Best of Old and in the Way- World and Family History Collide

This post has been re-published once before, but it’s one of my favorites. The story of my mother and her escape from Nassar’s Egypt in the late 1950′s. And I think my days suck sometime. It’s all perspective….

A Little Family History

Cairo Egypt, November 1934. The only daughter and the youngest of four kids, my mother was born at her home in Cairo’s Jewish Quarter. Cairo of 1934 was a cosmopolitan place, at the crossroads of the Middle East and Europe, the city was home to British and French nationals, there was a thriving Jewish community here, estimated to be at 75,000 people. It is one of the world’s oldest Jewish communities and, with Alexandria; it is a center of Jewish learning and life in the Middle East. Cairo is also home to several Christian communities, including the native church of Egypt, the Coptic Church.  The Coptic Church is one of the oldest Christian churches in the world, and interestingly the liturgical language of the Coptic Church is directly descended from the last native Egyptian language, it dates to earliest days of the Christianity, predating Arabic to the time of the Ptolemy’s, it is the last language to have been written in hieroglyphics. In the 600′s invasions from the Arabian Peninsula ushered in the Islamic era and brought Arabic and Islam to Egypt, and Christians and Jews became second class citizens, living under Caliphates.

Egypt was ruled by an broken succession of foreign rulers from the last Pharaohs like Cleopatra, who were actually Greeks, through the Turkish Malamutes, the Ottomans and finally the British and the French.

At the time Mom was born King Farouk, a British puppet and the last of the Muhammad Ali dynasty, which had ruled Egypt for 10 generations. The British supported with what amounted to an occupation force in order to look after their interests in the Suez Canal. Farouk lived an extravagant lifestyle at Egypt’s expense, palaces, estates and land, expensive European shopping trips, and a string of mistresses, and for the British, French and the other foreigners living in Egypt at the time, he looked a lot like the British Royal family and life for them was good. For the Arab public, he was despised. Vaguely familiar eh? History repeats itself, over and over and over again.

Cairo in the 1930’s, according family sources, was a beautiful city, it’s teeming slums wouldn’t come until Egypt’s rapid urbanization of the 60′s and later. My mother’s family was not native to Egypt. Her father was from an old southern French family who had settled in Tunisia in the 1700′s, Tunis at the time was also a center of Jewish life in the Arab world. Her mother was from Beirut, descended from a family of Russian Jews who immigrated to Palestine at the end of the 1800′s and had wound up settling in French Beirut. Not coincidentally, my father’s mother was from the same family line and also from Beirut. His father however was from Damascus, once the oldest Jewish community in the world, dating back the second Temple period. Again, another story.

My mother’s father was successful merchant in Egypt. The family had a general store and sold goods to the British and the French contractors who were in Egypt working for the Suez Canal Company. They would spend the height of the Egyptian summer on the Mediterranean at a house in Ras El Bar, where the Nile flows into the sea. They would take day trips to Alexandria to see the sights. Occasionally they would take the coastal train from Port Said to Beirut to visit with the family in Lebanon, passing through Palestine on the way north, a route that hasn’t been used since 1949. In Lebanon they were fond of the beach and enjoyed making trips to the Shouf Mountains to escape the heat of the summer.

They lived a pretty good life in Egypt the 30′s. Hollywood movies, family time, vacations in the Nile Delta. This all came to an end with the onset of World War II and my grandfather’s death in 1947. The war brought some economic hardship, which meant Mom’s three older brothers would have to start working. Her oldest brother entered into banking and supported the family as best he could. His young wife was also from Beirut and he the split their time between Lebanon and Egypt. Her youngest brother was a competitive swimmer who swam long distance, open water events around the Middle East and wasn’t around much. Her middle brother took a job working for the British Army in Egypt. At the time, the best schools in Egypt were either French or British; you had your choice of a British style boarding school, mostly for boys, or a Catholic French school where you could be taught by Nuns. Moms’ mother chose the latter for her.

In the late 30′s Jews from Europe were starting to arrive Cairo as refugees with stories of Nazism and the persecution that was going on in Germany and it’s occupied countries. In 1939 Libya was an Italian colony, and when Mussolini joined the Axis powers, the Italians began to move out of Tripoli in their bid to expand Il Duce’s empire. Italian troops in Africa were woefully under matched in equipment and experience compared to their British foes and the war did not go well for the Fascist Italian forces. Hitler was determined on seizing the Suez Canal and on opening a second front in the war, in order to distract the British war effort. In early 1941 to support the failing Italians, the Afrika Corps under General Erwin Rommel landed in Tunisia and began to push across North Africa towards the British and their aCanal in Egypt. Cairo’s Jews were in a panic with daily reports of the advances by the Germans. In Egypt proper, behind British lines there were acts of sabotage against the British and foreign targets around Egypt, perpetrated by the Muslim Brotherhood.

The Brotherhood was established in Egypt in 1928 by teachers and workers on the canal as a reaction to Westernization of Egypt and what they perceived as an abandonment of fundamental Islam. By 1938 there were 200,000 members of the Brotherhood in Egypt and they were perceived as a threat by the British, a fifth column should the Germans make it to Cairo. My uncle, Mom’s middle brother was recruited by the British Army to infiltrate the Brotherhood in Cairo. Fluent in street vernacular Arabic, he looked like a typical Fedayeen (Egyptian) and was able to successfully join a cell in Cairo. Obviously his contact with his family ended during this time.

My mother was sent to a camp for Jewish children in Alexandria, the camp was sponsored by Hashomar Ha’Tzaier a Zionist organization with youth camps in Europe and the Middle East who were training the kids in farming and scouting in order for them to one day move to Palestine and help build the future Jewish State. Both of the circumstances would come into play later.

By the summer of 1942 the Germans had advanced to within 70 miles of Alexandria to a small town on the Mediterranean coast, El Alamein, a name that would go down in military history. In July of that that year the British and Commonwealth troops stopped the Nazi’s for the first time in the war. El Alamein was the high water mark of the Axis. The first battle, that July, was fought to a stalemate and lines were drawn, literally in the sand. In October of that year the British under General Montgomery had amassed over 200,000 troops and 1100 tanks, the famous Eighth Army. By late September they were poised and ready to counter attack the Germans and drive them back to Libya. The Germans, after 3 months in desert with extended supply lines and fuel shortages were vulnerable.

On the night of October 25, 1942 at 9:40 almost 900 artillery pieces of the Commonwealth opened fire at the same time. The plan was to have their shells fall all over the 40 mile front to confuse the Germans. After the initial bombardment they were to focus in on specific targets, minefields and positions for the actual infantry and armor attack. The plan was brilliant and the Afrika Corps was crushed at El Alamein By the November the Germans and the Italians were in full retreat and the threat to Egypt was over.

My Grandmother recalled to me on several occasions the near constant vigils of prayer and fasting that were going on the Egyptian Jewish community during the battle. For her Montgomery was a savior, a modern Mordicahi who delivered her personally from Hitler. For the family, after the battle the war became less of an issue. Cairo was bombed several times by German and Italian planes, these raids stopped. The fear that the Brotherhood would link up with the Germans became less of a concern, however since Mom’s brother had been placed in an active cell, he was a valuable asset for the British and was left in place.

After the war ended, life in Egypt was never the same for the family. My grandfather passed away in 1947, this brought more economic challenges to my 10-year-old mother and her mother. Politically, the British were now viewed as an occupying force in Egypt. The Canal became a symbol of Western imperialism was seen as insult to Egyptian nationalism, King Farouk was an agent of the west. In Palestine meanwhile the Yishuv, the Jewish quasi-government who, during the war had cooperated with the British and supported the war effort against the Nazi’s were now in rebellion, terrorizing British interests in the country. Millions of displaced persons were in camps across Europe, many the survivors from concentration camps now found themselves in new displaced persons camps. The Jewish Agency was attempting to bring them into Palestine. The Arabs in Palestine petitioned the British to stop what they saw as illegal immigration. This influx of a million Jewish refugees would dramatically upset the balance of power in Palestine and the Arabs were going to do everything in their power to stop it.

The British, caught in the middle, were doing their part to see that open warfare didn’t break out between Jewish and Arab Palestinians, they completely halted Jewish immigration to the country in 1946 in a reaction to Arab demands. For the Jews in the country this was a declaration of war. Several Jewish militias began to attack the British troops with bombings and assassination, in the meantime the Brotherhood had setup in the Arab villages in Palestine and began attacking the Jewish settlements, the Jews would attack Arab villages and the entire region was a powder keg about the explode. This violence spilled over into Egypt where the Brotherhood engaged in attacks on Jewish and British institutions and businesses. By 1948 the British wanted out of the whole affair.

With the establishment of the State of Israel in 1949, the situation for Jews in Egypt began to deteriorate. Attacks against Jews in Cairo became common, riots broke out, Egyptians attacked the Jewish neighborhood in Cairo breaking shop windows and beating people. Because of his involvement with British Intelligence her brother had to leave Egypt pronto. He was evacuated with most of the British Army and wound up moving to London and doing cold war assignments in Europe. Mom’s oldest brother departed Egypt for Beirut with his wife about this time leaving my Mother and her Mother in Cairo. The situation continued to get worse. By the early 50′s a new nationalism was taking hold in Egypt, the British were despised for their role in the creation of the State of Israel and for their control of the Suez Canal.

In 1951 after an incident with British Troops at the canal that left 41 Egyptians dead anti-Western riots engulfed the country. In Cairo British and French interests were attacked as were the last remaining Jewish Department stores and companies in Egypt. In July of 1952 officers in the Egyptian military staged a coup which overthrew King Farouk. General Gammal Abdul Nasser was the new president of Egypt. Under the banner of Egyptian nationalism Nasser sized control of the Suez Canal and broke off all treaties with the British.

In 1956 French, British and Israeli forces attacked Egypt and retook the canal. For my mother, this was a double whammy. At the time Mom held a French passport, she also had attended a Zionist youth camp as kid. A few weeks after the end of the hostilities, Egypt was again engulfed in riots. The French embassy in Cairo was burned and in a show of Pan-Arab nationalism at the same time the newly independent country of Tunisia opened their embassy in Cairo. .

A few weeks after the Suez crisis, my mother left the apartment and headed to work at the department store where she was a clerk. As she arrived at the store, she saw her boss talking to some unknown men. As she made eye contact with the boss, he very subtly nodded at her, the message, “don’t stop”. As she walked passed she pretended to be another customer. When she left the store she called home from a payphone to check on her mother. They didn’t have a phone in her apartment so she had to call the neighbor. According to her neighbor, a Coptic woman, there had been men at the apartment looking for her, she had been identified as a French Zionist and there was a warrant for her arrest. Egypt was rounding up Jews at this time for deportation, Mom was on their list.

Mom asked the neighbor to tell her Mother to take a one bag, all the money they had and to meet her at the Cairo train station at a certain time. Hanging up she tore up her identity papers and her French passport. She headed for the new Tunisian Embassy in Cairo, on the grounds of what was the French Embassy. Crowds of people were celebrating the destruction of the French and British Embassies, the chaos would work in her favor. Pulling herself together she went into the Tunisian embassy and asked for a passport. She told the new officials that her father was a Tunisian, (true) and that she and her mother considered themselves to be Tunisian Citizens (untrue). Mom is fluent in Arabic of course and must have made up a great story. Her passport was issued, as well as one for her infirm Mother.

Later that day she met her Mother at the train station and with the little bit of money they had in with them they bought two tickets to Alexandria. Once they arrived in Alexandria they were able to find a ferry to Beirut and, with only the items they had with them, a suitcase and a Persian rug, they boarded the boat and left Egypt for the last time, leaving everything behind them.

Beirut in 1956 was literally the Paris of the Middle East. The country was stable then, the city was known for its boulevards, high standard of living and tolerance. In Beirut she was able to recover her French passport, live with family and get her affairs in order. She quickly moved to Paris, where for several years she was a phone operator. She made a trip to Texas where she went to meet her second cousin, my other Grandmother. This was supposed to be a quick trip, passing through to Montreal where her three brothers had settled. Plans change however, she arrived on a Monday, met my father that afternoon and got married that Friday. I was adopted a few years later and so it goes. I still have a hard time imagining my 35 year old father, after weekend starting Monday single no girlfriends and being married by that Friday.

The rest as they say.. is history.

2 Comments

Filed under Life

2 responses to “Best of Old and in the Way- World and Family History Collide

  1. Wow! What a story! I love it. Our lives are so protected and easy here. I am always amazed at what others have done in order for us to have such a luxury. Thanks for sharing your family.

  2. Lew

    Thanks Sank for sharing.

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