By Sultana Latifa (Suzy Vidal)
A Jewish refugee from an Arab land
I look into the mirror and ask myself: Who are you Sultana? Belgian, Italian, Egyptian, English, Israeli? Definitely none of these but a Jewish refugee from an Arab land!
At last we have been recognised as refugees.
We have even had Israeli coins paying tribute to Egyptian Jewry!
When the word refugee is pronounced you imagine suffering, struggles, insults, wars, prison.
Yes we went through all this.
Before 1948 we lived happily, I would say placidly. The everyday unhurried oriental life, no problems for the morrow practically planting our roots and happy to do that… but we were Yehud, Jews and that put us apart.
Come the foundation of the State of Israel in 1948, all this changed radically.
We were well off and our homes beautiful but not because manna fell from heaven!
We worked hard and seriously to reach a certain standing. My grandfather woke up at 5 a.m. washed in cold water, drank his black coffee and trotted off to his shop where as a wholesaler, he sold exclusive fabrics directly imported from Great Britain.
My father worked at the Cotton Stock Exchange and was a stockbroker, whereas my mother was a very qualified Haute Couture seamstress catering for VIP ladies.
And thus we never lacked anything, cultural activities, members of a sporting club, social life and contrary to Arab children we all went to school, some to university.
A word about schools: The great majority sent their children to French-speaking schools because it was traditional to speak French at home. Except for the Lycée Français, the French schools were run by nuns or Jesuits, which may seem funny when you think the Jewish families sent their children to Christian schools.
As I was slightly on the wild side and very disobedient, I was sent off to a military academy managed by Irish generals (nuns) who would ‘tame’ me. I was the only child in the family to go to an English school. Looking back on that experience, I believe that the discipline we learned helped me to overcome the greatest difficulties of our exile.
The country was under British rule as Egypt had became a protectorate after the collapse of the Turkish Empire and administrations were mainly staffed by British officers who did not allow their employees to smoke the sheesha (water pipe) on the job!
As I was saying, the foundation of the State of Israel changed all that.
We could hardly go out without being spat at and called Yehudeya, bent kalb, Jew daughter of a dog
We were excluded from our sporting club where they said neither Jews nor dogs were admitted. Our Synagogue was shut down and out of bounds. Our Shaar Hashamaim, Gate to Heaven was a sight for sore eyes on the Friday Shabbat prayers: The ladies in their best dresses and the men in their elegant suits with their Talit around their shoulders. No weddings were celebrated or Bar Mitzvahs. Passing by the synagogue was like passing by a cemetery. No one there except the “boliss” standing guard.
The people in the Jewish community were questioned, preferably in the middle of the night. After World War 2 a lot of former Nazis found refuge in Egypt. It was said that the authorities took their advice very frequently. We were usually awakened in the middle of the night to force us to confess our Zionistic connections. When the authorities were convinced of such a connection there was only one place for the ‘so-called’ spy: prison in the middle of the desert: such infamous camps were Tura and Abu Zaabal. I had the privilege to write an Ode to the 400 (prisoners of these obnoxious places).
Under martial law anyone could be imprisoned following a denunciation from any Tom, Dick, or Harry. Being Jewish was a very serious accusation. Those were the days we dare not wear our Star of David, and even after that we did not wear any visible signs of our faith.
And strange to say, the less we could wear our star, the more Christians exhibited their cross seeming to say: look, I am not Jewish!
Needless to say there was a huge panic because of the explicit description of what the Egyptians would do to us. Apart from the verbal insults, Jews were threatened in the streets by throat slitting gestures miming the nature of their death!
Newspapers were full of insults and inciting the masses to go out and beat us up.
Egypt had the secret of extraordinary riots when thousands of people literally sprang out from the ground invading the streets, shouting and vociferating against Jews. Anyone remotely looking Jewish was beaten up in the streets.
Some people ask me: but how did they know you were Jewish? They knew! Maybe because of the colour of our skin, our way of dressing or because we did not wear the Muslim veil, THEY KNEW!
My youngest aunt who was pregnant was beaten up in the street during one of the spectacular riots Egyptians indulged in. Naturally, it was impossible for her to go on living in a country that was ready to cut you to pieces.
My mother’s family was composed of 9 brothers and sisters and my father’s of 8 brothers and sisters and it would be a lie to say we stood fearlessly waiting to see what would happen.
There was a curfew and everyone spoke in undertones, walked without looking at anyone, panic was there!
Why did we panic?
When the Jewish shops were confiscated and an ignorant ‘sequester’ (that is the name given to the man who lorded it) put in your place,
When Jews were not allowed to work at the stock exchange,
When a Jew could no longer retrieve his or her money from the bank without being checked out on an established black list,
When people, even women, started being arrested and put in prison in the desert,
When it became impossible to go out fearing an imaginary air raid by the Israelis and consequently be the target of wild Arabs in the street,
When you had to be careful of every word you pronounced,
When it looked very much like Nazism without the STAR on our lapel,
When there was only one way to survive:
FLEE! FLEE! FLEE!
Because of all that was said above there was a visceral fear. World War 2 had shown what could be done to defenceless Jews. Some like my grandmother, my mother and her sisters had panic attacks (though that medical term was not known then).
Panic that terrible word:
The families got ready even if they had to leave everything behind, but it was no longer viable to be a Jew in Egypt.
There were strict rules for leaving:
If you left then you were never to come back again
You could not transfer your own money. It was left to the Egyptian government.
If you had an Egyptian nationality you lost it and became apatride, without nationality
Those who lived in the vicinity of the Royal Palace were forced to move, the King was afraid of Jews.
But notwithstanding the sacrifices, two thirds of the Jews in Egypt left.
The great majority could no longer cope with the harassment and they were willing to give up everything they had worked and hoped for as long as they could escape the unspeakably harsh terror treatment reserved to Jews. On my mother’s side all the brothers and sister except one brother left. On my father’s side one brother and two sisters remained. The rest went to Israel.
Even that was dangerous for those who remained. Policemen came in the middle of the night to question the remaining family.
There were no direct routes to Israel. The state of war went on even when the war ended.
The Jewish refugees therefore left for either France or Italy by boat and were placed in camps: in France it was Marseille, in Italy it was Livorno (Leghorn) awaiting the possibility of transportation to Israel. All of them city people waiting for a new life!
Later, after our second exodus (1957) when we were able to meet our families by going to see them in Israel, still avoiding any Arab territory but through Greece, they told us in detail of the difficulties of their life and living in tents. City people, bank managers or employees who now had to earn their living by working on the new roads or lifting cement bags off trucks.
But once more they did not sit down in the streets holding out their hands begging, or crying to the U.N.
They struggled and worked hard.
As one of my uncles said: “we rolled up our sleeves and worked!”
The following two or three years in Egypt were more or less calm except that we were still very badly considered; being Jewish was like wearing a scarlet letter. All the family had gone but for us leaving the aged grandparents and flying off was not possible. Family solidarity was not a vain word.
It took time but my grandfather recuperated his shop, the ‘sequestre’ left and work could be resumed.
A word about the ‘séquestrer’ as they were called:
In general he was a man who did not have much schooling, had no idea of how products were made, or how to handle business. But nothing could be done without his approval (that maddened my grandfather who had been trading for well on 50 years). So he would come home and pull his hair out telling us about the stupidity of that sequester. All we could do was tell him to be patient. We also encouraged my grandmother to believe in peace promising that she would see her dear children again as soon as a peace treaty was signed. The peace treat only came 40 years later with Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem. Meanwhile, her heart had given way and she never saw them again. She was only 55.
Come January 1952:
The morning started off peacefully. Gradually the masses invaded the town, and the terrifying roars came closer. The town was on fire. They had set fire to Cairo! We lived in Malika Farida Street a few metres from The British Officers’ Club. That club was invaded and fire put to it. My best friend who lived just opposite the club saw the burning officers thrown from the windows and left downstairs on the ground blackened and smoking. It was horrendous!
In front of our house was a shop selling alcohol, it was invaded and all the bottles thrown into a bon fire in the middle of the street. The bottles kept popping for hours on end sounding like gunshots.
We shuddered home, shaking and praying hanging on to our Mezuzah nailed on every door, hoping the crowd would pass on. But they burst into our building looking for Yehud, Jews.
Our hall porter, called a Bawab in Egypt, swore to them there were no Jews in that building. But we rushed up the metal service stairs looking for an escape: Fire everywhere, on the left, on the right and in front of us. There were five of us: my mother, father, my younger sister and my nonno, grandfather, with a kitchen knife in his hands!
Well, and that passed away too and life settled down again, everyone going about his business. As the French say: tout passe!
I registered at university (The American university at Cairo) at 17, in 1953. Those were the happiest years in my life. After the strict nuns I enjoyed the diversity and freedom University offered me! I could give way to my artistic inclination by being part of an actor’s guild and directing a play or taking care of the sets. And my love of sports found opportunities as never before. I was part of the basketball team and captain of the tennis one. I was a member of the Square Dancing team.
The Touring club organised a visit to Upper Egypt and the Valley of the Kings where we sweated it out visiting the sights. I was doing very well in my studies except for Arabic never having had one hour of that language in my very English schooling. And for the first time in my life I was in love. Who could ask for more?
At A.U.C. there were guests invited to ‘speak’ to us such as Helen Keller, blind deaf and dumb. Other visitors were the Harlem Globetrotters who gave a whirling exhibition.
Then we were invited to the U.S. Embassy to demonstrate square dancing where we had our first taste of hamburgers with ketchup. In short as I said in my book: these were the Razzle Dazzle years.
1956! The Suez Crisis! War!
It fell on us!
The French, English and Israelis attacked Egypt because Nasser nationalised the Canal. Pandemonium broke loose. No one ever thinks of those civilians in war. All the Jewish French and English subjects were given 24, 48 hours to leave the country. They could only have one suitcase and ten Egyptian pounds. The apartments went to officers, the money and businesses to the government to punish us for what was happening.
And what about us Jews, responsible for everything as usual?
Once again prison,
Loss of the Egyptian nationality,
Confiscation of shops,
Etc! Etc! Etc!
All the borders were closed, only those expelled could leave; even then there were not enough planes to cater for this massive expulsion, they had to wait for their turn meanwhile receiving the visits of officers who had their eye on the apartments and listening to their comments on furnishing and decoration! Farewells were heart rending. Who knew when and where we would see them again!
My father being of a very distant Italian origin and having kept his nationality, we were consequently Italians. My mother went to the consulate to ask for their help. She was told:
We are not at war with Egypt and if you want to leave it will be through the desert and at your own responsibility! (Imagine the Sahara Desert? They did not offer to supply camels!).
University was closed, the American teachers flown to safety by their government.
As usual the American cultural centre was looted (every time the Egyptians had a grudge, they marched to the American Cultural centre and destroyed it).
The Americans always rebuilt it!
My grandfather’s shop and money once more confiscated, he had been put on a plane to Milan with his one suitcase and a piece of paper giving my cousin’s address in Milan.
It was a tragic mistake. He only spoke Arabic and no one understood what he was saying.
He cried like a schoolboy trying to explain that his children were in Israel. An interpreter was finally brought along and my cousin was contacted. (By the way she later told us we were morons to have put nonno on a plane all by himself ).It was true but we were afraid he would go to prison.
My mother who had a sharp tongue kept insulting Nasser, praying his house would crush over his head! (Yekhreb betak ya Nasser)
One day the Police came and took her away. She had been denounced by one of her apprentices whose uncle belonged to the Muslim brothers.
What must be known is that during a crisis, everyone unites against Jews. After her short imprisonment nothing could make my mother stay. She packed off all our belongings and we went and lived in a hotel. The furniture was sold at auction and our former servant bought most of it!
We no longer had anything: no home, no job: my father as a Jew could not work at the stock exchange. The clothes we had packed were stolen during the night at the hotel and when we called the police they treated us as though we were guilty. I was only a few months away from graduation and had to present my thesis so I hung on by my teeth to my studies.
My mother and younger sister left. I went on living at the hotel with my father.
All the Jews left Egypt, country of their birth, either by force or of their own ‘free will.’
And then there were none!
After visiting my aunts and uncles in Israel, we settled in Milan convinced that as Italians we would get help the same way the French and the English had helped out the expatriates. Nothing came our way, (once we received a can of cheese from America). We went down and down and down living in a boarding house in two rooms. It was the worst years of our lives.
Broken lives but who cared? An Italian told me we deserved it because we Jews had crucified Christ. My parents did not survive their exile. My mother died at age 55 and my father 57.
P.S. There is a follow up to that black period. A much happier one! I have been blissfully married to a Belgian for 50 years; have three wonderful, intelligent grown children and three equally beautiful grandkids.
As the French say: les chats ne font pas des chiens!
Suzy Vidal (Sultana Latifa)
The following article could also be viewed at http://hsje.org/mystory/therewasnone.htm