EGYPTIAN JEWS: “THE MAN IN THE WHITE SHARKSKIN SUIT” MEMOIRFebruary 15, 2010 at 3:13 am | Posted in Arabs, Art, Books, History, Islam, Israel, Judaica, Literary, Middle East, Palestine | Leave a comment
The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit
A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old
Cairo to the New World
Lucette Lagnado’s father, Leon, is a successful Egyptian businessman and boulevardier who, dressed in his signature white sharkskin suit, makes deals and trades at Shepherd’s Hotel and at the dark bar of the Nile Hilton. After the fall of King Farouk and the rise of the Nasser dictatorship, Leon loses everything and his family is forced to flee, abandoning a life once marked by beauty and luxury to plunge into hardship and poverty, as they take flight for any country that would have them.
A vivid, heartbreaking, and powerful inversion of the American dream, Lucette Lagnado’s unforgettable memoir is a sweeping story of family, faith, tradition, tragedy, and triumph set against the stunning backdrop of Cairo, Paris, and New York.
Winner of the Sami Rohr Prize for Jewish Literature and hailed by the New York Times Book Review as a “brilliant, crushing book” and the New Yorker as a memoir of ruin “told without melodrama by its youngest survivor,” “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit” recounts the exile of the author’s Jewish Egyptian family from Cairo in 1963 and her father’s heroic and tragic struggle to survive his “riches to rags” trajectory.
(from Trudy Rubin):
Every Egyptian Jew I met, without exception, assured me that the Jews had led a good life before 1948. One elderly Cairo Jew, still wealthy, whose family has lived in Egypt for centuries, told me, his eyes misting over, “We had everything then. The Jews owned the banks, the shops; they owned and managed all the big societies of credit — the bourse and the cotton exchange. The banks used to close on Rosh Hashonah and Yom Kippour (the Jewish New Year and Day of Atonement).”
As we sat in his comfortable downtown apartment, he reeled off the names of famous Jewish families: “Yusuf Cattaui Pasha, he was Minister of Finance in the ‘30’s and one son was a deputy and another a senator: Madame Cattaui was first lady-in-waiting to the queen: there was Chicorel and Chemla and Addis — they owned the big department stores — and Green, who owned many buildings and was a cereal merchant and Alfred Suares, who founded the National Bank of Egypt at the turn of the century and of course, the Mesnasche family in trade and banking….
“In Cairo we had 15 synagogues and a big Jewish school and a hospital. The Jewish doctors had many Arab customers. They recognized that the Jews were clever. Before 1948 we were like brothers with the Arabs. The older generation still has many friends, but the new generation under Nasser has turned against the Jews.
“We were well-treated and had all our satisfactions here. My children had Moslem friends in the Lycee Francais. (His children have long since emigrated to Europe and the United States.)
“But now, we have nothing, nothing. Of 250 Jews in Cairo, 150 live off the charity of the Jewish community. They are all old. There aren’t 50 families, which still work for a living. Sometimes we can’t even get a minyan (ten men) in synagogue. Why, we used to have parties with 150 people….”
The exodus of Egyptian Jews did not start immediately after the 1948 war. According to members of the community, many prominent Jews were interned after 1948 and held in camps, but were not ill-treated and were finally released. I was told, “After 1948 there was no intensive official hard feelings. On the contrary, there were still very good business relations and Jews were respected and appreciated.”
In 1952, a wave of nationalist xenophobia swept Cairo and many big shops and a hotel were burned down during a rampage known as the ‘Cairo fire’. The Jews, many of whom held foreign passports and were lumped by the nationalists with the other non-Egyptian owners of most of Egypt‘s business and industry, were one of the targets of this rage. But the wave passed, and King Farouk reimbursed property owners for damages. However, in July 1952, the Free Officers Movement, including the then unknown Gamal Abdel Nasser, overthrew King Farouk. At this point many wealthy Jews began to leave.
During the next four years, “there was no open persecution, but you felt if you needed a special signature, people were reticent about giving it to you.” Young Jews holding non-Egyptian passports found it hard to get jobs, although Egyptian Jews did not feel so much animosity.
The invasion of Sinai in 1956 by Israeli, French, and British forces sparked a full exodus. Many Jews were temporarily interned and their property sequestered. All British and French citizens, which included many Jews, were ordered to leave. Among those Jews who remained, many were dismissed from all official positions and kicked out of all clubs. (They were later allowed to return to some jobs, at lower levels, and club memberships were eventually restored.)
“Feelings against Jews were high but were restrained,” one Cairo Jew recalled. “You could leave the country but you had to leave everything behind. But they never threw Jews out of the university, and we were not limited in movement within the country. They were reasonable, not like in Syria or Iraq.”
In 1961 the Nasser regime nationalized all large firms and foreign banks which included, of course, Jewish-owned firms, leading still more Jews to leave. In addition, many families whose children had been sent abroad to university and could not return began leaving to join their children.
By 1967 about 5,000 Jews were left in Egypt. The Six Day War spelled the virtual end of the community. During the war, 400 men between the ages of 18 and 50 were interned as a potential fifth column. About 150 were released after several weeks, mostly holders of foreign passports, but the remainder were held for three and one-half years. During the first few weeks they were treated badly, including beatings, but after that treatment was adequate, and visits allowed. Ironically, they were held in a camp for political internees, which included members of the fanatical Moslem Brotherhood, apparently leading to better understanding between the two groups, according to Cairo Jews. The internees were finally released upon agreement to leave the country immediately. Seventeen refused to emigrate, preferring prison, and were finally let go. (For some inexplicable reason, when recently questioned by a group of Jewish journalists about the internment incident, Egyptian Information Minister Kamal Abul Magd denied that it had ever happened, and asked one journalist to bring him specific details. Several other Egyptian officials spoke openly of the affair to me, some defending it as necessary for security reasons, others feeling it was a mistake.)
Those Jews who remain live quietly and inconspicuously. The community is elderly and increasingly depleted by funerals. There are still some lawyers, a doctor, a few teachers in private schools, skilled workers, some government workers (but only in unimportant posts) and of course, the retired. One Cairo Jew is part owner of one of the city’s newest and poshest restaurants along with a Moslem and a Christian. I met three Jewish youngsters studying at the university.
In both Cairo and Alexandria, the communities depend heavily on income from property, which has not been disturbed by the government. This goes for upkeep of synagogues and cemeteries, and stipends for the poor. In Alexandria, where the property is worth about $2,500,000, it also supports a home for the aged with a communal kitchen, and a small monthly grant to nearly every Jew according to need. Some former Jewish school buildings are used by the Egyptian government and they pay rent to the Jewish community.
Jews with whom I spoke concurred that the Egyptian govern — has respected their religious practices. The Jews still own all their synagogues, and there has been no desecration, with the exception of petty thievery inside closed-up synagogues after the 1967 war. The Jewish cemetery in Cairo is in bad shape, with many of its marble stones looted. “I don’t think it is anti-semitism,” one Jew told me. “Gangs come at night. The Christian cemeteries are robbed also but ours is easy because it is open and not well-protected and near the desert.” In Alexandria where the cemetery is well protected, thievery is a minor problem.
There is no shortage of religious articles in Egypt. In Cairo‘s Adli St. Synagogue, the only one open in the city, there is a surfeit of prayer books and torah scrolls encased in beautiful silver and inlaid mother-of-pearl cases. There is a kosher butcher in Cairo and both the Alex and Cairo communities bake their own Matzoh (unleavened bread) for the Passover holidays. But the last rabbi left Cairo more than two years ago, and the brief Saturday service seems more an excuse for the participants to commune with each other and their past than a religious service.
Synagogue functions are protected by government police. During the Yom Kippour War last year services were held: Jews entered by the back door while the police protected the front. There were no incidents. There is a policeman in plain clothes on duty all the time inside the Cairo and Alex synagogues. He serves two functions: He reports to the government who — especially foreigners enters, and he handles any complaints of the worshippers.
For the Jews of Egypt, the thorns in their existence are loneliness, and political uncertainty, and, on occasion, petty bureaucratic harassment. This is most noticeable in the area of travel abroad. There are no restrictions for Jews on internal travel (unless they are holders of foreign passports in which case general restrictions on foreigners apply to them But before the October War it was almost impossible for Jews to return to Egypt once they left it. Since the October war restrictions have eased and several Jews have received permission to leave and return. But the process is a long one with constant security checks and unexplained delays and constant questioning about the whereabouts of émigré relatives.
While there has never been any ban on Jewish tourists visiting Egypt, since the October War there has been an influx of Jewish visitors and Jewish journalists, including the editor of the Zionist magazine, Hadassah.
But when I asked members of the Jewish community whether they thought some former Egyptian Jews might try to return now, all echoed the words of one old man: “Before 1948 we were living perfectly. But I don’t see any solution now for the Jewish community here. We are living out our lives and in a few years it will all be gone.”
Alexandria had by far the richest Jewish community in Egypt before the start of the Israeli-Arab wars. The community dates back to the Ptolemaic era, around the time of Christ. The treaty of Alexandria which sealed the Arab conquest of Egypt in 641 A.D. expressly stipulates that Jews be allowed to remain there.
In the 1930’s the city held 30-40,000 Jews. Today there are 200 left. They were a cosmopolitan group, engaged largely in trade, banking, and commerce, owning rich villas and apartments, traveling frequently to Europe, and sending their children to Jewish or European-run schools. Their first language was French, followed by Italian, but many also spoke some Greek and English, and the men at least usually spoke Arabia. They moved in the extensive foreign communities, which have nearly disappeared since the French-British-Israeli invasion of Suez in 1956, and the nationalization of most large businesses by 1961.
Their origins were diverse, some with families who had lived in Egypt or in other parts of North Africa for centuries. Many had come from Syria or Palestine to Egypt to escape the battles of World War I. There were Jews from Turkey, Rumania, Greece, Italy and France, and even some — though not many — with Eastern European origins, usually having passed through Palestine.
Besides eight major synagogues, the community in the 1940’s — headed by a Community Council owned a hospital, an old age home, several elementary schools, a lycee and ran several charitable organizations as well as a handful of periodicals, mostly in French.
Today, only two synagogues are still functioning, including the magnificent Temple Eliahou Hanabi with its stained glass windows and four rows of pink marble columns three stories high. There is no rabbi, although a layman performs his functions, and the community maintains the daily minimum of ten men required by religious law in order to conduct a service by paying them each the equivalent of $18 monthly. The temples are maintained with income from property still held by the community. But there are no weddings and bar mitzvahs any more, only funerals.
The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit
A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old
Cairo to the New World