Tales of the spiderweb building in Cairo

By a strange coincidence two things unite journalist Peter Kessler and Egyptian Jew Albert Bivas. They both lived in an Art Deco building in Cairo Kessler nicknames ‘the spiderweb building’, seventy years apart. Kessler had twin daughters, Bivas had twin sisters. Writing in the New Yorker, Kessler tells the story of the spiderweb building, which the Bivas family owners were forced to abandon in the 1950s. (With thanks: Boruch)

 The Bivas children at the spiderweb building (Photo: A. Bivas)

 

The
oldest photograph that Albert Bivas sent me was dated June 11, 1933—when
his maternal grandparents held a groundbreaking ceremony for the
spiderweb building. In the picture, Betty Bassan and Léon Bassan stand
next to a foundation stone. Betty is tapping the stone with a hammer.
Around them, a crowd of people are dressed in European-style clothes,
while a large Egyptian man in a white galabiya is helping to hold the
foundation stone.

The next photograph is from the inauguration of
the finished building. A small group of men stand in front of the webbed
balcony that, eight decades later, would lead to the room that I used
as an office. In the picture, there are
signs for the various groups that contributed to the construction: the
contracting firm, whose name is Italian, and Schindler, the German
company that installed the elevator.

Albert and his family had
lived in that same ground-floor apartment. He was born in Cairo, in
1941, and after him his parents had four girls. The identical twins,
Betty and Danièle, were born in 1944. In photographs, the baby twins are
beautiful, with curly hair and enormous eyes, and in several images
they sit on the balconies. The details of these scenes—the metal
spiderwebs, the patterned floor tiling—are exactly the same as in
photographs of my own twins.

Albert’s
grandparents lived on the floor directly above. Like all of Albert’s
known ancestors, they were Sephardic Jews who, at the end of the
fifteenth century, fled the Inquisition in Spain and Portugal. They
settled in Constantinople, which was welcoming to Jews at the time.
Albert’s grandfather Léon was born in Turkey, but as a young man he
moved to Egypt.

At the time, such a move was relatively easy,
because Turkey and Egypt were both part of the Ottoman Empire. A number
of Jewish families had moved during the late nineteenth century, when
the opening of the Suez Canal created business opportunities in Egypt.
For a while, Léon taught at a French-language school, and then he became
an importer of supplies for tailors. In Cairo, he joined a vibrant
community of Egyptian Jews. Some families had been in the city for
centuries, and a number of Jewish activists had been prominent in the
Egyptian-nationalist movement that resisted British imperialism in the
early nineteen-hundreds.

For Léon, identity was many-sided. He and
his wife communicated in Ladino, a form of Old Spanish that
incorporated words from Hebrew, Turkish, Arabic, and other languages.
It’s also known as Judeo-Spanish, because the tongue was carried across
the Mediterranean and sustained for centuries by the Sephardic Jews who
had been driven out of Spain. Léon also knew Turkish from childhood, and
he learned Egyptian Arabic. He loved writing poetry and essays in
French, which had been the language of his education.

None of his
writings were published, but they were collected in journals preserved
by the family. Léon’s voice is witty, curious, and intensely observant.
He was an outsider who came to consider himself Egyptian, at a time when
the country was full of such people—Jewish Egyptians, Greek Egyptians,
Italian Egyptians. In Arabic, Cairenes refer to their country as “um al-duniya,”
“the mother of the world,” and Léon describes the place as a melting
pot. “The fashions of all the countries and all the times cross each
other in Cairo,” he writes, in April, 1934. “It is a crossroads of all
the races; you hear all the languages. And every person betrays his
origin by the way he walks and by the way he is dressed.” He describes
the “nervous” walk of the Europeans, who move quickly but say little. In
contrast, l’autochtone—“the aborigine,” or
local—walks slowly, to preserve his strength. But he isn’t silent. “He
speaks loud and laughs very loud,” Léon writes. “He is poor like Job and
nevertheless happy to live.”

In the journals, Léon takes pleasure
in the organized chaos of the Cairo streets. He likes the professional
female mourners who are hired for funerals and who, “in between their
wailing, slip in some low-class jokes.” He also admires the beggars,
especially the ones who are small-time scam artists—“the false blind,
the false deaf, the people who have no arms but actually have hidden
arms, the people who act like cripples but actually can run with their
strong little legs as soon as the shawish [a junior
police officer] is following them.” He gently mocks the discomfort that
such figures inspire in Western residents, who have a tendency to label
any irritation “the eleventh plague of Egypt.” Sometimes the eleventh
plague is the beggars; at other times, it’s mosquitos. In the early
thirties, the eleventh plague was revolutionary student activists.
“These students, when they are demonstrating, imitate what people do in
civilized countries,” Léon writes. “They break streetlamps, burn
tramways, ransack shops, and knock off the hats of passersby while
screaming in favor of this or against that.”

For
a long time, Albert Bivas and I exchanged e-mails and telephone calls,
and then I went to meet him, at his home in Palo Alto. He was a trim man
in his seventies, with bright blue eyes of a shade that I had never
seen on an Egyptian. He showed me his grandfather’s journals and old
photographs, and he often laughed at the quirks and complexities of the
culture in which he was raised. He remembered that his other grandfather
read a newspaper written in Aljamiado, which used Arabic script to
transcribe Spanish. The first time that Albert attended a Christmas
party as a boy, it was hosted by a Muslim family who had decorated a
tree and invited Jewish, Christian, and Muslim students from the local
French lycée. The school was directly across the street from the
spiderweb building.

“We took one class about the history of
France, and another class about the history of Egypt,” Albert said.
“There were contradictions between these classes—sometimes we joked that
we didn’t know if our ancestors were the Gauls or the pharaohs!” He
continued, “The same as when we were doing
Passover in Cairo, and we would read the story about how we were slaves
in Egypt. And now we were here! But how can we have servants here, if
we were slaves? As children, we were very amused by this.”

Albert’s
father was a stockbroker who founded a textile factory, and the family
was prosperous. They had servants to clean the apartment and to cook,
and the doorman, an Upper Egyptian named Mohammed, doted on the
children. The family parked their Citroën sedan in a garage in the
garden. When Albert and I talked, he sketched out the layout of the
building, and he confirmed that the spiderweb gate had been designed for
automobiles. His family hadn’t needed a ramp to reach the street, since
a sidewalk had yet to be built. I wished that I had had this piece of
historical evidence when my neighbor confronted me about my construction
project.

The
strange little world of Albert’s family—the island in the Nile, the
mixed languages, the spiderweb building, with its combination of Art
Deco, classical, and Islamic architecture—began to seem increasingly
fragile in the nineteen-forties. The neighborhood experienced frequent
blackouts, as it did during the political turmoil of the Arab Spring,
but in the forties the cause was war. In June, 1941, Léon Bassan wrote a
poem titled “Black Out”:

Close your shutters and turn off the lights
There goes the happiness of our dear homes
There are lines going through the sky, of pirate airplanes

In
Egypt, German and British forces fought at Al-Alamein, on the
Mediterranean coast west of Alexandria, but Cairo was relatively
unaffected. Many Egyptian nationalists were sympathetic to the Nazis
because of their hatred of British imperialism. But, for an Egyptian
Jew, the fear of Hitler was visceral, and the name often crops up in
Léon’s poems:

Satan is Hitler himself
Göring is the angry tiger
Goebbels is the cursed snake
And Himmler the vulture walking toward the prey

One
of Léon’s sisters had got married and moved to France. After the war,
Léon learned that his sister had been sent to Auschwitz, where she died.
He never mentioned the death to his grandchildren, although even as a
young boy Albert could tell that something was changing in Cairo. Once,
he went to the cinema with his father to see a French movie, and when a
Jewish character appeared onscreen, people in the audience shouted,
“Kill the Jew! Kill the Jew!” On November 29, 1947, after the United
Nations passed a resolution calling for Palestine to be partitioned
between Arabs and Jews, angry mobs gathered in downtown Cairo. Albert’s
family was out in the Citroën, and his father, whose name was also Léon,
yelled at the children to duck, in case people caught a glimpse of them
in European dress.

Léon Bivas had named his textile company Albitex, after his only son,
and his dream was that Albert would someday take over the business.
But, in 1952, as protests against the Egyptian monarchy intensified,
Léon Bivas sensed that the regime might be toppled. He took his wife and
children to France that summer, with the expectation that they would
return after things stabilized. In July, when Nasser and the other army
men who became known as the Free Officers carried out their revolution,
the Bivas family was living in Paris.

Albert’s mother was pregnant
with their last child, and she wanted to give birth in the country that
she considered her homeland. By December, Léon Bivas believed that the
situation was safe because the new President, Mohamed Naguib, was known
to be friendly to Jews. So the family returned to the spiderweb
building. But post-revolution Presidencies have a way of ending
abruptly, and, after less than a year, Naguib was unseated by Nasser.
Nasser’s feelings about Jews had been hardened by his military
experience in the Arab-Israeli War of 1947, when the Israelis had routed
the Egyptian forces. In 1956, the year that Nasser won the Presidential
election with more than ninety-nine per cent of the popular vote, the
Bivas family went to France again. This time, they packed as much as
they could in their luggage.

Léon Bivas returned to Cairo alone,
to deal with the factory. In July, Nasser seized the Suez Canal, and the
resulting war, in which Israel fought alongside the British and the
French, represented the end for Egyptian Jews. Nasser’s government
arrested hundreds on the suspicion of espionage and other crimes, and a
new exodus began. In the span of three months, at least ten thousand
Jews fled the country. A number of former Nazi officials had sought
refuge in Egypt after the Second World War, and some of these men
reportedly helped Nasser’s government design anti-Semitic laws. Egyptian
nationality could be revoked from anybody who was declared to be a
“Zionist,” a term that was never defined. Soon, Jewish Egyptians were
limited to a single piece of luggage on departure. Anybody carrying
significant funds out of the country could be arrested.

Albert Bivas’s grandparents and others, at the spiderweb building’s inauguration, in 1935. (Courtesy: Albert Bivas)

By
this time, Albert’s grandparents were elderly, and they were allowed to
leave on one-way passports—the documents specified that they were good
for only a single journey. They left in such a hurry that they didn’t
sell the spiderweb building. In France, the passports of Albert, his
mother, and his four sisters expired, and the Egyptian Embassy refused
to renew them. France classified the
family as stateless. In less than a year, they had gone from prosperous
residents of a family-owned building to refugees.

In Cairo, Léon
Bivas was trapped in the ground-floor apartment. The government refused
to grant him travel documents, and he was placed under house arrest.
Outside the webbed gates a guard was stationed, and he escorted Bivas to
the textile factory every morning. Bivas ran the factory as a virtual
prisoner for more than a year. It was nearly impossible for an Egyptian
Jew to sell a significant asset, because buyers knew they could just
wait for things to get worse. Finally, the factory’s Egyptian foreman
bought the business at a steep discount, which presented Bivas with a
new problem. He couldn’t carry or transfer cash out of Egypt. But he had
an idea. He bought two pairs of roller skates and mailed them to the
twins.

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