Out of the Land of Egypt I Brought You
Five-part PBS “The Story of the Jews” and host Simon Schama’s companion double-volume book are but among the most recent coverage, documented or dramatized, of virulent violent European anti-Semitism over the past millennium. With few exceptions, though, none have considered the Chosen People among their Semitic Arab brethren, until Lucette Lagnado’s Cairo-to-New York “riches to rags” The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit and, now, director/co-writer/-cinematographer/-editor Amir Ramses’ Jews of Egypt.
What both the above “memoir of ruin” and the ninety-six-minute non-fiction film bring to the table is, among so much other information, a today little-known or ignored fact. Until the West’s politicians and events messed it all up, Jews (and Christians) got along fine under Arab overlords, prospered, were accepted often to the point of embrace and integrated, while all three groups respected, even celebrated, one another’s religious holidays. Both cited accounts limit themselves to Egypt, but it should be noted that coexistence in the caliphate Iberian Peninsula was relatively seamless until fanatic Isabella I sent the Sephardim (and Moors) packing, many of them eventually winding up along the Nile.
Through sometimes repeated archival footage and stills, Egyptian Jewry’s first-half-of-the-last-century’s Golden Age is imaged, in business, finance, industry, culture and politics. A lion’s share of the film, however, is interviews with now-older overseas exiles who had been raised in cosmopolitan Alexandria, schooled at its Lycée Français, and French more than Arabic speaking. Born in the land from which Moses liberated their ancestors, some nevertheless able to trace their family roots there to before the Christian Era, to a man and woman they express nostalgia for that homeland that in the end treated them so shabbily.
A problem here, not uncommon to contemporary documentaries, is that it would include, or stuff in, too many faces in a surplus wealth of material. These heads appear often but edited into such short separated bits and pieces that they and their individual accounts are disjointed.
Even thus, by accretion the sad line of events emerges. Careful to differentiate religious and cultural Jewishness from political Zionism, they distance themselves from the latter. The State of Israel is viewed as “a land for the oppressed,” not for them who come close to blaming their exile on that country’s founding and the partition of Palestine in 1948.
Balfour’s ill-considered Declaration and the much later resounding defeat by the infant nation of its Arab neighbors, including Egypt, marked milestones in the deterioration of the situation. Eight years later, King Farouk ousted and the Lavon sabotage plot exposed, Israel, Britain and France’s response into Sinai when President Nasser nationalized the Suez Canal, cemented the matter. Rightist organizations like Young Egypt and the Society of Muslim Brothers attracted politicians culling popular favor, and then came humiliation in the Six Day War. The interviewees and their families were stripped of the citizenship numbers of them did not officially have anyway, were sometimes imprisoned and, though versions vary from speaker to speaker, deported or pressured into emigrating. Estimates vary, but today’s Jewish population in Egypt may be as minuscule as forty, elderly and attending no weddings, circumcisions or bar mitzvahs but only funerals.
In other lands, these people are surprisingly insistent to this day on unwavering personal loyalty to the former homeland. Returning three or four decades later for visits to physically changed almost unrecognizable childhood neighborhoods and dwellings, they yet identify with aromas and at once pick up forgotten Arabic fluency again where it left off.
(Released by ArtMattan Productions; not rated by MPAA.)