BREAKING AWAY

Dr. Maurice M. Mizrahi

Dr. Maurice Mizrahi  Cairo, Egypt, 14 June 1967

"_Ya khawaga_ Mizrahi", said the Secret Service man over the telephone, "bring your son Maurice to our headquarters at 3 p.m. this afternoon."

My father blanched. "But he is only a child", he protested. "Don’t worry", the man said. "Just five minutes for a routine check."

"Five minutes!", my father thought. "That is the standard line." The few remaining Jews of Egypt were disappearing one by one in the wake of the Six-Day war. Tales of beatings, torture, incarcerations, expropriations, and summary expulsions were beginning to surface—again. Every few years they came back, with depressing regularity. They always began with a "five-minute routine check."

"Should I pack a suitcase for him?", my father thought. "No", he concluded, "that might bring about the very thing I dread."

We walked in silence. His hand was holding my upper arm. I could feel that he was shaking all over. But he did not show it. My father always carried himself with aristocratic dignity. His back was straight, his chin up, his pace slow and deliberate. He oozed Sephardic _grandezza_ from every pore. Always impeccably dressed, intensely proud, he had the looks and the demeanor of a Spanish nobleman. He was always eager to use his old Castilian mother tongue, even though it had been almost five centuries since his ancestors had been ignominiously expelled from their native Spain for the crime of being Jews. He spoke softly, slowly, carefully choosing his words, using flowery and expressive language. His handwriting was a calligrapher’s dream.

"My name is Abraham ben Baroukh", he thought. "Is this why the good Lord saw fit to call me Abraham? So I could lead my youngest son to the slaughter? Why did I not heed the danger signs, all these years, when things were clearly going from bad to worse? All my neighbors, all my friends, all my relatives, all my children but one, all my grandchildren they all left one by one, imploring me to follow suit... Now it’s too late. They are going to take my baby away, _mon bâton de vieillesse_ -- the support of my old age. It is all my fault. How could I have been so blind?".

We arrived at the Headquarters of the dreaded Mabahess. The man who had called my father came and told me which door to take. My father, appearing smiling and nonchalant, asked him, "Let me go in with him, I can answer questions better than he can." "There is no need for that", the man said, "just give him his Italian passport." My father insisted. "Please sit down", the man said sternly. Resigned, my father sat down.

I walked through the door. A stony-faced, no-nonsense official was sitting behind a desk, in front of a large map of "Palestine". He asked for my passport. He checked it and wrote down all the information. He looked up at me. " _Men mawalid 4/9/49?_ -- You were born September 4, 1949?", he asked. I said, "Yes". He returned my passport and said, "You may go."

When my father saw me he breathed a sigh of relief and greeted me with a big smile. It had been a long time since I had last seen a genuine smile on his face. The Lord had spared Abraham’s son once again! Unknown to us, the dragnet was aimed at all Jewish males ages 18 to 60. I was a few months shy of my 18th birthday, and my father was 64.

On the way home, my father was more talkative. He bought some pastries. My mother was elated and ran into the kitchen to prepare a good meal. "Things could be again as they were before", they thought. But it was not to be.

"_Papa, je dois partir_", I said. "I must leave."

_Partir_ -- ‘to leave’. How often had I heard that word in my short life! Usually in hushed tones... "You know, don’t tell anyone, but such and such a family is going to _partir_." It all had to be done in semi-secrecy, because you never knew what new roadblock would be placed your way if the matter became public knowledge, which new official would demand his bribe before letting you go, who might blackmail you, when the vultures would start gathering around you...

To the young, _partir_ meant "liberation", "excitement", "adventure". To the middle-aged and the parents of small children, it was a mixed blessing: "It’s better for the children, but will we be able to start over from scratch in a foreign land, where we don’t even know the language?". It struck fear in the hearts of older people, who dreaded facing the unknown in the twilight of their years.

"This is not the right time", my father said. "You must be patient."

"Why don’t we ALL leave?", I asked. "Why don’t you and Mommy come also?"

My father looked down. "I cannot", he said. "All my life I have been independent. I earned every penny I spent. I was never anybody’s employee. I helped parents, siblings, children, relatives, friends, but I never asked help from anyone. I was the eldest of nine children, and my father entrusted the family to me before retiring. I helped my brothers start businesses, I married off my sisters, I cared for my parents... I am not rich, but we don’t lack the basic necessities either. I am 64. It is too late for me to start over, and I will not depend on handouts. They will not let us take anything with us if we leave."

"My siblings left. Everybody left. Why should I stay?", I asked.

"Your siblings are much older. They all had a college education, and even some work experience. It is not the right time for you yet. You could help me at the store..."

"Papa, a few days ago, during the war, I passed my French Baccalaureate examinations at the French Cultural Center and received my diploma with highest honors. It’s only high school, that’s true, but it’s worth something. It’s a French degree, not an Egyptian one, so it carries more weight. I want to go on studying. The universities here have closed their doors to Jewish students. There is nothing left for me here. I am already certain to lose next year. I don’t want to lose the year after that."

"I can arrange for you to take correspondence courses with a French school. Your chemistry teacher at the French Center has already agreed to facilitate the matter."

"I don’t want correspondence courses. I want to study in a real university abroad", I said. "And it’s not just that. I don’t want to live here anymore. This is an antisemitic country, and getting more so by the day. Do you know what they made me ‘study’ in school all these years? Much of it was antisemitic and anti-Western propaganda masquerading as "Arabic literature". My siblings are 8, 13, and 15 years older than I, and in their time it wasn’t quite as bad. Certainly it wasn’t in yours. But things have changed drastically. I have had enough. I am a Jew, and this is no place for a Jew."

"_Papa, je dois partir_", I repeated.

"If you left, I could not help you in any way," he pleaded. "I could not send you one penny, not one package. You know they do not allow it. Even our letters are heavily censored, and frequently never reach their destination. They will not allow you to take anything with you. They will not allow you to come back to Egypt if things don’t work out."

"I know", I said. "I’ll manage."

"I don’t want you to be a burden to your siblings," he added. "They have a very difficult time financially, they have small children to raise, they live in cramped quarters in a new land where they have to make many cultural adjustments. I cannot ask them to take on this additional responsibility."

"Don’t worry, papa, I’ll pull my own weight. I’ll work and study at the same time. I’ll translate, I’ll teach math..."

My mother was sitting quietly. She would never interrupt my father, nor contradict him. Oh, except once or twice, when it really mattered. My brother and I were much younger than our two sisters, and not planned. My father, worried about the uncertain future for Jews in Egypt and whether he could manage financially, wondered in both cases whether an abortion might not be in order. My mother said "No", and that was the end of that.

My father continued, without looking at me, realizing his arguments were getting weaker and weaker: "America is a troubled land. They have racial riots everywhere; their cities are going up in flames. They’ll draft you and send you to fight in Vietnam. Your brother has already been drafted..."

"It’s a risk I am willing to take", I said.

He looked up at me. He had never heard such quiet determination in my voice before. I was not a child anymore. I was a man.

"Very well then", he said.

Albert Baroukh Mizrahi had let go of the last of his children. He was resigned to facing the end alone with my mother. Four months later, he accompanied me to the airport. He waved at me with a smile as I boarded the plane. A smile that said, "I know you must go; I’ll be brave and won’t show how much it’s breaking my heart."

That was the last time I saw my father.

FLASHBACKS

Street encounter, Midan Talaat Harb. Mr. Shefe'i, my Arabic teacher for five years. A tall, overweight, soft-spoken man, intimidating yet not unfriendly, who knew how to handle a roomful of teenage boys. "You are leaving!", he said with some concern. "Where are you going?". "_Belgica, ubaaden yemken America_," I said. He repeated my words: "Belgium, and then maybe America..." He shook his head. "This is not right... Why are they doing this? They took Skinazi, the assistant vice-principal... They took Joe Rothstein...". He shook his head again. Then, in earnest: "Is your apartment going to become vacant soon?". "No", I said, "my parents are staying." There was an acute housing shortage in Cairo, and this was not the first time Mr. Shafe'i had asked me that question over the years.

Street encounter, Bab el Luk marketplace. Mr. Kamel, my English teacher for two years. A young, diminutive, exuberant man. "Maurice! I am very glad to see you!", he said in Arabic. I replied in English. It seemed strange to talk to him in Arabic, when his classes had always been conducted in English. I told him my plans. "Your welfare comes before all else", he said, still in Arabic, and wished me luck.

Street encounter, near Main Post Office. One of the janitors at my old school. A handsome young man with an Errol Flynn mustache. "I heard many sad stories", he said. "I could not believe who they took." He mentioned the name of an older classmate of mine. "He too is a _juif_, as you know." He used the French word for "Jew" in the middle of Arabic, so as not to attract attention in a public place.

I went to buy some belts in Cairo's commercial district. The tiny store belonged to a Jewish acquaintance of ours. But he had been jailed, along with most other Jewish breadwinners. I was surprised to find his nine-year-old son in charge of the entire store. A smiling, bouncy, slightly overweight fellow. It seemed clear to me that some customers were robbing him blind. But what was the family to do? They had to survive somehow... I bought what I needed and left. I felt like crying.

Rabbi Haiim DouekRabbi Hayyim Douek, last Chief Rabbi of Egypt, signed the certificate testifying that I had never been married before. A venerable, white-bearded man in his seventies, he was the white-robed figure I had heard and seen from afar at services year after year, yet had never spoken to. He gave me his blessing and exchanged a few words with my father. Then, just as we were about to leave, he shook his finger at me and said, -- "_Owwaa tetgawwez wahda mush yahudeyya!_ -- Don't you dare marry one who is not Jewish!".

His picture had been on the front page of the semi-official newspaper _El Ahram_ a few days earlier. He was quoted as saying, "_Yahud Masr masriyyin ka'ay mesreyyen aakhar_ -- The Jews of Egypt are Egyptian just like any other Egyptian." Later that year I went to High Holy Day services one last time, along with a pitiful remnant that seemed lost in Cairo's cavernous main synagogue. Standing next to Rabbi Douek throughout all services was Nabil Bab el Fath, Nasser's personal representative, sent to wish the Jewish community a happy new year.

Emile Douek, chancellor of the Rabbinate -- a volunteer position. Same stock, same age, same manners as my father. Never married, no family in the country. "Yes, I want to leave", he told the father of a classmate of mine. "But I cannot leave in good conscience until I have taken care of everyone in the community who needs help. I cannot abandon them." Distraught women with small children were all over the small building.

I had to endure four months of roadblocks and uncertainty from the time I applied for an exit visa to the time I left. And I was one of the lucky ones -- for many it took years. Why? If they didn't want us, why didn't they just let us go? It went without saying that they would take everything we owned, so why didn't they hurry up so they could steal it faster?

An official reviewing my application for an exit visa.Maurice Mizrahi Exit Visa

"Why do you wish to leave?", he asked.

I said, "To study".

"To study what?".

"_Riada_", I said, "-- mathematics."

"Mathematics? But we have that here!", he said, disingenuously.

My father smiled at him and answered, "_El zuruf ma tetsahhelsh_ - Circumstances do not facilitate." The man then used his cigarette to burn off the seal the Customs Department had placed on my suitcase, so he could search it again.

The loud, overweight, openly hostile army officer, to my father, before signing my exit visa: "_Da hay'safer MEN GHER RUGU'_ -- He will leave WITH NO RETURN." My father sheepishly answered, "Yes, I understand." The man then placed the exit visa stamp on my passport, giving me two weeks to leave. On both sides of the stamp, he added a red "Y" between quotation marks: "_Yahudi_ -- Jew". Years later, when my oldest son and I were putting together a personalized family Haggadah for the Passover seder, that exit visa appeared prominently next to the traditional words: "_B'chol dor vador, hayyav adam lir'ot et 'atsmo, k'illuhu yatsa mimmitzrayim_ -- In every generation, every Jew must regard himself as having been personally rescued from Egypt."

At the airport, while waiting for my flight to freedom, I pulled out my handkerchief and dropped a 25-piaster note (about 50 cents) I had brought along for old times' sake. A guard immediately lunged forward, picked it up, pocketed it and moved away. I went after him: "Please, just give me a 5-piaster note in exchange. It's just a souvenir I want." He handed me a 5-piaster note. I still have it.

Right before boarding the plane, one last check. The official saw the red "Y" on my passport. He made a face and called his superior. "_El gama'al aganeb dolat_ -- that group of foreigners", he said, pointing repeatedly to the red "Y", "are we allowing them to just leave?". The man looked at the "Y", paused for a second, and said, "Yes, let him go."

On the Alitalia plane bound for Athens, I opened the snack my mother had prepared for me. Bittersweet chocolate and butter cookies. To this day, this combination tastes to me as manna must have tasted to the ancient Israelites when they left Egypt, on their way from slavery to freedom.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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