Caught in Between

The Jews of Egypt, in the years after Suez, were fond of a punning French joke: “Qui est votre historien préferé? Philon d’Alexandrie.” (Who is your favourite historian? Philo of Alexandria/Let’s clear out of Alexandria.) Such punning jokes with a bitter flavour have of course been typical of Jews everywhere, at all times. But there were much fewer of them amongst the Jews of the Middle East than amongst those of north-eastern Europe because flight was hardly in the minds of most of them in the glory years of 1850 to 1939. During that period, in Egypt and Lebanon in particular, the emphasis was all on welcoming foreigners and making things as easy for them as possible. I remember my surprise when I came to England at the age of 15, in 1956, and found that all the schools were English. In Cairo, by contrast, there were Jewish, Greek, Armenian, Italian, (two) English, (two) German and (three) French schools, to cater for the different communities that lived and worked there in relative harmony with each other. All that changed in 1956. The school I had attended, Victoria College, Cairo (a few years after Edward Said, who, unlike me, had a miserable time there), was renamed, with delightful irony, Victory College. Today there is still an American University, but the schools of the Jesuit Fathers, the Alliance Israelite, and all the others have long since gone.

Of course, with hindsight, one can see that the writing was on the wall a long time before Suez, before even the deposition of Farouk and the installation of the military, who still rule today (they would like the world to say “govern”, but it’s clear that Sisi is as autocratic a ruler as Fouad and Farouk ever were). As Philip Mansell brings out so well in his brilliant book on Smyrna, Beirut and Alexandria, Levant, these cosmopolitan cities were wonderful examples of multiple communities living side by side in a spirit of mutual tolerance, but they were founded on an alliance of the ruling elite and foreign businessmen at the expense of the native populations. It was inevitable that sooner or later those downtrodden masses would revolt and the whole idyllic world (for the foreigners) would come to an end.

Jews, of course, as always, were in a peculiar in-between position, neither “foreigners” nor “natives”. They were not foreigners in that, until the foundation of the State of Israel at any rate, they had no native country to return to, as had the English and the French. And even after 1948 many Egyptian Jews found the new State of Israel far more alien than the Arab lands in which they had lived for years, or the Western countries where they took their holidays, where they had relatives, and where they often sent their children to school. The Copts of Egypt, of course, were in a slightly similar situation, caught perhaps in an even more invidious trap, in that they were native Egyptians, indeed, descendants of the original Egyptians, and had absolutely nowhere else to go, no fellow Copts to welcome them in the countries of the world. Today they are more and more a persecuted Christian minority in a Muslim country.

I had not realised the parallels between many of the middle rank of Egyptian Jews in 1956 and the Jews of Germany in 1933, until I read André Aciman’s fine memoir, Out of Egypt. Like their counterparts in Germany in the 1930s, Aciman’s family were fairly prosperous business people in Alexandria. After Suez, as he watched the expulsion of the British and the French, and the growing anti-Jewish sentiment, Aciman’s father clung on, arguing that his livelihood was here, that he had nowhere else to take his business to and that if he lay low and just carried on, things would soon revert to normal. By 1964 even an optimist like him had to admit that life was being made more and more intolerable for him and his family and he would have to think the unthinkable and leave. Aciman is now a successful writer and academic based in New York.

Our circumstances were rather different. My father’s family had come from Jasz in Eastern Romania by way of Constantinople/Istanbul. If they had once been merchants, they were now (Francophone) writers (my grandfather had co-written with his brother-in-law, Albert Ades, the hugely successful Goha le Simple, short-listed for the Goncourt in 1919, the year Proust won it with A l’Ombre des jeunes filles en fleur). My mother’s father was a Russian doctor from Odessa, Alexis Rabinovitch, but her great-grandfather on her mother’s side, Elia Rossi, had come to Egypt from Ferrara as a young doctor, married into the enormously prestigious and wealthy Cattaoui family, and risen to become doctor to the Khedive. His sons and grandsons consisted of lawyers and doctors, and by the time of my mother’s generation the fortune had been dissipated by bad management and such unforeseen events as the German financial crash of 1923. My father was keen to follow in his father’s steps and move to France; my mother, unlike her sister, had never felt at home in Egypt (they were both orphaned at a young age and brought up by their maternal grandparents and she had never got on with her tyrannical grandfather), and was happy to follow him. Thus shortly after their marriage they moved to Aix-en-Provence and enrolled in the Philosophy faculty of the University of Aix-Marseilles. When they had finished their studies they bought a house in Vence, and this is where the war caught them. They separated during the war, which we all survived, my mother and I first in Nice and then in the Massif Central, my father in Paris.

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