Eric Rouleau with Egyptian president Gamal Abdul Nasser in 1963
Now 86, Eric Rouleau is one of those extraordinary figures that seems to transcend the Jewish-Arab divide. An exceptionally well-respected and well-connected journalist for Le Monde and then French ambassador to Tunisia and Turkey, he is one of the few Jews to have been friendly with Nasser, whom he refused to brand as antisemitic. His memoir, summarised in this essay for the American University of Cairo, is fascinating because it is not often one hears of Rouleau's Cairo upbringing and expulsion from Egypt. And it is surprising that a man who joined the Communist party after WW2 once toyed with the idea of becoming a rabbi and briefly flirted with Zionism, albeit of the Hashomer Hatzair Marxist variety.
Raised in France from early childhood and educated in the republic’s public schools, including the Alliance Israelite Universelle, my father naturally supported the country’s concept of “laïcité,” (secularism), the complete integration of Jewish citizens into their homeland, and was therefore opposed to all forms of Jewish nationalism. Although he was an atheist, or perhaps a deist—I never knew precisely—he nonetheless remained committed to the traditions of Judaism. He celebrated all the major holidays—Passover, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur—despite allowing generous portions of liturgical prayers to be skipped. He didn’t object, except to taunt me playfully, when during my teenage identity crisis I decided to take evening courses at a synagogue to study the sacred texts like the Talmud as the precursor to a rabbinical career. Then I lost my faith.
Nor did he object to my decision to join Hashomer Hatzair (literally, “The Young Guard”), the Zionist youth movement with Marxist influences. I suspect that like me, my father was ignorant of nearly everything about Zionism and Marxism, two ideologies completely absent from his intellectual universe. I left the movement a year later, disappointed by its attempt to reconcile Jewish nationalism with international Marxism.
Every five years, my father would save up enough money for us to take vacations in Lebanon where to our delight, the abundance of water, the exuberance of its flora, and the bounty of its orchards contrasted with arid and dry Egypt. From Cairo, a ramshackle train from a bygone era, with deafening clatter of iron, would slowly bring us across the Sinai. A bus then drove us to Tel Aviv where we visited my brother who’d emigrated to Palestine before World War II, less by idealism than a taste for adventure. Nothing else drew me to the Holy Land, where we spent only two or three days before taking three months of vacation in Lebanon.
We were well integrated into Egyptian society where Jews held a privileged position. In the center of Cairo, the business districts would fall into a deep lethargy on Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Many of the department stores, boutiques, banks, companies as well as the Stock Exchange stayed closed. Cafes, restaurants and cinemas operated at a slower pace. All one needed to do was walk down the main streets of the capital to see the glittering names of the upscale department stores like Cicurel, Chemla, Gattegno, Orosdi Back, Adès, Oreco, Le Salon Vert, La Petite Reine—all belonging to rich Sephardic families. There was only one other department store comparable to them, Sednaoui, which was owned by Christians of the same name who’d emigrated from Syria.
Leading the Jewish community was Haim Nahum Effendi, Egypt’s chief rabbi, from 1925 to 1960. He was a senator and member of the royal academy, a position that was worth his exceptional erudition. An accomplished polyglot, he spoke as well in literary Arabic as he did in Hebrew, Turkish, French and English. Thanks to diplomatic missions he undertook for the sultan of the Ottoman Empire until 1920, at a time when he occupied the functions of chief rabbi for the entire empire, he maintained close relations with European political circles—an advantage he used while serving the Egyptian authorities and the Jewish community. A product of the Alliance Israelite Universelle in Paris where he spent his early years, he shared with most Egyptian Jews “integrationist” or assimilationist convictions, and with them, their reticence over emigration (Aliyah) to Palestine. For a long time, Egyptian Jews confused Zionism with philanthropy, believing that their small donations helped Jews fleeing European persecution, much to the chagrin of Zionist movement leaders.
Furthermore, the notable figures of the community, led by the chief rabbi, began to slowly become aware that the Palestine conflict could have serious consequences for Jews in a country where the majority of the population could only be hostile to the Zionist project. Thus their constant need to proclaim themselves loud and clear as “both Jews and patriotic Egyptians.” It was a declaration of faith that earned them the support and protection of the palace and the government and even the goodwill of the Muslim elite, before the escalation of the Judeo-Palestinian conflict.
Egyptians naturally felt a unique sympathy toward Palestinians, their neighbors who had been stripped of a part of their territory by a minority of foreign colonialists.
Interviewing Hassan El-Banna: Before his assassination on February 12, 1949, I had the opportunity to interview Hassan El-Banna for the Egyptian Gazette, an English-language daily newspaper where I worked as a journalist. The supreme leader of the Muslim Brotherhood had led the campaign against the creation of a Jewish state and provoked in me a feeling of indescribable anxiety. Stocky and wearing a loose red tunic for the occasion rather than a suit, his face framed by a messy black necklace of a beard, he received his guest with a clerical smoothness, staring at him with a piercing gaze. He was clearly trying to seduce his interlocutor using a playful sort of cunning as well as flowery language and well-structured analyses supported with a host of quotes and apparently inexhaustible anecdotes. He seemed indifferent to the fact that I was Jewish. A brilliant and passionate orator, his demagoguery, with its prophetic overtones, made large crowds go wild with enthusiasm. He believed that only Islam could cure the ills that the people suffered from. His main targets were, aside from Zionism, British colonialism, the “moral turpitude” of Westerners, “infidels” who held all the economic power along with the wealthy, who he denounced for their selfishness and greed. He unforgivingly condemned socialism and communism as foreign doctrines that were incompatible with the message of the Prophet. He attracted admirers and supporters thanks to the many networks he controlled around the country and the social, athletic and charitable associations, as well as the free clinics and schools that he had built—thus overcoming the failures of the state while at the same time using them as a cover for plots and terrorist operations. Two years after our interview, government agents killed El-Banna as revenge for the assassination of Prime Minister Mahmoud Fahmy Nokrashy Pasha by a member of the Muslim Brotherhood.
In the years that followed the second World War, the national movement’s priority wasn’t the fight against Zionism, but rather resistance to British occupation, against which activists from the leftist Wafd party, along with Communists, organized public meetings, sit-ins and protests.
I participated in one of them in February 1946, the largest ever organized by the National Committee of Workers and Students. It led to a bloodbath. Faced with a sea of tightly packed and boisterous protesters rushing onto the Ismailia Square (which became Tahrir Square after the Nasserist Revolution) where the British military barracks were, security forces opened fire on the crowd, killing some twenty people and wounded hundreds more. A bullet ended the life of a young student marching beside me. The scene of this massacre would burn itself into my memory. The prime minister, Ismail Sedki Pasha, who also happened to be a major figure in the business world, had dozens of Wafdist and communist figures arrested and banned from the clubs and publications they led. However, the event gave powerful momentum to the national movement, which, six years later, brought about the fall of the monarchy— a prelude to the evacuation of the British bases in the Suez Canal Zone.
The political climate further deteriorated beginning in November 1947 when the United Nations General Assembly decreed the partition of Palestine into two states—one Jewish, the other Palestinian Arab. The decision would cause a surge in anger and mark the beginning of a Judeophobic campaign. The press, which until then had exercised restraint, began attacking Jews, accusing them of being both “Zionists” and “communists.” The creation of the State of Israel signaled the divorce between Jews and their compatriots around the Arab world. Zionist officials saw it as confirmation of their argument that non-Muslim minorities had no future in Islamic countries.
Emigration to Israel surged once again. And yet my family like many others decided not to leave the country, still holding out hope for a return to normal. The government of King Farouk exploited the situation to discredit the Marxists, calling them “Zionists in disguise.” Beyond the Jewish background of many communist leaders, their decision to support the partition of Palestine made them highly suspect; they had thus implicitly endorsed the objective of the Zionist movement, whereas for years they had considered it “reactionary” and “racist.” In fact, Egyptian communists, like most of their comrades around the Arab world, supported the decision of the Soviet Union to vote in the United Nations General Assembly in favor of partition and thus the creation of a Jewish state. This blind conformity would cost them for years, despite remaining deeply hostile to Zionist ideology. The Jewish Anti-Zionist League, for example, was dissolved by Egyptian Authorities, its leaders arrested and its publications seized. An offshoot of a communist organization, the league also had defended the creation of a Jewish state.
The reaction by authorities was even more brutal during the invasion of Israel by the Arab armies. On May 15, 1948, hundreds of supposed “communists,” and “Zionists” were held in two separate internment camps near Cairo. Many among the communist leadership, both foreigners and Egyptian citizens, were expelled from the country. They had more luck than their Iraqi counterparts, though, where three were hanged in Baghdad on the pretense that they supported the partition of Palestine.
Eventually, I too was arrested, and subject to intense questioning about my political positions before being released on bail a month later while the pre-trial investigation continued. Given that martial law was in place, my imprisonment could have lasted indefinitely. Under threat of a double conviction for Zionism and communism, unemployed and without financial resources, I decided to leave Egypt. The police did not prevent my departure, but would only issue me an “exit without return” visa. Unwanted by my native land, deprived of my family, my friends and acquaintances, I left with two feelings: the sadness of emigrating and the joy at moving to France, the country so loved by my father.
There a second life awaited me, one full of so many surprises. Several months later, on July 23, 1952, the “Free Officers” led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, seized power and one year after that, founded the republic.
Threatened with prosecution for “Zionist and communist activities” and expelled from Egypt, my exile lasted twelve years, and was the source of the surreal aspect of the welcome reserved for me upon my arrival at the Cairo airport. Accompanied by my wife Rosy, a news photographer, we were received by a senior official from the Information Ministry with unusual consideration, driven in an official limousine to a grand Cairo hotel where a suite had been reserved for us. A large flower arrangement was there, with a card indicating that “the president of the republic” welcomed us. All these honors were certainly enough to surprise this former persona non grata.
The genesis of these events took place in Paris several months earlier, in the spring of 1963. I was the editor of the Middle East section for Le Monde newspaper, a position that had been bestowed on me in the face of all logic, since at the time all Arab states refused to issue entry visas to Jews. The newspaper’s management trusted me no doubt due to my previous reporting in sub-Saharan Africa, at a time when it was not easy to work there since the decolonization movement was in full swing. Certainly my knowledge of Arabic and English could also have explained their odd choice, but that wasn’t enough to open the doors to me in most of the countries of the region. My investigations in Israel, Iran and Turkey may have suggested an ability to knock down walls of the “Arab fortress,” but I had no illusions, given the serious hostility that Israel provoked in the region. I even thought of resigning from the position to devote myself to another region where my background would be of no consequence.
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This essay is adapted from Le Moyen-Orient au-delà Des Mythes, which will be published by Fayard in 2012. The essay was translated from the French by Grant Rosenberg.