A cousin of mine living in Cassis (France) recently sent me a list of the present owners of lavish mansions that had to be abandoned in Cairo, by their wealthy Jewish owners after 1948 and 1956.
I felt I had to write and explain my point of view regarding what was intrinsically lost as a result of our Second Exodus. My thoughts on this subject are not in any way meant to trivialize the loss of Jewish wealth and valuable possessions that the Egyptians looted.
The above financial successes by Jewish entrepreneurs represented the acumen, the hard, untiring work, and the ambition to excel at all cost that are part and parcel of our Jewish core. It is my belief there was another type of loss that resulted from our Second Exodus. A loss that could never be replicated, and like Atlantis, irretrievably disappeared for ever.
When I was a child in Alexandria, and without my parents' knowledge, I was in the habit of adventuring all over the city and off the beaten track. I was full of curiosity and on one of these adventurous rambles I discovered an opening in the thick bushes of a hedge in a park. I crept through and found myself in "Wonderland". I had discovered the banks of the Mahmoudieh Canal.
On our way by car to Mariout and/or to the desert road leading to Cairo, my parents and I never stopped to watch the fascinating life of the fellaheen of the Canal. We just drove across the rickety old bridge to the other bank. This led to the marshes of Lake Mariout (Mareotis) where fishermen in their robe the gallabiyah, and their knitted prayer cap the ta'eyah, would deftly pole their flat bottom skiffs between the rushes, and spear the fish they needed to sell.
Similar scenes have been depicted on the walls of ancient Egyptian monuments and tombs.
The reeds spread fewer and far between giving way to breathtaking gossamer tinted salt marshes that stretched as far as the eye could see. The salt marshes gradually changed to a sandy, crusty, low undulating landscape, where wild onions grew in profusion, their blossoms filling the air with a sweet scent. Dozens of busy scurrying little desert hedgehogs nuzzled around feasting on snails, worms, grubs and snakes.
When we slowed down to look at the view or walked around picking wild flowers, Bedouin children appeared from out of nowhere. They ran barefoot across the dunes, on the other side of the road, across from the salt marshes, until they reached our car. They had stunning opalescent gentle eyes of gazelles, contoured by black kohl, and wore a medley of shabby but colourful clothes of different lengths, one over the other and head scarves tied behind their frizzy sun-bleached hair. “Beid! beid” they would call out to us ”eggs! eggs” They carried wire baskets full of newly laid very large chicken eggs for sale.
These eggs were so fresh that my dad used to hold them up to the light of the sun to show me how transparent the shells were. We always bought several dozens as they were a delicacy, and we never forgot to bring some back for my grandparents as well.
Other Bedouin children also had fresh dates, figs, chickens, donkeys, tiny lambs baaing loudly, as well as young goats for sale. The Bedouins carried the latter straddled over their shoulder. They were such a healthy looking happy giggling bunch, and although they were totally bereft of any material possessions, their beaming faces just glowed with the joy of having been able to sell us their eggs for a couple of piasters.
They peered through the car windows, marvelling at what was inside, and after waving goodbye and wishing us Rabbennou Khalliki.”May God protect you” they disappeared as quickly as they had appeared, running like graceful does across the sand towards their encampment behind the mysterious dunes.
The desert progressively took over and we reached the very dangerous winding strategic road that British army engineers had designed during WW2. Tanker-lorries and other commercial vehicles would now drive at catastrophic speed which frequently resulted in deadly crashes. We used to call this twisting road “The Road of Death”…”La Route de la Mort”!
This accident prone road first led us to the Rest House, a thick stone walled building, with a roof, and wide openings in the side walls from which we beheld the magnificent view of the desert, and its pearly white sand dunes. There was a small interior kitchen, where a polite and jolly smiling Egyptian cook made us Turkish coffee, sandwiches, crisp buttery croissants and pastry, and served us cold drinks.
A gentle dry cooling desert breeze swept through the shaded eating area with its tables and chairs. One could hear the sounds of the desert wind, and the distant howls of jackals. There was no electricity, and large blocks of precious ice were delivered by lorries, and stored in huge ice-boxes.
I recall taking photographs with my Kodak box camera of my parents “hamming it up”, astride corroded and rusty carcasses of WW2 tanks and lorries that were partly buried in the white crystal coloured sand next to the Rest House.
After a needed rest, we continued on our way through the desert, until we delighted in the distant sight of the pyramids. This meant that we had nearly reached our destination: Cairo.
There was thus no incentive for my parents to stop by the Mahmoudieh Canal when I was with them, for we had a long way to go once we were in the car.
As for me, when I was left to my own devices - my parents believing I was safe and sound at the Alexandria Sporting club with my friends, I would naively go off on my own, on my exciting and foolhardy adventures of discovery. I would find my way back to the Mahmoudiyeh Canal, to the hustle and bustle of native Arab everyday life.
I marvelled at the sight of unshod fellaheen on each bank of the canal strenuously tugging barges with ropes tethered round their bodies and how they would pull in unison to the beat and rhythm of their monotonous refrain.
Sitting on a dung coloured boulder, I would gaze enthralled, wondering at a way of life which was so different from my own. No one ever bothered me and no one ever tried to harm me... I felt blessed indeed to have discovered a part of the real Egypt.
Several years' later, during weekends, my mum would drive me to the banks of this same canal. I would sit on the same dung coloured boulder and sketch the everyday goings on of the fellaheen.
I drew the barber squatting on the ground in the ant and cockroach infested dirt facing his client who was also sitting in the dirt; and the barber shaved his client's beard with a lethal looking sharply honed shaving knife. He twisted his client's head this way and that in order to achieve perfection.
I watched the slender Arab women in long colourful robes walking barefoot, and carrying staggeringly heavy bales on their heads, one arm flung high holding on to their load, their hand protecting and steadying their precious bundles, or earthenware ollas filled with water, and treading with such regal gait.
I sketched them with delight, as I did the small boys their rheumy eyes attracting clusters of flies. Stick in hand the barefoot children would whack and urge their heavily laden donkeys to go faster. I drew the donkey carts, and the camels calmly and unhurriedly plodding along, hessian sacks full of corn flung on either side of their hump.
I had sketched, drawn and painted hundreds of such occurrences.
And then one fatal day, as I tried to venture out of the car excited at the prospect of sketching some more, we found ourselves suddenly surrounded and attacked by a blood thirsty looking mob - the same gentle smiling fellaheen had turned into unrecognizable bellowing murderous thugs; their faces deformed and twisted with maniacal rage and tangible hatred; their hasheesh induced bloodshot eyes balefully glaring at us.
They started pushing and swaying the car trying to overturn it. They banged on the windows, trying to smash them, hoping to grab hold of us and throttle us to death! Or worse!!
"YAHOODI, SAHYOONI! BANNAT EL KELLAAB!" they shrieked. ("Jews, Zionists, Daughters of dogs" - dogs were considered the lowest of the low after the pig).
My mum screamed at me to close the car window!
I have no idea how she managed to safely and calmly manoeuver the car from amidst this ragged, evil looking, and hate-filled rabble. But she did, and without a mishap. My mum was an amazing lady!!! We sped away, the Arabs chasing after us, howling at us like hungry wolves, and pelting the car with rocks.
My mum and I were very shaken, and never returned to the area again. In fact we avoided going to any Arab clustered area until our penniless departure in 1956 to the freedom and safety of England.
On another of my childhood meanderings (again without my parents' knowledge) I discovered an Aladdin’s cave ...a sort of walled souk with dozens of shops one next to the other selling antique furniture, heavily gilded baroque frames, as well as solid gold and silver intricately worked jewellery studded with rubies, diamonds, and turquoises.
Each shop seemed to specialize in something different. They catered to British, French, and Italian tourists who after a healthy and involved amount of haggling bought their wares.
I watched gallabeyah clad artists and artisans turning and hammering the most beautiful motifs on multi-coloured hand-made leather ottomans and brass trays. Others designed Islamic patterns on wooden boxes and plates, and delicately inlaid them with detailed carefully cut pieces of mother of pearl, gold and silver.
Still others would pedal on a crude pottery wheel with their bare and calloused foot which was white with encrusted clay. They fashioned clay pots and ceramic plates with their deft hands. These items were then fired in primitive kilns after they were beautifully decorated with verses from the Koran.
I believe now that this was called the Attarine district.
On another childhood adventure, I would run as fast as I could through very dark and eerily narrow, dirty, smelly, winding lanes, with walls on either side stained and streaked with urine - the public toilets of Arabs. These lanes led to a lively bustling sunny street.
Hole-in-the-wall shops galore, inside slender tenement buildings one next to the other. There was no electricity, and the only light inside the shops came from outdoors. To reach the interior of the shops I had to climb a few stone steps.
Some of the friendly, warm hearted yet impatient and loud spoken shopkeepers sold thread, wool, buttons, fabrics, table cloths, clothes. Others sold pots and pans and kitchen paraphernalia, and still others sold spices and herbs. The shelves were groaning and collapsing with items for sale. The floors too were so filled with saleable bric a brac that customers could hardly move.
To my amazement I discovered the people in that street were all JEWISH! Their world was so different from my own, and they all seemed very happy, busily getting on with their daily life.
I returned several times to this lively and obviously very poor Jewish enclave, sitting on one of the stone steps, watching and enjoying the particular character of this ghetto; an atmosphere that was so alien to my way of life. I realized that I had inadvertently come across the Alexandrian equivalent of Israel Zangwill's series of books "Children of the Ghetto" set in London's East End.
I walked eastwards, and arrived at the Kosher market in Camp de Cesar, but avoided the street where the Shochet plied his trade. I had been there once before, with my beloved nonno Anzarut, my grandfather.
He had been asked by my nonna Caroline to buy chickens for Shabbat. At first he refused to take me with him, but then gave in to my entreaties.
My grandfather pointed with his silver knobbed walking stick and selected two chickens in a cage. Before I knew it the Shochet quickly and painlessly killed the chickens. I was in for a shock however. Although the birds were dead, their feathered bodies continued to spasmodically writhe and flutter at our feet on the ground.
Most Jews of the Second Exodus who only remember the financial and material wealth they left behind, have settled in countries that were good to them, and assured them of amazing and rewarding future prospects for their descendants.
Many have, to some extent, been able to regain the financial status and material comforts that were stolen by the Egyptians. Others, thanks to their amazing entrepreneurial talents, skills and hard work amassed considerably more wealth in the countries that had welcomed them, and that they now called home.
However, in my humble opinion, the real values that were forever lost were intrinsic ones - those residing in a way of life far removed from luxury and expensive villas.
The real loss was how the gentle fellaheen of the Mahmoudieh Canal were successfully brainwashed by the fanatic Ihwan El Muslimeen (the Muslim Brotherhood) who were very active in those parts, and who are 100% to blame for turning the philosophical, kindly though poverty stricken peasants of yore into murderous racist thugs.
The real loss is realizing that the busy active Jewish ghetto teeming with vitality has disappeared into the mists of time.
The real loss is that the pristine Garden of Eden that was once Lake Mariout is no more.
Pollution, "human improvements", junky construction, army camps, have transformed this amazing bird sanctuary and nature reserve into a garbage dump, no different from the rest of Alexandria, the city that was once glorified as The Pearl Of The Mediterranean.
The real loss lies in that the Attarine Area which before 1948 and 1956 specialized in selling ornate and typical Muslim artisan handiwork and works of art, after our departure, specialized in the fraudulent sale of looted valuables from our Jewish homes that we were all forced to abandon.
Interestingly, as a result of the constant political turmoil that developed after we left, this culminated in overpopulation, dire poverty, rampant misery, destruction and riots, and possibly may well result in an eventual civil war.
At the time of writing, governments all over the world have warned their citizens not to travel to Egypt, and I have been informed that as a result, the Attarine area is totally devoid of tourists. The remaining valuables stolen from the expelled well-to-do Jewish population are sitting on the display shelves and counters gathering dust!
Beaconsfield 9th August 2013
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