Leaving Cairo

October 1956

By Claire Berke

Claire Burke

My father lost his plastic toys factory last month. Without any warning, one morning he went only to see the door sealed with red wax. Those leaving the country were allowed to take very little, some clothes and a couple of pounds. Mother decided that I should leave with my brother Alex who was going to France to study. I would travel to my uncle in Haifa and his wife. So many families were leaving, it was inevitable that we should go too. My parents were to join me later in Israel.

I left Alexandria trying not to show how upset I was. We had the tickets in the dormitories at the lowest level of the ship. I could not even stand the smell emanating from the staircase, so I quickly decided to sleep on one of the deck chairs and Alex joined me on another. We were given blankets for the nights. Because I was seasick during most of the trip, I hardly ate anything.

As soon as we docked in Marseille, I was surprised to see Alex run to the nearest bench. He sat and proceeded to slash a feather pillow mother had given him.

-What is the matter with you? I asked

-Are you dumb? Don't you know that there is a diamond in it for me, come and help me find it.

This was of course Middle Eastern mentality of those days, a girl can go empty handed to start a life in Israel but the boy gets the diamond.

I found a nice size stone among the feathers then we dragged our suitcases to find a place for the night. First we had to get rid of the luggage so we went to a train station close by, and gave the suitcases on consignment. Once this was done, we decided to sleep on the bench. The price was right for us and there was a toilet we could use.

The next morning Alex asked me to help him sell the diamond, he was eighteen and I was his 20 year old sister. We walked to a jeweler in a store who refused to buy because we did not have legal papers for the stone. I tried another, same answer, so I said let's try the pawn shops. We asked around and were directed to a couple of old, dirty and narrow streets. I was a little nervous but proceeded to help him since he was going to Montpellier to study engineering and needed the money.

The pawn shops offered an unacceptable price to Alex who had been schooled by our father, a diamond dealer. He decided to leave for Montpellier right away, taking the diamond with him. I was alone in a foreign country with two Egyptian pounds in my pocket. Because it was getting late already I bought myself a banana for dinner and went to sleep at the same train station after wandering in the streets to do a little sightseeing. I reassured myself that I could defend myself if need be. This time I slept on the bench sitting up and drank some water from the sink faucet in the toilet, cupping my hand; I could not waste any money on a coke.

In the morning, i washed myself using some paper towels in the restroom then proceeded to find the Jewish Agency. When I finally saw it, there were several tents full of filthy women dressed in Arabic black clothes. They had huge pimples on their faces the likes of which I never saw and they used the floor for a toilet. There flies everywhere, I started to walk away.

-I thought what else can I do? I have a tourist visa to France, no money. Being a foreigner it would be a while until I found a job. Where would I live? I decided to give the representative of the Agency my passport which was Iranian because my father had been unable to get the Egyptian Nationality being a Jew; his father was born in Iran. Later he went to Damascus.

I was given some Israeli papers and told that the "free ship" will be available in a month. I cannot wait that long, even with the three sterling pounds my uncle had sent me from Manchester (may he rest in peace), how can I survive? I went to pawn two gold bracelets my Dad gave me and another with my name on it. With the few francs I received I was able to pay the Agency for a ticket for the ship arriving in five days. I went to purchase my daily meal, an apple, then looked for a Pension. I needed to change my clothes and sleep on a bed for a change.

The room I found was on the fourth floor, tiny, smelly, without an elevator, and the toilet was downstairs. Somehow I dragged my suitcase upstairs, then went for a walk. A tall muscled man in the room across stared at me. I knew immediately he would be a danger to me. When I returned later I placed a chair underneath the door handle. My hunch was right because in the middle of the night this man tried to break the door. I was afraid because he did not give up that easy and made a lot of noise. I left this room in the morning.

I met Mino, the son of our Italian neighbors in Cairo, explained what happened and asked him if he would share a room with me. He was glad as he did not have much money either. We found a rental. Inside we decided to take the mattress off the bed for me to sleep on the floor. He used the bed.

An Italian ship came to take us to Haifa, Mino, a few young people and myself. I explained to the sailor in the office that I would not sleep with the Yemeni women down below under any circumstances but on the bridge. He said" No it's against regulations". Finally he let me share a cabin with a couple on their honeymoon. I greatly appreciated the fact that they asked me to leave during the day, not at night. The young woman and I got the sailor to agree to let us use the shower in a cabin belonging to another officer. I really needed it, I had not had one since I left home. As for food, my Italian admirer once gave me a sandwich, then later nothing as I refused his advances of course. Mino and the others in the group smuggled something for me from the dining room.

In Haifa, my uncle's wife took one look at me wearing nice tight pants, a blouse I made in Cairo. She understood that I was not going to be the maid type she was hoping for. My father's younger brother, Jacques (may he rest in peace) came for lunch. Within minutes he proposed to me in front of everyone. He had a store in Haifa and could take care of me.

-What, that's marrying my father, I said.
-No it's quite all right, it's allowed.
-No way, I shall find a job tomorrow.

I found one getting visas for travelers, for sixty shekels a month plus bus fare. A very measly salary indeed but I had to start somewhere. I walked instead of taking the bus to save money and in every office I went to I asked for a job.
-We will let you know. I received two love letters, no work.

I went to the Personnel Department at Zim Lines, filled up an application. No answer.

A few days later I met Miri in the street, the woman who had interviewed me. I told her that my father came from Cairo and refused to work because this was below his dignity. He was a well known businessman in Cairo and was not going to be an employee even if we could find him a job. In any case, he had no education having left school in Damascus when he was nine years old. He could have worked for a jeweler but he was stubborn and my mother was coming with my thirteen year old brother and a ten year old sister. Miri got me a "temporary" job typing manifests and arranging meal tickets for the passengers. I worked hard and became a "fixed" employee in a couple of months with a good salary plus benefits.

My parents were given a maabara (a wooden shack with a Turkish toilet outside) at Kiryat Benyamin and I moved in with them, glad to leave my aunt and uncle who were sharing an old Arabic apartment with another couple. I did not want to loose my job so I pretended to be religious. I stayed home all day on Saturday being careful to take the bus only at sundown. One week end my mother talked me into visiting her uncle at kibbutz Maayan Zvi. I went early on Friday afternoon. In the evening, when we were in the dining room, a group of young English people noticed me. One of them came to ask me to go to a party after dinner. I agreed. I danced with everyone but one blondish guy who was sitting on the floor in the corner. I went to talk to him. A few months later we were married. To his credit he did not care about the place I was living in. I explained that it was a shame we did not meet in Cairo instead, we had a nice apartment then.

I was grateful when one of my bosses asked the Sochnut to give my parents a small one bedroom apartment near Haifa at Kiryat Sprinsak. At least when my in-laws came for the wedding I was spared the embarrassment of the "maabarah". A week after the wedding we left for London.

I reasoned that my mother would find some job and everyone would learn to take care of themselves. I was not going to give up my life, and I am glad I did not. My younger brother went to an agricultural school where he worked to pay for his schooling and board. He then went for his military service and managed to go to the University in Jerusalem to get a degree, later he continued in Paris where he got his PhD in Biology. Alex received his Masters in Electronic engineering and they both live in France today. They had a very hard time because our father was unable to give them any money, but to their credit somehow they made it. I am very proud of them.

Thanks to Nasser who took our religion as an excuse to rob us out of my father's life savings, jewelry, apartment, my father passed away at the age of fifty seven from a heart attack. Truth be told, Nasser robbed him of his dignity. He was a depressed, ashamed man, a beggar surviving on the charity of his brother in Manchester. I am sure that this is what killed him so young. He never again wore the fancy suits he had in Cairo when he was playing poker with rich Syrian and Lebanese men.

As for myself, six years later my husband decided to move to California with our two daughters. The marriage lasted twenty two years then we separated. Life was not easy for me I was working seven days a week selling houses. A few years later I met an American, Daniel Berke. We live in Los Angeles which I like. I am a happy grandma.

Nasser dispersed us to different parts of the world, each family trying to survive as best as they could. We used to live within walking distance of each other, my mother's five sisters, four brothers and several first cousins. I used to play with their kids, now I don't even know where many of them live.

I can't help wonder why with all their resources and lands the Moslems did not make new lives for themselves. Tiny Israel was able to absorb so many people who ended up working, buying homes and living again. Why keep them in tents without basic necessities? They could have easily taught them to learn and accomplish but they choose to fill up their minds with hatred and martyrdom instead. They envy the progress the world has made when they have not planted anything but fighting and dying. How long has it been since they contributed something to math, science or medicine? How many centuries? Their favorite thing is still to deny women their place in their world, as free and intelligent human beings.

I have no hatred towards the Egyptian people, most of them were good to us, except the fundamentalists. I used to hear them from the Mosque across the street, kids repeating "El Yahood welad Kalb" (Jews are sons of dogs), brainwashing them to hate for no reason. We made enormous contributions to the Egyptian economy, in all venues, in music, politics (we helped write the Constitution), our doctors were the best and we gave to non Jewish charities. We had Jewish Hospitals, orphanages, several department stores, orchestras, beautiful synagogues, Cairo was a very cosmopolitan City. We did not deserve to be thrown out. Cairo and Alexandria are now almost Jew free. Are the Moslems better off? I don't think so.