Caught in Between

Caught in Between

Memories and Reflections from Egypt in 1956


The Jews of Egypt, in the years after Suez, were fond of a punning French joke: “Qui est votre historien préferé?” “Philon d’Alexandrie.” (Who is your favourite historian? Philo of Alexandria/Let’s clear out of Alexandria.) Such punning jokes with a bitter flavour have, of course, been typical of Jews everywhere, at all times. But there were much fewer of them amongst the Jews of the Middle East than amongst those of north-eastern Europe because flight was hardly in the minds of most of them in the glory years of 1850–1939. During that period, in Egypt and Lebanon in particular, the emphasis was all on welcoming foreigners and making things as easy for them as possible. I remember my surprise when I came to England at the age of 15, in 1956, and found that all the schools were English. In Cairo, by contrast, there were Jewish, Greek, Armenian, Italian, (two) English, (two) German and (three) French schools, to cater for the different communities that lived and worked there in relative harmony with each other. All that changed in 1956. The school I had attended, Victoria College, Cairo (a few years after Edward Said, who, unlike me, had a miserable time there), was renamed, with delightful irony, Victory College. Today there is still an American University, but the schools of the Jesuit Fathers, the Alliance Israélite Universelle and all the others have long since gone.

Of course, with hindsight, one can see that the writing was on the wall a long time before Suez, before even the deposition of Farouk and the installation of the military, who still rule today (they would like the world to say “govern”, but it’s clear that Sisi is as autocratic a ruler as Fouad and Farouk ever were). As Philip Mansell brings out so well in his brilliant book on Smyrna, Beirut and Alexandria, Levant: Splendour and Catastrophe on the Mediterranean, these cosmopolitan cities were wonderful examples of multiple communities living side by side in a spirit of mutual tolerance, but they were founded on an alliance of the ruling elite and foreign businessmen at the expense of the native populations. It was inevitable that sooner or later those downtrodden masses would revolt and the whole idyllic world (for the foreigners) would come to an end.

Jews, of course, as always, were in a peculiar in-between position, neither “foreigners” nor “natives”. They were not foreigners in that, until the foundation of the State of Israel at any rate, they had no native country to return to, as had the English and the French. And even after 1948 many Egyptian Jews found the new State of Israel far more alien than the Arab lands in which they had lived for years, or the western countries where they took their holidays, where they had relatives and where they often sent their children to school. The Copts of Egypt, of course, were in a slightly similar situation, caught perhaps in an even more invidious trap, in that they were native Egyptians, indeed, descendants of the original Egyptians, and had absolutely nowhere else to go, no fellow Copts to welcome them in the countries of the world. Today they are an increasingly persecuted Christian minority in a Muslim country.

I had not realised the parallels between many of the middle rank of Egyptian Jews in 1956 and the Jews of Germany in 1933, until I read André Aciman’s fine memoir, Out of Egypt. Like their counterparts in Germany in the 1930s, Aciman’s family were fairly prosperous business people in Alexandria. After Suez, as he watched the expulsion of the British and the French, and the growing anti-Jewish sentiment, Aciman’s father clung on, arguing that his livelihood was here, that he had nowhere else to take his business to and that if he lay low and just carried on, things would soon revert to normal. By 1964 even an optimist like him had to admit that life was being made more and more intolerable for him and his family and he would have to think the unthinkable and leave. Aciman is now a successful writer and academic based in New York.

Our circumstances were rather different. My father’s family had come from Jasz in eastern Romania by way of Constantinople/Istanbul. If they had once been merchants, they were now (Francophone) writers (my grandfather had co-written with his brother-in-law, Albert Ades, the hugely successful Goha le Simple, shortlisted for the Goncourt in 1919, the year Proust won it with A l’Ombre des jeunes filles en fleur). My mother’s father was a Russian doctor from Odessa, Alexis Rabinovitch, but her great-grandfather on her mother’s side, Elia Rossi, had come to Egypt from Ferrara as a young doctor, married into the enormously prestigious and wealthy Cattaui family, and risen to become doctor to the Khedive. His sons and grandsons consisted of lawyers and doctors, and by the time of my mother’s generation the fortune had been dissipated by bad management and such unforeseen events as the German financial crash of 1923. My father was keen to follow in his father’s footsteps and move to France; my mother, unlike her sister, had never felt at home in Egypt (they were both orphaned at a young age and brought up by their maternal grandparents and she had never got on with her tyrannical grandfather), and was happy to follow him. Thus shortly after their marriage they moved to Aix-en-Provence and enrolled in the philosophy faculty of the University of Aix-Marseilles. When they had finished their studies they bought a house in Vence, and this is where the war caught them. They separated during the war, which we all survived, my mother and I first in Nice and then in the Massif Central, my father in Paris. After the war my mother returned to Egypt, where she at least had her sister. But if she had felt ill at ease in the country when she was growing up there, she felt even more so now. When she mentioned food shortages in France during the war her friends said: “Yes, we too had no meat for six months prior to El Alamein.” She and my aunt had had an English nanny when they were small and she decided to send me to an English school. After that there was always the implicit assumption that we would leave one day and try and settle in England. She told me later that when they were very small and had been taken to visit their father, who was dying in a sanatorium in Paris, they had gone to Berck-Plage in Normandy with their nanny, for her sister was sick and it was thought the sea air would do them good. There their nanny had pointed across the sands to the distant horizon and told them her country, England, lay beyond. Perhaps, my mother thought as the time grew closer for a decision to be made about my future, she had been right to leave Egypt when she married my father, but had simply mistaken the destination. Perhaps it had been England she had been trying to get to all along.

By 1955 I had taken my O-levels. My mother asked the headmaster of Victoria College if there were any scholarships I might be able to apply for to fund my university studies in England, for we could not afford the fees, even then. He made enquiries and got back to her: there was nothing to be had from Egypt; the only hope was for me to take my A-levels in England and gain a state scholarship which was means-tested and would thus fully fund my university studies. I would also be able to sit entrance exams for an Oxbridge college at the same time. The catch was that I would not be let into England unless I already had a place at a school there, and I could not go to a local school unless I was living in the country. Was my mother prepared to come up with the fees for a year at a private school as a day boy, with perhaps the possibility of some small scholarship, while I took my second year of A-levels? My mother made the calculations and decided that it was a risk worth taking. Elliott-Smith had been Headmaster of Cheltenham College and Second Master at St. Paul’s. He made enquiries and came back to tell her that there was nothing doing at St. Paul’s but Cheltenham would give me a place as a day boy, starting the following September.

The Russian Revolution had deprived my mother’s father of his passport. She had thus lived in France on a Nansen passport, a certificate issued by the Nansen International Office for Refugees as an international substitute for a passport, which allowed stateless persons, or those deprived of their national passports, to enter and transit other countries. This had been taken away from her when she landed in Egypt in October 1945. She thus needed a passport, as did I. I had been born in France of a father also born in France, and, as it turned out when she made enquiries, now himself a French citizen, so my acquiring a French passport should have proved relatively straightforward. A lawyer she hired told her he might be able to procure her an Italian passport, given that her great-grandfather had been Italian. On top of that we both needed visas to leave the country, and she had to sell the house we had (her inheritance) and spirit the money out, for this would be our only capital in the years to come, our only way of paying my school fees at Cheltenham and something to fall back on until I began earning. Thus began a period I vividly remember, one marked by our daily trip to the Home Office in Tahrir Square, an enormous building of countless rooms and innumerable corridors. We would be told to go to room 643, where a group of hot and miserable people would be waiting, huddled on school chairs. Behind the desk sat a uniformed officer, taking his time, as bureaucrats the world over like to do, as he examined the documents of the person sitting on the other side of the desk to him. If we were lucky our turn came before the office closed. The officer would study our papers, look at us, then explain that he could not affix the appropriate stamp to them until we had got some other authorisation, for which we had to go to room 3,214. In that room, the next day, the same ritual would be played out and we would eventually be told that nothing could be done until we had got our papers authorised by the officer in room 1,768...

Nasser had nationalised the Suez Canal Company in July, to the fury of the English and the French, who were itching to show him they could not be played around with, and all non-Egyptians living in the country were jittery. Everyone knew some kind of confrontation was inevitable. In the corridors, which were sprinkled with sand to keep them clean, or perhaps to hide the dirt, and where peanut-sellers and other providers of victuals plied their trade, we would meet people we knew, also in search of exit visas. And so this Kafkaesque charade continued, day after day. The lawyer rang to say my mother had got her Italian passport, but as the Italians did not recognise divorce, only as Signorina Rabinovitch with no mention of a son. Mine proved more elusive, no doubt because France was one of the countries gearing itself up to go to war with Egypt. But, as is the way with these things, after weeks where nothing happened, suddenly something gave and we had our passports. Now there was only the problem of the visas. My mother tried pulling every string she had, but to no avail. We began to worry about whether we would get away in time for me to start school that September, and then whether we would be able to get away at all. I cannot imagine the anguish my mother went through, having already sold the house and got the money out clandestinely to Switzerland (losing more than half in the process). I remember entering a period of numbness, refusing to contemplate losing all my friends and especially my two favourite dogs.

Then one day the officer at the desk in room 402 (or 5,095), studied our papers, reached for his stamp and banged it down. In another office in another room, they filled out a form and there they were—our visas!

A fortnight later we were on the boat, still full of anxiety lest the clandestine sale of the house be somehow found out and we be hauled off to prison. But at last the boat cast its moorings and we were on our way to a new life.

Two months later the Suez Crisis broke out. The boys of Cheltenham College were united in their jingoism. At some meeting I ventured to stand up and say I thought Nasser was doing a wonderful job building schools and hospitals and that the English, the French and the Israelis had no right to attack Egypt as they had done. I was greeted with a stunned silence. Ten years later Anthony Nutting, Minister of State for Foreign Affairs during the crisis, and who had resigned in its wake, wrote: “The explanations of Britain's part in the affair which were given to Parliament by British Ministers at the time were, to say the least, gravely misleading and disingenuous.” Plus ça change...