[ilds] Bearers of a dimming torch

Charles Sligh Charles-Sligh at utc.edu
Thu Aug 13 13:44:34 PDT 2009

Bruce Redwine wrote:
> Charles,
> I am no authority on Alexandria, just a casual observer. I was there 
> for only five days, but the trends were disturbing. The old 
> cosmopolitan culture of Greeks, Jews, Copts, Christians, Arabs, 
> Armenians, et al. is disappearing. The city is no longer Durrell's 
> city of diversity and tolerance.

Here is a report on Alexandrian Jewry from earlier in the year, Bruce.

 From 80,000 to a handful.



*Bearers of a dimming torch
Jack Shenker
April 18. 2009 8:30AM UAE / April 18. 2009 4:30AM GMT
> Sweating in the mid-morning heat, Abdul Salaam gently brushes the dirt 
> off a grave to reveal a faded Star of David. Mr Salaam, a committed 
> Muslim, has lived as a resident guard within the high walls of this 
> Alexandrian Jewish cemetery for 41 years, just as his father did for 
> five decades.
> The cracked headstones and marble tombs around him bear witness to 
> people who first made this Egyptian city their home more than 2,300 
> years ago, and in their heyday numbered almost 80,000. Last summer, 
> the final remnants of that vibrant community gathered here to bury 
> their leader. So few of them were left that the Kaddish, a Jewish 
> funeral blessing, could not be recited. The significance of that was 
> obvious to all who attended; this once-cosmopolitan corner of the Arab 
> world will soon entomb its final Jewish resident, and Mr Salaam will 
> be left alone with the graves.
> The death of Max Salama, 92, an Egyptian Jew who once served as King 
> Farouk’s personal dentist, leaves 18 surviving Jews in what was once 
> one of the religion’s greatest cultural capitals. The majority of 
> those remaining are in their 70s or 80s and reside in old people’s 
> homes, no longer interacting with the city they have always called 
> home. At the tender age of 53, the new leader, Youssef Gaon, is now 
> the youngest Jew in Alexandria by a considerable margin, and he is 
> childless.
> “What can I say?” he shrugs, as he gives a tour of a beautifully 
> decorated but deserted synagogue in the old city centre.
> Jews have been an integral part of Alexandria’s history ever since the 
> port city was founded by Alexander the Great in 332BC. Their numbers 
> have ebbed and flowed over the years but reached a zenith in the early 
> 1900s, when Jews from across Europe and North Africa flocked there to 
> escape persecution.
> “It was an immigrant community drawn from all corners of the world, 
> especially the remnants of the old Ottoman Empire,” said Yves Fedida, 
> an Egyptian Jew now living in France, whose grandparents emigrated to 
> Egypt from Palestine at the turn of the century in search of work.
> These were the rekindled glory days of Alexandria, an urbane melting 
> pot of nationalities where poets, scientists and intellectuals mingled 
> freely on the Corniche.
> Egyptian Jews lay at the heart of the city’s revival, with individuals 
> such as the anti-colonial Egyptian nationalist Yaqub Sana and the 
> prominent psychologist Jacques Hassoun becoming household names in the 
> region. But after revolutionary fervour swept Gamal Abdel Nasser to 
> power in 1952, the ancient city’s worldly reputation began to fade and 
> subsequent hostilities with the newly founded state of Israel 
> gradually eroded Alexandria’s Jewish population.
> Mr Fedida’s parents were forced out in the first wave of expulsions, 
> prompted by the outbreak of the Suez conflict. As Israeli tanks 
> advanced on the Suez Canal, his father, previously the financial 
> director of the national Egyptian Petroleum Company, was given 10 days 
> to leave the country.
> “He had to take us away and start again in England with just 20 
> Egyptian pounds in his pocket,” remembers Mr Fedida, who now works for 
> the Nebi Daniel Association, a French group that brings together 
> Egyptian Jews from around the world.
> The exodus of Alexandria’s Jews continued following wars with Israel 
> in 1967 and 1973, and many of those who clung to their homeland were 
> imprisoned by the Egyptian state, suspected of being Zionist spies. 
> Today, the remaining Jews at the magnificent Italianate synagogue of 
> Eliahou Hanabi are vastly outnumbered by policemen and officials from 
> the Egyptian ministry of the interior, who pay for the site’s security.
> “We are in very good hands,” said Mr Gaon, anxious not to upset the 
> fragile working relationship the surviving community has established 
> with the Egyptian government. “Even after we have gone I know they 
> will look after this place.”
> But as the final echoes of Alexandria’s Jewish ancestry die out, a new 
> battle is raging over their heritage. At stake is the set of religious 
> and civil registers maintained by Egyptian Jewry under the Ottoman 
> Empire, which devolved such record-keeping to its non-Muslim communities.
> Mr Gaon and his elderly compatriots are the final custodians of these 
> logbooks, which run to 60,000 pages detailing all the births, deaths 
> and weddings of the community stretching back to the 1830s.
> These documents are of vital importance to descendants of Alexandrian 
> Jews such as Mr Fedida, as the Jewish faith requires individuals to 
> prove their maternal Jewish bloodline in order to get married. The 
> problem is that issuing such certification from Alexandria is 
> increasingly burdensome for the small number of Jewish pensioners left 
> and the process is often hampered by local bureaucracy. The Nebi 
> Daniel Association is lobbying the Egyptian government to allow copies 
> of the archives to be placed in a European institution where they 
> could be more easily accessed, but so far their efforts have met with 
> failure.
> The reluctance of the current Egyptian regime to enable easy access to 
> the documents springs from fears that the offspring of Alexandria’s 
> Jews will use them to make financial compensation claims against the 
> government for Jewish property confiscated under Nasser’s 
> nationalisation programmes.
> The issue is a sensitive one; last year an unspecified amount was paid 
> by the state to the Jewish family who originally owned The Cecil, a 
> luxury Alexandrian hotel immortalised in Lawrence Durrell’s novels The 
> Alexandria Quartet and seized by the government in 1957. Earlier this 
> summer, a planned Cairo conference of Jews hailing from Egypt was 
> cancelled after local media questioned the intentions behind the event.
> According to Mr Fedida, however, fears of compensation demands are 
> misguided.
> “We are absolutely not interested in financial claims,” he said. “Our 
> generation are the children of those who really suffered from 
> expulsion and imprisonment. Although our parents tried to reconstruct 
> their lives elsewhere, we saw their grief and we need to do them 
> justice by giving them back the identity that led to them being 
> uprooted in the first place.”
> Regardless of the outcome of this tussle over the logbooks, the human 
> element of this once grand community will soon be extinguished and 
> there will be no more burials at Abdul Salaam’s overgrown cemetery.
> For Mr Fedida though, who was born in Alexandria, optimism prevails 
> that Jews might one day make a return to the city.
> “You never know; we lost it once before when the Byzantines kicked us 
> out in 400AD,” he said. “I think it’s a wonderful city, and I long for 
> it on a daily basis. But deep down I know I’m longing for a world that 
> no longer exists.”
> * The National
Charles L. Sligh
Assistant Professor
Department of English
University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
charles-sligh at utc.edu

More information about the ILDS mailing list