Tuesday, October 29, 2013

"Jews of Egypt' has London premiere

Trailer for 'Jews of Egypt' in English

 It was the film that has packed cinemas in Cairo and Alexandria, with people queuing out into the street. No doubt about it, Jews of Egypt caused a sensation when it was first shown in March 2013.  Point of No Return was at its London premiere last week:

The Egyptian authorities had tried to ban the film for reasons of 'national security'. Then the ministry of culture insisted that the young film director Amir Ramses put a disclaimer ahead of the titles, stating that any resemblance to reality was purely coincidental. It was a laughable demand for a documentary about real people, but Ramses agreed, as long as it carried the ministry's stamp.

The film was remarkable for lifting the veil on a taboo subject - the Jews of Egypt.  Nowadays 20 elderly widows comprise the entire Jewish community. A Vox Pop in the Egyptian street showed Jews are today almost universally reviled as traitors, bloodsuckers and spies. But the film took a sympathetic view, and showed how in the 20th century Jews  played an important part in Egyptian culture and society.

Earlier this week,  a Jewish audience packed a North London cinema to see 'Jews of Egypt' in the presence of the film-maker Ramses and producer Haitham al-Khamissi. Not just any Jewish audience - but one composed largely of Jews from Egypt.  The audience gratefully wallowed in nostalgia as they revisited on the screen the familiar streets and landmarks of their childhoods in Cairo and Alexandria. (One or two members of the audience, however, did walk out in protest at ' anti-Zionist slurs and half truths').

This film began as a documentary about the Jewish communist Henri Curiel, whose portrait hangs on Ramses' wall. For reasons of self- preservation, focusing on communists was a better bet than spotlighting Zionists, although half the 80,000-member community did finish up in Israel. The film is a mixed bag - a little like the community itself. Some spoke Arabic, some French, some liked Um Kalthoum, some preferred western popular culture. Most enjoyed a comfortable life in Egypt's uniquely cosmopolitan society.

As far as the oppressed Jewish communists were concerned, it was hard to gauge where political persecution ended and anti-Jewish bigotry began. The communists spent long periods in prison.When the exiled Henri Curiel tried to forewarn President Nasser of the tripartite plan of the allied attack over the nationalisation of the Suez canal  in 1956, Nasser reneged on a promise to restore his Egyptian nationality to Curiel. When ultimately exiled from Egypt in the 1950s, the communists were never allowed back, whereas even Israeli citizens were allowed into Egypt after the 1979 peace treaty was signed.

The film suffers from inaccuracies. The Egyptian Ashkenazi community largely fled Palestine in 1917: they did not directly flee oppression in Eastern Europe. The Jewish singer and actress Leila Murad was described as a Karaite (her parents were Moroccan and Ashkenazi). Very few Egyptian Jews were said to have left for Israel  in 1948: 14,000 actually did. Despite one member of the Muslim Brotherhood justifying the 1945 attacks on the Cairo Jewish quarter, the Nazi-Brotherhood alliance of the 1930s was not even mentioned. A Muslim historian, Mohamed Abou Al-Ghar, and a sociologist, Ersam Fawzi, portrayed attacks on the Jews as a response to 'Zionist colonies taking Palestinian land'. But the film did not seek to blame the full extent of ill-treatment and expulsion on the Jews themselves, 25,000 of whom who were brutally stripped of their property and nationality in 1956.

Jews were presented as good patriots, uninterested in Israel - that's where the oppressed Jews went, said the actress Isabelle de Botton. Even the Jewish capitalists were presented in a good light - Joseph Cicurel, the department store owner and industrialist, had helped found Bank Misr so that Jewish capital stayed in Egypt.   Despite the innuendo that Israel may have been responsible for Henry Curiel's assassination in 1978, Ramses is honest enough to hint at an earlier age when Zionism was not a dirty word:  an Egyptian Zionist organization operated legally until the day King Farouk entered the 1948 war. The organization’s secretary general was Leon Castro, who was also private secretary to Saad Zaghloul, the  founder of the nationalist Wafd party.

One is left with the impression that nothing the Jews of Egypt could have done - and some made great personal sacrifices to stay on - would have prevented their mass exodus. It was rather pathetic to hear them profess their undying loyalty to Egypt: "we were sons of Egypt," declares the communist Joyce Blau, in exile in France. One Jew who remained and converted to Islam said that his Muslim wife was still criticised for 'marrying a Jew'.

In the London auditorium, you wouldn't have found a single Jew, despite the pain of their uprooting, who wanted to return - except to visit. The last laugh belongs to a Egyptian-born tourist from France who insisted, in an episode described in the film by the Paris hairdresser Elie Eliyakim, on laying a bouquet of roses on Nasser's tomb: "Thank you, Nasser", read the accompanying note, " for expelling us from Egypt. Without you, I would have never become a millionaire."

 Breaking the Jew Taboo

Jewish Renaissance interview with Amir Ramses

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This film will be shown:
Sunday December 8/13 - 7:30pm
Congregation Darchei Noam
864 Sheppard Avenue West
Toronto, Ontario M3H 2T5
Admission: $10
Contact: Andria Spindel