The Jewish poets who harked back to Egypt’s past

 Egypt is less well known for its interwar Jewish writers than Iraq, for instance. Nevertheless, according to HaSepharadi, poets did exist, writing primarily in French. They extolled the ‘tolerant’ Pharaonic past and their sense of belonging to Egypt. (With thanks: Boruch)


One
notable case, however, is the Cairo Jewish writer Ya’qub Sannu’, who is
predominantly remembered for his significant role in late
nineteenth-century Arabic journalism and theater.
Respectively, virtually all the texts written in Egypt in Hebrew, during colonial and monarchic times, were rabbinical studies. The
choice of writing in French thus depended on one’s education and family
background, but was also due to the fascination that France, and
especially Paris – as a global capital of culture – held for the
Egyptian middle class.

“Wake
up, Pentaour, and sing a novel song! A song of grace, of euphoria, a
song of joy!”: these words open Georges Cattaui’s 1921 poem
Lève-toi, Pentaour!Cattaui
was born in Paris in 1896, a son of one of the most prominent families
of the Cairo Jewish elite. He was educated in both France and Egypt, and
in the 1920s after acting as secretary to King Fuʾād, began work as a
diplomat in Prague, Bucharest, and London. In the 1930s, he embarked on a
full-time literary career. He converted to Catholicism in the 1920s and
subsequently left Egypt for France and Switzerland, where he died in
1974.

In Lève-toi, Pentaour!,
Cattaui goes back to the Pharaonic era, using it as a lens to discuss
early twentieth-century Egypt. The protagonist is Pentaour, priest,
poet, and scribe of Ramses II, who wrote a poem about the Battle of
Kadesh (1274 BC), where the forces of Ramses II battled the Hittite
empire. From the distance of a millennia, Cattaui celebrates the
upcoming Egyptian independence from the British, which would lead to the
birth of the monarchy in 1922:

Frontispiece of Georges Cattaui, Lève-toi, Pentaour!…, 1921 (National Library of Israel, Jerusalem, photo by Dario Miccoli)

Egypt, among perishable people,

you kept your essential character for four thousand years,

you are here again without a yoke, without a chain under your sky,

you are here free again ruling over your sand!

On the tomb of Amrou, may, oh Muslim,

this holy day be blessed among your propitious days!

[…]

Blessed be this day, oh Jew, next to the Nile whose waters

took the fragile cradle of Moses;

and you, oh Copt, in your mysterious church,

where the Virgin and the Child rested!6

Cattaui
evokes a nation where Muslims, Jews, and Copts live together peacefully
and stresses how Egypt maintained its unique characteristics against
all odds for four thousand years. His words echo ideas of Egyptian
exceptionalism, which in the 1920s expressed itself through Pharaonism,
vis-à-vis the other Middle Eastern countries. According to Cattaui,
Egypt had a separate identity, rooted in the country’s ancient past,
which went beyond its Islamic heritage and made it different from the
rest of the Arab world
.

Cattaui
was not alone in attempting to inscribe the Jews within the Egyptian
national narrative. A second notable author is Emile Mosseri, born in
1911 into another upper-class Jewish family in Cairo. A lawyer by
training, Mosseri wrote several plays and collaborated with magazines
like
L’Egyptienne. Mosseri’s most important achievement was the publication of the collection of poems La ballade de la rue in 1930.

The poem J’ai marché quelque soir describes a visit of the poet to Luxor:

I marched one night when the moon was round,

in the temple of the gods of Thebes and Luxor

[…].

I passed under your shadow at this hour when everything sleeps,

and I thought that just like the priest of Hathor

a people followed me, enlivening the blonde night.8

Mosseri
travels back to ancient Egypt in search of his lost past and identity,
wandering around the ruins of the city. The evocation of ancient Egypt
and its archaeological vestiges had a clear national connotation and
reinforced
claims
to Egyptian sovereignty. Let us also recall the Arab Egyptian poet
Ahmed Shawqi, who talked about Pharaonic ruins as markers of the
country’s national past. In the case of the Jews, ancient Egypt related
to one of the most important episodes of the Tora, the Yeṣiʾath-Miṣrayim
(“Exodus from Egypt”). This ancestral connection to the land was of
utmost importance in the 1930s, when notions of citizenship and the
status of minorities were being discussed and the Egyptian liberal party
system entered into a crisis.

Egyptian
Jewry, around the 1930s, exhibited strong sentiments towards Egypt,
celebrating its modernity and their ability to maintain their religious
and national feelings of belonging. This received particular importance,
as Europe was becoming an inhospitable environment for Jews.
Subsequently,  some found solace in the promises of the past, among
Muslim countries: 

Frontispiece of Emile Mosseri, La ballade de la rue, 1933 (National Library of Israel, Jerusalem, photo by Dario Miccoli).

…the green banner [of Islam],on a tent or on a city,

declares to the man who follows a desert road:

‘Come, brother, the door of hospitality

is wide open!’.

[…]

It says: ‘Oh brothers of race,

let us ask together, kneeling,

that God keep us under his grace,

that he protect us and encourage us,

and that peace may be upon us!’

 

The author of these lines is Lucien Sciuto, a journalist of Jewish origin born in Thessalonika, Greece, in 1868 who later moved to Cairo in 1924 and died in Alexandria in 1947. The poem Islam is taken from his 1938 volume Le peuple du messie. The book, written “under the Egyptian sky, on the borders of the desert, in a serene and peaceful setting,”was dedicated to Faruq, the second and last King of Egypt, who reigned from 1936 to Nasser’s Revolution in 1952.
Sciuto, in his poem, wrestles with the fact that at the time he was
writing, Europe had become an inhospitable place for Jews; yet in the
Islamic world, they had found and could still find refuge from
persecution. 

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