The Jewishness of Cairo

A Gorky-like ride on the Cairo subway with a blue-eyed woman that culminates in an Egyptian-French-Jewish cultural confluence.

Cairo, August

The first light of morning palely illuminated the broad avenue that leads west to the pyramids at Giza and the thicket of cube-like buildings that line it. And I'm sitting at the Cleopatra shwarma restaurant, whose porch spills out on to the still-slumbering street, in the company of a black prostitute with a profusion of black and red braids. Her name is Victoria and she is taking tiny bites (to make it last as long as possible) of a chicken liver sandwich in a roll after a night of work at the adjacent Nirvana club (at the end of the night, I observed her as she patiently dealt with a young German who bought her champagne and cocktails and rubbed his dick through his pants against her ass as they took a spin on the dance floor. His belt buckle was inlaid with fake diamonds and his ears glittered with diamond earrings). Victoria is a refugee from Sudan and is working here to support her mother and her two small children, who came with her to Cairo.

She is 22 years old, very pretty, with a model's angular and fluid body. But the guy manning the shwarma spit fixes her with a hostile stare. Had she come here alone, they wouldn't have let her in. Since she was with me and my friend A., an avid fan of black women who also knows his way around the underside of Cairo and brought me here so I could find something to write about (when he walked in, two black men were wrestling on the floor over a girl, surrounded by a ring of curious spectators. The guards were barely able to separate them), the Cleopatra waiters had to tolerate her presence, though they expressed their displeasure by pretending to have forgotten her order and then took forever until they deigned to serve her. And the whole time, luxury cars driven by Cairenes out for a good time kept pulling up outside and ordering take-out.

I glanced at my watch. In about four hours, I was due to meet several Cairene friends, whom I'd promised to take on a tour of the Ibn Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo. Time after time I'd evaded such a trip, with the excuse that the nostalgia for the Jews who left Cairo wouldn't be genuine and that it was impossible anyway to turn back history, and even if it were possible, it wouldn't turn out to be worth the effort. Nevertheless, in order to prepare for the guided tour, I bought a recently published book on the subject, by historian Joel Beinin: "The Dispersion of Egyptian Jewry: Culture, Politics and the Formation of a Modern Diaspora." The lengthy bibliography includes such names as Israeli writer Ronit Matalon, the Jewish communist Henri Curiel who was murdered in mysterious circumstances, and the essayist Jacqueline Kahanoff (author of "Childhood in Egypt, (?who was a tremendous inspiration for an entire generation of Sephardi intellectuals, who through her, discovered their roots in the east, which were really European roots (Kahanoff wrote in English and was much more of a journalist than the leader of a return-to-roots movement. I read her articles in the journal Keshet in the 1970s when I was at an age when I wasn't able to fully understand them. The title of one of them,"We, the Levantines," affected me, though I no longer have any recollection of what the article was about). It's too bad that Jacqueline Kahanoff was totally co-opted by Ronit Matalon and others. Because as soon as I saw that she'd become the bon ton, I completely washed my hands of her. Yes, I admit it: This is the typical reaction of a snob who is incapable of enjoying anything that lots of other people are enjoying.

The only Jew in the cityI bid farewell to Victoria so I could have time for a quick nap before the guided tour that awaited me at the synagogue with my knowledge-thirsty friends. The person behind the idea for the visit was T., an architect by profession. The others in the group were S., a young painter from Cairo; Anke, a German sculptress who teaches at the Cairo Art Academy; and a young Canadian who is studying Arabic and whom I at first mistook for Jew. But I seem to be the only Jew in this city and it has therefore fallen to me to spread the word of my religion. I got up at nine. From the Ma'adi metro station, you need to figure at least 20 minutes to Mar Girgis, the Old Cairo station. Still drowsy, I gaze at my fellow passengers in the long train car who appear not to fall into any special distinguishing category: They're not Jews or foreigners or romantics or members of any endangered species.

The train proceeds on its route and it's burning hot in the compartment. Outside is the notoriously impoverished quarter of Dar as-Salam, cluster upon cluster of unplastered red brick dwellings, suspended atop a sand-colored outcropping. There is nothing cheerful about the view outside, and the same could be said of the inside of the train. The passengers are mostly stern-faced, black-mustachioed men. An occasional glint of curiosity is discernible in their eyes, though. Who is this stranger standing in the train car like one of them? A small black fan in the ceiling of the car continuously draws in and diffuses the sweaty odors of a hundred shirts and a hundred dripping brows. The lazy drone of the fan encourages the imagination to conjure up a nice fresh breeze.

All around, myriad arms and hands clutch the metal poles that are suspended from the ceiling, like the branches of a colossal tree in the forest. The branches are brown and white and every shade of clothing, and on some of the fingers are rings wedding and otherwise, often men's rings with a dark stone. And at the feet of the trees are myriad feet in black or brown shoes and legs in gray, black, brown or denim pants. Together, the legs form an ancient trunk, made up of the ordinary, un-picturesque throng, about whom no books are written. To my left is a group of soldiers in green uniforms who are perhaps out on a furlough. Two of them are sleeping while standing up: one is leaning against a pole and the other leans on his comrade's shoulder.

Details of faces slowly stand out: This profusely perspiring young man who wipes his forehead with a disintegrating tissue held in his free hand has an intellectual look to him. Maybe he's a teacher supplementing his meager salary with extra work during the summer vacation. And the elderly man in the gray suit and tie perhaps fought at the front against Israel and saw friends die. He surely remembers Gamal Abdel Nasser and Umm Kulthum and sadly thinks how a clerk's paltry salary doesn't go anywhere these days. And another young man with a playful goatee, wearing a T-shirt bearing the name of a rock group, is as yet unaware that beneath the appearance of youth lurk old age, shame and poverty.The Al-Zahra station. The door opens and four peasants in dark galabiyahs enter, along with a pregnant woman whose head is uncovered meaning that she is Coptic and not Muslim and has eyes the blue-gray color of Cairo's polluted water. No one offers her a seat. They just keep on staring into space. Meanwhile, she removes a cellular phone from her bag and dials. She is far from beautiful with horsey jaws and hair that is patchily dyed red. Her yellow dress is tight and the fabric pulls against her protruding abdomen. "My dear," she finishes her conversation, "that's our fate. Bye now." She also pulls out a tissue from her purse and wipes her face, as she glances around to see if there's any chance of getting a seat. Maybe if she faints and plunges to the floor, someone will notice her. She inflates her cheeks and exhales in a sign of impatience. In the summer, you don't so much breathe the air here as swim in it.

The train creaks and slows, creaks and slows, before coming to a stop at the Mar Girgis station. I have to get off here. The woman also slowly swivels around toward the automatic door. Behind her quickly forms a line of people in a hurry to alight. A rustling sound of shuffling bodies rises from this stew of humanity. One young man pushes his way toward the door in an effort to position himself to be among the first out. The exhausted woman feels the shoving and when she turns my way, I see that her mouth is wide open in an attempt to gulp some air. When the door opens and the human tide (carrying me with it) burst through, I hear a scream. She has slipped and fallen on her side. The contents of her purse have scattered on the platform. The cell phone goes flying a few meters ahead and a swift young man maybe the same guy from the train, maybe not grabs it and runs off. She shouts. The train doesn't move. A policeman in white comes running. The people inside the train don't get out to help but crowd around the edge, so as not to miss the train whenever it departs. Like an injured bug, she tries to push herself up with one hand, as her other hand and legs still tremble from the fright. Her large belly pulls her down and she lets out a deep wail as tears spill from her eyes. "My telephone was stolen!" she cries to the policeman. He extends his hand to help her up. She shakes her head no. And meanwhile I stand there to the side, frozen in place. Finally, the train whistles and rumbles on. And the policeman keeps on standing there a little awkwardly, waiting for her to get up and leave the station. The drama ends without a birth on the train platform. It reminds me of a Gorky story I once read about helping a peasant woman give birth on a train somewhere out in the Caucasus.

A profitable sideline at the synagogueI've been to Fustat, the ancient quarter of Cairo where the Ibn Ezra Synagogue is located, countless times. I recently went there with my wife and together we watched a group of Poles pouncing on the souvenir stand at the entrance to the synagogue. A few bought postcards of the colorful Shiviti calendar, attracted by the quaint-looking Hebrew characters. One family lingered there longer than the others and I told myself that they must be Jews, or have Jewish ancestors and are rediscovering their roots. In the synagogue's rear courtyard, we saw three Dutch youths studiously poring over their guidebook. Given the looks on their faces, I speculated that they were the progeny of anti-Semites who imagined that by being here they were somehow getting back at their parents.

The postcard vendor was a cheerful young woman. When she saw us and apparently recognized us she pulled out a little piece of paper with a phone number on it: of her aunt in Rishon Letzion with whom she had lost contact. She asked my wife to call her for her upon her return to Israel because every time she tried to call herself, people answered in Hebrew and she didn't understand what they were saying to her. Her name is Aisha and she is part-Jewish, on her mother's side. The aunt had managed to arrange for her sister to marry a Jewish man in New Jersey, so she alone of the whole family was left here and was able to earn a living thanks to the kindness of the community president Carmen Weinstein, who gave her this job.

The other person who works at the site is an inspector from the Egyptian Antiquities Authority, Abdel Hamid, who studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. He opened his briefcase and pulled out computer printouts of the op-eds printed in Haaretz that Friday and asked for my help with some words he didn't get in Doron Rosenblum's piece. It was an article denouncing opponents of the disengagement. Abdel Hamid opened up the room containing the synagogue's library, which is situated in a separate building in the yard. The library contains primarily holy books that were collected from Jewish institutions and Jewish homes that were abandoned, and it is one of three Hebrew libraries in the city. In an unusual move, the guards had opened the door leading to the mikveh in the cellar of the synagogue and the well from which the mikveh waters come. Some of the guards at the synagogue have a profitable little sideline from this well, in which, according to some vague tradition, the basket that carried baby Moses is said to be preserved. From the corner of my eye, I saw two innocent victims fair-haired tourists being led to the back yard. There they would gaze into the gloom of the well and nod their heads, and the guard would demand a special tip for this revelation.

I waited for my friends, who were late in arriving, by the entrance to this ancient part of the city. The streets around Old Cairo are blocked and protected by military men, some of whom stand behind steel defenses with weapons cocked. The row of stores within the compound has been a tourist trap since time immemorial. The peddlers have all learned the special phrases a tourist likes to hear, such as, "Come have a look, very cheap price." One shopkeeper who has evidently guessed where I'm from pulls out of his desk drawer a Jewish prayer book, or siddur, in French translation, whose first page is decorated with a beautiful lithograph. He found the book amid the recently sold contents of a Jewish home on Al-Jaysh Street. Along with the siddur, he found a bunch of old family photos in an envelope. The photos were taken in France or somewhere else in Europe. Apparently, the son of the people who lived in the house whose contents were sold had emigrated to Europe and sent from there a photograph of himself sitting in front of a shop, and a photograph of his wife and children. And there was another family photograph, evidently taken during a visit by the grandmother from Cairo to her son who had done well for himself in Europe. The hunched and wizened grandmother is in the middle, and the group is posed in front of a neatly tended garden. I turned over the photographs to see if I could find any trace of written information, but there was none. Mutely, the pictures told me the story of the disappearance of a Jewish family from Cairo. But what point is there in trying to turn back history, I asked myself again.

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