Carmen Weinstein, the president of Cairo’s small Jewish community, died Saturday,13 April, at the age of 82. Weinstein, who passed away in her central Zamalek apartment, had been suffering ill health for some time.
“I saw Carmen a few hours before she died. She had knee problems and terminal bronchitis,” explained her dear friend of 23 years, Egyptian historian Samir Rafat, who describes Carmen’s failing health as worse than ever during their last encounter.
Admiringly, in spite of her ill health, Weinstein remained active, still attending official functions such as Passover on 25 March. A day prior to her death, she went to Maadi Synagogue to inspect current renovations.
“Ironically, it was her greatest joy that precipitated her sudden departure,” suggested Rafat in reference to her 12 Griffon dogs — Kimo being her favourite. A scratch from one of her dogs had infected her leg, which as doctors had warned, led to a fatal blood clot, says the historian.
Weinstein will be buried Thursday in the Bassatine Cemetery which since 1978 she had dedicated her time to preserving. It was notably one of Carmen’s biggest triumphs: safeguarding Cairo’s sole and Egypt’s largest and most renowned Jewish cemetery. Weinstein through her hard work successfully ensured the preservation of a small part of the cemetery, the rest of which has become a slum to thousands of poor, a waste disposal site, and an area seized by entities interested in relics.
"She was a very courageous woman who fought to keep the Jewish heritage intact," Magda Haroun — the new president of Cairo’s Jewish community, who was elected on 15 April by a small committee — stated with great admiration. Her unwavering enthusiasm towards her Jewish faith and heritage did not, however, affect her patriotism and loyalty to Egypt.
Weinstein, a proud Egyptian patriot, had written on the community website, "Bassatine", that Jews who escaped European persecution and remain in the Cairo cemetery verify Egypt’s hospitality. A number of Weinstein and Haroun’s family members are buried in Bassatine.
Though a proud Egyptian, Weinstein freely voiced her discontent with the current state of affairs in the country she so loved.
“I lived through revolutions. They are not easy. Changes don’t happen overnight. Things will not change for the better; you will regret what has come,” she often told her friend Rafat. Notwithstanding her evident discontent with the political situation, the ardent patriot refused to leave Egypt. Notably, Egypt’s President Morsi paid homage to the Jewish community leader upon announcement of her death.
Amongst her other campaigns, Weinstein fought to ensure Jewish artefacts, including sacred Torah scrolls and ancient manuscripts in danger of being smuggled abroad, remained in Egypt. Weinstein convinced the Egyptian government to categorise them as Egyptian ancient artefacts, prohibiting their sale abroad.
It was following the mass Jewish exodus from Egypt, which commenced in 1948, that Carmen devoted herself to protecting her heritage. Determined to restore Cairo’s decrepit synagogues (of which 15 remain) and encouraging strong communal ties, she kept the spirit of the tiny community alive. Haroun, like many, admiringly recounts her success at uniting the few enduring Egyptian Jews, insisting they celebrate religious events at the synagogue.
Following the creation of the State of Israel it is said that approximately 65,000 Jews fled from Egypt to Israel and to the West. Migration was instigated by heightening fear due to the mounting nationalistic tendencies (a byproduct of the Arab-Israeli wars) under former President Gamal Abdel-Nasser.
Today, Haroun says that only 40 Egyptian Jews remain living between Cairo and Alexandria. Despite the minute population, Carmen worked hard to ensure that Egyptian Jews were remembered for their tremendous role in the country’s economic and social spheres.
Weinstein, who is outlived by her younger sister, Glorice, a psychoanalyst residing in Geneva, was said to have been married but was widowed early and never had any children. She worked in her father’s print shop for around 50 years, located in Sherif Street in Downtown Cairo, which now sells stationary yet retains the family name.
The late Jewish figurehead was fluent in French, English and Arabic, attending both French and English schools. She graduated with a degree in English literature from Cairo University and attained a Master’s degree from the American University in Cairo. Weinstein was said to often reminisce about her schooldays when one's religion was not a topic of interest or discussion.
Rafat, Carmen’s best friend for more than two decades, like many describes his initial encounter with her in her father’s Downtown stationary shop as a quite hostile. Weinstein’s deep distrust of journalists in particular was common knowledge. However, she soon warmed to him once the historian provided assurance of his intention to write a book about Maadi’s minority society (now published as History and Society in the Cairo suburb Maadi, 1904-62) and promised to pay a small LE25 donation to the community, which she later declined.
Weinstein was known to be always collecting money, as well as paying from her own pocket, for her beloved community that was in constant need of donations to cover maintenance and labour expenses. Although donations were small, it was more symbolic, to make people aware of Jews' enduring presence, explained Rafat.
The historian later created the community website "Bassatine", becoming its editor-in-chief with the intention to ensure his devoted friend’s formidable work gained recognition.
“A gifted playwright, Carmen was always very critical. She never had time for salon chit chat. She was a woman of substance, a mini version of our Iron Lady,” described Rafat chirpily.
Rafat voices his fortune for having known a Carmen other people did not see, referring to her congeniality and generosity towards the less fortunate.
“Whenever she came to Maadi we would sit under the mango trees where she would debate and reprimand me. She was a great reprimander. We were great buddies,” he said joyously, reflecting on blissful afternoons fondly remembered.
"It is with much affection and admiration that this singular lady will be remembered by the community she led for nearly 20 years."