Sixty years ago this year, following the November 1956 Suez
crisis, the Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser unleashed a
campaign of persecution against his country’s Jewish citizens.
Within a year, 25,000 Jews – almost half the remaining community –
had left Egypt. Jacques Sardas was among them. Book review by Lyn Julius of Without Return in the Clash of Cultures Jerusalem Post blog.
Jacques Sardas’ birthplace Alexandria as it looks today
Now in his eighties and living in the American south after a
successful career at Goodyear, the tyre maker, he was persuaded by
his grandchildren to set down his compelling stories in book form.
Many Jews from Egypt – the best known include Andre Aciman and
Lucette Lagnado – have published their memoirs in recent years,
but ‘Without Return’ is an autobiography with a difference. The
Egyptian Jewish community is renowned for its bourgeois affluence
and sophistication. But Jacques Sardas’s family of Greek-speaking Jews
stands out for being poor. As a child, he remembers the
rudimentary conditions in which his family lived in Alexandria:
the four children sharing a room, the washing facilities a drain
in the corner of the kitchen. His father, an itinerant fabric
salesman, has no regular income. Often the children do not have enough
to eat. His long-suffering mother sews long into the night to
repair her family ‘s clothing. The children attend schools founded
by the rich for the benefit of the Jewish poor.
Jacques’ mercurial father is less well-educated than his wife
but in cosmopolitan Egypt still manages to speak 10 languages. He
is prone to Levantine fits of temper, cursing his wife’s family
for their financial woes. He is also comically superstitious,
planting cloves of garlic under the children’s mattresses and
spitting on priests’ cassocks in the street because their contact
with the dying is thought to bring bad luck. Nevertheless, the
pre-WW2 atmosphere is carefree and the neighbourhood’s children
have fun together.
When Jacques is barely 10, tragedy strikes – his mother
dies suddenly. His father re-marries and the family move to Cairo.
In Egypt’s ethnic salad of Greeks, Jews, Armenians, Maltese,
Italians, Syrians and Arabs, the antisemitism comes mainly from
Christians – at one stage, the family are harassed by malevolent
Syrian orthodox neighbours – but the rise of the Muslim
Brotherhood impacts on them too. Jews are beaten up in the
streets by Muslim Brotherhood gangs as Zionists. They must use
their streetwise guile to survive, and Jacques has it in spades.
Jacques ‘s spirit and energy come over in the book but he
modesty attributes his ability to survive tricky situations to a
‘lucky’ birthmark which he rubs like Aladdin’s lamp. A keen
sportsman, he leads a pupils’ strike at his Cairo school until the
staff agree to setting up a schools basketball team. He punches
his way out of a Muslim Brotherhood ambush. (So impressive is he
that he earns the respect of the gang leader.) He dreams of
becoming a doctor: “I wanted to break the mould and be the first
in the family to get to a higher caste. ‘ But money worries force
him to go out to work as a clerk in Jewish-owned retail businesses
and, haunted by memories of deprivation, he almost breaks up with
his girlfriend Etty.
When Jews withdraw large sums of money in readiness for their
post-Suez exodus, gangs lie in wait to rob them. But Jacques
manages to outfox them. He and Etty, bound for a new life in
Brazil, must bid goodbye to Egypt. Even though he has a Greek
passport, his exit visa bears the words ‘No return’ – testimony to
the Nasser regime’s flagrant antisemitism. It rankles with Jacques
that he will never be allowed back to the country of his birth.
Compellingly and charmingly written, Without Return is a testament
to Jacques’ resourcefulness and determination to survive against all
odds. And not just survive, but make the best of life.
‘Without Return: Memoirs of an Egyptian Jew 1930 – 1957’ by Jacques Sardas (Thebes Press 2017, paperback $17.95)