Contested Memories: Narrations of Egyptian Jewish Life

In the last few years, much has been made of the Arab Jew in contemporary Arabic literature, and, in the last month, the Arab Jew in the Egyptian TV series “The Jewish Quarter.” Egypt has its own particular relationship with Arab Judaism, different from that in Yemen, Iraq, Algeria, or Morocco; Lucia Admiraal gives context for series like “The Jewish Quarter” and novels like the compelling Diary of a Jewish Muslim: 

By Lucia Admiraal

downloadWhile the Egyptian army fights its “war on terror” in the Sinai Peninsula, many Egyptian families stay at home during Ramadan evenings watching television shows. This year’s soap opera “The Jewish Quarter” has caught much Egyptian and foreign attention for its exceptional sympathetic portrayal of Egyptian Jews.

It tells the story of a patriotic Egyptian Jewish family living a cosmopolitan life in Cairo during the late 1940s. The main female character falls in love with a Muslim soldier fighting in Sinai during the Arab-Israeli war.

The male characters wear the tarbush, girls walk the streets of Cairo in short skirts and colourful dresses, and Jewish families live side-by-side Christians and Muslims. Although The Jewish Quarter is a rare positive portrayal of Egyptian Jewry, historians and several members of the dwindling Jewish community in Egypt have pointed to its historic inaccuracies.

One of these, besides the exaggerated glamour and fashion, is that it charges the Muslim Brotherhood and its leader at the time Hassan al-Banna with disrupting tolerance and Jewish life in Egypt.

The Islamists’ anti-Jewish outcries since the Palestinian uprising in 1936 has often led to the notion of Islamist anti-Semitism gaining momentum in Egypt during the 1930s and 40s. But the Brotherhood was, 85-year old Jewish born Egyptian Albert Arie recently stated to the newspaper al-Ahram, “only a footnote in the very rich, complex, and mostly sad story of Egyptian Jewry.”

Egyptian Jewish identities

Delving into the modern history of the Jews in Egypt inevitably implies to touch upon their almost complete disappearance from the country during the latter half of the twentieth century. Jewish departure from Egypt happened within several decades after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948 and the military coup in Egypt in 1952, bringing Gamal Abd al-Nasser to power.

With 50.000-55.000 Jews still living in Egypt after the Arab-Israeli war in 1948, and only a dozen remaining in the country today, the questions why these people left and how they have dealt with their Egyptian identity since departure, seem most relevant. It is indeed these issues that have obtained a central place in documentations about Egyptian Jewish life. Numerous academic studies, novels and films have described the multi-faced history of Jewish life in Egypt.

Since the 1980s several novels have appeared, often in Hebrew, written by Egyptian diaspora Jews who tried to give a voice to their lost community. In the wake of Egyptian president Sadat’s famous visit to Jerusalem and the following Egyptian-Israeli peace accords from 1979, these novelists tried to bridge the gap between Egyptian Jews in Israel and their communal past.

Revival of the ‘Arab Jew’

salataIt is not just the Jewish community of Egypt that is currently being ‘rediscovered’ by an Egyptian and non-Egyptian audience. The past decades have witnessed a remarkable interest in a ‘fusion’ of Jewish and Arab histories.

Meanwhile, Arab-Jewish identity has noticeably become the subject of such a wide range of academic works, literature, cinema, music and food, that the Jewish writer and blogger of Moroccan, Indian, and Iraqi descent Sigal Samuel even suggested in Forward to call 2015 “the year of the Arab Jew,”
adding: “It’s not just Arab Jews who are becoming fascinated with their Arabness; non-Jewish Arabs in Iraq, Egypt, Tunisia, and Syria are showing an interest in the Jews who once lived among them.”

This ‘fusion’ of identities is at the centre of Egyptian director Nadia Kamel’s intimate documentary film Salata Baladi (Down-home Salad, 2007). The film derives its title from the mixture of ingredients that make a flavorful salad, representing the different members of Kamel’s family as well as the various ethnic components of Egypt’s population.

Kamel’s mother Naila was born in Egypt from a Jewish father and an Italian mother whom later converted to Christianity. Naila was raised in a Christian family, but she later converted to Islam to marry a Muslim, Kamel’s father. Kamel’s exploration of the different flavours of her family brings her to Italy and Israel, where part of her family has lived since the 1940s.

In one of the most disturbing scenes of film, Kamel tries to persuade her parents, her mother a former communist and fervent anti-Zionist, to accompany her to Israel to meet the long dispersed members of the family. But for her parents, putting feet on Israeli soil means betraying their loyalty to Egypt.

When they eventually jointly travel to Israel, they are warmly welcomed in the house of their elderly Jewish Egyptian relatives. To Kamel’s amazement, they still express their love for traditional Egyptian street food, speak broken Egyptian colloquial Arabic, and listen to the legendary Egyptian singer Umm Kalthoum at night.

The strong sense of Egyptian identity and (long distance) nationalism is also at the heart of Egyptian novelist and former police officer Kamal Ruhayyim’s literary trilogy about Egyptian Jewry. Diary of a Jewish Muslim (English translation, 2014) takes us back to the decades preceding the modern Jewish exodus from Egypt since the 1950s and accentuates the pluralist coexistence in an old Cairo neighbourhood. In the second part, Days in the Diaspora (2012), we follow the Egyptian Muslim protagonist Galal, born in a Jewish family, in his search for identity after he forcedly leaves Cairo for Paris during the 1960s.

Cosmopolitanism and nostalgia

akherAs is the case with “The Jewish Quarter,” many of the cinematic and literary narratives on Egyptian Jewry have a nostalgic outlook, because their main point of reference is the cosmopolitan era that preceded the exodus of Egypt’s Jews over the last six decades.

The two-part documentary Jews of Egypt (2013) by the young Egyptian filmmaker Amir Ramses, which was initially censored in Egypt, recounts cosmopolitan Egyptian Jewish life in the 1940s and 50s and proceeds with what remains in Egypt today of a once so diverse, multi-ethnic Jewish community: eight, mostly elderly, women, gathering once in a while speaking a mix of Egyptian colloquial Arabic and French.

The cosmopolitan, strongly European culture of upper-class Cairo and most notably Alexandria of the 1940s, in which Jews of various nationalities took part, has thus had a lasting impact on both Egyptian and Egyptian Jewish memory and cultural heritage.

At the time of the Egyptian Israeli peace talks in the late 1970s the Egyptian director Youssef Chahine stirred debate with his film Al-Iskindiriyya…lēh? (1978). Set in Alexandria during the Second World War, it includes a love story between a bourgeois Jewish girl Sarah and a Muslim communist Ibrahim.

Mutaz Fatiha’s novel Akher yahud al-Iskindiriyya, The Last Jews of Alexandria, (2008), contains a similar Romeo and Juliet theme. It tells the dramatic love story of the Jewish boy Youssef and the aristocratic Muslim girl Sara. Set against the backdrop of the Second World War in their beloved cosmopolitan Alexandria, the protagonists find themselves confronted with the complexity of their social and religious identities in a rapidly changing world.

But not all Jews in Egypt were part of a cosmopolitan culture under European influence. A significant part had Egyptian nationality, spoke Arabic and was highly assimilated to Egyptian life. Mainly due to their limited visibility in Egyptian Jewish society, resulting in a lack of sources, the histories of the Egyptianized Jewish lower classes have often been forgotten.

A far underexposed segment of Egyptian Jewry consisted of the minority who mastered Arabic and considered Arabic language and culture to be fundamental parts of their identity and presence in Egypt. But the remaining majority did not comprise a solely cosmopolitan, elitist and European orientated entity. Nor were the Jews a politicised group aligned with the colonial powers, Communism or Zionism.


dispersionYet in Egyptian nationalist rhetoric, the Jews in Egypt have either been presented as foreign intruders associated with colonialism and Zionism, or as cosmopolitan citizens fitting into an idealized Egyptian past of tolerance and coexistence.

In his study The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry (1998), Joel Beinin has objected both the Egyptian and Israeli national narratives through which the history of the Jews in Egypt has often been explained. In the Israeli narrative, Egyptian Jews as well as other Jewish communities from the Arab world were victimized, following the Zionist notion that Jews in the Arab world lived in a solely hostile environment and had no choice then to leave for Israel.

Other studies describing Jewish history in Egypt show that until the late 1940s, Jews were rarely exposed to religious and economic restrictions, nor did the rising political tensions have a decisive affect on their daily lives. Ultimately, Jews in monarchic Egypt of the 1940s neither lived in a solely hostile environment nor can we speak of a utopian ‘convivencia’.

Hence, reducing the complex dynamics that led to the disruption of Jewish life in Egypt to the figure of Hassan al-Banna and his followers is misleading and historically false, as is the notion that all Jewish women in the 1940s walked around Cairo wearing red lipstick and miniskirts.

“The Jewish Quarter” is surprisingly positive about the Jews of Egypt. But the idealized pluralist Egyptian past it presents, in which the essential enemies are, just like today, the Islamists, is above all another simplistic nationalist way of looking at the diverse histories of the Jews in Egypt.

Despite its historic flaws, the Jewish Quarter perhaps indicates that curiosity can win over the general mistrust towards Jews in Egypt and the equation of Jews and Zionism. As the narrator in Diary of a Jewish Muslim recalls about his youth in Cairo:

“Our apartment was not like any other in the building; it was different. No sooner did the children venture near it, especially the younger ones, they would be overcome with trepidation, as though at the portals of an enigmatic world filled with exotic Jewish mysteries. It was an attractive mystery though; they were avid to know us as we really were.”

Lucia Admiraal obtained her MA in Middle Eastern studies from the University of Amsterdam. She holds a BA in History  from the same university and studied Arabic in Cairo.