Searching for My
Father's Lost City
Before we fled, Cairo was a cosmopolitan
crossroads. How much still remains?
By LUCETTE LAGNADO
June 30, 2007; Page A1
As my car pulled into Suleiman Pasha Square in
the heart of downtown Cairo, I spotted it immediately --
Groppi's, the patisserie that was really so much more: A palace
of pleasure, the hub of elegant European social life, the city
at its most vibrant and cosmopolitan. It seemed exactly as I
remembered it when I'd last seen it as a little girl more than
40 years earlier, its name in that charming old-fashioned
scrawl, the entrance covered by colorful mosaics and, inside,
the same cool, high-ceilinged, marble elegance and pale pink
Or maybe not the same.
|A Cairo street in the 1940s.
The shelves were almost bare. No one stood in
line at the ancient cash register. The few trays of pastries,
which seemed neither French nor Middle Eastern, looked
thoroughly unappetizing. The dining area had dozens of tables
and almost no diners.
I was only six when my family left Egypt in
1963, among tens of thousands of Jews forced to leave in a
modern-day exodus. After we fled, first to Paris then New York,
I grew up on a diet of stories about our lost life. Many
featured Groppi's: Part pastry-shop, part paradise, a favorite
of kings, colonialists and privileged Cairenes.
Now, Groppi's was like the rest of Cairo -- a
museum to a bygone era.
These days, Egypt is a pivotal U.S. ally,
essential in the war on terrorism and al Qaeda, and the second
largest recipient of U.S. foreign aid. But it is also the faded
grande dame of the Arab world -- a major power center, but in
many respects a lesser power than it once was, overtaken
politically by far wealthier Saudi Arabia and economically by
other Gulf states. Once safely under the tutelage of the
British, it has been through convulsive changes that reflects
the turmoil that has swept the region over the past half century
-- the rise of a bitterly anti-West military dictatorship led by
the Nasser regime, the assassination of President Anwar Sadat
after he made peace with Israel, the simmering danger of Islamic
extremists that has prompted government crackdowns and a move
away from democracy.
Economically, the decline relative to other
countries has been steep. In 1950, prior to the revolution,
Egypt's per capita income was 80% that of Greece's and 45% of
Italy's; now, says Patrick Clawson, deputy director for research
at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a nonprofit
think tank, Egypt has 11% of Greece's per capita income, and 6%
These days, Egypt's per capita income is a
slender $1,320 -- compared to more than $40,000 in Dubai.
Politically, Egypt no longer enjoys the clout it had once upon a
time when it was the political leader of the Arab world. While
Cairo is certainly a major player, the Saudis are more likely to
lead the way as Middle East peace brokers.
Egypt's efforts to chart an economic and
political course separate from old colonial powers was
important, many Egyptians believe, for the country to purge
itself of foreigners whose influence and power were seen as
oppressive. It was necessary for the country to pursue its own
destiny. But it also left the country in some ways a shadow of
its former self -- a country of lost splendor and faded splendor
that has never been able to recover.
|Adapted from 'The Man in the
White Sharkskin Suit,' by Lucette Lagnado.
My father, who had lived in Egypt since the
turn of the century, had been a prosperous businessman and
pleasure seeker who gambled with King Farouk. My mother was a
teacher and librarian in a private school supported by a Pasha
and his wife. I attended the tony Lycée Français du Caire where
at five, I wore a grey uniform with a crest. We left a year
later, when my father, who had tried to hold on, succumbed to
pressure from my older siblings who felt there was no future for
them in Egypt.
Sadly, reluctantly, Dad gave away the lease to
our apartment and signed papers known as aller sans retour.
It meant that we were leaving and never coming back.
It was a wrenching departure, and we never got
over it. No matter where we went we always looked back on Egypt
with longing. "Ragaouna Masr," my dad would cry out in Arabic,
especially as he fell on hard times in America. Colloquially, it
meant "Take us back to Cairo!"
My father died in 1993, having never returned
to Egypt. Recently, I returned to Cairo.
In Egypt, the Jews' departure went hand in hand
with the ouster of foreigners who had settled years earlier and
turned Cairo into a capital of all-night cafes and open-air
cinemas, where it was possible to hear people conversing in four
or five languages -- French, English, Italian, Greek, Arabic --
in the same breath. According to Khairi Abaza, a senior fellow
at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies in Washington,
D.C., as many as a million Europeans once called Egypt home,
every bit as much as Paris or London or Athens. Their influence
was profound: From British clubs and legendary hotels like
Shepheards with its graceful terrace to elegant streets and
buildings designed to resemble Parisian boulevards and cafes
that served Greek appetizers. The French, about 40,000 strong,
were intent on spreading their culture. French became the second
language for privileged Egyptians. A large community of Greeks,
numbering from 200,000-400,000, prospered in the food and
hospitality business, running hotels and selling groceries, wine
and liquor. There were also 100,000-150,000 Italians who
specialized in import-export, accounting or finance. A Belgian
industrialist helped build the swank suburb of Heliopolis. About
100,000 Armenians lived in Egypt, and many distinguished
themselves as craftsmen and merchants. Then there were Jewish
entrepreneurs like my father.
Many ordinary Egyptians were mired in poverty,
cut off from the cafes and nightlife. Beggars roamed the
streets. There was also resentment of the foreigners -- the
British in particular -- and the monarchy that deferred to them.
An Egyptian driver took me back to Groppi's. As we pulled up, he
said he remembered a different Cairo, too, but one not quite so
wonderful. Once upon a time, my driver told me, ordinary
Egyptians weren't welcome in Groppi's. Only colonialists went
inside, he said.
"No Egyptian would like the colonial powers to
come back to Cairo -- either British or French. We struggled for
our independence," says Yehia El-Gamal, an attorney and law
professor in Cairo who first came to the city in the 1940s.
Great Britain's constant interference in
Egyptian politics fueled this rising tide of nationalism -- a
sense by the average Egyptian that they weren't the masters of
their fate. Egyptians, says Mr. Abaza, who comes from a family
of politicians, "felt humiliated," and resented the fact that
the British had been trying to control the political processes
since the 19th century.
In January 1952, in what became known as "Black
Saturday," angry crowds rushed through the streets of
fashionable downtown Cairo torching all the symbols of luxury
and foreign excess: department stores, cinemas, airline offices,
banks, restaurants, private clubs and hotels. Among the victims:
Shepheard's, Groppi's and Cinema Metro. They had made the
average Cairene feel like stranger in his own land, because for
those who were neither foreign nor rich nor Jewish much of the
city -- even a patisserie like Groppi's -- was off limits. The
vast majority of Egyptians never felt welcome and most couldn't
|Scenes from Cairo (clockwise
from left): The author's apartment building on Queen
Nazli Street; Shepheard's Hotel; identity card of the
author's father; the author on the balcony of her old
The anger against British dominance and
government corruption culminated with the overthrow of King
Farouk in July, 1952 by a group of military officers. Col. Gamal
Abdel Nasser, a leader of the coup, took over in 1954 and set
out to remake Egypt. Neither foreigners nor Jews were welcome --
even those who were born there or had lived there for decades.
They were forced out as Nasser nationalized industries,
sequestered businesses and put military people in charge. Driven
in part by idealism, he instituted land reforms that took land
away from the rich and imposed rent control laws to protect the
poor. Positioning himself as leader of the Arab world, he allied
himself with the Soviets, socialized Egypt's economy and waged
several wars against Israel.
Within a space of 19 years, nearly all of
Egypt's 80,000 Jews left. Hundreds of thousands of Europeans
also fled -- British and French who were ordered out, as well as
others who held foreign passports and had no choice but to leave
because they had been stripped of their businesses and
One upon a time, Cairo had more than 30 working
synagogues, along with dozens of small "shuls" where men
gathered to pray and study. There were Jewish schools, nursing
homes, an Hôpital Israelite and a vast ancient Jewish cemetery
where mystics were buried. These days, only about a dozen
synagogues are left in Cairo and most lie vacant and neglected.
The cemetery has been plundered of most marble headstones, so
that it is almost impossible to identify graves of loved ones.
Jewish institutions fall under Egypt's Supreme
Council of Antiquities.
While about 100 Jews are said to be still in
Egypt the true number is probably far smaller. Many are elderly
women, including some who married Muslims, are now widowed and
have returned to the faith or never really left.
Rabbi Andrew Baker of the American Jewish
Committee has traveled to Egypt twice in the past year and a
half to launch an effort to salvage and repair the synagogues
and cemeteries and holy objects. He longs to build a Jewish
museum that would preserve the Egypt Jewry's fabled history.
Rabbi Baker brings a unique vantage point to
his mission. He has spent the past 17 years, since the fall of
communism is the early 1990s, crisscrossing Russia and Eastern
Europe rescuing Jewish properties from Torah scrolls to
synagogues that were abandoned during the Holocaust.
"If you visited the cities of Eastern Europe in
the early 1990s -- Warsaw, Lodz, Vilnius, Bratislava, Prague --
there were only faint reminders of their storied Jewish past,"
says Rabbi Baker, "One might see faded Yiddish inscriptions on
some building, or a soot-covered Star of David. In Egypt, I felt
similar echoes of that experience."
He is hopeful that Cairo -- hungry for tourist
dollars -- may be motivated to fix up Jewish sites if only to
attract visitors. But in his recent trips he encountered
wariness. One morning, Rabbi Baker woke up to find an article in
an independent Arabic newspaper disparaging his entire mission.
"We do not owe the Jews anything -- we have neither taken part
in the Holocaust nor denied it," the article stated. The press
attaché for the Egyptian embassy in Washington D.C., Karim
Haggag, said the newspaper "does not reflect any official
position of the [Egyptian] government."
The attaché went on to say that Egypt considers
Cairo's Jewish sites "an integral element of Egypt's overall
cultural heritage and their preservation is a mission they take
very seriously, irrespective of political considerations."
Rabbi Baker is working with Cairo's Jewish
community - what is left of it. It is a one-woman show -- a
crusty, tough-talking woman named Carmen Weinstein who has her
admirers and detractors, but who the Rabbi and others credit
with trying to safeguard Cairo's decaying Jewish sites. Their
designation as antiquities is the work of Ms. Weinstein. Ms.
Weinstein has been involved for years in a bitter fight over
what to do with Jewish treasures. Egyptian Jewish expatriates in
New York and elsewhere have demanded that prayer books and Torah
scrolls be taken out of Egypt to be actively used in overseas
temples rather than being left to wither away as they have for
decades -- an idea Ms. Weinstein fiercely rejects.
As former leaders of Cairo's own Jewish
community sold some houses of worship to be demolished and
replaced with housing, Ms. Weinstein decided to place them under
the Antiquities ministry for protection. The benefit? No
synagogue can be sold or liquidated and security is tight as it
is at any potential tourist attraction.
Ms. Weinstein has her hands full. There is the
Jewish cemetery whose marble headstones have been pillaged.
There are registry books dating back to the 19th century, noting
every Jewish birth, marriage and death. Ms. Weinstein fields
requests from people the world over seeking family records.
Ms. Weinstein is undaunted by the demographic
reality that Cairo's Jews could vanish by the next generation;
indeed she insists there will always be Jews in Egypt. She is
determined to hold on to and refurbish whatever is left. "Do we
have to sell and demolish the Pyramids because there is no more
pharaoh?" she asks.
From the moment I got off the plane at Cairo
International Airport, I wanted to go to Queen Nazli Street, to
the house where I was born.
No one called it Queen Nazli Street anymore.
After the 1952 revolution, Cairo's streets were renamed to
eliminate any mention of the monarchy. Stately King Fuad Street
became known as "26th of July Street," the day of the
revolution. Queen Nazli Street was named Ramses Street, after
the old pharaoh. My family like so many others always used the
My father had moved to Queen Nazli Street as a
bachelor in 1938, renting a spacious ground-floor apartment. He
brought my mom there when they married in the 1940s. A handsome
movie star lived upstairs, a popular heartthrob of the Egyptian
cinema. My family paid three Egyptian pounds, or $6.90, a month.
The front entrance was as imposing as I remembered it, though
graffiti marred the building's facade. I pushed the door open
and found myself in a dark, dingy hallway with a large
staircase. Glancing at the stairs, I noticed with a sinking
feeling how dusty and broken down they were. The walls were
I knocked on the door marked #2 -- my home --
and almost immediately, a man answered. It was Wageeh Androus,
the son of the amiable Coptic Christian couple that took over
our lease in 1963. His father had died a few years earlier, but
Wageeh still lived there with his aging mother. Mother and son
told me they were paying 20 Egyptian pounds, $3.50 or so, in
monthly rent. The low rent reflects the continued grip of
Egypt's rent-control laws, even as Cairo's population has
exploded from six million in 1965 shortly after I left to about
16 million today.
The apartment seemed worn but much as I'd
remembered it. The Androus family told me an old woman upstairs,
known as Om Sayeda ("Mother Sayeda"), wanted to meet me. She had
been living in the building for more than 60 years and had known
I knocked on the door and found an old woman
seated in a velvet arm chair, a frail, regal figure with her
hair swept under a white head covering. I went over to shake her
hand, but she reached out to embrace me instead, her arms
wrapping around me as she kissed both my cheeks, and brought me
close to her chest.
"You look exactly like your mother," she
declared. "You are the same as I remember her."
The old woman herself rose and beckoned me to
join her at a balcony which she clearly loved with its ornate
canopy and panoramic views of Queen Nazli Street.
As I prepared to leave, Om Sayeda suddenly
shouted: "Wait." I stopped to look at her.
"I am old and I am lonely," she cried. "There
is only me and my daughter here, and I have so many rooms."
"Why don't you stay?" she said. "Why don't you
move in here? You can have any room you want," she added.
I looked at her, stunned. I, an American Jew,
was being offered a chance to move back to Queen Nazli Street.
I didn't take her up on her offer. But when I
ran to embrace the old woman, and she took both my hands in
hers, I understood my father and his lament, "Ragaouna Masr,"
take us back to Cairo.
Groppi's, Queen Nazli Street, Cairo -- they
hadn't simply been places, but a state of mind. They were home
-- filled with mercy and compassion, tenderness and grace, those
qualities that make and keep us human.
Write to Lucette Lagnado at
other work by Lucette Lagnado