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 Post subject: Blog: Am I an Egyptian Jew?
PostPosted: Sun Feb 14, 2016 12:02 am 
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http://www.madamasr.com/opinion/blog-am-i-egyptian-jew

Roman Bennoun

Blog: Am I an Egyptian Jew?
2016-02-03 13:25

When someone asks me where my family is from, I stop and think. Do I simplify it for them? Do I tell them the truth? What is the truth? Where am I from? For most people it isn’t normal to freeze up at such a simple question. One usually just has to look at one’s culture, where one comes from, what language one speaks, what country one was born in, where one's roots are. But what if none of those match up? This is my problem.

My grandparents were born in Egypt, my mother was born in France, and I was born in America. Everyone in my family either spoke Ladino, Greek, Turkish, or Arabic; I speak English. So who am I and is Egypt really my ancestral home? It’s a lot to think about for a pretty innocent question. Why is it so hard for me to answer and feel honest about the answer? I think this is because I am an Egyptian Jew.

Sixty years ago my family was exiled from their home. Poor and confused they wandered across the Mediterranean to France and then across the Atlantic to New York. Growing up I was told stories of how beautiful Egypt was, how amazing the sun and the people were, and how life was perfect. Whether or not this was the truth doesn’t matter to me. As a child, Egypt represented everything I loved about my grandparents: the spices in the air of their home, the portraits of great-grandparents in fezzes, the large hand motions whenever someone talked and the constant arguing. It was clear from a young age that Egypt was a part of our family, an unspoken bond that united child to mother to grandparent. But to what extent was Egypt part of my world? Was it a close older brother who loved and admired me, or some distant cousin, removed and irrelevant? As I grew older I wanted to understand my family, I wanted a definitive answer. Are we Egyptian?

When I turned 18, I decided that perhaps I was Egyptian. My family had spent more time in Egypt than any other place in their recent history, we have a Middle Eastern Jewish name. Saying that I was Egyptian made more sense than pulling out a family tree for every new person I met. But you can’t just decide to be something. You need proof. You need to feel it in the very bottom of your soul. Being Egyptian needs to be something so important to your very existence that it molds you, and defines you.

So with that in mind, the memory of my grandfather, and a whole lot of nerves, I got on a plane to Cairo. I was the first person in three generations that was desperately hoping to find an answer to the question: “Am I Egyptian?” On the plane to Cairo I kept scanning fellow passengers to see if they reminded me of family members or, even better, looked anything like me. It is so hard to describe to anyone who’s never experienced it, but I felt this desperate need to fit in. When I landed, I was in so much shock that I was actually in Egypt that I was on the verge of tears.

The first couple of days in Cairo, I felt disappointed. I realized that as a non-Arabic speaker in modern Egypt, I was automatically going to be seen as an outsider. I had just come from Ohio in the winter, so I was even more pale than usual and looked more like my father, a Polish Catholic, than an Egyptian Jew — whatever that means. But things started to change.

I went to Old Cairo to buy a small arabesque box as a souvenir for my mother and the moment I entered the small shop I felt at home. The seller spoke with the same gestures that I had grown up with and smelled like the familiar scents of my childhood. The longer I stayed in Egypt the more I felt at home. It was as if I was experiencing a second childhood. I fell in love with ful (fava beans), learned to walk through traffic, and began to listen to Laila Mourad and Om Kalthoum. The best experience finally came when people began to speak to me only in Arabic, confusing me for someone who was born in the country.

I realized, however, that the Egypt of my grandparents no longer existed. After about a week in Egypt, I wanted to go find a synagogue in Cairo, eager to see if I could find any vestige of the long-gone Jewish community. I decided that my best chance was the Jewish quarter in Cairo’s Muski neighborhood. It took two hours to find it and when I did, I realized that it had been turned into a market and only in the back of the market was a tiny synagogue — the Synagogue of Maimonides (Musa Ibn Maymum), one of the most famous Jewish thinkers in history. Despite its legacy and importance as a historic holy site, it was covered in garbage and graffiti, the windows were broken, and dust enveloped every corner and crevice. I stopped and tried to understand why this had happened; why it was in such bad shape despite reports of a US$2 million government-sponsored restoration project in 2010. I wanted to yell and fight someone, and then I wanted to cry. I became angry with the government, “how could they let this happen?” To say I was in pain doesn’t cover the suffering I felt in that one moment. I ended up cleaning up some of the dust from the commandments and took some stones to put on Jewish graves and left down the same alley I had come.

My experience at the synagogue brought my search for identity to a climax. I realized the Egypt my grandparents were born in had been stolen from them. I realized that it wasn’t the Egyptian people who had stolen our house, broken our community, and exiled us from our country. It was the work of governments. It has always been governments and politics that are responsible. I was upset at the government for not doing its job and for pitting Jew against Muslim against Christian, brother against brother, family against family. That’s when I realized that I was Egyptian. In all honesty, there is nothing more Egyptian than realizing that the government has reneged on its role as a symbol of a united Egypt.

I left Egypt feeling better and more secure about my identity, but also conflicted about what it means to be an Egyptian Jew. I’ve realized that Egypt is changing like it always does and that as a son of its diaspora I have a unique opportunity to influence its future change. Throughout Egypt people told me how happy they were that I had returned, how proud they were of Jews having lived in Egypt. Yet Zahi Hawass, the former minister of antiquities, who had agreed to restore the synagogue in secrecy, refused to let Jews celebrate in the Maimonides Synagogue, claiming they were the enemy of Egypt. It is hard to understand the contradiction in government policies. The Jewish question is clearly used for government propaganda to distract from real issues. Fascism trumps democracy. Adolf Hitler’s autobiography, Mein Kampf, is sold on the streets of Cairo.

I know the Egypt of my grandparents is gone, but I think a new, modern Egypt can be an even better place. The youth of Egypt have taken it upon themselves to correct the faults of authoritarianism and to combat fascism. I wish for them that they make Egypt a place of tolerance and democracy. To them and to all Egyptians I say this, as an Egyptian and a Jew: “Please remember the history of the Egyptian Jews, honor their memories and make our country into something all Egyptians can be proud of. Please don’t forget us just as we haven’t forgotten Egypt.”

_________________
JUDEA, SAMARIA & the GOLAN are clear and unquestionably JEWISH!


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