NASSER'S JEWS (I)
L'Express, Paris, (Translation)
25-31 December 1967:
Nasser's Jews (I)
This document needs no commentary. It was written in French by an Egyptian Jew from Cairo who was arrested last June 1967, then liberated, deprived of his nationality and expelled ... For obvious reasons, we shall not reveal the author's identity. It so happens that he is a Jew, and he describes here the cruelty which the Egyptians inflict upon the Jews. No matter what the religion, nationality, race or opinions of a man, no matter in what country one deals with the fate of human beings, such treatment is inadmissible. This must be said. It must also be said that, if every country has had its sadistic soldiers and jailers, no one in Egypt has, to our knowledge, raised his voice in public protest against what is going on in his country.
I was arrested by telephone on 25th June 1967. Kamel Daoud was the name of the special services officer who called me on the evening of the 23rd. He had arranged an appointment for the following day at 1pm. I waited for him: he didn't come. I called him again on Saturday evening. We made an appointment for the next day.
On Sunday morning before going to the club as I did every Sunday, I made a detour through the political police bureau. He was there. I allowed myself the luxury of a presentiment: was he going to arrest me?
"Never on Sunday," he said and burst out laughing. Since when did one arrest people by telephone? He offered me coffee and asked if I could prove that I was Egyptian. I could.
"And of course you have a certificate of nationality?"
That had been my act of triumph. A certificate of nationality proved that one had not always been Egyptian. I was Egyptian well before the birth of Egypt, when everyone was still Turkish. I had never had anything to prove it. The real Egyptians are as much Egyptians as the Bororos are Araras.
He said I was certainly a son of my country, asked me to excuse him a moment, slipped on a fitted jacket over his creased yellow shirt with the brown jabot-tie, and an hour later I found myself with a senator, a little Jew obsessed by kasher food, a fat landowner and three policemen in an old administrative jalopy which had got the wrong century but seemed to know the way very well.
"In ten minutes there'll be a breakdown. I know it all." He was an old senator, I had interviewed him at the time when things in Cairo were still normal. Since the revolution he had been arrested each time there had been trouble, but always, like this time, after the event. In 1948, he had been arrested after the fourth cease-fire. In 1956, he had been picked up on New Year's Eve. By the time he got to prison it was 1957. He knew all about the prisons. Abu Za’abal was the administration's three-star entertainment. Turah was an old English jail; Barrages and Citadelle weren't like they used to be in the good old days. He did not know the concentration camps in the oasis but he knew they were building a new prison in Wadi Natrun. It would be like it was for the public institutions, and the Khetta (the Plan), he said: the Middle Ages, the hurly-burly in beautiful modem buildings.
And then came the breakdown. Since we were not hand-cuffed, the senator and I got out and pushed with the three soldiers who had laid their guns at the feet of the landowner and the poor little accountant. We got going again.
'A Bad Moment...'
He told me not to worry, that it was a bad moment to go through; that all this was perfectly Egyptian, perfectly coherent, because it was perfectly absurd. We are absurd, he said, like the French are Cartesian. Absurdity is our Magna Carta and our homeland incarnated.
He became heated. He took me to task when I said: "What are 350 Jews, as many Moslems and a few Christians imprisoned since 5th June, compared with the extent of the catastrophes?
He got excited. "What has that to do with the catastrophe? What is the connection between prisoners of war, refugees and citizens who are told that they are like the others and who are like the others? And there are officers who before 5th June had seriously decided to arrest people because they were Jews, or because they made jokes like me, to lock up Bahai and Jehovah’s Witnesses and not just in fun. And you will see, we shall stay
there, no one will do a thing for us and on top of it all the Red Cross and some ambassadors will club together to get Nasser out of the nasty corner."
The fat landowner agreed with the senator: he knew the Jews well; those, who had remained in Egypt had not done so to make a fortune. Fortunes were no longer to be made in Egypt. They had stayed because they were Egyptian. In terms of political realism and efficacy they should have been left free. It is well known in politics that when it is not absolutely essential to kill an enemy, he should be showered with attentions. Do you know what the people have been saying since the Jews have been arrested? That the only Jews Nasser has succeeded in taking prisoner are the Egyptian Jews. When you can't have the donkey, you take your anger out on its saddle.
The senator told us that at a meeting of the Arab League a few years ago, Syria and Iraq had urged Nasser to liquidate his Jews. Nasser had promised: paradoxically, his irritation against the Jews dated from that time but the Jews stayed where they were, turned a deaf car, did not wish to understand that they were not wanted. It was as if Egypt had been given to Nasser as a dowry by God-knows-who, added the senator. The Jews did not wish to leave? They were put in prison. Prison had become the cesspool of Egyptian problems. It was only one more proof of the r6gime's inability to establish itself.
The landowner shrugged his shoulders. Why should one protest only against the police, when the postal services, industry, sanitation, everything was so bad? This arresting of people was a result of that obsession with authority which is the privilege of the impotent. The complete unfoundedness of the arrests throws light on the mystery of the Six-Day War far more than it is explained by it.
The poor little Jewish accountant asked if he could get kasher food at Abul Zaabal. The senator shrugged his shoulders. One of the policemen told us that the Israelis (he said "the Jews") were pouring across Sinai; they had opened up the gates of the El Tor prison where his brother had been interned for ten years as a member of the Moslem Brotherhood.' He had gone to Saudi Arabia.
The old hulk, bogged down in the rich earth, suddenly appeared in front of us: it was an enormous sooty parallelepiped striped with bars: a bad set by Buffet for a 1930 performance- of Big House. We went in.
Only Women's Names
An officer broke away from a group. He was jovial and held out his hand. I went forward smiling with my arm outstretched. "Hello," he said. "Hello!" I said, and someone yelled: "It's me!" The old senator and the fat landowner were on the ground; they were undressing, a palm branch whistling over their heads. Another officer cornered me against the bars and asked my name. I told him. He took me by the throat. No, here no one was called
by his name. Here there were no watches, no names, no shoes. There was not even a register: there were only women's names.
The officer who was dealing with my companions barked an order. We dashed round a hundred meters on a closed course. The officer who had cornered me against the bars tripped us up, we fell one on top of another. Palm branch, blows. We started off again. The senator ran faster than me but by the second round we were level. He wanted to tell me something but he couldn't: his dental plate was out of place.
Then the officers asked us if we knew any noncom's in the air force, how much we earned. The senator said that he had 1,800 feddans sequestrated and 45 pounds in rent. An officer gave him a kick.
"Who are you?" he asked the senator.
"Zanuba,"2 the senator answered without hesitation.
And he said that he knew the drill, that he had been there in 1956 when the Israelis had hit the camp by mistake.
"What else are you?"
"And you?" he said to me.
I didn't know. He landed me one straight in the plexus.
"You are a pervert, too. Your name will be Khaduga." Another woman's pet name. Then he searched me, found my tobacco and slowly spilt it over my head. A little old man got up on a stool and shaved our heads. Then came the disguise. With our bare feet, our shaven heads, our baggy trousers and our fatigues which came down to our knees, we looked like Mexican walk-ons who had got the wrong set. I parted ceremoniously from Zanuba outside his cell. The Moslem Brother who led me to mine said without turning his head, or moving his lips: "Don't worry, you're not the pervert. We all know here who the pervert is. Can't you guess who is the pervert?"
NASSER’S JEWS (II)
Sea-cows, winged horses, white alligators, giant ghosts swarming round a remnant of sky as if around a fire. I was sitting on the stone as though at the bottom of an aquarium. Behind me on the floor were folded blankets. No seats. The lavatory flush was out of order and sounded like an outboard motor.
Good Signs, Bad Signs
Their faces glued to the bars, the prisoners opposite were making obscene gestures at us. The others explained to me that that was the Abu Zaabal alphabet. They were asking me what was being done for them "outside," if the Red Cross knew about them and if they had not been forgotten. I got someone to tell them that the Israelis were within earshot of Abul Zaabal, but that all Cairo still saw Nasser through Moscow's eyes. They asked me exactly where the Israelis were. I told them. They pranced about, bursting with laughter: "A very, very bad sign."
Everything was a sign for them. When the officer gave them one blow less of the switch it was a good sign. When the soup spilt over the sides of the tin mugs onto the blankets it was also a good sign. A very good sign was to come a cropper in the slippery toilets.
They initiated me into the Kama Sutra of the concentration camp: how to stretch my legs, how to exploit to the maximum the space of two and half tiles by seven which was allotted to me. How to avoid border incidents at night, how to keep the water fresh by wrapping the tin mug in a piece of wet rag, how to prepare my blanket for the night and use the large mug for a pillow.
They found it perfectly natural to be there. And besides, we were not there. I must be very careful. One must not annoy the officers in charge of training. They would say to me: "Where do you think you are?" And they would make me repeat to the point of nausea that I was in Poland. So pretend to be mad. Even speak Polish if you can, that is, jabber anything.
Moslem Brothers, Too
Until mid-September there were 350 Jews at Abu Zaabal. Of these, 185 were Karaites, the rest almost all Sephardim. There were very few Ashkenaz. In December, there were still two hundred. Between July and November one hundred and fifty Jews were liberated thanks to the intervention of the Red Cross and the French and Spanish embassies. The Spanish ambassador went back to the time of the Inquisition to find the Sephardi Jews' Spanish origin and to grant them a passport. France, too, did a great deal for the prisoners.
Apart from the Jews, there are 700 Moslem Brothers at Abu Zaabal who have been there for five, ten and even thirteen years without conviction or sentence. They are at Barrages, too, where the regime, for them only, is very strict. In November, a thousand Moslem Brothers were released. Some four thousand five hundred are still in the Egyptian prisons. At Abu Zaabal, apart from the five Jewish cells, there were two cells reserved for the nachat mo'adi (active enemies of the regime), peaceful, well-known pro-Westerners, a cell for Jehovah’s Witnesses and another for the Bahai. In August, seventy Moslems from Gaza, and in September the Marshal's informers, were imprisoned in the first floor cells. Among them was Mustapha Amer, Abdel Hakim Amer's brother, who cut his veins after the first round of torture. Also in October, a Moslem Brother committed suicide by slitting open his belly with a knife stolen from the kitchen.
In the isolation of Abu Zaabal, the ethnic or ideological classification of the cells and their occupants concealed a less artificial division and more realistic affinities. Precisely because of their instinct for self-preservation the prisoners very quickly reestablished their own society just as it was thirty kilometers away in order not to lose contact with reality.
In fact, paradoxical as it may seem, no political affinity drew the prisoners together during their walk. Neither did they form groups according to their religion, but only according to their socio-professional status and, above all, according to language.
'The Privileged Class'
In the Jewish, Moslem and Christian cells there were only some twenty prisoners who belonged to the privileged class, not by income but by social status. From June to September, these privileged ones got together during the walk and in their ragged uniforms, their heads shaven, often barefooted, they talked naturally under the watchful eye of the kapos about golf tournaments, chattered as if they were at a cocktail party and elegantly protested against the logical scandal of imprisonment.
"Stupidity is not my strong point," declared Mr. X, who had brought his two volumes of Valery, Pleiade Edition, with him. (They had been impounded by the registrar.) Mr. Z looked at the poor little Jews and sighed with resignation: "I have to tell myself that I am among my poor so as to be able to bear it." A Moslem prisoner, a former Minister, had employed a young secretary from his ministerial cabinet as a "washerwoman" and he made her wash the uniforms and underwear of his Jewish friends.
X came up to me during the walk and asked me: "Don't you feel yourself becoming very snobbish in this outfit?" It was all so absurd.
Less so was the grouping of the poor little Jews" and the Moslem Brothers. Among the Moslem Brothers there were many lawyers and doctors.
Was it their common language and customs, a feeling of religious identity? Or were the Moslem Brothers who burned synagogues fascinated by this phenomenon of the Jew who resembled them like a brother, who spoke their language and prayed like them? Every evening the kapos of the Moslem Brotherhood were to be found outside the Jewish cells, talking through the bars to those whom Mr. Z called our brothers of the "Temple flagstone."
Neither did the Moslem Brothers ever talk to their pro-Western co-religionists in other cells. They gave the Jews advice, spared them the surprise of officers' visits, settled their disputes, talk of Om Kalsum, of their families-all with that familiarity coupled with the politeness and precedents typical of the petit-bourgeois of Arab cities.
Cried Out Too Soon
Then, as the "poor little Jews" had so naturally fraternized with the Moslem Brothers, their traditional political enemies, so they began to organize their relations with the officers. In Egypt the army, the administration, the catchwords are all based on secret conventions and a subtle game; right from the start the "poor Jews" entered it.
The privileged Jews did not notice it at once. The "poor Jews," like the Moslem Brothers, never protested. They found the blows and the cruelty quite natural. But the first weeks had been hard. The officers hit and hurt until the day when little Ch- drew my attention to the shoes of Amr who was called Hitler. From the first day the "poor Jews" instinctively trifled with the pain. They played a comedy, cried out a second too soon and drew the officer into this parody of Buchenwald which was being enacted 50 kilometers as the crow flies beyond the Israeli lines.
With a minimum of common sense I could have found this out at once. One thing I had noticed: when the officers hit, the Jews yelled a little too hard, a little too fast, the officer's frown was a little too "terrifying," his voice over-solemn and bombastic. "To shake the dignity of the guardian is almost like shaking the dignity of the law," said Kafka.
I found these grimaces absurd, one more absurdity in the long series of absurdities that had begun in May. On the contrary it was a serious, almost desperate tragedy that was being played out there. The "poor Jews" had arrived at Abu Zaabal naked, surrendered up without defense to their enemies the Moslem Brothers and the special service officers who in the camps had permission to kill. To take the sting out of the tragedy, to turn it into a farce-that was the way to win. I reached this conclusion only a few days after my release, after I had found out what had happened before my imprisonment.
Continue to Part III and IV