The Vanished World of Egyptian Jewry
by Dr. Victor Sanua
I WAS BORN IN CAIRO in 1920 into a middle-class Jewish family. My father, too, was born in Cairo, and my mother, born in Turkey, was brought to Cairo as a teenager. Both of my parents were of Sephardic origin. However, my father had acquired Italian citizenship from his father, which made me legally an Italian citizen as well. This seeming anomaly was the result of an agreement, arrived at approximately one hundred years earlier, whereby the rulers of Egypt accepted arrangements for all foreigners and their children to derive their legal status from the consul of the country of their origin. This system of foreign protection came to be called the Laws of Capitulations and originated under the Ottomans. Capitulations were treaties of commerce guaranteeing that the interests of foreigners immigrating to Egypt would be safeguarded by their own consuls, and they would not be taxed. However, since this led to a chaotic legal situation, so-called Mixed Courts were established in 1885 to handle litigation between a foreigner and an Egyptian. It is undcrstandable why foreigners living for several generations in Egypt maintained the citizenship of their country of origin. In many instances, Jews were able to obtain foreign citizenship, foreign powers did not mind having a larger representation of persons bearing their own passports. The Capitulations were eliminated in 1937 (in the Treaty of Montreux) and taxation was imposed on foreign businesses. Individual taxation came later.
While my family claimed Italian citizenship, their first language was French. French influence dated back to Napoleon's conquest of Egypt in the latter part of the eighteenth century and to the later establishment of French schools throughout the Middle East, including Egypt. My family was also fluent in Ladino, a type of archaic Spanish which included many French, Turkish, and Hebrew words with Spanish endings. Many of the old-timers wrote Ladino in Hebrew (Rashi) script. This was not a language which was systematically studied like French but was acquired in the home and used with family members and friends of similar background. Most of the Jews in Egypt spoke Arabic at different levels of competence, but very few learned literary Arabic, which required years of study and was not used in common communication. Colloquial Arabic was used primarily with service people, such as maids, waiters, and shopkeepers.
Prior to the arrival in Egypt of foreign Jews during the middle of the nineteenth century, there was a small number of indigenous Jews (Musta'arbin) who had lived in the country for centuries and whose mother tongue was Arabic. They were considered dhimmis, that is, protected people under Islam, a kind of second-class citizenship. Christians were subject to the same status. Dhimmis had to pay heavy taxes called jizya and were exempt from military service,
Prior to the destruction of the Second Temple, Jewish civilians and mercenaries had settled on the island of Elephantine in the Upper Nile and had formed a frontier garrison for the protection of the Pharaohs against outside invaders. In later centuries, following the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great, Jews became prominent in Alexandria. The community was strongly Hellenized but maintained its Jewish faith. Its members participated in and contributed to Greek cultural life. This was the time when the Bible was translated into Greek (the Septuagint) and when Philo wrote his philosophical treatises. Later, under the occupation by the Romans, the enmity between the Jews and Greeks led to a revolt, and the Romans destroyed the Jewish community (115-117 C.E.) The revolt was instigated by Christian Greeks who conducted a number of pogroms. Jewish life in Alexandria subsequently disappeared.
In 640, Egypt was conquered by Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula under the banner of Muhammad, who established a new religion, Islam. Little information about Jews in Egypt in the years between that conquest and the end of the tenth century is available. In 960, the Fatimids (Shi'ite Muslims) conquered the country and a period of relative but inconsistent prosperity followed. The Fatimids relaxed the Laws of Omar, but some rulers were less tolerant than others. The Laws of Omar consisted of a series of acts of degradation, such as wearing signs indicating Jewishness and prohibitions against riding horses and bearing arms. During the Fatimid period there was some intellectual activity until the time when the Mamelukes assumed power (1250). The following centuries saw the social improvement of the Egyptian Jewish community (as recorded in the Geniza documents). A number of Spanish Jews expelled from the Iberian peninsula in 1492 alighted in Egypt, but most of them settled in the Ottoman Empire.
One of the illustrious leaders of the Cairo Jewish community was Maimonides (1135-1204), who was born in Cordova, Spain, but fled from the Almohadic (Muslim) persecution. The Mameluke rule was followed by persecution of both Jews and Christians and continued until 1517, when the Ottoman Turks conquered Egypt. Early in their occupation, at the height of their power, the Turks tended to be more tolerant. Most of the finances of Egypt were in the hands of Jews, who were appointed as chelebi (gentlemen). However, the decline of the Turkish Empire, with its wars against Russia, correlates with the decline of the Jewish community. Many chelebi were executed by Turkish governors either because of slander by their entourage or because of jealousy of the Jewish wealth.
In 1798, Egypt was conquered by Napoleon, and while the French occupation was short-lived (1798-1801), it left a strong imprint on the Westernization of the country. Shortly thereafter, Muhammad Ali, a former Albanian officer in the service of the Turks, took over the reins of power. He ruled the country from 1805-1848 and established his own dynasty; King Faruk was his great-great-grandson. Faruk was forced to abdicate in 1952 after a military coup under the leadership of Muhammad Naguib and Gamal Abdal Nasser. Muhammad Ali's decision to modernize the country led to an influx of foreigners, who provided the necessary training of his army to defeat, the Turks at a later period. A greater influx took place during the building of the Suez Canal in the 1860s, under Said and later under Khedive Ismail, the grandson of Muhammad Ali. Because of the latter's excessive modernization programs and indebtedness to foreign powers, Egypt was occupied by the British in 1882, and the shares of the Suez Canal were used to pay the debts. This brought greater prosperity to those Jews involved in commerce, banking, and railroads.
At the turn of the century, there were approximately 25,000 Jews living in Egypt, divided into four groups. The first, the indigenous Jews, spoke Arabic and lived in a secluded area in Cairo called Haret el Yahoud (the Jewish quarter). The second group, European Jews of Sephardic origin, were dominant and conducted their businesses of banking, manufacturing, and real estate in French, although many of them also spoke Ladino. This group included Jews from Italy and Corfu, as well as North Africa and the Levant. The third group was relatively small; it consisted of Ashkenazi Jews who had fled the pogroms of Russia and arrived in poverty, but who very shortly were able to participate in the economy of the country. Some had come from Palestine during World War I, forced out of the country by Turkey, Germany's ally. In Cairo they maintained their separate rabbinate; Yiddish was their principal language. In other cities Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jews were under one rabbinate. The Sephardic rabbi in Cairo represented all Jewry to the Egyptian government. The fourth group were the Karaites, a sect established in the eighth century, which accepted only the authority of the Bible and rejected rabbinic writings. By 1947, Jews in Egypt reached their highest number. It is estimated that the total was approximately 80,000, 96 percent residing in the two major cities, Cairo (64 percent) and Alexandria (32 percent). In spite of their low numbers in the total population (0.4 percent), their contribution to the economy of the country was considerable.
Most of the Jews in Egypt received their education in foreign schools, primarily French secular schools (Lycees Francais) and schools established by the College des Freres, a Catholic order. Professional training and higher education were obtained abroad. Few Jews of European origin were able to attend the Egyptian universities; since they had not mastered written Arabic, they could not be admitted, in spite of the fact that English and French were widely used, particularly in the sciences, medicine, and law. I myself attended the College des Freres, where almost half the students were Jewish. The language of instruction for all courses was French. Arabic and English were taught as second languages two to three hours a week. There were a number of elementary Jewish communal schools, but only children of modest means attended them. In these schools, too, French was the dominant language, with Hebrew secondary. In Cairo there was also a small afternoon school (Talmud Torah) attached to the main synagogue, teaching Hebrew and Bible. Talmudic academies did not exist. Those seeking further religious education or rabbinical training had to go to the island of Rhodes, which was part of Italy before World War II. The influence of French education had the tendency to detach young Jewish people from their Arab environment.
Life for Egyptian Jews was quite comfortable. Practically all could afford to keep servants and to vacation regularly at the resort beaches in Alexandria and Port Said. There were also recreational clubs like the Union Universelle de la Jeunesse Juive and the Judeo-Espagnole (later changed to Judeo-Egyptienne). I and a group of friends from the College des Freres organized a boys' club called the Jewish Camping Club; we would go on weekend trips to places like the Pyramids, Meadi, Helwan (Spa), Suez, the Mokattam mountains, and the Fayyum oasis south of Cairo. Most Jews, except for those living in the Haret el Yahoud, considered themselves secular Jews. Jewish learning was minimal; bar-mitzvah preparation, for instance, consisted of a few months of instruction by a private tutor.
Most of the large department Egyptian stores were owned by Jews, with names like Cicurel, Oreco, Chemla, Gattegno, Ades, Cohenca, Simon-Artz, Morums, and Benzion. A notable exception was the Sednaoui store, which was owned by Christian immigrants from Syria but whose employees were largely Jewish. Most of these names are still to be found gracing Cairo storefronts, despite the fact that today the Jewish community in Egypt is almost extinct.
In the '20s and '30s, when I was growing up, we rarely personally experienced any anti-Semitism. To be sure, we knew that anti-Jewish feeling was part of the Egyptian historical legacy and could, at any time, break out again; but in general, Jews felt secure under British rule. However, once the British were forced out of the country (in 1954), this sense of ease evaporated. Even before the British evacuation, I saw the writing on the wall and, during World War II, registered my family at the American Embassy for purposes of immigration to the United States. At the time this was not considered a wise move on my part.
The first serious inkling of things to come occurred on November 2, 1945, the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration. Some minor anti-Jewish agitation had broken out in 1938, but in 1945, members of the youth organization Young Egypt and of the Moslem Brotherhood attacked the Jewish quarter in Cairo, resulting in many casualties. They set fire to a synagogue, demolished a Jewish hospital, an old-age home, and other Jewish institutions. It was the beginning of the end of the Jewish, as well as the foreign, communities. A combination of factors led to their demise. With industrialization, a new Egyptian social class had developed, causing tension between them and Jews and Christians in the country. While Zionist activities were tolerated in the past, the defeat of Arab armies during the Israeli-Arab wars was instrumental in exacerbating anti-Jewish feelings. Moreover, Muslim fundamentalism contributed substantially to the prevailing xenophobia. After each war, Jewish property was confiscated and Jews were imprisoned in concentration camps or forced into exile, leaving behind their assets. Regular travel abroad became a problem since exit visas were required.
In 1947, the Company Law was enacted, mandating all business enterprises to maintain a majority of "Egyptian nationals," 75 percent of all salaried employees in off ices and 90 percent of all workers in factories. The term "Egyptian nationals" was often interpreted to mean only Muslims and the law even discriminated against the indigenous Christians, the Copts. Since a large number of enterprises were controlled by foreigners, many found themselves forced to fire their non-Egyptian employees. In 1948, in spite of the fact that I was working for a Jewish firm, I was discharged because of my Italian citizenship. Some Jews tried to obtain Egyptian citizenship, but this was difficult since it was necessary to prove that one's parents and grandparents had been born in the country, and many, of course, did not qualify.
Now began the new exodus of the Jews from Egypt. Following the 1948 Israeli-Arab war, 20,000 to 30,000 Jews, who could no longer obtain employment, left the country. Because foreign businesses and institutions were exempt from the Company Law, I was able at first to work for a business representing the Communist government of Hungary; later I joined the staff of the American Friends Services Committee, which was involved in helping Palestinian refugees in Gaza. I remained there until 1949, by which time the refugee question changed from a humanitarian problem to one of a political nature. In 1952 Nasser came to power. Egyptian nationalism intensified, and the decisive blow to Egyptian Jewry was struck in 1956 when Israel, France, and England attacked Egypt after the country had nationalized the Suez Canal. There were mass arrests, sequestrations, and ill treatment not only of Jews but also of French and British citizens. Within a few months, another 40,000 to 50,000 Jews left the country; all their assets, including property, were confiscated. In 1967 there were about 3,000 Jews left. By the 1980s the number had dwindled to about 200. At the present time it is estimated that only 100 or so old people still remain in Egypt.
The Egyptian Jewish emigrants scattered throughout the world. They settled in Israel (35,000); Brazil (15,000); France (10,000); the U.S.A. (9,000); Argentina (9,000); and Great Britain (4,000). A few very rich Egyptian Jews and non-Jews managed to become residents of Switzerland. Thus, within the space of a few years, the Egyptian Jewish community, which had been in existence for 2,500 years, in effect ceased to exist. I myself had already left Egypt in 1950.
Following the signature of the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt in 1979, a number of Egyptian Jews were able to return to Egypt for visits. There were many reports of poor social conditions in Egypt and the deterioration of services since the departure of the foreign communities. Almost thirty years of hostilities against Israel and the excessive military expenditures had seriously affected the infrastructure of the country. Visitors to Egypt were told they could not drink the water because of pollution, and that only bottled drinks were safe. In my day there was no such problem. Cairo then was a relatively clean and well-ordered city, with a population of 2,250,000. The number has since grown to 14 or 15 million, with all the consequent urban deterioration.
I was reluctant to visit the city of my birth and would have preferred not to disturb my memories of Cairo as it was in the 1920s, '30s, and '40s. However, not long ago, my daughter was attending the Hebrew University in Jerusalem and while I was visiting her, she expressed a desire to see Egypt and asked me to accompany her. When I balked, she announced that she would go anyway, but that without me the trip would not be as meaningful. Her argument was convincing.
I did not expect us to meet any Jews I had known from before, since all were gone, but I looked forward to visiting the synagogue where I had my bar mitzvah and which I used to attend frequently with my father. During the two days we spent in Cairo, we went sightseeing during the day and at night visited the familiar places of my youth. On the first day we set out by bus for the Pyramids, driving slowly past village after village. We were in heavy traffic all the way and the trip took almost two hours. I remember that as a teenager, I used to ride my bicycle out to the Pyramids; the trip then, non-stop there and back, could be accomplished in only one hour.
We visited the street where I was born, Sharia (Street) Tursina. The street sign, covered by years of grime, was hardly visible. The elevators in my old apartment building were not functioning; a person coining down the stairs told us that the elevators had not been working for years. We also paid a visit to the Catholic school of my early education. Nothing in the building had changed. The familiar playground was still in its old location, but it was much smaller than I had remembered. Unlike in my day, Arabic was now the chief language of instruction, and there were very few foreigners in the school.
Next we visited the American University in Cairo, where I did my undergraduate work. The school was housed in a former palace and was sufficient to accommodate all the academic needs of the day. Now the old palace was being used as the administration building. A whole new campus had grown up in the surrounding open spaces in the meantime, with many new buildings. The student body, of course, had grown accordingly. No surprise, since the American University is the only place in Egypt where it is possible to obtain a liberal education.
Many of the streets of Cairo had been named after illustrious citizens who bore noble titles of Turkish origin, like Pasha or Bey. Such titles were eliminated with the establishment of the Egyptian Republic after the departure of King Faruk. Most of the street names were then changed to reflect the new conditions. For example, I used to live on Sharia Malika Farida, named after Faruk's first wife. When he divorced her, the name was changed to Abdel Khalet Saroit Pasha. Now, dropping the title, it is called simply Abdel Khalet Saroit. The main street of Cairo, Sharia Fuad I, named after Faruk's father (all the names of the royal family began with F), was changed to the Street of the 6th of July, to commemorate an important date in modern Egyptian history. Suleiman Pasha, another major Cairo thoroughfare, also had undergone a transformation. Originally named after a French officer in the army of Muhammad Ali, a converted Christian who rose to eminence in Egyptian politics, the street was now called Sharia Harb.
On Sharia Fuad there used to be, as I recalled, a famous pastry shop, Tseppas, which was one of our favorite spots for cake. I was pleased to see that the shop was still there under its old name. A scion of the Tseppas family had been a classmate of mine at the College des Freres, and I therefore asked the pastry-shop attendant if there were any Tseppases still around. He told me, with a smile, that they had left the country a long time ago. Sharia Fuad was also the location of two favorite ice-cream parlors and restaurants called "A l'Americaine." The establishments were still there, under their old name, but their former sparkle, at least to me, was no longer in evidence. For old-times' sake, I took my daughter to Groppi's, a combination pastry shop, restaurant, and nightclub owned by Greeks. In its heyday it was the major meeting place of the then jet set; now it is a run-down cafe where people drink tea or coffee and play backgammon.
Our visit fell over a weekend and on Saturday morning my daughter and I went to the Sha'ar Ha-Shamayim synagogue, commonly called Temple Ismailiah, where I had my bar mitzvali. To my surprise, given all the changes, most for the worse, that I had seen so far, the synagogue was as beautiful and resplendent as when I had left Egypt in 1950. We were told that the synagogue had become the recipient of a handsome donation by Nissim Gaon, a rich Swiss businessman born in the Sudan, for the purpose of renovation and upkeep. I entered the sanctuary with great emotion, for this was where my father used to take me on Sabbaths and holidays. I remembered very clearly the beautiful singing of our cantor, who was originally from Czechoslovakia. I also recalled the sermons of our rabbi, Haim Nahum Effendi, who served between 1925-1961. He was totally blind and a shamash (beadle) always had to remind him when to call a halt to his sermon, since he habitually lost track of time.
There were only six old men present in the synagogue. They were waiting for the necessary minyan before they could start the service. My daughter sat down next to me, and one of the old men gestured to her to go sit on the other side of the main aisle, to preserve the traditional separation of the sexes. The upper balcony, suitably curtained, the usual women's section, was empty. Finally three (male) tourists arrived, one by one, and now, with the requisite number of ten men in place, the service could begin. This certainly contrasted with the days when if we were late, there would be standing-room only. The synagogue was without a rabbi, the last one having left in 1972. The octogenarian conducting the service was almost blind and seemed to be reciting the text more from memory than with reference to the prayerbook. I was deeply gratified when I was offered an aliyah and called to the Torah.
After the service was over, I approached the gabbai and inquired about the Jewish cemetery called Bassatim, where my parents were buried and whose graves I wanted to visit. The gabbai only spoke Arabic, but we somehow managed to communicate. I was made to understand that it would be very difficult to locate the graves, since most of the marble memorial slabs had been taken away and used for construction. He discouraged my going to the cemetery, since it would be impossible to identify the graves. Reluctantly, I conceded that he was right.