By Joseph Fahim
One of the darkest chapters in modern Egyptian history is fully exposed in Amir Ramses’ “The Jews of Egypt,” the most accomplished, most important Egyptian non-fiction film of the past five years. An engrossing, enraging and deeply moving chronicle of the lost history of Egyptian Jews from the beginning of the 20th Century until the mid-60s, Ramses’ thoroughly researched document seamlessly blends the personal with the public, painting a rich, multifaceted portrait of a history that has been deliberately forgotten and tarnished. Bound to inflame great controversy at home, the film shall nonetheless prove to be a major hit at regional and international festivals alike. A theatrical release in Europe could follow its festival rollout.
The film opens with a series of interviews with random passersby in Egypt, who are asked whether they’re aware of the fact that a large Jewish community used to exist in Egypt at one point in history. “The enemies of Islam are everywhere,” one respondent says. “They are doomed by God,” another adds. One attests that there is a difference between Zionists and Jews and that he accepts Jews, but you certainly feel he’s among the very small minority.
These sound bites set the stage for a journey that spans six decades and three cities, a journey of displacement, distorted history, unkind fate and intolerance.
Ramses uses various venerated experts to provide the historical framework of the story. Historian Mohamed Abul-Ghar divides the pre-1947 Jewish community into three segments: The Karaite Jews who were fully integrated into Egyptian society and produced famous celebrities such as Laila Mourad and Nagwa Salem; the middle class Jews who were divided into two segments, the economically struggling communities who strived for good education and rose up the ranking and the Ashkenazi Jews who immigrated from Eastern Europe during and after World War I; the rich Sephardi Jews from the Iberian Peninsula whose Egyptian roots date back to the Ottoman Empire.
Egypt’s Jews were no different to any other religious community in Egypt; the religious identity was second to the national one. A former member of the Free Officers points out that his building was lived in by two Muslim families, two Christian families and two Jewish families, all lived peacefully side by side. The Egyptian society of the early 20th Century was secular in essence, non-discriminative of religion, creed or nationality. In the 1930s, there were thousands of Greeks, Armenians and Italians living in Alexandria, the biggest cosmopolitan city in the region at that time.
Sociologist Essam Fawzi points out that unlike most capitalists whose profits were transferred to foreign territories, Egypt’s Jews were adamant about keeping their investments, and savings, inside their home country (a prime example is Cicurrel, owner of the famous chain stores, who happened to be one of the founders of the national Egyptian bank, Bank Misr).
The Zionist movement, which was founded in the second decade of the last century, was working legally inside Egypt. But the majority of Egypt’s Jews initially didn’t respond to the Zionist ideologies.
Egypt, as Abul-Ghar indicates, did not have any problems with Jews up until 1935, even with the Jewish settlements in Palestine. Later though, the Jewish forces started to use arms, take Palestinian lands by force, and murder civilians, leading to the first Palestinian Revolution. The widespread protests in Palestine echoed in Egypt and for the first time, an environment of antagonism towards Zionism and, to a lesser extent, Jews, started to arise, reaching a peak by 1947 with the first division of Palestine.
More Zionist groups started to surface, founded by youth believing in what Israel stood for and encouraging immigration to the Promised Land. From the point onward, Ramses’ story grows darker and more complex.
The one part of the film destined to incite heated arguments at home is the role of the Muslim Brotherhood (MB), Egypt’s current rulers, in demonising the Jews. Ramses reveals that the MB was behind the violent attacks that targeted the Alley of the Jews in 1947, which led to the destruction of several Jewish-owned businesses in addition to European-looking stores. In one shocking scene, a Brotherhood member claims that “Jews are dispersed people. But when they live somewhere, they spread like cancer.”
A number of historical events contributed to Egypt’s fallout with its Jews. The short-lived, juvenile espionage operations carried out by what Fawzi calls “irresponsible teens” propelled the locals to suspect every Jew to be a spy while the Tripartite Aggression marked the beginning of the end for Jewish existence in Egypt.
A villain of sorts emerges in the shape of Nasser, the man whose policies not only led to eviction of the Jews but to the homogenisation and isolation of the Egypt. No official laws were issued against the Jews, but, as illustrated by the testimonials of the surviving Egyptian Jews, they were clearly forced out by the authorities — every Jew who left the country in the mid-60s was forced to give up his/her Egyptian citizenship. Ironically, none of the Jewish businessmen who left Egypt moved to Israel.
From the first frame, Ramses makes it clear which side he’s on. He presents facts in a lucid, streamlined fashion, not denying that a number of Jewish figures, along with the unpredictable turn of events, were partially responsible for the banishment of the Jews while also pointing out that a large number of youth willingly immigrated to Israel. But his affinities lie with the thousands who wished to stay in Egypt and were refused permission because of their religious backgrounds.
The xenophobia that both the media and political leaders instilled into Egyptian society echoes with the same wave of chauvinism spread during and after Egypt’s January25 Revolution by the same agents. History repeats itself, and the viewer gets the impression that the fate of Jews could strike any minority group surviving in a non-democratic country.
“The Jews of Egypt” is the second film to tackle the Jewish exodus from Egypt following Nadia Kamel’s equally controversial “Salata Baladi” (Home-made Salad) in 2007. Unlike the latter film, which charted the voyage of the director’s Jewish director to visit her family in Israel half a century after their departure, “The Jews of Egypt” takes a more sober look at the subject.
Half of the film’s duration is comprised of personal interviews conducted in 2009 with Egyptian Jews who left for Paris decades ago, in addition to one Jewish man who still resides in Egypt.
None of those interviewees express resentment towards the way they were expelled out of their home country; their anecdotes of Egypt are filled with deep-seated longing, heartfelt memories and unresolved woe. It’s through these characters that the audience develops an emotional and personal connection with the grand history.
Some critics may find “The Jews of Egypt” somewhat literal, but for a significant subject that continues to be unknown to most people, such an approach is perfectly fitting.
Ramses punctuates the talking heads with rare footage from the ‘40s and ‘50s, various stills, documents, and present day montages of Cairo and Alexandria. The visual contrast between past and present Egypt augments the sense of loss informing the narrative. Ramses constantly reminds the viewers of the Egypt that once was: a multicultural metropolis distinguished by a great culture, diverse views and a largely open society. The resemblance between the Parisian and Downtown Cairo architecture is particularly disarming; Cairo, in that context, looks like a post-Apocalyptic Paris.
In a post-revolution Egypt, “The Jews of Egypt” represents a relic of a past that seems more distant than it actually is. The damage Nasser and his successors inflicted upon Egypt changed the face of the biggest Arab nation for good. What we’re left with is a shameful history and a cautionary tale of a country ravaged by fascism, a self-righteous nation that continues to drown in the bottomless oceans of intolerance.