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Egypt’s Oldest Jew Finally Left the Country He Loved

Eman Adel
Egyptian Journalist
April 21, 2021
Despite a decade of detention, Albert Arieh clung on to living in Egypt during some its most difficult moments and refused to give up his nationality, even when the country’s Jews were pressured to leave.

“Our whole family is buried in this cemetery, why would we bury my father in the Jewish cemetery?” said Sami Arieh. “He was not occupied with the story of the Jews. The story of Albert is the story of an Egyptian citizen who insisted on staying in his country, despite all the pressure not to, which really tested his tolerance. That is the message he would love to convey to the new generations.”

This is how Sami summed up the life of his 91-year-old father Albert, the oldest Jew of Egypt, who passed away on April 15. The Arieh family buried him in a Muslim cemetery.

From the balcony of his house on Al Bustan Street in downtown Cairo, where he lived for many decades, he watched Egypt’s many identities pass by: from the cosmopolitan era when foreigners filled the rooms of industry, trade and education to the Arabization effort led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, from the Islamic movements in the days of Sadat to the newfound openness following the 2011 January revolution.

Story of a Jew

“Our generation had politics in its blood,” Albert once told Egyptian writer and historian Mohamed Abu al-Ghar in Cairo’s famous Groppi Café. Albert went on to talk about his experiences as an Egyptian Jew who changed his religious identity for several reasons, the most important of which being his desire to reintegrate in society and live in peace with his Muslim sweetheart, and forget about the dramatic events that devoured a decade of his life in detention.

In 1953, at the height of the wave of Arab nationalism led by Gamal Abdel Nasser, Albert was arrested, along with many other activists of the communist movement.

He remained in prison for over a decade, and when he was finally released he faced a general state of hostility towards Egyptian Jews due to the escalation of the war rhetoric against Israel, along with a political discourse that completely identified Israel with the Jews.

Story of a Country

“In school, we never noticed any differences between students, even though some of them belonged to the aristocratic families. We did not know the religion of most of them, or did not notice, due to the secular policy of the school. I was in a French school. However, my father wanted me to cultivate a love for the Arabic language, so he brought an Azharite sheikh to teach me.”

Albert wrote this in his diary a few days before his passing away. It would have been heartbreaking had Albert died without documenting his life, which sheds a light on some of the watershed moments in Egypt’s modern history. Albert clung on to living in Egypt during some its difficult moments and refused to give up his nationality, even in the 1960s, when Egyptian Jews were pressured to leave.

The Changing Face of Cairo

Albert Arieh was born to a Jewish family in Cairo in 1930. From the 1940s onward he was active in the communist movement. He lived World War II as a teenager in downtown Cairo witnessing the violent changes Egypt went through.

One of the most prominent of which was the 1952 Cairo fire, a series of riots following the killing of some 50 policemen by British forces, which resulted in some 750 restaurants, theaters and shops being burnt down, including his family’s London House for Sports Equipment in Mustafa Kamel Square.

As a young man, Albert watched how store signs and names were in increasingly written in Arabic. Politically active as a communist, he was accused of trying to overthrow the regime and sentenced to 11 years of hard labor.Yet, Albert’s troubles were not solely of a political nature, as he was forced in an unbearable fashion into giving up his Jewish identity and converting to Islam.

Exodus

Following the 1948 Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe) and foundation of Israel, feelings of anger and condemnation across the region escalated, and life became ever more difficult for Jews in all Arab countries, especially in Egypt.

Egyptian Jews were subjected to assault, which claimed many lives, and the first wave of immigration began.

The second wave occurred after the 1956 Suez Crisis, which again led to violence against the country’s Jewish citizens.

Between 1956 and 1960 Egypt lost most of its Jews, whose number at the time was estimated at some 80,000. Most left for France.

After the 1967 Six Day War, most of what remained of Egyptian Jewry decided to leave for Israel. During the war, many of them had been arrested and given the option to either emigrate with their families or be detained.

The Jews who had left were refused to return to their country and property, including those who had obtained British or French citizenship.

According to Mohamed Abu al-Ghar’s book The Jews of Egypt, Egypt’s labor law made most of the country’s Jews lose their jobs. The law required workers to obtain a special card, which stated one’s religion, which greatly reduced job opportunities for Jews.

A Love Born Under the Eye of an Informant

Set against this backdrop, the survival of a character like Albert Arieh acquired a special meaning. For despite his persecution and imprisonment, he held on to his Egyptian identity.

“My father was secular,” his son Sami told Daraj. “For him Judaism was an identity, not a religion. In the 1960s, any Jew traveling outside Egypt embarked on a journey without return. Therefore, my father refused to travel for many years, in order not to be deprived of nationality. He even challenged those who wanted to deport him, including Abdel Nasser himself.”Albert Arieh’s troubles did not end when he changed his religion.

“After his conversion to Islam, the Egyptian Minister of Interior issued a decree stating that any Jew who changed his religion after 1948 would not be considered Muslim,” said Sami. “He was obliged to obtain a special permit from the ministry to be able to travel. His conditions only improved after Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin visited Egypt in 1979 in the wake of the Camp David peace agreement.”

“After his conversion to Islam, the Egyptian Minister of Interior issued a decree stating that any Jew who changed his religion after 1948 would not be considered Muslim,” said Sami. “He was obliged to obtain a special permit from the ministry to be able to travel. His conditions only improved after Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin visited Egypt in 1979 in the wake of the Camp David peace agreement.”

Albert Arieh met his wife, journalist Suheir Shafiq, at the wedding of mutual friends.

“My mother had noticed the entry of a handsome young man and, after some time, an informant who was looking for him to register him in his notebook,” said Sami. “My mum asked about him and learnt that he was a Jewish communist, who had been imprisoned with other members of the communist movement. She sought to get to know him. So, their love was born under the watchful eye of an informant. Eventually, they decided to get married and he changed his religion to Islam.”

Operation Susannah

In 1954 Israeli military intelligence created a special cell made up of Egyptian Jews, who were ordered to blow up a series of targets in Alexandria and Cairo, including an American library, a British theater and several cinemas.

The media at the time did not deal well with the incident. It was widely considered a terrorist attack, yet many of the headlines considered it a betrayal of Egyptian Jews, despite the fact a military court had executed Musa Marzouq and Samuel Azar as Israeli agents.

A national obsession with security led to demonizing Egyptian Jews and considering them a fifth column acting against Egypt’s national interests.

Albert Arieh had been in detention during Operation Susannah. He had been punished for his political status. Following his release he would be punished for his religious status. Society did not offer Egyptian Jews forgiveness, despite the attempts by Egyptian newspapers, such as Al Shams and Killim, to defend them, arguing they belonged to Egypt.

Jewish journalist Maurice Shammas tried to swim against the current, but did not succeed. He was forced to leave Egypt and write his book Sheikh Shabtai and Stories from the Jewish Quarter abroad.

Leila Murad

In the 1930s and 40s, several Egyptians of Jewish origin had become famous, including actress Raqia Ibrahim and singer Leila Murad.

However, with the rising anger in the 1950s and 1960s, they were forced to protect themselves. One day, Jewish customers of Café Lanciano gathered around journalist Albert Mizrahi to discuss the rumor that Leila Murad had converted to Islam. They grew angry when they learnt the rumor was true.

The owner of the cafe owner was so annoyed that he ordered her picture to be removed from the wall and turned off the radio whenever the presenter announced one of her songs.

This scene was presented by Joel Beinin in his book The Diaspora of Egyptian Jews, which deals with the departure and withdrawal of Egyptian Jews. Embracing Islam was but a final attempt to try to integrate.

Yet, after 1967 Leila Murad was still subjected to an unofficial ban on acting and singing. Writer Ashraf Gharib revealed she was “forced to retire” even after her visit to President Abdel Nasser, requesting him to allow her to return to work.

Muhammad Abu al-Ghar chronicles this period in his book The Jews of Egypt. Despite all that has been written about the situation of Egyptian Jews in the 1960s, it seems Albert Arieh version of events will add an extra layer.

Ten months ago Albert Arieh suffered a broken leg and underwent surgery, followed by a long period of recovery that prevented him from doing his daily routine.

Seeing the transformations he lived through in Cairo, both politically and socially, his biography is the biography of Egypt. Fortunately, director Hala Galal made a film about his life, and was able to film the last scene two weeks before his death.

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