Albert Arie was a Jew, a communist and an anti-Zionist. During his lifetime he converted to Islam, but retained his connection to his Jewish heritage and culture. Above all, Arie, who passed away in April just before his 91st birthday, saw himself as a proud Egyptian citizen. He was among the last vestiges of the Egyptian Jewish community.
He remained loyal to his homeland, Egypt, even when the authorities persecuted him and made his life difficult due to his origins and his ideology.
“He was an Egyptian citizen who insisted on staying in his country despite the intolerable pressures on him,” his son, Sami Ibrahim, said in his eulogy.
Arie was born in 1930 in Cairo during the monarchist period known as “the liberal era.” In the secular French school he attended, he also grew to love the Arabic language. His Turkish-born father, who owned a clothing store, even hired the services of a Sunni sheikh to help expand his son’s knowledge of the language. In the 1940s Arie was active in the communist movement: This was a time of changes in Egypt that led to the 1952 Free Officers’ coup, which heralded the start of the Nasserist pan-Arabism era.
About a year later Arie was imprisoned with other communist activists on charges of trying to foment a coup. During his 11-year sentence with hard labor, carried out in a few different jails, he forged ties with prisoners from the Muslim Brotherhood.
“We spoke to them, we gave them newspapers and we shared news with them that we heard on a small radio set that we hid in our cell,” he once recalled. “After all, we were all political prisoners.”
Even before meeting up again in jail, Arie had become friendly with one of the leaders of the Brotherhood: Mohammed Mahdi Akef. Arie first met Akef as a customer who purchased sports clothing in his father’s store, encountering him later within the framework of various political activities.
- Hebrew on the Nile: The rise of Jewish studies in Egypt
- Egypt's flag carrier starts direct flights to Tel Aviv, in first since 1979 peace accord
- Israel planning another $200m overland gas pipeline to Egypt
- The Israeli tour guide unearthing remnants left behind in Egypt after the Yom Kippur War
After Arie was released from prison, he again suffered harsh treatment – this time because he was a Jew. At the time, a mounting wave of anti-Israel and anti-Zionist hatred was beginning, spearheaded by the government in Cairo.
Some two decades beforehand, after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, and then following the Sinai Campaign in 1956 and the Six-Day War in 1967, most of Egypt's Jews emigrated to Israel and other countries. At its height the Jewish community in the country numbered 80,000 people; today there are fewer than 10. Arie was the oldest Jew left in Cairo.
For his part, he insisted on being part of society – an Egyptian citizen and nationalist. For years he wouldn’t leave the country due to the demand that every Egyptian Jew who flew abroad would have to sign a document relinquishing their citizenship and would be unable to return.
In the 1960s Arie converted to Islam and married an Egyptian woman, a journalist.
“My father was secular, and for him Judaism was an identity and not a religion,” Ibrahimi said.
Despite Arie's efforts to become integrated into Egyptian society, it didn’t fully accept him. The Egyptian Interior Ministry even declared that it would not recognize the Muslim identity of Jews like him, who had converted.
“They treated my father like a foreigner who was not an Egyptian,” his son said. “Whenever he flew abroad he was required to obtain a permit from the Interior Ministry in order not to lose his citizenship.” That situation changed only after the peace treaty was signed with Israel in 1979.
Arie spoke out in the media against depicting reality in black-and-white terms, when describing the persecution of Jews by the Egyptian authorities. “It’s really absurd. The attempt to minimize the story of Egyptian Jews after 1948 to attacks against several Jewish targets, does a disservice to the historical truth,” he said. “I mean that yes, they [the Egyptians] did carry out several attacks, but the Jews weren’t the greatest rivals of the Muslim Brotherhood.”
Despite his anti-Zionist opinions and conversion to Islam, Arie worked to preserve Egypt’s Jewish heritage. “Today only a few elderly Jews and a few additional adults remain [in Egypt], and that will also end in a few decades,” he said. “Now we have to ensure that the history of Egyptian Jews, which is basically a part of Egyptian history, will be well documented and that its monuments will be preserved, so that one day maybe the whole story will be told accurately, without political, propaganda and commercial motives.”
Arie lived his entire life in the Cairo apartment where he grew up as child. After he died he was buried as a Muslim.
“Our entire family is buried in this cemetery,” his son said. “Why should we bury my father in a Jewish cemetery?”