I have been often asked, specially in the United States of America, since I live here for so many years: “How come do I speak French since I come from Egypt?” I then explain that they do speak French in Egypt and that this country was for most practical purposes a bilingual, French and Arabic speaking country. People seem surprised that they speak French in Egypt. I explain to them that even though Egypt had been a British protectorate, France was there long before the British, since perhaps Napoleon Bonaparte the 1st. They introduced the French language, education and culture. Indeed in most of the country, specially its big cities (Cairo and Alexandria which I am most familiar because I lived in these cities) but in other cities too, they speak both of these languages. They spoke mostly English only in the area of the Suez Canal where the British troops were stationed during its occupation.
Indeed one could mostly equally get by with only one of these two languages, French or Arabic.
In the cities’ streets all signs were written in both French and Arabic: The streets’ names, the stores’ and offices’ signs such as their names, their types of trade or commerce, what they sell or services they offer, all advertisings, the prices on the merchandises, any list prices such as of menus in restaurants, prices of tickets in movies cinema and theatres etc… Indeed business were transacted in either French or Arabic equally, naturally and in complete ease in both languages. Official business letterheads were printed in both French and Arabic. The letters themselves were either written in French or Arabic according to the fluency of both the sender and the receiver.
The national local press: newspapers, magazines etc…were all in French or Arabic, the radio transmitted in both languages.
Imported foreign languages movies, other than French or Arabic, were subtitled in both Arabic and French for the benefits of those who did not know the original languages of the movies. We had plays in French, either by local actors and perhaps even local play writes, or by groups from outside Egypt, notably from France such as “La troupe de la Comedie Francaise” or others. I remember that once when I was a child we went to see “the ballet of Serge Lifard” at the Opera of Cairo. The Opera of Cairo was itself a replica of the Opera Garnier of Paris. Indeed much of Cairo seems to have been copied from Paris in architecture, landscape etc…
We had cabarets and Music Halls built to copy those in France where we would receive, welcome, listen, observe and appreciate the varied talents of singers, actors, comedians etc… I remember that when I was a child we went once to one of these places “the Auberge des Piramides” to see a then famous French singer named Dario Moreno. Other stars that came in too were: Charles Aznavour, Gilbert Becaud, George Ulmer and of course the famous Maurice Chevalier, Josephine Baker and others of no lesser celebrity and talent.
We had also, naturally, our own very outstanding national Egyptian entertainment industry which to put it quite modestly was second to none. Our movies industry was the best developed in our corner of the world and very much up to par with the best of the Western movie industries: Paris, France, Italian cinema and Hollywood USA. We had the actor-comedian Yismaiin Yassin who was the equal of Charley chaplain, Fernandel of France, Toto of Italy and others. We had Shekuku, an actor-dancer-comedian who was the equal of Fred Astaire, Gene Kelly, Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and others. I want to mention also some of our great singers such as Abdel Luab, Farid El-Atrash and perhaps the greatest of all, the great diva of Egypt Omo Kalsoom “our Edith Piaf, Marlena Dietrich, Ethel Merman and all others songstresses put together. I shall also mention the name of at least one more legend of interest to our community: Leila Murad.
The Jews in Egypt spoke mostly either French or Arabic. However those who spoke only French learned to speak also Arabic and those who spoke only Arabic also learned to speak French, in both cases by necessity, the two languages were often complementary.
Most of the Jews went to French schools. I was going to the “Lycee Francais du Caire,” a “Mission Laiique” [non-denominational, non- religious schools). When we lived in Alexandria I went to the “Lycee Francais d’Alexandrie.” France had many such “Lycees” schools in cities in Egypt as throughout the Middle East and the world. We had also a “Lycee Francais” at Heliopolis, a suburb of Cairo, as well as at Zamalek, Daher and Meadi other suburbs of Cairo.
We had also Jewish schools that taught in French, such as “l’Ecole Btesh” in Cairo, or “l’ecole de l’Union Juive” in Alexandria etc… Also the Jewish Community ran its own schools.
We also had the schools of the Alliance: “Les ecoles de l’Alliance Francaise” and “les ecoles de l’Alliance Israelite Universelle.” The latter ones were specifically for the pupils of the Jewish faith were they could learn the French curricular as well as Jewish religious education.
We also had the missionary Christian/Catholics schools. Non-Christians parents also would send their children to these schools. Girls would go to “l’Ecole des Soeurs” (the sisters’schools run by nuns) such as “l’Ecole des Franciscaines” in Cairo, and boys would go to “le College des Freres” (the brothers’ schools) such as “le college des Freres de LaSalle” in Cairo and “le College Saint Marc” in Alexandria run by priests etc. Non-Christians pupils were generally exempted at this schools to attend religious studies and worships which were not their own and conversions into Christianity were apparently not encouraged though it seems that they were some instances when a couple of non-Christians students converted to Christianity and joined the convent as nuns. As I write this, it reminds me and I like to note that the current Cardinal of Paris was not born Catholic, he converted also, and now even has a good chance of becoming Pope.
We had also other schools that taught in different languages. There were the Greek schools for the Greek nationals who chose to do so, some chose to go to different schools such as those that taught in French. There was a great community of Greeks in Alexandria, perhaps since they had started this city (at the time of Alexander The Great).
There were also similarly the Italian schools for the Italian nationals etc… We had also English schools such as the English Mission and Victoria College. Some Jewish parents chose to send their children to one of these schools instead of to the French ones for varied reasons: Perhaps they preferred one system of education as opposed the other ones. Also some would send their children to Italian or British schools because they somehow or other were nationals of these countries. However whatever schools they attended, they all knew French and Arabic and even spoke at least one of them at home.
As I mentioned earlier, I reiterate, most Jews in Egypt spoke either French, Arabic or both, even those who were nationals of a country such as Greece, Italy or Great Britain where the language is different and whether their children attended these schools or opted for French schools.
Egypt was a very cosmopolitan country. It had many nationals living in it, each speaking its own language and learning in their own schools. We learned each other languages in addition to the most common of them (French and Arabic) to communicate between each other in all of our daily lives. It was very common that many people learnt and knew many languages. We learned at school a minimum of three languages: French, Arabic and at least one foreign language, which generally was English. Some learned Latin, though not as a current speaking language. Others learned German, Italian, Greek or Spanish as a first or sometimes second foreign language. We Jews learnt also Hebrew, generally at least a minimum for our Bar Mitzvah. We sometimes spoke many languages at home depending of the many origins of our family. Ashkenazim Jews from Russia and Eastern Europe spoke Yiddish. Sephardim spoke Spanish (Ladino as some calls it or also Espanol). Those that some calls the Mizrahi Jews (from the Orient or Arab countries) spoke Arabic frequently with some small difference depending from which Arab countries they originated (Egypt, Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen or others) and Turkish too.
Today Egypt is no longer a rich, beautiful and cosmopolitan country. As the world moved ahead chronologically to the 21st century, Egypt moved backward historically into the 19th century or much behind. People used to mention the city of Calcutta as an example of poverty, overpopulation, general backwardness and decadence. Unfortunately, Cairo most probably has replaced that city in that dubious distinction.
This current article is a second part of a previous attempt to describe former life
condition in Egypt and the Middle East. With G-d’s help I will be able to continue and doing it well. I also hope and would like to be joined by others in this effort because together we could do a much better job at it than I alone.
Published in Los Muestros #54, March 2004