Monday, January 28, 2008
Journey back to my Cairene roots
In October 2007, Maurice Maleh went back to his native Cairo for the first time since the 1950s. His journalist father Jacques had been expelled from Egypt in 1953, and the rest of the family followed a year later. Here are Maurice's impressions of his journey back to his roots. (Reprinted with thanks from the AJE newsletter, January 2008)
The unique occasion which prompted me, accompanied by my sister Lys, to return to my roots, for the first time since 1954, was the historic celebration for the centennial of the Shaar Hashamaim Synagogue (pictured above) in central Cairo. It lasted a few days starting on 30 October 2007.
This synagogue was built at a time when the Jewish community felt confident and prosperous. A wave of immigration in the 19th century of Sephardi Jews from Greece and Turkey, and Ashkenazi Jews from Palestine, had been attracted by the buoyant economic conditions in Egypt following the opening of the Suez Canal and the surging price of long cotton on the Alexandria Bourse.
My parents were married in 1940 by the Chief Rabbi Haim Nahoum in the Shaar Hashamaim synagogue, so it was natural that I should jump at the chance of attending the celebrations and reconnect to my past. My parents had discouraged me from going back. They had turned a new page in their lives, but I could not longer resist the constant call of my past. My own children and my wife had urged me to go many times. I was fated to come to these celebrations.
The synagogue has been refurbished and decorated so nicely it took my breath away. I had seen the pictures taken in 2003 by the Nebi Daniel Association but nothing prepared me for what I saw, which I captured on my camera.
Choral singing was drifting down from the ladies' gallery and people were mingling and admiring in seeming disbelief, capturing the moment on their cameras and in their hearts for ever. The 900-strong Jewish community in Thessaloniki managed to produce a 30-member choir of exquisite quality, brought over for the occasion.
There were two rabbis present: Rabbi Andrew Baker, of the American Jewish Committee, gave a wonderful sermon on the week's parashah: to quote a passage: "… standing here today in this synagogue, in Shaar Hashamayim, there is one thing that we can say for certain. The Jews who built this synagogue were not strangers in the land of Egypt". The other Rabbi present was Rabbi El Fassy of Paris. He blew the shofar at the end, its sound echoing in the high dome of the synagogue as if to state: this synagogue is alive and well and a beacon for the future. A pity there was no religious service, though.
Carmen Weinstein is the president of the 30-40 strong Jewish community, mostly women. She stayed on whilst others left. She is proud to be Egyptian and repeatedly thanked the Egyptian President in her introductory remarks. What will happen after she dies is an open question.
I made the trip to Heliopolis, my home town, which had celebrated its 100 years in 2004. My apartment block was in a very poor state of repair and I only recognised the balcony. Most buildings in Cairo have their rents frozen so little is spent on maintenance. We did not venture past the bottom of the stairs for fear of an accident. Heliopolis is still recognisable with its unique arcades, wide avenues and stylish buildings. The Baron Empain who build the town had great taste, that’s for sure!
From my flat I could see the path to the focal points of my young life: the Sporting Club where we spent our days after school, my uncle Phonsy’s corner shop (which is still a fashion shop), the raised restaurant near Nona’s flat (which we visited and where my parents used to go and watch the world go by) and my lovely little school (Abraham B'tesh) next to the synagogue. I walked down and noticed several bored, armed shawish guarding the place. They stopped me from taking pictures of the buildings. One policeman even pointed his rifle at me to move away. I reluctantly left, somewhat scared and dispirited.
In sharp contrast, we managed to be asked into my Nona’s flat. It was in a road parallel to ours and on the ground floor. After my father’s sudden expulsion in 1953, my mother, my sister, and I slept at my Nona’s. She had a two-bedroom flat and two balconies with a large oak front door. The layout was still fixed in my mind although I was seven when I rejoined my father in Paris. The flat, turned into a doctor’s surgery, was in quite good condition. We were welcomed in by the nice young lady doctor who spoke perfect English and allowed us to take pictures. She sensed our genuine need to reconnect with our former home. My Nona used to listen to the Arabic radio. I can sometimes still hear the soulful music wafting towards me. My sister and I loved our Nona very much. She went on to live in Nice and then left for Israel in 1966. This was our saddest visit.
Seeing the Sporting Club of Heliopolis again after all this time filled me with sadness and also excitement. The entrance I knew so well was unfortunately closed. We entered via the passage from the car park, after paying E£25 each. This is a lovely walk, bordered with jasmine and trees. I recalled large sitting rooms but did not remember the large fireplace. My sister did.
The swimming pool I did remember, especially the path alongside where I had once been pushed onto my back drawing the breath from my lungs. We sat by the pool in the lovely sunshine and ordered a Turkish coffee and visualized how it must have been in the 'golden age' of my parents.
Old black and white pictures speak volumes. The whole place was too quiet and not as I recalled it, with children playing marbles and climbing up trees in the large gardens with their nannies chasing after them to feed them. The clay tennis courts and the manicured croquet field were still there but the place lacked the vibrant Jewish life I had stored in my memory.
What of the ordinary people, the famous traffic jams, the degradation of the infrastructure, the overcrowding, the noise and smells ? Our sightings were mostly from a slow-moving coach on our way to and from the Ben Ezra synagogue simcha or a taxi ride. Adly street (where Shaar Hashamaim is situated) and surrounding streets buzzed with life, and on the face of it commerce was buoyant.
It was a pity that the still impressive apartment buildings stood underneath the grime of years of neglect. I did not notice anyone without shoes; people seemed to be dressed in western clothing. Some wore galabeyas as we entered Old Cairo where the poverty was obvious. We met a few rich Egyptians and noticed others in the expensive restaurants on the Nile and the rooftop bar of the Nile Hilton. We crossed Kasr el Nil (I remembered the lions on either side) to Zamalek where my aunt Claire used to live. The conditions here were much better. The few Egyptians we met were friendly to us (in spite of the incident at the Heliopolis synagogue). Why shouldn't they be, we meant them no harm!
Tourism has become the lifeblood of Egypt now. Arriving on our second day at the Ben Ezra synagogue, after skirting Old Cairo and its markets by coach, was a highpoint of the trip. I felt very privileged to be visiting the holy site of the oldest synagogue, restored by Canadians in 1999. This 9th century synagogue had existed at the time of Rav Moshé (Maimonides). According to Professor Reif of Cambridge University, Rav Moshe preferred to worship in his home which was yards away. Professor Reif explained the story of the Geniza and its documents as only he could. His presentation helped to set the scene for the visit. Later we visited the new annex describing the Geniza story.
We were immediately dumbstruck by the synagogue’s quiet magnificence. The trees lining the path to the doorway have gone. The synagogue was painted by my uncle André in 1955. We wandered round admiringly. How we would have loved to attend a religious service there, a rarity nowadays. Outside, in the distance, we could see church spires, but time did not allow for a good inspection of the surrounding area and places of Jewish interest.