Al-Ahram Weekly Online   11 - 17 October 2012
Issue No. 1118
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Grassroots Jews

Hani Mustafa celebrates Arab Judaism

Since 2003, with only one year's hiatus, Misr International Films, driven by Marianne Khoury, have been annually presenting ê" in the context of the European Film Panorama ê" some of the more remarkable European made films, both fiction and documentary, that have earned prizes in international film festivals. The event constitutes the principal relief for film lovers in Egypt: the only one that offers fare different from Hollywood or commercial Egyptian films, with very few exceptions. In its fifth round, despite political turmoil, the Panorama has solicited wide-ranging attention and provided film lovers with much needed pleasures. Under the title Documentary Rendes-Vous, a special section this year is dedicated entirely to documentary films.

Jews of Egypt, directed by Amir Ramsis, is among the most important of these films. It presents the testimonies of Egyptian Jews who left the country in the 1950s and 1960s in the framework of a comprehensive study of this sect, only a tiny number of whom remain in Egypt. The film opens with a news-style string of brief interviews with people on the streets, who give their impressions of the Jews of Egypt, evidencing a view variety of perspectives among "the man on the street". This opening sequence ê" and indeed perhaps that is their intention ê" persuades the viewer of the importance of the kind of study comprised by the film itself. The scene quickly shifts to the gynecologist Mohammad Abul-Ghar, the thinker and activist who had published a book on the same topic, On Egypt's Jews, a few years previously. He affords an aural vision of the community the film will deal with, dividing Egypt's Jews by sect into Karaites and Rabbanites but also into classes ê" which Ramsis uses as a basis for the structure of his film, especially in dealing with the problems all Egyptian Jews without exception began to face after the foundation of the World Jewish Congress in 1936, the outbreak of the Great Arab Revolution and the eventual establishment of the state of Israel following the Palestine War in 1948.

Tracing the historical development of the issue throughout that period, the film attempts to understand the position and choices of Egyptian Jews through consultation with major figures including the socialist politician Refaat Al-Said, head of the Tagamu' Party and member of the Democratic Movement of National Liberation ê" an essential element of the left-wing movement prior to the July Revolution of 1952. Thus the film deals with the role of Jews in the Egyptian nationalist movement and in the left-wing movement more generally. A subtle point is made about how Egyptian governments lost sight of the Jewish issue and its connection with the Arab-Israeli conflict and failed to take the broader picture into account as of the Balfour Decleration in 1917. In the mid-1920s, the Egyptian government under King Fouad I sent a delegation of established Egyptian intellectuals, including Ahmad Lotfi Al-Sayed, to participate in the opening of the first Hebrew University in Palestine. Political leadership in Egypt had no idea that a Zionist-Arab confrontation would take place; it was rather Egyptian Jewish businessmen who sensed that confrontation and expected it would impact their economic interests in the country. Perhaps Ramsis is hinting here at the consequences of ignoring human rights and the civil state, by showing how the Egyptian government in effect contributed to the emigration of Jews. There had been much since the 1930s to point to the problem, from the building of settlements through World War II to the Lavon Affair.

The greater part of the film comprises the testimonies of Egyptian Jews now resident in France whose parents were born in Egypt (some of them were themselves born in Egypt); they had lived as Egyptian citizens before emigrating or being forced out of the country and to give up Egyptian citizenship. They included Alain Gresh, former editor of Le Monde Diplomatique, who mixed personal testimony with historical analysis ê" indicating how he found out, 30 years after he was born, that he was the illegitimate son of Henri Curiel, the founder of the communist Egyptian Movement for National Liberation (known locally as Hedeto), who was assassinated in France in 1978 ê" to this day no one knows who assassinated him. Such human detail enriches the film and softens its dry political-historical subject matter. Ramisis shows the streets of downtown Cairo and Alexandria where Jews lived, displaying photographs of the same sites to underline the contrast between then and now ê" potentially cliched nostalgia that nonetheless does not mar the whole. A controversial topic treated well: this is a worthy contribution to reinstating awareness and reason in Egypt at a time when society is increasingly losing them; it helps to make the distinction between Jews, Israelis and Zionists which has been largely lost among large sectors of society. At the same time it is a rich and satisfying work.


One relatively popular way of dealing with the Arab Jew is through the story of music, a field in which Jews were very deeply involved in North Africa. Selma Baccar's 1995 Habiba Msika and Ismaël Ferroukhi's Free Men, released last year, are examples of this genre. On the programme of the European Film Panorama, El Gusto, directed by Safinez Bousbia in 2003, deals with popular music of Algeria in the first half of the 20th century ê" a business that included Muslim and Jewish musicians working side by side ê" concentrating on one band that worked in Algiers both before and after independence in 1962 but was forced to stop working after too many of its members emigrated. Perhaps inspired by Wim Wender's 1999 Oscar-nominated Buena Vista Social Club ê" which followed the production of an album of pre-revolution Cuban music by Ry Cooder in 1997 ê" Bousbia adopts the same interview-heavy structure, speaking to numerous great musicians who played regularly in the Kasba of Algiers in the 1950s and 1960s while presenting the settings in which they lived and worked. The narrow lanes and close-packed architecture seems to have affected the closeness of the musicians who occupied them across religions: something the musicians involved, whether living in Algeria, France or (notably, for displaced Jewish musicians) Spain, all invariably stress, remembering their old times with fondness.

The director also draws a comparison between this period in Algeria and a very comparable period towards the end of the 15th century in Andalusia, where under Arab rule Jews and Muslims produced notable music before both peoples were displaced, largely to North Africa, following the fall of Granada in 1492. Wenders ends his film with the Cuban musicians, as the critic Roger Ebert put it, on a school trip to New York, where they are astounded by what they see. This is something Bousbia avoids, presenting more of the music of her subject in the course of the film than Wenders and closing with a concert in Marseille. She also expertly avoids the trap of nostalgia, avoiding any mention of post-1962 issues in Algeria and the civil war in particular. She does deal with the seven-year-long armed revolution but never implies that it may have contributed to the displacement of Algerian Jews, who emigrated ê" as she hints ê" together with European Algerians living under French occupation. Another supreme expression of the values of tolerance and coexistence among artists: unlike Ramsis's, this film does not rely on a comprehensive study of historical facts but makes do with testimonies. It is not as profound a work of art as Jews of Egypt perhaps but is nonetheless a beautiful and valuable work.

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