Volume 20, Number 49 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | April 20 - 26, 2011
Photo by Q. Sakamaki
Egyptian boys passing the ruins of a house in a run-down section of Cairo in February shortly after Mubarak had stepped down from Egypt’s presidency.
Facebook opens a window onto a lush, lost Egypt
By Patricia Fieldsteel
NYONS, France — Growing up, I knew my father had 21 first cousins we’d never met. This would have meant I’d also have numerous second cousins. For reasons too complicated for this space, anyone named Fieldsteel has to be descended from one of the younger seven siblings and mother of my paternal grandfather. The father and six older siblings had a different, long-forgotten, last name. So when I joined Facebook, I began a Fieldsteel search.
First I found Adam, a mathematician and son of Ira, the judge who presided over the John Lennon pot trial. We exchanged e-mails, trying to fill in the blanks. After Ira died, Adam’s mom, a psychoanalyst, located Ira’s late brother Harold’s two adult children. (There’d been a feud, no one knows why, and none of the original siblings and their offspring spoke.) Adam said Laura (Fieldsteel) Behar was a gifted artist and exceptional human being, as was her husband Ray.
Next I found her. We began a daily correspondence more than two years ago. We’re the same age, have much in common and grew up 12 miles apart, never knowing of each other’s existence. Ray Behar, Laura’s husband, was born in Cairo and lived there until he was 10, when Nasser forced the family to flee to Paris and then Brooklyn. Ray and I and the other Behars became FB “friends,” with an occasional note back and forth. Laura had mentioned how much she’d enjoyed hearing her late in-laws’ recollections of Egypt. She’d talk about Ray’s family, their luxuriant former life and brutal forced departure with Egypt’s other 75,000 to 80,000 Jews.
Then the Egyptian “Facebook Revolution” began. I followed it avidly and naturally thought of my cousin-in-law Ray. He began sending me e-mails titled “Fractured Memories” about his childhood. Like many Egyptian Jews, Ray’s family were Sephardim, forced to flee Spain during the Inquisition. His mother, also Sephardic, was born in Lebanon. Ray, his siblings, father and grandparents were born in Egypt. His paternal great-great-grandfather came from Turkey, where many expelled Spanish Jews also settled. The family spoke French among themselves, Arabic to the servants and knew basic biblical (synagogue) Hebrew. Ray’s father spoke Italian, English, Spanish and a little Greek as well. Ray went to the Lycée Français in Cairo until their final year, when he attended Hebrew school. His descriptions of his Egyptian childhood are dreamlike and lush.
“There is a reason why Egypt is called the ‘land of the eternal smile,’ ” he said. “I didn’t know that growing up, but I felt it. Egypt for me was a magical place where time stood still. I remember waking to the sound of the call to prayer ‘Allahu Akbar’ from the nearby mosque, and looking out of our balcony to a clear blue sky with eagles gliding in the rising heat.”
The family lived in an apartment building that also housed non-Egyptians from France, Greece, Italy, Great Britain and Germany. His grandmother ran the family with an “iron fist,” supervising the three servants, going to market and cooking. Mornings were cool and crisp; the apartment brimming with the aromas of toast, eggs and the Turkish coffee — “strong enough to take the enamel off a car” — that she boiled in a copper pot.
Ray and his nanny would stroll together along the banks of the Nile, with its immaculately tended gardens, trees and privet mazes where he would play.
“I was also aware of the throngs of people riding the trams, the hustle and bustle of people going to work, smoking hookahs in the cafes and playing backgammon,” he recalled. Old Cairo was an overflowing bazaar of nationalities and religions; exotic spices, foods, flowers and plants; colors, patterns and sounds all weaving an opulent tapestry with threads stretching back to one of the most ancient, sophisticated civilizations on earth.
The family’s home cuisine — Egyptian, Spanish, Italian, Sephardic, Turkish and Greek — reflected the richness of Egypt before Nasser and his ilk expelled the country’s “foreign undesirables.” At lunchtime, vendors with coal-filled carts prepared grilled durra, a type of sorghum known as Egyptian corn, and ful medames, the national dish of Egypt — slow-cooked fava beans mashed with garlic, olive oil, lemon juice and scallions, served with hard-boiled eggs and pickled turnips. Men with large silver urns would pour tamarind juice, and Ray’s all-time favorite, sugar-cane juice. Lunch and dinner could be kobeba (cracked wheat mixed with beef); moussaka; shakshuka (eggs in tomato sauce with yellow sheep’s milk kashaval cheese); or Ray’s favorite, spaghetti with kofta. For dessert there were delicate pastries: melt-in-your mouth ghorayebah, a butter cookie that goes back thousands of years, or maybe loukoumades, deep-fried honey-cinnamon dough balls. And in the background, as the family ate, the clip-clop of horse-drawn carriages and ever-present scent of jasmine that “sweetened everything.”
Weekends, the Behars would go to the legendary Mena House (now a luxurious hotel) in Giza overlooking the pyramids. Originally built in 1869 when the Suez Canal opened, it was a Khedive hunting lodge, later converted to a magnificent hotel. The Mena House catered to royalty, the international “jet set,” writers, movie stars and world leaders, such as Roosevelt, Montgomery, Chiang-Kai-shek, Carter, Begin and Sadat. In 1890, it opened the first hotel swimming pool in Egypt. Ray loved to swim there and explore while his parents were with their friends. He would walk over to the pyramids — there were no restrictions then.
“There was hardly anyone there,” he recalled. “I would play among the stones and once I climbed all the way to the top [of the Great Pyramid of Cheops]. There was a rebar someone had put there, and I remember holding on to it as I looked over the horizon, feeling this incredible rush as the wind, rising along the sides, seemed to lift me upwards.”
Summers he and his sister would spend with his aunt and cousins at their small beach house on stilts in Alexandria.
“I had great freedom for a little guy, exploring the beaches, rock caves and stone piers on my own,” he said. “During the 1956 [Suez Canal] War we had to paper our windows and make sure the lights were out during air raids.”
The Behars, except for Ray’s Aunt Vicky who kept kosher, weren’t particularly observant except for Passover and Yom Kippur. Ray accompanied her often to the Great Synagogue of Cairo, HaShamayim (the Heavens). Built in the 19th century, the synagogue’s origins go back to Rabbi Moses Ben Maimon (Maimonides), the world-renowned 12th century scholar, physician, healer and leader of the Egyptian Jewish community, which dates back to approximately 1,800 B.C., making it the world’s oldest outside Israel.
The climate was one of tolerance and acceptance. Jews mingled with the other cultures, often intermarrying, and were less isolated and more cosmopolitan than many European and other Middle Eastern Jews who remained within their own communities and were subject to persecution, pogroms and the Holocaust. Egypt remained a haven.
Ray’s father was in the printing business. He learned the trade from a German engineer who blindfolded him, making him disassemble and reassemble the machines until he knew them perfectly. An uncle worked for a large pharmaceutical company, and other family members were in the cotton and paper industries.
If there was anti-Semitism, as a child Ray wasn’t aware of it. The family mingled freely with Arab friends, sharing holidays and special occasions. Ray spoke, read and wrote fluent Arabic. The hate that came later, Ray says in retrospect, was “a political weapon used by Nasser to galvanize power.” One day his father came home and sat in one of the living-room chairs, his hand across his face. Ray found out later his business partner, who was Egyptian, had forced him out of the company, seizing his father’s share. His dad was powerless to do anything because he was Jewish. Suddenly, he was broke.
It was 1956. All Jews with assets were forced to leave the country overnight. Ray’s family had a little more time because they had no money. Nasser’s government used the Sinai campaign as an excuse to expel 25,000 Egyptian Jews, forcing them to sign over all their property as a “donation” to the state. Another 1,000 were sent to detention camps or prison. In November, the Minister of Religious Affairs signed a proclamation to be read aloud in all mosques declaring all Jews to be enemies of the state and evil Zionists.
The process of eliminating Egypt’s 80,000 Jews that had begun with the creation of the Jewish state in 1948 accelerated. Jews were each permitted one suitcase with clothing and items of no monetary value, plus a small amount of cash: Thirty-four thousand left for Israel; the rest scattered mainly to America, Canada, France and Brazil. Ray, his siblings and parents boarded a Greek ship to Marseilles, taking a train to Paris, where most of the family had fled.
“We were given a temporary home lent to us by a Jewish woman, a kind soul, who let us live in her studio,” he told me. “She was an artist and the studio was quite large. We eventually moved to a hotel with two rooms [in a working-class neighborhood]. What to me was a marvelous adventure was for my parents a tragedy.”
In Paris, his dad, who had owned a company and had always had servants, became a mechanic working only for tips. His mother, “who had never washed her own hair, cooked a meal or taken care of her children without help, was suddenly in a cramped space and trying to learn how to take care of herself and her children at the age of 37. There was only a toilet and sink at our hotel; we had to shower in a public place. This was humiliating for my parents and sister. My mother was ashamed we were on Jewish relief and made me go for the checks. She started to work, making dresses for people who used to be her friends.”
His older sister should have been preparing to enter college but had to work to help the family instead. Ray’s younger brother didn’t have sufficient food and nutrition and remained tiny until the family had settled in America.
Ray continued at the Lycée Français in Paris. His favorite pastime was to take the métro for several stops and “pop up from underground to discover a new world.” He also began to understand anti-Semitism. There was another Jewish family in their hotel, and the mother, a concentration camp survivor, was very secretive about her Jewishness. He often played at the home of a school friend, not knowing he, too, was Jewish. One day when they were looking for his dad’s stamp collection, Ray saw a mezuzah hidden in a drawer.
After a year and a half, American visas came through. They landed in Brooklyn and stayed with relatives until his dad found a job.
They rented the top floor of a two-family house in a mixed neighborhood. Ray felt right at home, even though he didn’t speak a word of English. Between TV, comics, cereal boxes and the need to fit in, he picked it up quickly. His dad’s job and ability with languages led him to travel the world troubleshooting and teaching engineers to assemble the enormous printing machines his company made. He returned to Egypt once after 20 years absence, but what he saw left him sad and disappointed. Ray has no desire to return.
“I have such beautiful memories of Egypt that I don’t want to disturb that part of me,” he explained.
Today the world, even Obama, seems to have forgotten the Jews of Egypt, despite an outcry against the persecution of Coptic Christians. There are fewer than 50 Jews left; all are elderly. Soon there will be none. Egypt less than flourished under Nasser and Mubarak. Any society that expels, represses or tries to exterminate groups of people because of their gender, religion, race, sexuality, ethnic or national origins has to suffer: Those very same “undesirables” of the moment are also any country’s present and future, its talent and richness. Egypt overthrew Mubarak, a miracle in itself, but like the Jews wandering in the desert for 40 years before they reached the Promised Land, Egypt has a long way to go.
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