Magda Haroun: vibrant past and macabre present

 Niveen Ghoneim’s portrait of the leader of Egypt’s tiny Jewish community Magda Haroun in Cairoscene is a sympathetic one, but it perpetuates two myths: that antisemitism is a European problem, and that Zionism is no solution to it. But Magda herself is in denial. To urge French Jews to move to Israel, as Netanyahu did in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo massacre by Islamists, is, in her opinion, ‘criminal’.  The article ends with Magda firing a potshot at the Historical Society of Jews from Egypt,which campaigns for all moveable communal property to be shipped out of Egypt. (With thanks: Tom)


All Photos by @MO4Network’s #MO4Productions. Photography by Ahmed Najeeb.

Jewry was the first of the many casualties of Egypt and Israel’s
several wars. During the 1956 Tripartite Aggression (Suez Crisis),
Egyptian Jews were branded ‘Zionist enemies of the state’ and many were
expelled, arbitrarily arrested, their businesses seized and properties
confiscated by the government. The second exodus, however, didn’t occur
until 1967; according to historian Michael B. Oren, “800 [Egyptian Jews]
were arrested, including the chief rabbis of both Cairo and Alexandria,
their property sequestered by the [Egyptian] government” following
an-Naksah (Six-Day War). Jewish males between the ages of 17 and 60 were
either deported or thrown in internment camps where they were given the
choice between leaving the country for good or remaining in

The greater majority opted to leave Egypt whom the lord of hosts has
blessed for far less promising lands, “I grew up without a family,
without 3ezwa; I had no cousins, everyone had left. My dad,
sister, granddad and grandma, God rest their souls, and my mother were
all I had. It’s very difficult to grow up without kinfolk, especially
when my dad would get arrested – he was arrested several times because
he was both a Jew and a Communist. In 1967 when he was detained, my mom,
my sister and I were all alone with no one to turn to, mafeesh 3am te2ouleeloh 2el7a2ny,” she mused.

The remaining few have lived in anonymity ever since. All but one;
Magda’s father, lawyer and leftist activist Shehata Haroun would not
live in the shadows; he took the solitary path of most resistance. In
the 40s, he joined the Communist movement and following the outbreak of
the Arab-Israeli conflict, he obstinately refused to immigrate to Europe
or Israel, a choice he paid for dearly. In 1954, his daughter Mona was
diagnosed with leukaemia and advised to seek treatment abroad, but
because of travel restrictions on Jews, he would have been barred from
re-entering the country and stripped of his Egyptian citizenship if he
had travelled. Given the choice between his own daughter and his
country, he chose the latter and Mona died the same year.

He passed away in 2001, leaving behind his wife and two daughters,
Nadia and Magda. His epitaph reads, “Every human being has multiple
identities, I am a human being, I am Egyptian when Egyptians are
oppressed, I am Black when Blacks are oppressed, I am Jewish when Jews
are oppressed and I am Palestinian when Palestinians are oppressed.”

custodian outlived her younger sister Nadia, but her family’s memory
remains with her, like a comforting thought. “The first time, we ever
went to watch a movie about World War II, Nadia [her sister] was little,
after we got out of the theater, she told my dad, ‘I don’t love
Germans, I hate Germans!’ so he told her ‘don’t say that, there are good
and bad Germans’. That is how we were brought up,” she reminisced. True
to his Socialist values, her father would tell her to “go help welad 3am 3abdo el bawab
with their homework once she was done with hers. “We were taught to not
prejudge people and to hate injustice, to treat everyone the same,
rich, poor, black, white,” she added with pride.

Haroun was born in 1952, the year the Free Officers staged the
military coup that overthrew King Farouq and ended the monarchy. And
like many Egyptians, she grew up idolizing Nasser, “to me, he was the
Godfather.” Until one day, she looked around and there was no one, “I
had Armenian, Italian and Jewish friends – where have they gone?” she
asked. “I believed it to be a revolution until my husband and I bought a
land in Salhiyya and tried to cultivate it, but 10 years in, we
couldn’t afford to anymore; what about elfallah [farmer] who is
given five acres?” And that was when the disillusionment began. “In the
Soviet Union, there were committees that distributed seeds and
materials to farmers and bought the crops. Our fallaheen didn’t have that – I began to understand why they sold their lands,” she told me.

Three years in Queens, New York will leave you under the impression
that Jews are all Yiddish-tongued Ashkenazim (Ashkenazi Jews are the
Jews of Germany, France, and Eastern Europe and they comprise the
majority of American Jews today). This is how the world recognises the
socio-cultural group; it has come to be known as a predominantly White
ethnic minority which leaves very little room for Eastern Jewish
culture. The consecutive pogroms perpetuated against European Jews which
culminated in the events of World War II have, inadvertently,
overshadowed the suffering of their Sephardic and Mizrahi brethren
(descended from local Jewish communities in the Middle East, North
Africa, Spain, and Portugal) – what calamity doesn’t pale in comparison
to the Holocaust – and eventually shaped Jewish culture.

Most Ashkenazi
Jews are self-proclaimed Zionists because they lived in societies that
had sought to exterminate them for centuries – it is important to note
that unlike right-wing Zionism, the liberal interpretation of the
political ideology advocates Palestinian rights and rejects the ongoing
Israeli occupation – which is not the case for many Mizrahi and
Sephardic Jews. A study by Berlin University Political Scientist Gordon
Kraemer concluded that animosity toward Jews was not a common phenomenon
among Egyptians even after the establishment of the state of Israel, an
observation that has been supported by numerous first-hand accounts by
contemporary sources.

Naturally, those who didn’t assimilate into this newfound Jewish
nationalistic narrative were automatically labelled ‘self-hating Jews’,
such is my interlocutor’s burden who was often criticised by some of her
coreligionists for her views on Zionism. “I don’t believe in Jewish
nationalism, there is no such thing. When Netanyahu stood before the
kosher supermarket that was attacked last year [Charlie Hebdo attacks]
and called on French Jews to move to Israel, I thought to myself, ‘what a
criminal!’ A French Jew is French first then Jewish, an Egyptian Jew is
Egyptian first then Jewish!” she said passionately. “We might as well
establish a country for Muslims and another for Christians and so on,”
she added with characteristic Jewish sarcasm. “Israel was established in
the 20th century, it didn’t make sense for a country to be
founded on racial/religious grounds then and it still doesn’t make sense
now,” she objected.

She still however, maintains the hope and compassion that have
sustained her through the years. “The Holocaust and the events of World
War II were heinous, but they don’t justify the misappropriation of
Palestinian lands,” she said. “Israel is a reality now, that is why
Palestinians and Israelis have to reach an equitable two-state solution
based on pre-1967 borders,” she added.

The Arab-Israeli conflict and the rise of Arab nationalism may have
left large swaths of Jews conflicted between kin and country, their
hearts and souls hanging in the middle. Not her. “I cannot begin to tell
you how much pain and agony I feel over the state my country is in,
because I’ve seen the changes happening,” she said almost choking, “but
if your mother got really ill and through the course of her illness, her
character and features started to change, would you hate her? Would you
leave her? Home is home…” she added, throwing up her hands. There
were times, however, when love weighed her down, “I would find myself
wondering what if my relatives who moved to Israel are the ones who
killed my friend’s brother who was in the Egyptian army?” she recounts.

In a dictatorship, Jews are often the first to go; 11 million
perished in the Holocaust, 6 million out of whom were Jews, the rest
were homosexuals, Blacks, gypsies and political dissidents. In our
63-year-old quest for an egalitarian utopia, we seem to have sacrificed
so much for so little, but unlike Germans and others, we have yet to
make amends, and we are certainly nowhere near making sense of the
tragedy. “But how? And what good is it now? Embalming a painful memory?”
I asked Haroun.

“It’s a reality we have to deal with, we made mistakes,
we should learn from them, so it doesn’t happen to other people in the
future,” she said. When a Brooklyn based Jewish group demanded that
Egypt’s Jewish community relinquish their seforim (historical Jewish
artefacts and prayer books), the late Carmen Weinstein refused doggedly
saying she would ignore the group’s “insensitive letters referring to
our inevitable extinction.”

In 1997, she managed to have Jewish
artefacts classified as Egyptian antiquities rendering the government
liable for their safekeeping. “Taking the Jewish seforim, books and
records out of Egypt is tantamount to saying that Egypt should demolish
the pyramids and the Temple of Luxor because there are no pharaohs
left,” Weinstein said.

Easier said than done? Maybe, but what choice do we have other than
to cherish the legacy the last of the Mohicans will soon bequeath to us
and carry it into the future as a memory of a people who were once part
of our country’s society?


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One Comment

  • Her father's position on Zionism has been the standard Communist position, not only in Egypt but in Poland, Germany, Morocco, etc etc.


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