A Biographical Essay
by Albert Bivas

I was born in November 29 at the French hospital in Cairo, Egypt. My father, who was born also in Cairo, Egypt, was a Stockbroker, a member of the Cairo Stock Exchange, Agent Change at the Bourse des Valeures du Caire as we call it in french. He was a member of the executive committee of the Syndicats des Agents de Changes and of the Commission de la Bourse. He also was a member commodity broker of the Alexandria Cotton Commodities Exchange, la Bourse des contracts de Cotton d’Alexandrie as we call it in french. My mother was born in Jerusalem, Palestine. Her family had made Aliyah (immigrated) to Palestine since well over 500 years. They came mostly from Spain, some of them from Vilna and others had come in through Bulgaria. I feel privileged that through her I am a descendant from numerous Rishonim LeZion (Chief Rabbis of Palestine also known as Hakham Bashi). I also descend from the Vilna Ga’on, which makes me part Ashkenazi though I am otherwise Sepharadi through both my father’s and my mother’s sides. I am also very proud and enjoyed it very much that as a child, with my father I had the opportunity to meet many personalities in Egypt, of the Jewish community and others. I knew them more than most other children would have the opportunity to do. In addition to his successful and highly regarded career, my father was also one of the 10 top leaders of the Jewish community of Egypt. That is what gave me these opportunities. I had met many times the then Chief Rabbi of Egypt, Grand Rabbin Haiim Nahoum Effendi, as he was officially called (Effendi is an honorific title given to very few people we want to honor, a title they earn). Rabbi Nahoum was the former Grand Rabbi of the Ottoman Empire, the Hakham Bashi. I remember when we all sat in the study of the main synagog of Cairo (the grand synagogue Shaar Hashamaiim located at Adly Street) around this great Rabbi with my father and other leaders of the community. Sometimes women were included and my mother and my grand-mother were also present. To my grand-mother, it probably was not odd or special that she would sit with, talk to and listen to the Grand Rabbi of Egypt since she was the daughter and grand-daughter of Rishonim leZion of Eretz Hakadosh, the Holy Land, Palestine. Some of the occasions we sat thus were during the break of Yom Kippur, adults were relaxing a little from the tiredness of the fast and the effort to pray in the proper form. The Rabbi was telling us stories of his life in the many countries and cities where he had been and about all the people he had met, important persons and ordinary ones. I only regret that I did not retain any of these stories and that I probably was unable to learn from them.

I remember on another occasion, one day when I was probably less than ten years old, my mother took me to visit the Bourse des valeures du Caire. She took me to the entrance of the Stock Exchange and from there on a gentleman guided me farther inside. Women were not allowed on the floor of the Stock Exchange. I surveyed the entire scene on the floor from my place outside its perimeter. I was wearing around my waist a belt with a toy gun as many boys of my age do. This gentleman suggested that I shoot a round, playfully, I suppose. I did not do it. I did not move either. By my silence, I suppose I had really refused to do it. Perhaps I am peaceful. Perhaps I am not aggressive. I think I was also impressed and today I would like to think that it was by respect for this institution. At the age of 12, during summer school vacation, I would go to the floor of the Stock exchange to help my father and my uncle, I would do some easy tasks such as answering the telephone, etc. I loved and attempted to make myself useful and to take my task and myself seriously.

I think I still remember the structure of these buildings. The Cairo Stock Exchange was a little like the New York Stock Exchange, though smaller. It had a grand, beautiful and majestic entrance at the corner of the building at the intersection of the two adjacent streets. The Alexandria Cotton Commodities Exchange was located in the same building with the Alexandria Stock Exchange. I had the opportunity to have gone to these exchanges with my father. It was a little similar to the Paris Bourse, a grand building with a large terrace in the front surrounded by pillars and facing a large place not unlike the Place de la Bourse in Paris. In all the bourses in Egypt, brokers traded in either Arabic or French depending on their own rules and decisions.

Sometimes I imagine the home of my Great-grand-Parents in Jerusalem, Palestine. I have not really known it. That was the home where my grand-mother was raised and my mother was born. They told me that it was a big house, it had two large apartments and a spacious synagogue. I may have been there only very few times, before the creation of the state of Israel. I was too young to remember. After the creation of the State of Israel no one from the Arab countries were allowed to go in that new state. My mother told me that when we visited in Palestine, we stayed at the home of her cousin Mercada and that this cousin liked to take care of me. I may have met many of our relatives then, grand-aunts, grand-uncles, cousins and my great-grand-mother of whom I was told that she had lived a long life, but I do not remember anything of all these. What I know are from what others have told me and from what I heard others talk among them. My mother taught me much of it and I heard much also from my grand-mother as she spoke with my mother or others about the family. Later, when I grew up, I researched and learnt through books and contacts with members of the family, specifically in Jerusalem, but elsewhere too, whether I knew them, remembered them or not.

I sometimes think what would have been if circumstances had been different, more in our favor. What if there had not have been a State of Israel? What if the Ottoman Empire had survived? What if we could have safeguarded normal relations between Arabs and Jews? What if the French and British had continued to be accommodating in the region? What if the United States had not meddled in the region? Indeed what if President Dwight D. Eisenhower and Secretary of States John Foster Dulles had not muddled with Prime Minister Nikita Krushchev of the Soviet Republics, dealt wisely with President Gamal Abdel Nasser of Egypt and honorably with Great Britain and France? Perhaps we could have continued to travel in the Middle East from countries to countries, at will and at peace. I could have traveled more often into Palestine, know this land, know my relatives better and normally. Perhaps we could have stayed there, in Egypt, in peace, in our home. Perhaps we could have all tried our best in our countries, our region as anyone else does in their countries, in their regions. My experience, our experience, would have been different. I, we, might have not incurred all the inconveniences, the hurts and all other negatives occurrences that we did experience when we left our land(s) and our homes and took refuge in foreign land(s), with foreigners who can be so different from us, who can be unable or difficult to understand us and even if they think that they can or they think that they try, they sometimes really do not. Perhaps I could have been now a stockbroker in my country of birth, an Agent de Change at the Bourse des valeures du Caire, perhaps I could have been a Commodity Broker at la Bourse des Contracts de Cotton d’Alexandrie. Perhaps I would have enhanced and enlarged what my father had built before me. Is not the dream of many young persons in our type of societies? Is not likewise the hope of their father and their mother? Is not the normal way? Of Course I could have failed too, I could not have measured up to the challenge, I could have been unable to do it or I may not have wanted to follow the same line and I could have chosen a different one. Unfortunately we were deprived of our choice, whether it be one way or others, because human guile or other human imperfection has derailed the path drawn by G-o-d.

Albert Bivas
Published in Los Muestros, no. 31 June 1998