mohammed V rejected the racial laws, he signed every Vichy decree.

Today in Morocco, Jews enjoy equal
rights and privileges. One of King Mohammed VI’s senior advisers, André
Azoulay, is Jewish. Morocco also has state-funded Jewish schools and
Jewish religious courts.

Andre Azoulay is the King’s chief PR adviser, and is responsible for generating articles like this one.

At the Jewish courts, called Bet Din,
civil cases are heard and adjudicated by rabbis. Morocco’s Bet Din is
the only such Jewish court system outside Israel, officially recognized
as an alternative legal body and housed within the same complex as
Muslim courts.

Not true: ‘Batei Din’ exist wherever there is a Jewish community. 

Despite the tolerant atmosphere, Morocco’s Jewish
population is steadily decreasing. Although Moroccan Jews are largely
free from the persecution and animosity that they may face in other
Muslim nations, there was a series of suicide bombings on May 16, 2003 in Casablanca that targeted sites of Jewish life and killed three Jews.

 The decrease has been not steady but quite dramatic, and preceded the 2003 Casablanca terrorist attacks by about 50 years. 

Jews have been flowing to Israel, Europe and the Americas for religious
reasons, fear of persecution and to better their economic situation. At
its height in the 1940s, Morocco’s Jewish population exceeded 250,000;
today, only about 4,000 remain.

The Jewish community has mostly
abandoned its formerly vibrant existence in Moroccan cities like
Tangier, Fez, Salé and Tetouan. Only the city of Casablanca maintains a
significant population and is now the center of Moroccan Jewish life.

boasts 17 active synagogues, three Jewish schools, an extensive Jewish
museum, and a community center that cares for the sick and elderly. But
the mellahs (Jewish quarters) of other Moroccan cities stand empty or

A semblance of truth, at last. 

Because of the mass exodus, some in Morocco are racing
to preserve the country’s Jewish culture and community. At the Jewish
Museum in Casablanca, which is the only one in the Arab world, Muslim
curator Zhor Rehihil is passing on the history of Morocco’s Jews to all
who visit.

Read article in full

The Jewish lotus-eaters of Alexandria

 A novel by Yitzhak Gormezano Goren harks back to the paradise of cosmopolitan Alexandria, where Jews raced horses, gambled and hopped from cafe to cafe. Review by Gerald Sorin in Haaretz (with thanks: Lily):

Stanley Beach, Alexandria


In the late 1970s, when Yitzhak Gormezano Goren was working on
“Alexandrian Summer,” his first novel, he was young and daring enough to
omit allusions to the Holocaust, Palestine and the kibbutz – themes
that suffused the novels of great Israeli writers including A. B.
Yehoshua, Amos Oz and Aharon Appelfeld. He did not refuse to engage with
these prevailing literary motifs or “Zionist questions,” as he has
recently called them; he simply chose to write about the world in which
he spent the first 10 years of his life – the opulent and glamorous
Egyptian city of Alexandria.

By using alternating points of view Goren delivers
an arresting story shaped by the same individual, during two periods in
his life, 20 years apart. We see, and, through the author’s narrative
magic, almost hear the voice of Robby, a 10-year-old boy growing up in
an insular, illusory cocoon of upper-middle class Sephardic Jews, and
the reminiscences and reflections of Robby as an adult.

Some critics have incorrectly labeled “Alexandrian
Summer” as fictionalized autobiography. The novel is certainly
self-referential in that the author, like Robby, grew up in Alexandria
in a well-to-do family, which – also like Robby’s – fled Egypt in 1951
to transplant itself in Israel. But there is much more in this story
that is the product of the author’s imagination.

Readers will be quickly drawn into a city the author
describes in lush, voluptuous terms as a “paradise by the sea” where
sensuality is pervasive. One could argue that Alexandria itself – and
not a thinly disguised Goren, or Robby – is the essential character of
this book. Though a boy of sweetly attractive innocence, Robby is simply
not the most important figure in the story. The Sephardic Hamdi-Ali
clan, including two sons and a daughter, is for the most part the focus
of Goren’s rich invention. They, along with Robby’s parents, Salem, an
Arab servant, and several gossipy neighbors provide the narrative and
the meaning of “Alexandrian Summer.”

We meet the Hamdi-Ali family in 1951 as new summer
tenants in Robby’s parents’ spacious house, walking distance from the
beach. Joseph Hamdi-Ali, handsome and patriarchal, is a respected famous
former jockey. His name and Turkish background, however, are a matter
of both wonder and doubt in the minds of other cosmopolitan Jewish
vacationers from Cairo, who converse in French, Italian, Spanish, Greek,
English and Ladino. Note the absence of Arabic.

Joseph has never recovered from the death of his
horse, which he appears to have loved even more than his wife. His
thoroughbred gone, his career as a jockey collapsed, he now counts on
his eldest son, David, a good-looking, obsessive and arrogant hotshot
jockey, to fulfill his hopes. At the same time, Joseph ignores his
11-year-old-son Victor. Often humiliated and sometimes beaten by his
distressingly impatient older brother, Victor, suffering and apparently
“disturbed,” seduces Robby and his friends into potentially harmful
homosexual activities, while several sets of absent parents are busy
playing cards or betting on the ponies.

These Alexandria Jews are cosmopolitan, and while
not entirely secular, they are more likely to be found gambling,
café-hopping and touring, than attending to their children or in the
synagogue, even on the Sabbath.

Read article in full (registration required)

‘Accept the Jewish state, and persecution ceases’

He’s an Arab-Israeli-Christian from Jaffa, working as an Israeli foreign ministry diplomat, who has some profound truths about the Middle East to tell Adi Schwartz in The Tablet. The key to change, says George Deek, is ‘connected to our ability as Arabs to accept the legitimacy of others.’ Read the entire fascinating interview.

 George Deek: 800, 000 Jews intimidated into leaving Arab world

Why, of all jobs and professions he could pick, did Deek chose to
align himself with one part of his identity, which is set in such a
conflict with other parts of his identity? A key to the answer lies
perhaps in the fact that stories like his can happen only in free and
open societies. His decision to fight for Israel and pursue the career
of a diplomat is in a way a fight for himself—a multilayered persona,
struggling to find his own voice in a double minority situation: Arab in
a Jewish state and Christian in a predominantly Muslim Arab world.
Israel’s survival guarantees his own survival.

“If there is no place in the Middle East for a Jewish State, than
there is no place for anyone who is different,”
he said. (My emphasis) “And this is
why we see today persecution of Yazidis, Christians, Baha’i, Sunni
against Shia and vice versa, and even Sunni against other Sunni who do
not follow Islam exactly the same way. The key to change is connected
deeply to our ability as Arabs to accept the legitimacy of others.
Therefore, the Jewish State is our biggest challenge, because it has a
different nationality, religion, and culture. Jews pose a challenge
because as a minority they insist on their right to be different. The
day we accept the Jewish State as it is, all other persecution in the
Middle East will cease.

It is clear to him that the problem with Israel, in the eyes of the
Arab world, is not its policies but its identity. If Israel were a
Muslim state, he says, nobody would care about its policies; after all,
most Muslim states treat their citizens much worse, and no Arab cries
foul at other abuses, wars or cases of occupation in the Middle East.
“You don’t need to be anti-Israeli to acknowledge the humanitarian
disaster of the Palestinians in 1948,” he said. “The fact that I have to
Skype with relatives in Canada who don’t speak Arabic, or a cousin in
an Arab country that still has no citizenship despite being a third
generation there, is a living testimony to the tragic consequences of
the war.”

But at the same time, he continued, some 800,000 Jews were
intimidated into fleeing the Arab world, leaving it almost empty of
Jews. And the list goes on: When India and Pakistan were established,
about 15 million people were transferred; following World War II some 12
million Germans were displaced; and only recently, more than 2 million
Christians were expelled from Iraq. The chances of any of those groups
to return to their homes are non-existent.

Why is it then that the tragedy of the Palestinians is still alive in
today’s politics? “It seems to me to be so,” he said, “because the
Nakba has been transformed from a humanitarian disaster to a political
offensive. The commemoration of the Nakba is no longer about remembering
what happened, but about resenting the mere existence of the state of

“It is demonstrated most clearly in the date chosen to commemorate
it, May 15, the day after Israel proclaimed its independence. By that
the Palestinian leadership declared that the disaster is not the
expulsion, the abandoned villages or the exile. The Nakba in their eyes
is the creation of Israel. They are saddened less by the humanitarian
catastrophe of the Palestinians, and more by the revival of the Jewish
state. In other words: they do not mourn the fact that my cousins are
Jordanians, they mourn the fact that I am an Israeli.”

Read article in full 

Forget the past, says Arab refugee’s son


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.

Point of No Return

Jewish Refugees from Arab and Muslim Countries

One-stop blog on the Middle East's
forgotten Jewish refugees - updated daily.