I was born in Cairo in 1920 in a Jewish middle-class family. My mother was born in Turkey and came to Cairo as a teenager. My father was born in Cairo, but both of them were Sephardic ( Spanish) in origin. However, my father had acquired Italian citizenship from his father. This made me legally an Italian citizen as well. Approximately one hundred years earlier, the rulers of Egypt accepted arrangements where by all foreigners and their children derived their legal status from the consul of the country of their origin. It was preferable for them to maintain their foreign citizenship, since if they became Egyptian citizens, they would depend on the Egyptian Moslem legalsystem. This system of protection came to be called the Laws of Capitulations, which had nothing to do with the actual meaning of the word. Capitulations were treaties of commerce whereby the interests of the foreigners ..immigrating to Egypt would be safeguarded by their own consul, and they were not taxed. However, since this led to a chaotic legal situation, Mixed Courts were established in 1885, so that any kind of litigation between a foreigner and an Egyptian would be handled by them. It is understandable why foreigners living for several generations 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 carrying their own passports. The Capitalizations were eliminated in 1937 ( Treaty of Montreux) and the taxation was imposed on foreign businesses. Individualtaxa˜on came later. While my family had Italian citizenship, their first language was French. French influence dates from Napolean' s conquest of Egypt in the latter part of the eighteenth century and to the establishment in the Middle East of French schools. My family was also fluent in Ladino, a type of archaicc Spanish which included many French, Turkish, and Hebrew words with Spanish endings. Many of the old-timers wrote Ladino in Hebrew script (Rashi). 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.
Arabic in those days was not considered important for some of us. Most of the Jews spoke Arabic at different levels of competence. Very few learned literary Arabic, which required years of study and was not used in common communication. Colloquial Arabic was primarily used with service people such as maids, waiters, Arab shopkeepers, the man in the street and so on.
Prior to the arrival 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 citizens. Christians had the same status. They had to pay heavy taxes called "jizya" and were exempt from military service.
Bat Ye'or (1985) had described the life of Jews and Christians under Muslim rule. Prior to the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, Jewish civilians and mercenaries had settled on the island of Elephantine inthe upper Nile and had formed a frontier garrison for the protection of the Pharaohs against outside invaders. This was the only Temple outside Israel. Following the conquest of Egypt by Alexander the Great, Jews became very prominent in Alexandria. The community became Hellenized but maintained their Jewish faith. They participated in and contributed to Greek cultural activities. This was the time when the Bible was translated into Greek 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 A.D.). The revolt was instigated by Christian Greeks wholed a number of pogroms. Jewish life in Alexandria disappeared. .
In 640, Egypt was conquered by Arabs from the Arabian Peninsula under the banner of Mohammed who established a new religion. Little Information about Jews between that conquest and until the end of the tenth century is available. However, the Fatimids ( Shi'ites Muslims) conquered the country (969 A.D.) and a period of relative but inconsistent prosperity followed. The Fatimids had relaxed the Laws of Omar, but some rulers were less tolerant than others. The laws of Omar consisted in a series of acts of degradation such as wearing signs indicating Jewishness, inability to ride horses, carry arms, and so forth. During that period there was some intellectual activity until the thirteenth century when the Mamelukes (1250) took over. Those centuries saw the social improvements of the Jewish community documented by the Geniza papers. A number of Spanish Jews expelled from the Spanish peninsula in 1492 settled in Egypt, but most of them settled in Turkey.
One of the illustrious leaders of the Jewish community in Cairo was Maimonides, who was born in Cordoba (Spain) but who fled from the Almohadic ( Muslim) persecution. The Mameluke rule was followed by persecution of both Jews and Christians and continued unti 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 is correlated with the decline of the Jewish community. A number of "Chelebis" were executed by Turkish governors either because of slander by their entourage or because of the jealousy of the wealth that the Jews had (Encyclopedia Judaica). Following the expulsion of Jews from Spain in 1492, French secular schools (Lycée Français) and schools established by the Collège des Frères a Catholic order. The latter schools tended to require more work of their students. Egypt also had schools for Greek, Italian, German and Armenian nationals. Professional training and higher education were obtained abroad. Very few Europeans were able to attend the Egyptian Universities for the simple reason that since very few had learned written Arabic, they could not be admitted in spite of the fact that English and French were used particularly in the sciences, medicine and law. I attended the Collège des Frères where almost 40-50% of the students were Jewish. All courses were taught in 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 children of modest means attended them. French again was the dominant language with Hebrew as a secondary language. There was a small afternoon school attached to the main synagogue teaching Hebrew. Regular talmudics chools did not exist. Those who needed further religious education or rabbinical raaining 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 people from their Arab environment.
Life for Jews was quite comfortable; practically all could afford maids; travel to the resort beaches particularly in Alexandria and Port-Said was common. They stayed in beautifu1 hotels with dancing and entertainment. Jews had recreational clubs like l'Union Universelle de la Jeunesse Juive, la Judéo-Espagnole (later changed to Judéo-Egyptienne because of the political situation). Most Jews, except for those living in the Haret el Yahoud, considered themselves secular Jews. Jewish learning was minima, since the requirements at times for the Bar-Mitzvah were a few months of instruction by a private tutor at home.
A group of my friends from the Collège des Frères and I established a boys club called "The Jewish Camping Club" for the purpose of going out of town with our tents to places like the Pyramids, where we could ride horses, Méadi, Helwan (Spa), Suez, the Mokattam mountains and the Fayum oasis south of Cairo for relaxing week-ends.
People travelled by car, bus, trams or cabs. However, there was one method of transportation that was rather popular if one was not in a hurry. Cairo had a large number of horse-drawn coaches which could be hailed like cabs. The cost of the ride had to be settled beforehand, and, if agreed upon, you travel on a more leisurely pace. They were fondly known as "Arabeya Khantour". There were a number of nightclubs around town and at the ds for entertainment and dancing. Subscriptions were available at the Royal Opera House, which was originally built by Khédive Ismail to receive opera and theater groups from Europe. Verdi's opera Aida was performed at this jewel of an opera house for the first time. The most up-to-date movies in English, French and Italian were shown in theaters all over the cities of Cairo and Alexandria. English movies had sub -titles in French and Arabic.
Most of the large department stores were owned by Jews, like Cicurel, Oreco, Chemla, Gattegno, Adés, Cohenca, Simon-Artz, La Petite Reine, Morums and Benzion. Notable exceptions were Sednaoui, which was owned by Christian immigrants from Syria, but most employees were Jewish. Thus Jewish trade and commerce were quite visible. It is interesting to note that most of the names of these stores are still maintained today in spite of the fact that the Jewish community in Egypt is almost extinct. The dominant language in those stores was French; of course, most employees spoke colloquial Arabic. Basically we were foreigners in the country of our birth. The department stores carried the latest fashions from France and the U.S.A. Jews dominated the membership of a city swimming pool on the Gezireh Island on the Nile. Working hours were between 9-1 and 4-7. The breakin the day allowed for some people to have siestas but hardy souls took advantage of the time to go swimming and, of course, to interact with friends. This was extremely enjoyable. During the summer months we had open-air cin‚mas and skating rinks. There were horse-racing and pigeon-shooting clubs. The word " Juif" was included in the names of Clubs, but there was nothing Jewish about them, since there were no activities specifically Jewish. They were primariy used for recreational purposes, lectures, discussions, ping pong games, the performance of French plays with the members acting-and some singing. Such clubs were also used for the purpose of meeting friends and arranging for outings in the city. Jews shared with other foreignerS, as well as the upper-class westernized Moslems, a kind of superiority-to those who spoke Arabic exclusively. It was known that the Royal family spoke French among themselves and surrounded themselves in the palaces with foreigners who assisted in various capacities.
However, in spite of this pleasant experience there was a feeling of disquiet when Jews from Europe started to arrive in Israel. Bloody riots by Arabs were instigated against Jews. Starting in 1942 they were encouraged by Hajj Amin elHussayn, the Mufti of Jerusalem, who later fled to Germany and supported Hitler in his propaganda against Jews. During the war-time period, Farouk tended to be proGerman for the simple reason that the British occupation of the country was hated.
Later the different Israel-Arab wars had dramatic .repercussions on the Jewish community of Egypt. During those early years we could not feel any anti-Semitism. Because of historicalreasons, it was believed that it was there but that it was latent. In any case it could not be easily expressed. If it existed, it could not affect us, since as Jews we worked most of the time for Jews. Earlier I indicated that for centuries Jews in Arab lands lived under great degradation, such as being forced to wear special clothing and being forbidden from praying in public within close hearing of the Moslems (see Sanua,(1980) for a detailed description of their status). In general, Jews and non-Jews seemed to feel secure under British rule. Once the British were forced out of the country, all this beautiful and comfortable living came to an end.
Since I personally could see the writing on the wall, I registered my family during World War II at the American Embassy for purposes of immigration to the U.S.A. Since life in Egypt was too comfortable to think in terms of relocating oneself for an undetermined future, it was not considered a wise move on my part.
The first serious inkling of things to come was in November 2,1945,on the anniversary of the Balfour Declaration which stated that Jews had a right to a National Home in Palestine. Some minor anti-Jewish agitation began in 1938, but in 1945, members of the youth organization, Young Egypt, who wore green shirts, and members of the Moslem B rotherhood attacked the Jewish quarter in Cairo with 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 foreign communities. Thus there was a combination of factors which led to the demise of the Jewish and foreign communities. With industrialization, a new Egyptian social class developed which caused tension between them and Jews and Christians in the country. While Sionist activities were tolerated in the past, the defeat of Arab armies during the Israeli-Arab wars was instrumental in developing anti- Jewish feelings. Muslim fundamentalism substantially contributed to the I xenophobia. After every war, Jewish property was sequestered, confiscated, people were imprisonned in concentration camps or were thrown out of the country and thus forced to leave their assets behind. Regular travelling abroad became a problem since exits visas were needed. The Company Law was enacted in 1947 which required business enterprises to maintain a quota of Egyptian employees, 75% of all salaried employees ( with at least 65% of the Total salaries) in offices and 90% of the workers in factories had to be Egyptians. For some, the interpretation of the words "Egyptian nationals" included at times only "realEgyptians," or Moslems. The Law even discriminated against the indigenous Christians, the Copts. Since a large percentage 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. The fact that I did not befriend a Moslem employee who was promoted to the directorship of the business did not help matters. Some Jews tried to get Egyptian citizenship, but it was difficult to obtain since it was necessary to prove that parents and grandparents were born in the country. Of course, the fact that many of them did not qualify led to the beginning of the exodus of the Jews from Egypt. During the early years following the 1948 war, 20. 000 to 30. 000 Jews left the country, since they could not obtain employment. Foreign businesses and foreign institutions were exempted from the Company Law. 1 was first able to work in a business representing the Communist Government of Hungary and later joined the staff of the American Friends Services Committee who were involved in helping Palestinian refugees in Gaza. In 1949 the refugee problem had not been politicized. In 1952 Nasser came to power, and the decisive blow to Egyptian Jewry was made when in 1956 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 citizens of France and England. Another 40.000 to 50.000 Jews left the country within a few months with all their wealth and property confiscated. In 1967 there were about 3000 Jews left, but by the1980's the number had dwindled to about 200. At the present time it is estimated that one hundred oId peopIe still remain in Egypt. The Egyptian Jewish emigrants scattered throughout the worId. They settIed in the following countries 35. 000 in Israel; 15. 000 in Brazil; 10. 000 in France; 9, 000 in the U.S.A.and the same number in Argentina; and4,000inGreatBritain. (Elazar (1989). A few very rich Egyptians Jews and non-Jews managed to become residents of Switzerland. One method used by them if they wanted to transfer money abroad which was illegal, was to entrust their money to Egyptian pilots and the staff of the International Red Cross with the proviso that they would bank the money for future use in Swiss banks once the owners were out of the country. At times 50% of the value of the money was taken as a bribe. What is distressing was that many after leaving the country discovered that their money had not been deposited. Thus within the space of a few years, the Jewish community which had been in existence for 2500 years was liquidated. Except for those who were able to leave on time and able to transfer some funds, most Jews were left penniless when they departed. The following is an excerpt of a letter received from a classmate of mine from Cairo which illustrates the point. I had not been able to locate him since our graduation in 1945 from the American University in Cairo. Through a fortuities encounter, I was able to get his address in Australia. It reads as follows: After graduation in 1945 (from American Universityat Cairo) I went to pursue my medical studies at the American University at Beirut .
From the very first day in Beirut I contracted dysentery so severe that . I could not do any home work. I could not help myself but to go to bed very early in the evening only to wake up too late next morning to miss out on my first lecture. Still weak from dysentery I joined the family business--manufacturing goldsmiths for generations. It was a successful business with a very high reputation for honesty an essentia ingredient for goldsmiths. The first couple of years my health was still suffering from that dysentery and I hated the unclean surroundings of the factory. As my health improved gradually, I began to.contribute my share of efforts to the business which continued to improve very fast. We thought it would be wise to invest in new and modern machinery. I made three trips to Europe and we were quite optimistic, How wrong we were. The political atmosphere was getting worse, and we were being 'targeted' by the opportunistic army officers.
Everytime Israel dealt a humiliating blow to the Egyptian forces my father was interned and threatened. Finally, they ended up taking not only our business but also our private assets. 1 migrated to Australia in November 1963. Bitter, penniless and helpless, I struggled till I landed as a casual science teacher. Only in 1970 did the government finance a course for .. graduates, casual teachers, leading to a Diploma(in) Education. After completing the course I was appointed as "permanent". In December 1983 I retired at the age of sixty. Even though I am struggling I enjoy my hobbies: photography, silver jewelry and land-scaping (end of story). Thus within a few years, the Jewish community which was so much part of the Egyptian community ceased to exist. Following the s ignature 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 from the time foreigners had left the country. Almost 30 years of hostility against Israel and the excessive expenditure of the national wealth for the military had seriously affected the infra-structure of the country. We were told. that if we wanted to visit Egypt, we could not drink water because of the serious pollution in the water system of the country, and that only bottled drinks were safe. Before my departure from Egypt in 1950, we had no problem drinking water with ice, and Cairo was a relatively clean and well-ordered and managed city.
At that time the population of Cairo was 2, 250, 000. The estimate early in the 1980' s was about 14. 000. 000 to 15. 000.000 people with approximately half a million or more people livingin cemeteries. Cairo was a beautiful city, and now after the 30years, it was in shambles. There was some reluctance on my part to pay a visit to the city of my birth. I preferred to remain with my original impression of the city.
However, in 1983 while my daughter was attending The Hebrew University.in Jerusalem and I was visiting her, she expressed a desire to visit Egypt. I was quite reluctant. However, when she stated that she was going to go anyway and that going alone would have much less significance, she provided me with a convincing argument. In the summer of 1983, we took a bus from Tel Aviv to Cairo, a trip that takes approximtely 10 hours which included the crossing of the Suez Canal. Of course, I did not expect to meet any Jews I had known before, since they all had gone, but I had definitely planned to visit the Synagogue where I was bar-mitzvahed and where I used to go quite frequently with my father. The bus went through Heliopolis on the outskirts of Cairo. Originally it was inhabited primariy by upper-class foreigners; now it was teeming with people, and buildings were in a decrepit condition. Our hotel in Cairo was situated in Dokki. My recollection was that Dokki was formerly a suburb of Cairo with beautiful homes. Now it was completely built up with tall buildings and with extensive traffic. It was night time, and the elevator operator could not have been older than twelve. When I made some remarks about how young he was, I was told that he was lucky since he had three square meals a day. During the two days we were in Cairo, we went sight-seeing during the day and at night visited the fAmiliAr places of my youth. During the first day we saw the ancient Egyptian archeological sites. We drove past village after village rather slowly to get to the ds. It took us almost two hours. I remembered that as a teen-ager, I rode a bicycle and was able to do the round trip non-stop in approximately one hour. Both sides of the road which originally were farmland were now fully inhabited. The stop lights and traffic accounted for the slow pace of our bus. Because of the large number of people walking in the streets wooden overpasses had been built to enable people to cross, since crossingin the congested traffic would have been suicidal. Busses were jammed with people, and some even entered the busses through the windows or were hanging out of the doors holding on for dear life. Of course, horse-drawn coaches Arabeya Khantour" do not eexist anymore. I visited the street where I was born, Sharia Tursina street. The street name was hardly visible, since it was covered by the grime of years. The elevators .. were not functioning. A person who was coming down the steps indicated that the elevator had not been working for years. I visited the Catholic school of my early eduction. Nothing had changed in the building. It was very well kept. The familiar bell was in the same place, and the playground was there, but it was much smaller than I had remembered. The principal was well aware of the changes that had taken place. Now Arabic was the dominant language of Instruction, and there were very few foreigners in the school. Next I visited the American University in Cairo, where I did my undergraduate work. It was formerly a beautiful palace of Egyptian nobility. The university was rather small in those days. I was surprised to see that this palace now is used as the administration building of the university. The surrounding open spaces which were used for sport activities had new buildings to accommodate the tremendous increase of the student body. The American University in Cairo is the only place in Egypt where it is possible to obtain a liberal education. My visit to the grounds, of course, brought back very pleasant memories of the beautiful years I had spent at the university participating in various club activities. Many streets of Cairo were named after illustrious citizens who were accorded titles of nobility of Turkish origin, like Pacha or Bey. These titles of nobility were eliminated with the establishment of the Egyptian Republic after King Farouk was forced to leave the country. Most of the street names were changed either completely, or the titles of nobility dropped out. For example, I used to live on Sharia (Street) Malika Farida, who was Farouk's first wife. When he divorced her, the name was changed to Abdel Khalet Saroit Pacha. Now it is called Abdel Khalet Saroit. The main street of Cairo Sharia Fouad 1 who was Farouk's father (all the names of the royalfamily started with an F) was changed to the Street of the 6th of July to commemorate some important date in modern Egyptian history. soliman Pacha, which was another major street of Cairo, was completely changed. A major .. square of the street, had the statue of Soliman Pacha, who was a converted Christian of eminence in Egyptian politics. It has been taken away and replaced by another statue and the street renamed Harb street. The names of the department stores which were owned by Jews were still in use : Cicurel, Gattegno, Chemla, Oreco, Orosdi-Back, and so forth. On Sharia Fouad there was a famous pastry shop, Tseppas, which wasa favorite spot to eat cakes. I saw the name had not changed. Since a young Tseppas was a classmate of mine at the Catholic School, I asked the pastry shop attendant if he knew where Tseppas was. He told me with a smile that I he had left the country a long time ago. Again on Sharia Fouad there were two luxurious favorite icecream parlors and restaurants called "A l'Américaine". The names were still there, but their former sparkle had gone. I visited Groppi, which was a combination of pastry shop, restaurant and dancing nightclub owned by Greeks. It was the major meeting of the jet set of those days, now a run-down afe where people drank tea or coffee and played backgammon. I visited the center of town, Ataba Khadra, where the major post office was situated. It took quite a bit of time to cross the square because of the enormous crowd. I started looking for a famous statue of Ibrahim Pacha, Mohammed Ali's son, which would help me locate the Royal Opera house where my family had a reserved box for years. To my dismay after the opera house had burned down, it was replaced by a parking lot. I heard that the Moslem Brotherhood organization was suspected of having destroyed it possibly because it represented foreign domination. My daughter who was carrying a tape recorder on all those visits reminded me that while I had kept a jovial attitude towards the whole visit, at that particular spot, I had sobbed, apparently I had become overtaken by sadness. I probably took the destruction of the Opera as symbolically representing a lost pleasant past. Saturday morning, my daughter and I arrived at the Shaar Ha-Shamayim synagogue "The Gate of Heaven" commonly called Temple Ismaliah, where Ihad my Bar-Mitzvah. The name of the street had originally been Adly Paca. I was wondering about the present condition of the sinagogue with so few Egyptian Jews in the City. I expected it to be in decay after more than 30 years. To my surprise it was as beautiful and resplendent a building as at the time when I had left Egypt in 1950. I was told that a grant by Nissim Gaon, a rich Swiss businessman formerly from Egypt had been given for the purpose of renovating it. I entered with great emotion, since this was the place where my father used to take me, and, I remembered very clearly the beautiful singing of Cantor Chichcheck, a Czech. I also recalled the sermons by Rabbi Haim Nahum Effendi, who was totally blind. He was the rabbi between 1925-1961. A shamash had to remind him that it was time to to build an overhead road across the cemetery. My cousin Moise Sanua, who was Rabbi Haim's Nahoum's secretary at the Rabbinate told me an interesting legend about the cemetery. It seems that centuries ago a group of Jews had approached the ruler of the country and requested some land outside Cairo to enable then to bury . their dead. Since the ruler was not sympathetic to their request, he gave them the hide of a cow and told them that he could give only theland that was covered by the hide. After some thought the Jews decided to cut the hide into very thin strips, sewed them together at the ends and thus were able to form a big circle to surround a sizable site for Jewish burials. The Egyptian Jewish community in Egypt will completely disappear within a few years, after almost 25 centuries of existence. On October 31, 1991 during the Madrid Peace Conference, Syrian Minister Farouk al- Sharaa included in his speech the following remarks about the ideal conditions that Jews enjoyed in Arab lands : "The Arabs throughout their long history have always advocated peace, justice and tolerance. The Jews and Oriental Jews in particular know better than anyone that they have lived among Muslim Arabs throughout history, wherever they happen to coexist, without suffering any form of persecution or discrimination either racial or religious . " . A simple question is if Jews had such a good and wonderfullife in Arablands, why did they leave? The only Muslim country that still has a sizeable number of Jews, somewhat smaller than originally but still thriving at the present time is Turkey. Out of approximately 1.000.000 Jews living in Arablands, the following is an estimate of the number of Jews remaining in the various countries. Morocco, 110.000 (original number 250.000) Tunisia, 2.500, Syria 4.000 (They are not allowed to leave); Yemen 1.400, Egypt and Irak about 200 each; Lebanon 50; Lybia 5. At the present time there are a few Israeli scholars in Egypt who are trying to safeguard the documents in the institutions which are being collected for historical reasons. Of course, the Geniza documents found decades ago reflected on the activities of Jews living centuries ago. I suppose that by saving the remnants of the documents left, It will be possible to reconstruct Jewish life in Egypt.
I would like to reflect at this time about the attitude of the people I met and at their reaction to my having been born in Cairo and having gone to America years ago. All I can say is all of them wIthout any exception were cordialand even warm, and the older ones expressed some regrets over the departure of the Jews. A sad story was a conversation 1 had wIth a cab driver, who told me that his young brother who was a pilot in the air force had died in one of the wars. He was wondering whether such a sacrifice was worthwhile. I certainly left Egypt wIth a heavy heart particularly because the trip had brought to mind the wonderful life we had in Egypt, the vibrant community that existed which is no more. My feelings and emotions have been recorded by my daughter. I hope that some day as a historian she willbe able to write a better report on the life of Jews in Egypt. I would like to end this recounting wIth one single remark. It seems that while the first Exodus of Jews from Egypt is well documented ( depending upon one' s belief on the authenticity of the Bible), I hope that some day, there will be another documentation of the Exodus of the Jews in the twentieth century.
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