Little did I know what I was getting myself into when one day I decided to delve back into my Jewish Egyptian roots. I was born in Egypt but expelled with my family during the 1956 Suez Canal Crisis when I was 3 years old. We moved to France but ended up immigrating to the United States when I was 17. My life had been too busy and chaotic to journey back into the past until one day I was struck by a sort of midlife crisis. It was not the passage of time nor the meaning of life that kept me awake at night, but rather the nagging need to discover the truth about my people’s roots. Who were those Jews living in Egypt? What were they doing there? And what went wrong? I did not want anecdotes. I wanted hard facts.
Soon I started hitting the history books, and while I knew that Jews had been living in Egypt since biblical times, I learned that the largest wave of immigration occurred in the mid-nineteenth century when the country underwent a massive modernization and the Suez Canal was built. Jews came from all over the Mediterranean basin, and that’s when my family came. I was so proud to discover the integral part Jews played in the building of the country. They were doctors, lawyers, bankers, legislators, athletes, and movie stars. They built the greatest department stores and hospitals. They helped draft the Egyptian Constitution and were advisors to the king. By the advent of World War II Egyptian Jews were on top of their game. They were thriving.
But the Jews were not thriving in a vacuum, they co-existed famously with the many other foreign minorities that had also come to settle in Egypt—Italians, French, Belgians, Armenians, Greeks, Syrians, Turks, and of course the English, who had colonized the country. My research grew exponentially as I became fascinated by this unique, cosmopolitan Levantine society, who built a city that mirrored Paris in the heart of Cairo with grand boulevards and exquisite gardens.
My research grew wider when the next natural step was to understand how the Egyptian people reacted to that onslaught of foreigners. I was delighted to learn how tolerant and accepting they had been—that is until World War II, when the English held the country with a tight grip for fear of losing the vitally strategic Suez Canal. Factions of all kinds began to seriously challenge the Brits, and it was with extraordinary interest that I learned about young, rebellious army officers like Sadat and Nasser, the emerging Muslim Brotherhood (which also started attacking Jews and spreading anti-Semitism), the young dashing King of Egypt, and all the various political groups of the day.
Factions are usually based on ideologies and soon I found myself immersed in researching huge, topics that are as relevant today as they were then: colonialism, Arab nationalism, fundamentalism, and Zionism. It was all new and fascinating to me, and I remember when I first read about Theodor Herzl and the birth of Zionism, jumping out of my desk chair and proclaiming, “I’m a Zionist!” And then the next day, taking it back, “Maybe not.” But the following day, I wavered again.
Learning about Egypt during the war led me to investigating what was happening in Palestine, in Iraq, in Syria. It was all connected, and it was all so profoundly interesting. I had discovered a secret treasure that had been buried for decades, and it’s no wonder I decided to write about it.
After 10 years of researching and writing, my midlife crisis is over. My hunger for the truth has been satiated—at least for now. I know there is so much more to learn. Stay tuned!
The Visiting Scribes series was produced by the Jewish Book Council‘s blog, The Prosen People.
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