The Jewishness of Cairo
- By Benny Ziffer
Cairo, August 2005
The first light of morning palely illuminated the broad avenue that leads west to the pyramids at Giza and the thicket of cube-like buildings that line it. And I'm sitting at the Cleopatra shwarma restaurant, whose porch spills out on to the still-slumbering street, in the company of a black prostitute with a profusion of black and red braids. Her name is Victoria and she is taking tiny bites (to make it last as long as possible) of a chicken liver sandwich in a roll after a night of work at the adjacent Nirvana club (at the end of the night, I observed her as she patiently dealt with a young German who bought her champagne and cocktails and rubbed his dick through his pants against her ass as they took a spin on the dance floor. His belt buckle was inlaid with fake diamonds and his ears glittered with diamond earrings). Victoria is a refugee from Sudan and is working here to support her mother and her two small children, who came with her to Cairo.
She is 22 years old, very pretty, with a model's angular and fluid body. But the guy manning the shwarma spit fixes her with a hostile stare. Had she come here alone, they wouldn't have let her in. Since she was with me and my friend A., an avid fan of black women who also knows his way around the underside of Cairo and brought me here so I could find something to write about (when he walked in, two black men were wrestling on the floor over a girl, surrounded by a ring of curious spectators. The guards were barely able to separate them), the Cleopatra waiters had to tolerate her presence, though they expressed their displeasure by pretending to have forgotten her order and then took forever until they deigned to serve her. And the whole time, luxury cars driven by Cairenes out for a good time kept pulling up outside and ordering take-out.
I glanced at my watch. In about four hours, I was due to meet several Cairene friends, whom I'd promised to take on a tour of the Ibn Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo. Time after time I'd evaded such a trip, with the excuse that the nostalgia for the Jews who left Cairo wouldn't be genuine and that it was impossible anyway to turn back history, and even if it were possible, it wouldn't turn out to be worth the effort. Nevertheless, in order to prepare for the guided tour, I bought a recently published book on the subject, by historian Joel Beinin: "The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry: Culture, Politics and the Formation of a Modern Diaspora." The lengthy bibliography includes such names as Israeli writer Ronit Matalon, the Jewish communist Henri Curiel who was murdered in mysterious circumstances, and the essayist Jacqueline Kahanoff (author of "Childhood in Egypt, (?who was a tremendous inspiration for an entire generation of Sephardi intellectuals, who through her, discovered their roots in the east, which were really European roots (Kahanoff wrote in English and was much more of a journalist than the leader of a return-to-roots movement. I read her articles in the journal Keshet in the 1970s when I was at an age when I wasn't able to fully understand them. The title of one of them,"We, the Levantines," affected me, though I no longer have any recollection of what the article was about). It's too bad that Jacqueline Kahanoff was totally co-opted by Ronit Matalon and others. Because as soon as I saw that she'd become the bon ton, I completely washed my hands of her. Yes, I admit it: This is the typical reaction of a snob who is incapable of enjoying anything that lots of other people are enjoying.
The only Jew in the city
I bid farewell to Victoria so I could have time for a quick nap before the guided tour that awaited me at the synagogue with my knowledge-thirsty friends. The person behind the idea for the visit was T., an architect by profession. The others in the group were S., a young painter from Cairo; Anke, a German sculptress who teaches at the Cairo Art Academy; and a young Canadian who is studying Arabic and whom I at first mistook for Jew. But I seem to be the only Jew in this city and it has therefore fallen to me to spread the word of my religion. I got up at nine. From the Ma'adi metro station, you need to figure at least 20 minutes to Mar Girgis, the Old Cairo station. Still drowsy, I gaze at my fellow passengers in the long train car who appear not to fall into any special distinguishing category: They're not Jews or foreigners or romantics or members of any endangered species.
The train proceeds on its route and it's burning hot in the compartment. Outside is the notoriously impoverished quarter of Dar as-Salam, cluster upon cluster of unplastered red brick dwellings, suspended atop a sand-colored outcropping. There is nothing cheerful about the view outside, and the same could be said of the inside of the train. The passengers are mostly stern-faced, black-mustachioed men. An occasional glint of curiosity is discernible in their eyes, though. Who is this stranger standing in the train car like one of them? A small black fan in the ceiling of the car continuously draws in and diffuses the sweaty odors of a hundred shirts and a hundred dripping brows. The lazy drone of the fan encourages the imagination to conjure up a nice fresh breeze.
All around, myriad arms and hands clutch the metal poles that are suspended from the ceiling, like the branches of a colossal tree in the forest. The branches are brown and white and every shade of clothing, and on some of the fingers are rings wedding and otherwise, often men's rings with a dark stone. And at the feet of the trees are myriad feet in black or brown shoes and legs in gray, black, brown or denim pants. Together, the legs form an ancient trunk, made up of the ordinary, un-picturesque throng, about whom no books are written. To my left is a group of soldiers in green uniforms who are perhaps out on a furlough. Two of them are sleeping while standing up: one is leaning against a pole and the other leans on his comrade's shoulder.
Details of faces slowly stand out: This profusely perspiring young man who wipes his forehead with a disintegrating tissue held in his free hand has an intellectual look to him. Maybe he's a teacher supplementing his meager salary with extra work during the summer vacation. And the elderly man in the gray suit and tie perhaps fought at the front against Israel and saw friends die. He surely remembers Gamal Abdel Nasser and Umm Kulthum and sadly thinks how a clerk's paltry salary doesn't go anywhere these days. And another young man with a playful goatee, wearing a T-shirt bearing the name of a rock group, is as yet unaware that beneath the appearance of youth lurk old age, shame and poverty.
The Al-Zahra station. The door opens and four peasants in dark galabiyahs enter, along with a pregnant woman whose head is uncovered meaning that she is Coptic and not Muslim and has eyes the blue-gray color of Cairo's polluted water. No one offers her a seat. They just keep on staring into space. Meanwhile, she removes a cellular phone from her bag and dials. She is far from beautiful with horsey jaws and hair that is patchily dyed red. Her yellow dress is tight and the fabric pulls against her protruding abdomen. "My dear," she finishes her conversation, "that's our fate. Bye now." She also pulls out a tissue from her purse and wipes her face, as she glances around to see if there's any chance of getting a seat. Maybe if she faints and plunges to the floor, someone will notice her. She inflates her cheeks and exhales in a sign of impatience. In the summer, you don't so much breathe the air here as swim in it.
The train creaks and slows, creaks and slows, before coming to a stop at the Mar Girgis station. I have to get off here. The woman also slowly swivels around toward the automatic door. Behind her quickly forms a line of people in a hurry to alight. A rustling sound of shuffling bodies rises from this stew of humanity. One young man pushes his way toward the door in an effort to position himself to be among the first out. The exhausted woman feels the shoving and when she turns my way, I see that her mouth is wide open in an attempt to gulp some air. When the door opens and the human tide (carrying me with it) burst through, I hear a scream. She has slipped and fallen on her side. The contents of her purse have scattered on the platform. The cell phone goes flying a few meters ahead and a swift young man maybe the same guy from the train, maybe not grabs it and runs off. She shouts. The train doesn't move. A policeman in white comes running. The people inside the train don't get out to help but crowd around the edge, so as not to miss the train whenever it departs. Like an injured bug, she tries to push herself up with one hand, as her other hand and legs still tremble from the fright. Her large belly pulls her down and she lets out a deep wail as tears spill from her eyes. "My telephone was stolen!" she cries to the policeman. He extends his hand to help her up. She shakes her head no. And meanwhile I stand there to the side, frozen in place. Finally, the train whistles and rumbles on. And the policeman keeps on standing there a little awkwardly, waiting for her to get up and leave the station. The drama ends without a birth on the train platform. It reminds me of a Gorky story I once read about helping a peasant woman give birth on a train somewhere out in the Caucasus.
A profitable sideline at the synagogue
I've been to Fustat, the ancient quarter of Cairo where the Ibn Ezra Synagogue is located, countless times. I recently went there with my wife and together we watched a group of Poles pouncing on the souvenir stand at the entrance to the synagogue. A few bought postcards of the colorful Shiviti calendar, attracted by the quaint-looking Hebrew characters. One family lingered there longer than the others and I told myself that they must be Jews, or have Jewish ancestors and are rediscovering their roots. In the synagogue's rear courtyard, we saw three Dutch youths studiously poring over their guidebook. Given the looks on their faces, I speculated that they were the progeny of anti-Semites who imagined that by being here they were somehow getting back at their parents.
The postcard vendor was a cheerful young woman. When she saw us and apparently recognized us she pulled out a little piece of paper with a phone number on it: of her aunt in Rishon Letzion with whom she had lost contact. She asked my wife to call her for her upon her return to Israel because every time she tried to call herself, people answered in Hebrew and she didn't understand what they were saying to her. Her name is Aisha and she is part-Jewish, on her mother's side. The aunt had managed to arrange for her sister to marry a Jewish man in New Jersey, so she alone of the whole family was left here and was able to earn a living thanks to the kindness of the community president Carmen Weinstein, who gave her this job.
The other person who works at the site is an inspector from the Egyptian Antiquities Authority, Abdel Hamid, who studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He opened his briefcase and pulled out computer printouts of the op-eds printed in Haaretz that Friday and asked for my help with some words he didn't get in Doron Rosenblum's piece. It was an article denouncing opponents of the disengagement. Abdel Hamid opened up the room containing the synagogue's library, which is situated in a separate building in the yard. The library contains primarily holy books that were collected from Jewish institutions and Jewish homes that were abandoned, and it is one of three Hebrew libraries in the city. In an unusual move, the guards had opened the door leading to the mikveh in the cellar of the synagogue and the well from which the mikveh waters come. Some of the guards at the synagogue have a profitable little sideline from this well, in which, according to some vague tradition, the basket that carried baby Moses is said to be preserved. From the corner of my eye, I saw two innocent victims fair-haired tourists being led to the back yard. There they would gaze into the gloom of the well and nod their heads, and the guard would demand a special tip for this revelation.
I waited for my friends, who were late in arriving, by the entrance to this ancient part of the city. The streets around Old Cairo are blocked and protected by military men, some of whom stand behind steel defenses with weapons cocked. The row of stores within the compound has been a tourist trap since time immemorial. The peddlers have all learned the special phrases a tourist likes to hear, such as, "Come have a look, very cheap price." One shopkeeper who has evidently guessed where I'm from pulls out of his desk drawer a Jewish prayer book, or siddur, in French translation, whose first page is decorated with a beautiful lithograph. He found the book amid the recently sold contents of a Jewish home on Al-Jaysh Street. Along with the siddur, he found a bunch of old family photos in an envelope. The photos were taken in France or somewhere else in Europe. Apparently, the son of the people who lived in the house whose contents were sold had emigrated to Europe and sent from there a photograph of himself sitting in front of a shop, and a photograph of his wife and children. And there was another family photograph, evidently taken during a visit by the grandmother from Cairo to her son who had done well for himself in Europe. The hunched and wizened grandmother is in the middle, and the group is posed in front of a neatly tended garden. I turned over the photographs to see if I could find any trace of written information, but there was none. Mutely, the pictures told me the story of the disappearance of a Jewish family from Cairo. But what point is there in trying to turn back history, I asked myself again.
The Jews' fading love for France
Here is the proof that the Jewishness of Cairo is everywhere and not confined to any specific site. To me, for example, a totally Jewish place is the Sa'ad Zaghlul underground metro station and Al-Falaki Street that passes above it, because on Al-Falaki Street is the library of the French Cultural Center, an institution that in my mind is as Jewish as they come, even if not a single Jew still uses its services. After all, the deep and sometimes tragic bond that Oriental Jews once had with French culture is well known. And sadder than that is the slow fading away of this love that Jews once had for everything that France represents, and its replacement by hostility. Lost in such dreary musings, after coming out of the metro station, I mistakenly walked in the wrong direction and instead of getting closer to the French Cultural Center I moved farther away from it, and when I realized my mistake, I had to retrace my steps. I was holding out a sliver of hope of finding a book there that I had been searching for for quite some time: a novel entitled "Les Couleurs de l'Infamie" ("The Colors of Infamy") by Albert Cossery, a French-Jewish writer from Cairo, who writes novels about Cairo (and excellent ones at that, apparently), though he lives in total anonymity in France. I wouldn't have known anything about him either had I not taken the bus to Be'er Sheva one winter and sat next to someone who was reading a book of his that he warmly recommended. So I thought that this might be my chance to take a peek at it, if it was really on the shelf there.
I noticed that the area around Al-Falaki Street is a government center, with high-rises and gated luxury buildings on all sides, but the street itself is a typical Cairo street, where life flows with a pace and noise all its own. The aroma of frying falafel wafts from a little hole-in-the-wall where people are crowding around, most likely the secretaries and clerks of the government complex eating a quick lunch. Pitas are sold on trays made of reeds. Some are made of coarse dark flour while other, lighter, ones are sold wrapped in plastic. Next to the falafel seller is an upholsterer, whose workplace is half-underground: The chair he is working on sits on the sidewalk above his head and he works on its insides like an auto mechanic tinkering with a car. Opposite the main entrance to the parliament building stands a vendor of plastic bags, displaying all of his colorful merchandise on his arm. Next to him, a seller of tea leaves puts his merchandise down on the hood of a car that isn't his and looks annoyed that all the dust from the street is penetrating the cellophane bags holding the red hibiscus leaves. Who buys this man's goods? Had I tarried long enough I would have seen that in the end,everything passes from hand to hand in this city, and that when a customer shows up wishing to buy, the poor seller fills with pride and names a higher than average price to compel the customer to enter into some brief haggling and to feel that he put some effort into earning his keep.
The kingdom of a tyrannical woman
The library of the French Cultural Center was closed. The Egyptian clerks informed me of this in the kind of French with the rolling r that gives me pleasure because it reminds me of the French of my Turkish grandmothers. France had let me down again. So, just to be spiteful, I walked north until Parliament Street, made my way to Nubar Street, and then turned left on Mohammed Mahmoud Street until I reached the American University of Cairo, which has a giant McDonald's branch facing it. Is there anything more anti-French than McDonald's? I went in and ordered a Big Mac meal and sat down by a side window that overlooked an alley, in the corner of which was a stall selling used books and magazines. I watched as a girl stopped and bought a big stack of old French fashion magazines. A couple of tourists rummaged through the piles of books in English and chose four. From afar, among the English books, I noticed the white bindings of the French Gallimard Press. Suddenly, a chubby, scruffy boy in a torn shirt obstructed my view; he was pointing at his mouth as if to say, "I'm hungry, too." I turned away stiffly in the hope that he would disappear. He moved off, only to return a few minutes later and repeat the same gesture with his finger, but he ran off again when he saw a McDonald's employee approaching the table where I was sitting and signaling to him with the rag in his hand to beat it.
I finished my meal and went out. The chubby boy was sitting a short distance away in the s hade and didn't look up at me when I passed by. I was on the way to Tal'at Harb Square, the center of "downtown Cairo," from which six streets emanate like the points of a star, but woe to anyone who doesn't know the names of the streets by heart. He is doomed to get lost. I meant to continue to the eastern part of Tal'at Harb Street but I mistakenly turned onto Qasr an-Nil Street. When I realized my error (street names sometimes only appear a good distance from the beginning of the street, and this cannot be relied on with any regularity, either), I kept on going anyway because I remembered that at the end of the street there was an old book store called Livres de France. Maybe there I would find the books of this Cossery fellow.
Livres de France is the kingdom of a tyrannical woman who hasn't aged a bit in the past 20 years. Every time I set foot in there, I heard her barking orders in Arabic to her male employees, and the orders as well as the employees' replies included the names of French books and writers, which flashed like sparkling gems within the Arabic sentences. This queen has no time to wallow in romantic nostalgia; she's more like a slave-driving queen bee. "20 'L'Avare,'" she'd call out to a worker on the middle floor that serves as a storeroom for textbooks. "Ahmed, where's the Intermediare Cours for the lady who's been waiting here for 15 minutes?!" The proprietress also does not like browsers. Instead, like a counter-woman in a deli, she asks, "What do you want?" as soon as you come in.
On the northern, shadier side of Qasr an-Nil Street, I passed the display windows of old department stores with French names like Le Salon Vert. This "green salon" was a terribly dreary place. The wooden counters were arranged squarely by department; a lazy ceiling fan whirred overhead and the merchandise cannot be touched except when the salesman opens a case upon request and spreads it out on the glass counter as in days of old. If you wish to purchase something, you are issued a receipt that you must take to the cashier and return with it signed in order to be handed the wrapped goods. By the entrance to the department store, two peddlers sat on the sidewalk with plastic tubs full of water and tried to convince passersby to buy a painted tin toy in the form of a swimmer when you turn the key in his back, he does the crawl. Then there are the young peddlers of tissues, who lurk in the shadows near the sidewalk and pop out whenever they discern a potential benefactor, and proffer a packet of lemon-scented Flora tissues (though when opened, no scent is noticeable) with a pleading look in their eyes. I also saw a handicapped boy being pushed along in a wheelchair in his mother, as she cried out for help. I'm pretty sure I saw them a few days ago in the flea market in Basatin.
The green and white awning of the Livres de France shop was visible from afar. I steeled myself for an encounter with the elderly proprietress who strikes terror into all, and rehearsed what I would say to her in French if she accosted me and demanded to know what I wanted and didn't let me browse through the books. But when I entered the store, it wasn't as I'd expected. It wasn't that scowling woman sitting behind the black desk heaped with papers and books, but a man, one of the store employees, who was speaking a mixture of Arabic and French with his coworkers. The atmosphere was relaxed. No one asked what I wanted and I started to scan the shelves without interference and to search for books by Albert Cossery. And the whole time, the man behind the desk was issuing orders to the other workers, but in a pleasant tone, saying things like "Please pack up 20 Andrei Gides for me" or "It says here 12 Derrida and there are only 10."
I couldn't refrain from asking him where the shop owner was. He pointed to the wall behind him. On a large bulletin board were photographs of her just as I remembered sitting bent over the black desk. Her name was Yvette. She died about two years ago. Now her nieces were running the store. He handed me a business card and underlined the place's Internet address. And yes, I found the Cossery novel without any trouble.
But from the moment that the salesman notified me of the lady's death, all the old wooden shelves and dark cupboards in the store took on an air of ordinariness and all the books sealed in plastic cases to prevent curious browsers like me from enjoying the books without buying them all at once lost their allure, now that the spirit of the scary woman who had held onto them for half a century or to be more precise, since 1947, as the salesman explained to me no longer hovered over them. He also informed me that in the late 1990s, the French ambassador in Cairo had awarded her the medal of "Knight of the Arts." The photographs on the bulletin board were from that ceremony, which was held in her home in the Garden City neighborhood. And she wasn't Jewish, even in part. But as someone who tenaciously defended the Livres de France from something perhaps from the hostility that France arouses in the hearts of all those who have gone over to the American camp of McDonald's and destructive wars on terror I will forever consider her a preeminent Jew