Jews of Egypt






Jews of Egypt

by Sherif Awad
Egyptian documentaries are becoming more powerful practice that is tackling important and avant-garde subjects long before the narrative genre. Although it still lacks good exposure in the regional cinema theatres and satellite channels, many enthusiasts started to seek them in cultural centers and film events.  Moreover, digital technologies in lensing and editing a documentary using minimalistic tools like a cellphone and a laptop have given birth to a new generation of independent filmmakers alongside the professional ones.

Fresh out of his supervision of the Cinemobile Festival that was launched last month on the internet by Arabia Company in Egypt, director Amir Ramses recently wrapped Jews of Egypt, a new documentary that captures fragments of the lives of the Egyptian Jewish community in the first half of the twentieth century until their grand exodus after the tripartite attack of 1956. The documentary comes in a very important timing because it helps in understanding the change in the identity of the Egyptian society from a wide space of tolerance and acceptance of one another into a place for rejection of minorities where Egyptian Copts are currently suffering.  The doc also sheds the light on the way Egyptian Jews have become in the eyes of Egyptians from partners in the same country into enemies. Director Ramses also shows how many Egyptian artists like singer/actress Laila Murad and her brother music composer Mounir Murad, comedic actress Nagwa Salem, Journalist and theatre producer Yacoub Sanoaam, and filmmaker Togo Mezrahy were of Jewish origins but never lost their love of their Egyptian nativity.  Ramses co-produced Jews of Egypt with Haitham Al Khamissi, the film’s music composer, though their company Session Film Production. They were both long-time friends since their studying years in the Egyptian High Cinema Institute and collaborated several times before. The documentary will have its premiere in the European Panorama this month.
About the reason behind helming this film Amir Ramses says it wasn’t an immediate thought. His early interest in 2001 was to direct a feature film about left-wing Egyptian Jews and most of all Henri Curiel, the Jewish left-wing political activist who was born 1914 in Egypt then led the communist Democratic Movement for National Liberation until he was expelled in 1950. Settling in France, Curiel aided the Algerian Front de Libération Nationale and other national liberation causes before he was assassinated in Paris in 1978. Ramses also was interested in clarifying the ongoing confusion between three terms: an Israeli, a Zionist and a Jewish because the media and the Egyptian people are currently clueless about it all. “The new generation who does not read history books needs to know that there were Egyptian Jews who used to be part of the society at certain point on our timeline”, says Ramses. “Because I was hearing that other Egyptian filmmakers were interested to tackle the same subject during the past decade, I put the project on hold several times. But when many of my interviewees started to get older like Ms. Ruth Browning who suffers from Alzheimer, I decided to put them in front of the camera”.
With historical search that included books like Jews of Egypt by Dr. Mohamed Aboul-Ghar and other publications, the filmmakers tracked down many of the Egyptian Jews through their grandsons and daughters in downtown Cairo and through many travels to Paris. Julie Gresh, the daughter of Ms. Browning and sister of Alain Gresh who is currently chief-editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, not only spoke in the name of her old grandmother but also helped Ramses to meet others who also have disappeared in the shadows of time. (Henri Curiel was the father of Julie and Alain). Most of the Egyptian Jews were driven to leave Egypt and never to come back after the 1948 war and after the 1952 revolution. The reason of their exodus varied, some of them were fired from their work others were worried after the bombing of their stores like Shamla and the attacks on the Jews
Alley (Haret Al-Yahood) in Cairo. When they were on the way of deportation, their Egyptian nationalities was also revoked in order to prevent them from coming back. Years later, when they or their descendants longed for coming back, the Egyptian authorities allowed some of them a short visit only.
In Cairo, the very old Egyptian Jew Alain Aryeh who still lives in the same house in Abdin neighborhood since 1935, was hesitating to be interviewed because of years of imprisonment after the 1952 revolution. But after seeing some of Ramses’ footage with the other interviewees in Egypt and France, he decided to open his heart. Aryeh remembered his education in Lycée that was a good example of secular French School in Cairo at that time when nobody was asked about his religion and everybody lived in harmony. He joined many others communist and leftist in fighting against Zionism, Nazism and Fascism movement during WWII through many Egyptian organizations.
Finally, I wondered about many Jews in Israel who might be interested in watching this documentary. Will Ramses comply to invitation of screening it in an Israeli festival? He answered”: I would not accept because there are alternate media like DVD and satellite where they can watch it right after its festival’s tour”.