Leaving Egypt Behind

by Isaac Azerad (Sarasota, FL)

Sitting in our sun-drenched living room, in that sun-drenched city aptly named Heliopolis, City of the Sun, on that morning, I am stirred by the ominous feeling that I am about to experience a defining moment in our family’s history.

I am handing over a box to my newly appointed French Language professor. In that box is my treasure, my stamp collection that I painstakingly assembled and catalogued for the best part of my 15 years. The teacher, Fawzi, is a pretentious syrupy little man, who was hastily implanted in our school to displace my esteemed professor who had just been expelled to his native France.

Fawzi is totally inadequate as a Francophone, mispronouncing common words so pedantically that I am developing an antipathy for this hypocritical man with his repeated expressions of feigned concern for my family’s welfare. This man will rob me of my last personal possession and along with it he will leave our home that morning with books, paintings, blankets, pillows and articles of clothing. This was open season on the departing Jews.

In the corner of the living room, suitcases sat patiently on the prized Persian rug next to a shoulder-high wrought iron pedestal propping a fish bowl, a top-heavy aquarium that my sister, Dorette, and I had tipped over many times, sending our fish and our Nanny into a frenzy in her attempt to save the fretting goldfish gasping for air while at the same time doing her best to hide the incident from our parents.

Next to that pedestal was a matching, round, marble-top coffee table with a wrought iron base fashioned after the designs of the genteel society of the time. That table, I recall, had the ideal height for my sister Sabrina’s hesitant first steps as she propped herself up when she learned how to walk a few years earlier. This image of our familiar home, comfortable and semi-opulent, was to be relegated to distant memories in the years to come.

The following morning my family will gather the assembled suitcases lined up in our predictably sunny living room and head to the airport for a final voyage, leaving Egypt behind with no prospect of ever returning to our native land.

With the clothes on our backs and our meager cash allowance of $20 per person, we were leaving without a definite plan of resettlement. In this second exodus from the land of Egypt, more than 80,000 souls embarked on a similar adventure fraught with apprehension and excitement.

A few months prior to that fateful morning in August of 1962, things started turning for the worst. My father’s lucrative business was summarily confiscated, along with our assets, real estate, and bank accounts. It started out gradually when a Business Guardian was appointed by the government to oversee the smooth transition of ownership to an Arab owner. No compensation was deemed necessary, as Jews were considered enemies of the state.

The occasional shouts of “Edbah El Yahud” (“slaughter the Jews”) were beginning to be heard more frequently and in more places. The toxic atmosphere was fomented by a revived sense of patriotism among the masses and ignited by Gamal Abd El Nasser, the pan-Arabism hero. Nasser nationalized businesses, confiscated wealth and belongings, and blamed the ills of the country on all foreigners and, particularly, on the Jews. Our family had been in Egypt for five generations.

One incident in early 1956 sealed our fate as the harbinger of our heightened sense of mounting insecurity. We felt violated when my father was taken at gunpoint in the middle of the night by two uniformed goons with automatic weapons who accused him of being a Zionist Spy. The accusation and arrest followed when they noticed a Press Badge on the dashboard of my father’s parked car. This was a car that my father, Maurice, shared with my uncle, Jacques, who by virtue of being the editor of the two French Newspapers—the Progree Egyptien and La Bourse Egyptienne—was considered part of the press corps. Perhaps unrelated to that incident, my Uncle Jacques was later replaced by a Government Guardian, an overseer of the Press, who was none other than a former classmate of his, a young officer by the name of Anwar al Sadat.

The stories of hardship and disappointment will be repeated throughout the Middle East and North Africa for Jews from Arab countries with their numbers swelling to close to a million displaced persons in the decades of the 50’s and 60’s.

The personal stories of destitution and displacement of the Jews from Egypt pale in comparison to the horrors of World War II. The fate of our brothers and sisters who perished in the Holocaust is not to be compared to any event in the History of mankind. It is perhaps out of respect for their memories and for the suffering of the survivors that the plight of Jews from Arab lands has been kept silent. For more than fifty years, Jews from Egypt remained quiet, relegating their memories to the back pages of history.

Only recently, some of our acquaintances and relatives started unraveling their families’ sagas in some detail. Lucette Lagnado who expounded so articulately in her book, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, traced the journey of her family from Egypt to France to Israel and then to America.

Coincidentally, along with my parents and two sisters, we have traveled an identical journey. I remember that my mother, Tony, of blessed memory, had identified so strongly with the characters in the book that she kept exclaiming how astonishingly familiar the stories were.

A similar journey is depicted in Andre Aciman’s book, Out of Egypt, portraying a rich history of cosmopolitan life and reminiscing about the tradition of multiculturalism in the Golden Age of Cairo and Alexandria. This year, my first cousin, Elliot Malki of Milan, has produced a new documentary showing at the Jerusalem Film Festival, tracing the life journey of several Jews from Egypt and their rise to success and prominence across the globe.

The story of the Jews from Egypt is one of triumph in the face of adversity, a story that demonstrates to the world that freedom from bondage is a character trait embedded in our Jewish ethos.

Despite the circumstances, the Jewish bond that binds us together makes us responsible for one another. I never heard the word “refugee” uttered from any of my fellow Jews from Egypt. We were simply travelers on a journey of hope, no longer Egyptian Jews but simply Jews from Egypt.

Along every step of the way, during every trial and every hardship, a Jew was there to lend a hand to my family. At every stage of my life I found help and guidance, support and comfort from an individual Jew or a Jewish organization.

I have a healthy respect for the awesome responsibility that I owe my people and the debt that I have to my heritage. To me, Judaism is a positive and necessary force in the world and it needs to be nurtured and preserved by Jews for all Jews and for humanity at large. Our sages tell us the task of repairing the world is incomplete but it is ours to undertake.

I believe them.

Isaac Azerad is the Director of Communications at The Jewish Federation of Sarasota-Manatee, President of Main Street Graphics, and past president of Temple Emanu-el. He lives with his wife, Gisele, in Sarasota, FL.

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Filed under Egyptian Jewry, Family history, Jewish identity

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