Point of no return
Information and links about the Middle East's forgotten Jewish refugees
Tuesday, September 27, 2005
An Egyptian childhood cut short
"I had a happy childhood, as everyone did in the so-called Arab countries, since we were sheltered by our parents. Then a memory came back a few years ago and sparked an obsession in me to tell the truth of what life was like under Islam. That memory specifically goes back to May 1948. At the time Egypt and the other Arab countries were attacking the young state of Israel and King Farouk had decreed a black-out from the outset of hostilities."
Moise Rahmani remembers his Egyptian childhood.
"We had to cover our windows with blue 'kraft' paper and drapes. One evening around 8pm, there was an air raid alert over Cairo. Like all curious children oblivious to danger ( I was four), I lifted the curtain slightly. The policeman on duty below (was there one in front of each Jewish home?) blew sharply on his whistle and yelled:" Switch off the light, Jew, son of a dog!" Then he came upstairs to arrest the 'spy'! I can still see my trembling and panic-stricken mother
pleading with the policeman to leave us alone.
"My parents taught us three main rules:
1. Never talk about religion in case what is said is misinterpreted and people accused us of blasphemy against the Koran and Muhammed. We could be killed with impunity.
2. Never talk about politics
3. Never wander out alone, never follow anyone. All the mothers dreaded that Jewish and Christian children should be kidnapped by Muslims, converted and turned into beggars.
During this period the atmosphere was sometimes unbearable. People were arrested simply for smoking in the street. An uncle of my father's was arrested and thrown into an internment camp. To this day we do not know why.
My father had been stripped of his Egyptian nationality. I remember, as if it were yesterday, running from consulates to lawyers' offices and ministries in order to obtain a passport.
I remember the anguished discussions my parents had with their friends, asking "where will we go?" And they would talk of 'over there'.
'Over there' did not mean a thing to us children. But when they said 'over there', they lowered their voices.
I remember that two of my mothers' brothers went to Australia. They blazed a trail for us. It was 1948. What would happen to them? what would happen to us? Leading questions which furrowed our parents' brows.
I remember being terrified when fires broke out in 1952. Egged on by officers under Nasser and sick of Farouk's dissolute living, the Egyptian people had attacked and burnt the modern city, symbol of unbearable wealth. The damage was estimated at 25 million dollars at the time. The Jewish shops were of course prime targets and their owners were forced to flee. Relatives came to live with us for a few days and a handful of friends who as 'foreigners' were fleeing the danger and insecurity which threatened 'Europeans and Jews'.
The husband of my maternal aunt was a jeweller: one more shopkeeper whose business had been wrecked by vandals. I remember going with him to search in the debris and the ashes for any gems left behind by the pillagers.
Farouk was forced to abdicate in favour of his son, Ahmad Fouad, and went into exile in Italy. General Neguib, popular, wise and moderate, then came to the fore, but power was in the hands of Nasser. I remember the great hopes aroused by Neguib when he visited the synagogue in Cairo on Yom Kippur. The government Number One coming to reassure us and recall we too were Egypt's children led to euphoria. Neguib was sincere, but there was also Nasser.
Nasser was an unknown quantity for the Jews. His was the only battalion defending Falluja during the 1948 war; he was a hero to his comrades. Anti-western, fiercely antisemitic - I quote his statements in my book, L'exode oublie, to prove it. At first Nasser stood in the shadows, then once securely in power he got rid of Neguib.
I remember lots of children dressed up as Neguib during that Purim following the overthrow of Farouk. I remember his being put under house arrest, reviving our fears.
I remember the killing of Mr Carmona, our upstairs neighbour. He had 'slipped' under the tramway lines. He was in agony for several days and my mother was one of the few to visit him.
We 'sold' our furniture for a few Egyptian pounds. We were not allowed to take out more than one jewel per person. Mother's sister-in-law, a seamstress, sewed a few jewels - we were not rich - into dresses.
We had to leave everything behind - trinkets, carpets, even our photos. We were not permitted to take photos out in 1956. In 1957, it seems, things changed. The only photos that I was able to collect (a dozen at most, from my parents) were copies sent to the family in Australia or in the Congo.
A customs officer confiscated my stamp collection which I had insisted on taking with me in spite of my mother's objections. The suitcases were opened and the contents strewn on the floor. Yet we were lucky - a brave officer friend of Father's had come with us. My parents' relatives, some of them senior civil servants, were suddenly suffering from amnesia. We had been conveniently forgotten.