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”.

Sherif M. Awad
Sherif M. Awad
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