Joseph Smouha’s Egyptian legacy lives on

“He was the only foreigner who came to the country, brought his own
money and did good to the country.” So said the exiled Egyptian King
Fuad on the death of an Iraqi-Jewish cotton trader from Manchester
named Joseph Smouha. His grandson Dicky has written up the extraordinary story of Smouha City in Alexandria. It is reviewed by Lyn Julius in the Jerusalem Post:

In a city where the Jewish community today
is down to five Jews, Smouha ‘s legacy is, ironically, perpetuated in a
residential suburb of Alexandria called Smouha City. The story of how
Joseph Smouha came to buy, build, and eventually lose Smouha City to the
Egyptian state, is told by his grandson Richard (Dicky) Smouha as a
piece of living history. The Smouha City Venture: Alexandria 1923 -1958 (2014) is peppered with architectural drawings, plans, newspaper
cuttings and vintage photos. Chapters by Cristina Pallini and
Marie-Cecile Bruwier cast light on the technical aspects of the
architectural venture and the archeological findings of this ancient
Greek city site.

It was on a train journey from Cairo to
Alexandria in 1919 that the visiting businessman Joseph Smouha spotted
the potential to be gained from the draining of Lake Hadra, one-sixth of
Alexandria and a mere four kilometers from the centre. He moved his
wife and eight children to Egypt to embark on the adventure of his life.
The family ‘s culture shock, on arrival in this poverty-stricken and
disease-ridden country, was considerable. Among Richard Smouha’s amusing
and quirky family vignettes, is the story of a lady who sent her
chauffeur to fetch her shopping while she read a book in her car. He
returned to find the car propped up on bricks and the wheels stolen.

Dicky’s
grandfather Joseph Smouha refused a knighthood. He wanted to call the
new garden city after King Fuad l. The king insisted that it be called
Smouha City. Some 75 feddans of land (one feddan is
4,200 sq m) was effectively given to Smouha in 1923 on condition he
bore the lion’s share of the expense of drainage and tunnel building.

In 1925, Smouha launched a competition that drew submissions from
Europe’s leading architects. A residential complex of villas built in
modernist style was modelled on Welwyn Garden City and Heliopolis, the
upmarket Cairo suburb. As the water table was so high, no cellars could
be built. The cost of a villa’s supporting concrete platform was nearly
as high as the villa itself. Some of the streets had no names. (The
villa belonging to Dicky’s aunt, Betty Nagger, was missed out of the
numbering in her street. Thereafter her address was 0, rue Mahmoud
Gaber.) The cream of Egyptian aristocracy and even exiled kings bought
villas: for instance, Victor-Emmanuel of Italy, who died in 1947.

Smouha City comprised a sports club, golf course and racecourse. The
established Alexandria Sporting Club did not take too kindly to its new
horse-racing rival, and its snooty Jewish aristocrats excluded Smouha.
“If they don’t want me, they will come to me,” he declared, defiantly.

Soon
Smouha City, which was run by Joseph, his sons and his Aden-born
general manager Daniel Delbourgo (‘he spoke a number of languages, all
badly,’ Dicky tells us), assembled all the features of a town: post
office, police post, schools, dispensaries. The Ford Motor Company set
up shop in an industrial zone of workshops and warehouses.

Of
Joseph Smouha, a picture emerges of a modest, upright and generous man
who paid for the building of a handsome mosque to add to the garden
city’s churches and synagogue.

A British patriot to the core,
Joseph Smouha paid for two RAF spitfires during WW2: his three sons and a
daughter joined the RAF. In 1940 he learned that he was No.1 on the
wanted list to be executed if the Germans conquered Cairo. Smouha fled
for a few months to South Africa.

After the war came the
officers’ coup, Suez and Nasser’s mass nationalisation of British,
French and Jewish property. Smouha City was sequestered. In 1957, along
with 25 percent of the Jewish community, Armenians, Greeks and members
of the Egyptian and Coptic aristocracy, the family was expelled from
Egypt, moving to England and Switzerland. Its income plummeted to £6 a
week.

Smouha filed the largest of Jewish claims for
compensation: £12 and 1/2 million. Six years later, he was awarded £3
million, the Egyptian government producing tax receipts to suggest that
Smouha City was ‘agricultural’ land.

But the Smouha family home,
with its furniture, rare carpets and jewellery – a seaside mansion fit
for successive Egyptian presidents – had never been sequestered. In
1986, Egypt passed a ruling that owners of properties that had not been
sold could reclaim them. In 2000, Dicky and his brother Brian engaged an
Egyptian lawyer to fight the case for restitution in court.The case
dragged on to 2007: embarrassed to be in confrontation with the
President himself, the Court’s officials threw all sorts of delays and
obstacles in Dicky and Brian’s path. It was argued that compensation had
already been paid, that the brothers did not have the correct
documentation (even the Public Records Office at Kew refused to release
archives ), that the grandchildren were not entitled to inherit, that
the case was bound by a statute of limitations. Soon after the brothers
decided to give up, President Mubarak was deposed. “We are back in the
fray,” writes Dicky.

This book stands as a monument to one of the
great Jewish modernisers of 1930s Alexandria, the ‘pearl of the
Mediterranean’. Even if Egypt will not acknowledge its debt to Joseph
Smouha, his memory will, thanks to his grandson’s lively and
well-researched record, live on.

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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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