With the situation in Egypt remaining fluid and complex, little attention has been paid to the country’s recent history and the effects of its last revolution. While Egypt was once home to thousands of Jews, including my family, they largely left the country in the wake of the 1952 revolution.
Growing up, I heard many stories about the Cairo that my father and his family had to leave behind. Theirs was a city of European private schools, cafés and a comfortable Jewish life. This all changed when Gamel Abdel Nasser overthrew the monarchy, and all foreigners, including Jews, were forced to leave. My family remained until 1963, in part because my father’s younger sister, Lucette, was born in 1956, but also in the hope that things would improve.
The years between the revolution and their departure were difficult ones. My father, Ezra Cesar, and his Jewish friends were picked on at school, and my grandfather, Leon, lost access to his stocks. During the 1952 revolution my father recalls having to keep the windows in their home shut, and in the ensuing years, walking fearfully outside, anxious not to be attacked. Remarkably, while many cinemas and hotels were burned to the ground, most of their synagogues remained standing, and still do.
Egyptian Jewish refugees around the world have been, like Egypt’s protesters, communicating via the Internet, wondering how this will further affect the country they left behind. For some perspective, I discussed the situation with my aunt, the noted writer Lucette Lagnado, whose best seller, “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit,” described our family’s modern-day exodus from Egypt. She is now working on a follow-up memoir.
How will your next book be affected by the revolution in Egypt?
My new book, “The Arrogant Years,” a companion memoir to “Sharkskin,” which will be out this fall, returns to the familiar territory of Cairo versus New York. Suddenly, the lessons of the 1952 revolution seem awfully relevant to what is going on.
You have a chapter in “Sharkskin” called “The Last Days of Tarboosh,” which deals with the fires and mayhem of the 1952 revolution. How did you feel when you heard about the recent violent incidents?
It brought back terrible memories, or rather inherited memories since I wasn’t born at the time of the revolution but I heard stories and I have read a great deal about the mayhem that swept the country back then, so I became very sad to see it happening again. In 1952 foreign outposts were the targets — any shops owned by Jews or Brits or foreigners were fair game as were the cinemas and hotels. Now the foreigners and Jews were gone so what did they destroy? Police stations and other shops; it was incredibly sad to watch actually.
Now of course the revolution of 2011 is on its face very different — generated by the youth of the country with a rush of idealism, which was by no means the case in 1952. But I think there is a Pollyanna-ish element to the way some of us have looked at the events of recent weeks. As with 1952 I worry that it will be hijacked by insidious forces, that there will be a repeat of history— a dictatorship or even a worse dictatorship than the one the Egyptians suffered through the last 60 years.
Your father is the protagonist of “Sharkskin.” Have you thought about how he would react to what is going on?
I am always wishing my father were around to counsel me on Egypt, especially in times such as these which are so utterly bewildering. I think that he would take his measure of the different men who are playing outspoken roles, and he may be a bit cynical. He personally lived through and witnessed the disaster that followed — the exodus of so many foreign communities and of the Jews of Egypt. That is what happened after the great Nasser revolution, so I would imagine he would have serious questions. There are no more Jews left in Egypt, or not many — only a handful, but there are lots of Christians and he would worry about them, I would think. I do.
How is the Egyptian Jewish expat community feeling?
I suspect that they share my melancholy. You watch these events and you feel so helpless all over again — as you did when you were caught up with them yourself, and you don’t know what to do. I am sure some of them are having nightmares, I am sure others are thinking I wish I were there, and still others are thinking it is so hopeless somehow and they are relieved not to be there.
I think that everyone of us in the expat community is filled with memories we keep deep inside of us, but then when there is an explosion such as this one and Egypt is in the news again it reopens old wounds in a way.
Are there any communal centers where Egyptian Jews are gathering and communicating?
Egyptian Jews, once 80,000-strong, were dispersed to the ends of the earth — London, Paris, Rome, Geneva, Adelaide, Montreal, Rio and of course New York. Here, they tend to be clustered in Brooklyn by Ocean Parkway, where there are many Egyptian-Jewish congregations, including the palatial Ahaba ve Ahava; that is where they’d tend to gather and trade information.
What did [former Egyptian President Hosni] Mubarak offer that a future ruler might not?
To date, no one has stepped up to lead who fills me with any sort of hope. We know that Mubarak was a pretty poor leader, especially at the end, that horrible pervasive inequalities plagued Egypt, that there was unbelievable corruption and breathtaking poverty.
And yet, he was friendly to America and Israel. He kept Egypt fairly stable. He was very tough against radical Islamicists and cracked down on them very hard. He had no use for Iran.
I think that there is a chance, maybe even a strong chance, that a future leader will be none of the above, which would be very bad news indeed. I hope I’m mistaken. I hope that Egypt gets an enlightened ruler who respects democracy and brings about social reform.
Finally and on a personal note: In the years under [Anwar] Sadat and Mubarak, there was enough stability for Jews such as myself to return and find ourselves welcomed in Egypt. Am I going to be able to go back, or is the door slamming shut yet again?
As a female writer, do you think the future bodes well for women in Egypt?
I’m terribly pessimistic. Egypt was such a promising country for women — a country of Arab feminists, women who became lawyers and businesswomen. There was a time when virtually no Egyptian women wore the veil or covered their heads let alone their entire bodies, except the poor peasant women of the countryside. And then — God only knows why — they began to wear these head coverings more and more in the last 25 years.
People have tried to make light of them, to dismiss these hijabs and veils as mere “fashion statements.” I don’t think they are fashion statements in the least — they are political statements, religious statements. They say, I am going back to a more fundamentalist form of Islam where a woman is more submissive. It is very scary to me because that form of Islam is terribly oppressive to women. I think that if Egypt continues in its path of fundamentalist Islam, then no, I believe that women will have a rougher time of it.
Now, to be sure there are some notable exceptions — great women in Egypt who don’t cover their heads and do have careers and are very liberal in their outlook. They are delightful to meet, quite wonderful really; but they are so much in the minority it’s scary.
You’ve written how Egypt’s continental society has become more Islamic. Do you think this allows for any sort of future for Jewish-Egyptian relations?
That is one of my biggest worries. I saw such hopeful signs in my own personal dealings with Egyptians in recent years. My book was translated into Arabic last year, and I did two readings in Cairo and was welcomed with open arms — literally. And then in recent months, many Egyptians reached out to me, found me as it happens through Facebook — they do love their Facebook — and sent very sentimental, teary messages telling me I was as much of an Egyptian as they were and could I please return.
But now with the possibility of increasing Islamization, I fear the worst. If there is a Muslim Brotherhood-type regime, I fear that I won’t be welcome in Egypt again.
Where will non-Muslims fit into the new Egypt?
That is the question, isn’t it? They got rid of their Jews years ago — Egypt is in effect Judenrein. But they have a sizeable number of Coptic Christians and other Christians; these are quite frightened, I believe. They don’t know what to expect anymore. It is not as if the Mubarak regime was so wonderful to them. It is simply that there could be open season on Christians if the radical Muslims take over.
Do you have plans to visit Egypt soon? What do you expect to find?
I do indeed hope to go to Cairo shortly. I am afraid I think the situation is terribly chaotic, what with constant demonstrations and the lack of a cohesive police force. Everyone is depending on the army to maintain order, but I find that worrisome. Since when was the military so sweet and fuzzy? But then again maybe I will be charmed and surprised and I will come away persuaded that there is hope at last, that the country will become a democracy, a place that finally offers some opportunity to its people. I confess that I worry I will be very disillusioned by what I see unfolding in the country.