The Lost Art

Less than 100 years ago, there was a Yiddish theater company in Cairo, Jewish actors appeared in Egyptian movies and Jewish musicians were listened to across North Africa and the Middle East. This historic tradition can now play a part in Israel’s future.

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Fictitious bills depicting famous Mizrahi cultural figures, devised by Café Gibraltar magazine in protest against exclusion of Sephardim from official  banknotes.
Fictitious bills depicting famous Mizrahi cultural figures, devised by Café Gibraltar magazine in protest against exclusion of Sephardim from official banknotes.Credit: Cafe Gibraltar

A few months ago, at the launch of the Knesset lobby for preserving and cultivating the cultural heritage of Jews from Arab and Islamic countries, Joint Arab List leader Ayman Odeh made the following observation: “The culture of the Jews from Arab lands, the Arab Jews, is a key to a different possibility. Why should we not talk about an integrated, common Jewish and Arab culture? After all, the culture of the Jews in the Arab lands was not only a traditional culture of those special communities, but part of the culture of the entire Arab region.”

Of course, remarks like this, even by an Arab MK, are liable to draw cynical responses these days. Right-wingers will say (again) that there never was such a thing as an Arab Jew (just as some say there is no such thing as a Palestinian people) and will curtly dismiss the existence of centuries-old cultures. Left-wingers will laugh and raise an eyebrow at a cultural debate that is occupied with music and theater but doesn’t incorporate terms such as gentrification, segregation and human rights. In the meantime, refugees from spiritual festivals will use Odeh’s remarks to prove that, with a burst of Umm Kulthum and a shot of arak, world peace can be achieved.

An Arab-Jewish culture actually existed for hundreds of years. In certain places – islands amid a heaving national ocean – it still exists. One can go back to the distant past, to the period of the Jahiliyya (pre-Islamic times) and to the Jewish poets who wrote liturgical poems in Arabic, such as As-Samaw’al bin Adiya (Hebrew: Shmuel Ben Adiya), who lived in the sixth century C.E., and was mentioned by Odeh. There was also the “Golden Age,” the hundreds of years in which Arab-Jewish culture flourished in Muslim Spain.

Or, if we wish, we can return to the recent past and the Arab-Jewish culture that existed until just a few decades ago – to the poetry, literature, plays and journalism that was produced by Jews, in Arabic, in Arab countries in the late 19th century and first half of the 20th century. Among these writers were the Jewish-Egyptian playwright-journalist Yaqub (James) Sanua; the Jewish-Karaite poet-journalist-jurist Murad Faraj, also from Egypt; the Jewish-Iraqi writers and poets Anwar Shaul, Murad Michael and Ya’qub Bilbul. Additionally, there were Israeli writers who wrote in Arabic, such as Samir Naqqash from Iraq and Maurice Shammas from Egypt. And this is barely the tip of a long list, stretching over hundreds of years and a vast geographical space.

All of these writers were Arab Jews. Certainly in the pre-Islamic era, but also apparently in the fledgling-national era, there was no problem with this category. These Jewish artists wrote in Arabic for an audience of Muslims, Christians and Jews alike, and contributed to the general development of Arabic poetry and prose.

But there were also other, more popular cultural arenas. Prior to the advent of modern theater in the Arab world –and certainly before the invention of cinema – almost the only popular arena in which Jews were active creatively was music, including poetry set to music.

A series of books on “Jewish Communities of the East” published (in Hebrew) by the Ben-Zvi Institute reveals each community’s contribution to the culture of its country and to Arab culture overall.

For example, beginning in the 16th century, Jewish liturgical poets and musicians in Morocco made a major contribution to the tradition of Andalusian music known as Al-Ala, which was aimed at the whole population, not just the Jewish community. Similarly, Islamic religious themes were rife in the songs of Jewish women in Morocco, transmitted from mother to daughter across generations.

From the end of the 19th century, the scope of popular culture expanded thanks to the development of more advanced methods (records, radio, films, etc.). The place of Jews, and in particular Jewish women, in the spread of Arab popular culture is of particular interest, not least because it was accompanied by the development of a selective and divisive national dialogue.

Obsessive quest

Years ago, when I started to visit Cairo regularly, I looked for all possible material about the famous Jewish singer and actress Laila Mourad. As in many Jewish-Egyptian families, in ours, too, stories circulated about a family relationship – such as an aunt who made dresses for the admired star. In any event, it wasn’t difficult to find material about her, and nearly every Egyptian I met, Jew or non-Jew, had something to tell me about her.

In the course of this search I was deeply impressed by testimonies about the prominent presence of Jews in Egyptian cinema, theater and music. Mourad was the most famous of them, but by no means the only one.

For example, Togo Mizrahi – the director who made Mourad famous – was Jewish, born in Alexandria in 1901 to a rich family of Italian origin. A recent article about him on an Arabic website noted that Mizrahi is considered the first Egyptian director to have studied film abroad, and a pioneer and pillar of the Egyptian film industry.

Mizrahi directed a series of films starring Mourad in the 1940s, all which bore the star’s name in the title (such as “Laila” and “Laila the Village Girl”). A decade earlier, he became the first Egyptian director to make a film serial, all of them starring a comic protagonist named, of all things, “Shalom.” Jews, Muslims and Christians appeared in these films side by side, playing characters from the different religions.

My discovery of Mizrahi turned out to be the start of a journey that uncovered other Jewish-Egyptian actors and (especially) actresses in the Egyptian film industry – mainly from the 1930s to the ’50s, though some continued into the ’60s, ’70s and even the ’80s. If they had been Hollywood actors, many Israelis would probably know their names and be proud of their Jewish identity. But apparently they were too Arab.

In the course of my quest, I became obsessed with locating relatives of the Egyptian film personalities, some of whom were living in Israel. Thus, years ago, by a roundabout route I met Mazal Meshulam, Mizrahi’s niece, who collected every film by her uncle that she could find. Jews of Egyptian origin who heard that I was exploring the subject provided me with the names of other filmmakers and helped me get in touch with them. That’s how I came to visit Togo Mizrahi’s cousin, Gabi Ashkenazi.

Ashkenazi was in his nineties when I met him. He received me in his Acre home seated on an ersatz director’s chair, a cap on his head, as though about to direct a scene himself. In fact, it turned out he was Mizrahi’s assistant on 15 of his films. According to Ashkenazi, the actor who played Shalom – about whom I could find no information in Egypt – was named Leon Angel. He’d been a clerk in the Alexandria Municipality when Mizrahi cast him for the film serial.

Another fascinating character in these films was Victoria, a Jewish woman who was played by Mizrahi’s aunt, Victoria Farhi.

Mizrahi directed more than 30 Egyptian films, some of them pillars of the country’s cinema, and a few in Greek, commissioned by the Greek community of Alexandria. The last film he directed was “Salamah,” starring the Egyptian diva Umm Kulthum, in 1945. After Israel’s establishment, apparently Mizrahi was accused of being pro-Zionist, in the wake of which he left Egypt in 1949 and moved to Italy, where he died in 1986.

Through Ashkenazi, I discovered another Jewish actor in Egyptian cinema, Elias Moadab, and found his niece, by chance, in northern Israel. Moadab was born in Cairo to a family of Lebanese origin. He often appeared in films together with the well-known comedian Ismail Yassine and played Lebanese characters with a northern accent and nasal twang. He died young, of cancer, and was buried in Cairo. Like Ashkenazi, his family in Israel have photo albums in which he is seen alongside leading movie stars, who would undoubtedly be admired in Egypt.

The new Jewish woman

Intriguingly, Jewish women played a prominent role in Arab popular culture. This development can be linked to the way in which the encounter with modernization and Western values, which arrived in the region along with colonialism, improved the status of women. Gradually, women were able to acquire an education, get jobs outside the home, etc.

Still, Muslim women continued to be viewed through a more conservative prism than Christian and Jewish women. Much depended on socioeconomic status and education, of course, but as a rule Muslim women at the time were not seen in public unless escorted by a male member of the family, and they certainly did not appear on the stage. It’s thought that Muslim women in Egypt did not perform on the stage until the beginning of the 20th century. However, Egyptian theater was established in 1870 (by Yaqub Sanua) and needed actresses – and if not Muslims, then Jews and Christians.

The leading Jewish actresses were Syrian-born Mariam Semat, one of the first Egyptian women to act on the stage and who paved the way for all the rest – including Milia Dayan, Serina Ibrahim and Ester Shatah.

Of two actresses who were active in a later period, Nagwa Salem and Fifi Youssef, I knew the former from her role in the 1954 film “Hassan, Marcus and Cohen.” Like Mourad, Salem chose to stay in Egypt after her entire family left. She continued to appear on the stage and also had parts in a few films and television series. In the late 1970s, she was afflicted by psychiatric problems and her treatment was paid for by the Egyptian government. In 1978, she received an award from the state, apparently at the initiative of then-President Anwar Sadat himself.

The actress’ nephew, Ashdod-based Eli Salem, told me that he also has a photo album containing pictures of his aunt with Egyptian film and theater stars, including one with Naguib al-Rihani, the greatest Egyptian comic of the 20th century. Like Ashkenazi and the families of other Jewish-Egyptian film figures, Salem said he felt that his aunt was remembered better and honored more in Egypt than in the Jewish state. However, he was upset by Egyptian claims that she converted to Islam.

On my next visit to Cairo, I met with the head of the Jewish community there, the late Carmen Weinstein, and ascertained for Salem that his aunt had been buried as a Jew.

The second actress, Fifi Youssef, was a new name to me. One day, Sadeq, the proprietor of a secondhand bookstore in Cairo who collected archival material for me, called to say he had received a box that would likely interest me. What I found were postcards, letters and photographs of a Jewish actress named Zahara Youssef Nessim, whose stage name was Fifi Youssef.

She made few films, but appeared frequently on stage as part of Youssef Wahbi’s Ramses Theater Company. She toured with the company in Iraq, Tunisia, Morocco, Syria and other Arab countries, and from each venue sent a photograph or postcard. She continued to work in Egypt (her last film was in 1993) and in the Arab world. The photographs indicate that she was married and had children. However, when she died, in 1995, there was apparently no one to clear out her home, and the box of memorabilia ended up in Sadeq’s store.

Among the items was her actress’s card and a photograph from a family visit to Jerusalem, probably in the 1980s. Unable to afford the entire contents, I chose a few photographs and showed them to people in Israel in the hope of locating her relatives here. So far, however, the box is unclaimed and the photographs unrecognized – there seems to be no one who knows anything about this actress.

Jews did not constitute a majority in the Egyptian film industry and not all of them played key roles in it. However, their presence was pronounced in relation to their proportion in the population. Even now, when there are barely any Jews left in Egypt, there are still offspring of Jews in the Egyptian cinema and media. They no longer profess Judaism, but neither do they hide their origins. For example, the actress and broadcaster Basma Hassan is the granddaughter of the Jewish-Karaite lawyer Youssef Darwish, a cofounder of Egypt’s Communist Party. Similarly, the young actor Karim Kassem is the son of Nadia Haroun; the nephew of Magda Haroun – the current head of Cairo’s Jewish community; and the grandson of another Communist lawyer, Shehata Haroun.

From synagogue to royal court

Egypt, and Cairo in particular, was the hub of Arab culture: an actress who succeeded in Egyptian cinema, such as Laila Mourad, was known in every Arab capital. Still, every Jewish community in the Arab countries produced stage and screen artists and musical performers. Even if they were not as widely known as those from Egypt, their influence on local culture was considerable.

Tunisian Jews contributed to the development of malouf, the classical Andalusian musical style that characterizes Libya, Tunisia and part of Algeria, and to the modern, lighter sharqi (eastern) style, which was influenced by contemporary Egyptian music. In Tunisia, as in Egypt – and perhaps for the same reasons – Jewish women played a central role in musical activity. Singers such as Louisa Tunisia and Fritna Darmon were recorded by the Gramophone Company, which began recording singers in Tunisia in 1908.

Some female Jewish singers also managed cafés and clubs, where Jewish and Arab musicians performed together. One well-known café was owned by Leila Sfez, a Jewish musician who encouraged both the classical Andalusian and the sharqi style of playing. Sfez’s niece, whom she raised, was Habiba Msika, who was considered Tunisia’s national singer in the 1920s.

Msika was born in 1899 to a poor family in the Jewish Quarter of Tunis. After losing her parents in her childhood, she lived with her musician aunt. Sfez encouraged her to acquire an education in the Jewish Alliance school and also to enter the field of music and theater. Msika, who was influenced by the French education she received, pursued a relatively free lifestyle, daring to appear on the stage as a dancer, afterward even in male attire. She performed in France, where she was dubbed the “Firebird,” and conducted love affairs in a manner very much out of place in both Muslim and Jewish society. Nevertheless, she was widely admired and in the colonial period was considered more of a Tunisian patriot than a Jew.

Msika had the audacity to do what no Tunisian woman had done before her, but she died in tragic circumstances. In 1930, a 77-year-old Jewish man, Ely Mimouni – a would-be lover whom she rejected – burst into her home, poured gasoline on her and set her afire. She died a few hours later.

In Algeria, Jewish musicians helped preserve and develop Andalusian styles characteristic of the different regions. Among them were Elie Moyal, known on stage as Lili Labassi, who was one of the first singers in the Franco-Oriental style, performing bilingual Arabic and French songs; Cheikh Raymond Leyris from Constantine, who specialized in the malouf style; and the musician Saoud el Mediouni, who was an expert in the music typical of the city of Oran. During World War II, Mediouni, who had left Tunisia for France, was transported to Sobibor and murdered there. His nephew, the virtuoso pianist Maurice El Mediouni, lives in Israel and performs frequently.

Another Jewish-Algerian musician, Sultana Daoud – known on the stage as Reinette l’Oranaise – who lost her sight at age 2, became a much-admired singer and instrumentalist during the last century. The list also includes Alice Fitoussi, who remained in Algeria even after the majority of the Jews left after 1962; Blond-Blond (the nickname of Albert Rouimi, because of his albinism); Lili Boniche, and many more. Some of them, like the marvelous singer Line Monty (aka Leila Fateh) and Enrico Macias, had flourishing careers in France, after emigrating there when Algeria became independent.

In Morocco there was Salim Halali, a gifted Algerian-born singer who, though Jewish and gay, was revered by Jews and Muslims alike. Samy Elmaghribi was both a well-known cantor in the local Jewish community and a singer and composer of Andalusian and Moroccan popular music. Many of the songs performed by them (and many others) are still sung at celebrations of Jews of Moroccan and Algerian descent.

There was also the unforgettable Zohara al-Fassia, who began her career by singing liturgical works in the synagogue. Afterward she performed more secular music in the cafes of Fez and the nightclubs of Casablanca, and eventually sang in the court of the Sultan of Morocco, Mohammed V. She is the subject of a well-known poem by Erez Biton, an Israeli poet of Moroccan descent. The poem, as Eli Eliyahu wrote in an article in Haaretz last April, is about “a renowned Moroccan singer who immigrated to Israel, where her social status deteriorated and she lived a simple life, in contrast to her fame and glory as a performer in the royal court in Rabat.”

In Iraq, too, it is difficult to imagine the country’s present-day music without the important contribution made over the years by Jewish musicians and composers, such as the brothers Saleh and Daoud Al-Kuwaity. It’s difficult to imagine the repertoire of modern Iraqi song without the performances of Jewish singer Salima Basha Murad, the “Umm Kulthum of Iraq.” Indeed, it is difficult to imagine what Iraqi music would sound like without Youssef Sasson Zaarour’s virtuoso playing of the qanun stringed instrument; without Ezra Aharon’s finger-plucking on the oud; the drumming of Yehuda Shemesh; or the flute playing of Yaqub al-Amari – all of them active in the first half of the 20th century.

The Jewish communities of Syria, Lebanon and Palestine also produced musicians and singers who made records, moved about the region freely and performed in the major cities before mixed audiences of Jews, Christians and Muslims. The Syrian statesman and poet Fakhri al-Baroudi mentioned many female Jewish singers in his memoirs from the early 1950s, including “the most beautiful of them all, Salaha al-Abid, whose fans were from the Damascus aristocracy – one of whom used to sleep on the threshold of her door until the morning, after she declined to let him in.”

In Lebanon, there was Rachel Smooha, whose stage name was Fairuz al-Halabiya and who was also a talented oud player. The famous Lebanese singer Nouhad Haddad took the stage name Fairuz as a mark of appreciation.

All the names mentioned here are but a small fraction of the Jewish artists who were active over the years across the Arab world: musicians, singers, actors, writers, playwrights, poets and liturgical singers. Professors such as Sasson Somekh, Shmuel Moreh and Amnon Shiloah, among others, have devoted years of research to ensure that the memory of these artists is preserved and to the study of their communities, thus contributing both to an understanding of Jewish-Arab relations and our knowledge of Arab culture in general.

Yet the culture dictators and shapers of “good taste” in Israel are utterly ignorant of all this. “What did the Moroccans bring to Israel’s culture – mufleta?” the late songwriter Haim Hefer asked/declared confidently a few years ago, referring to a North African Jewish pancake eaten in the Moroccan community’s Mimouna celebrations the day after Passover.

The creative artists and members of these communities were disparaged as “Levantines.” Their portraits are not found on banknotes or stamps. Some five years ago, when the town of Or Akiva decided to name a street for Saleh and Daoud al-Kuwaity, residents objected, saying they did not want to live on a street with an Arab name.

“These days, there is much talk about the importance of pluralistic culture,” MK Odeh said at the outset of his remarks. Unfortunately, he continued, “the reality of Israel did not allow this cultural richness.”

I wonder whether Odeh, or the Jews and Arabs of his generation, know that the pluralism for which he longs encompassed not only Arab culture but also a visit by the Tel Aviv-based Habima Theater company to Cairo in 1937, at the height of the Arab Revolt in Palestine. The company staged S. Ansky’s play “The Dybbuk” – set in a late-19th-century Polish shtetl – in the famous Azbakeya Gardens theater. The production drew a rave front-page review in the semi-official Al-Ahram newspaper. In fact, a Yiddish theater existed in Cairo for more than 30 years, at the beginning of the last century and then consecutively from 1912 until 1945. It staged its productions not in some remote neighborhood community center but the Cairo Opera House. Each performance was preceded by the singing of the Egyptian national anthem and “Hatikva,” which would become the Israeli national anthem. And Salim Halali sang “My Yiddishe Momme” without anyone suspecting that he had “turned Ashkenazi.”

The fact is that Israel did not make room for this type of culture, still less for these blurred identities. But let’s not be naive. The fascist nationalist discourse, which places the flag and state above the lives of people – and certainly above everyday life – is widespread in both Israeli and Arab society.

In his book “The Evolution of a Culture” (in Hebrew), Prof. Yaron Tsur observes that the tragic death of Habiba Msika in 1930 symbolically marks the change that occurred in Jewish-Arab relations in Tunisia. In fact, across the Arab world. If in the 1920s the Jews and other minorities enjoyed freedom and prosperity in Arab countries, in the 1930s their situation grew more difficult and in the 1940s it became impossible for many of them. The national discourse – which separates, catalogs and divides – gradually dominated the entire region, Jews and Muslims alike, and the possibility of the existence of a Jewish-Arab culture faded away.

True, in the Arab states there were – and still are – those who recall the Jews’ contribution to Arab culture. Remastered recordings of the Jewish-Karaite composer Daoud Hosni and rare recordings of female Jewish singers from the Levant and North Africa have been released in recent years in Egypt, France and the United Arab Emirates. Still, it’s not Israel alone that is playing a part in this deletion of culture. Cheikh Raymond, the father-in-law of Enrico Macias, was murdered by Algerian nationalists in 1961; Saddam Hussein ordered that the names of the Kuwaity brothers be erased from their records, tapes and the hundreds of songs they composed; a 2005 book by Ahmed Raafat Bahgat, “Jews and Cinema in Egypt and the Arab World,” published in Egypt, accuses the Jews of attempting to take over the Egyptian film industry and of exploiting it for the benefit of Zionism; and in Algeria, attempts by President Abdelaziz Bouteflika in the past decade to invite Jewish musicians, including Enrico Macias, to appear in their native land failed twice: once under threats from extremist Muslims, and once in the name of the boycott of Israel – a boycott that often makes no distinction between individuals and the state or between different individuals.

Is there any chance, for example, that people like the writer Sami Michael, translator Yehouda (Shenhav) Shaharabani and poet Almog Behar will be invited to a conference on Arabic literature in Abu Dhabi or Riyadh, Beirut or Algiers? Despite the fact that they are from Israel, or perhaps even because of that? This could be a true subversion of the long-standing diktat of the Sykes-Picot Agreement which all of us, Jews and Arabs alike, have been so proficient at acceding to and dying for during the past century.

In his book “Nations and Nationalism,” the Jewish-Czech philosopher and researcher Ernest Gellner maintains that “modern man is not loyal to a monarch or a land or a faith, whatever he may say, but to a culture.” In the Jewish-Arab case, I fervently wish this could become true. If only the joint culture, as Odeh suggests, can become the key to a different possibility. Because when there is no common basis, all that remains is to go on talking about the differences and the distinctions. But Gellner also adds that modern man “is, generally speaking, gelded.” To date, it appears that the Arab Jews and their culture have indeed been gelded. Twice, in fact: because of Zionism, and because Arab nationalism did not succeed in subsuming them.

The writer is a columnist for Haaretz on Mizrahi culture.

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