Following the release of Jews of Egypt (in 2012 internationally and in 2013 in Egypt), a documentary characterised by its panoramic aspect, Amir Ramses recently released the sequel, Jews of Egypt: End of a Journey. The film is currently being screened at Odeon Cinema as part of Zawya's art-house activities.
In contrary to part one, Jews of Egypt: End of a Journey is less of an account of events and more so a focus on the lives of characters, specifically Magda Haroun, President of the Egyptian-Jewish community.
Jews of Egypt: End of a Journey looks at the lives of the descendants of old Jewish families of the past, individuals who refused to leave their country despite the humiliation and persecution they were subject to. To them, the homeland is where their ancestors were laid to rest
Amir Ramses begins the sequel, with the funeral scene of Carmen Weinstein, president of the Egyptian Jewish Community Council, who passed away in April 2013. This introduction is particularly significant since it is rather unusual to see a woman heading an Egyptian council, let alone one consisting exclusively of women. For the Egyptian Jews however, appointment of Weinstein was by default because of the absence of a rabbi. Weinstein succeeded her mother, who was also the council's president until her death in 2006.
During the funeral, it is announced that Magda Haroun, daughter of the famous leftist activist and lawyer, Shehata Haroun, will become the community's new leader. Her duties extended not only to assuring a decent life for the remaining few Jewish-Egyptians, but also to safeguarding what still survives as Jewish heritage.
As such, part one does not talk about the Jews from Egypt per se, but rather it approaches a bigger question, one of Egyptians themselves at a time when the country's religious and cultural diversity is being threatened more than ever.
Nadia Haroun, Magda's younger sister and the deputy head of Egypt's Jewish community, passed away suddenly in March 2014, shortly before the shooting of part one was completed. In the part two she recounts how as a child she had been subject to religious discrimination. She recalls that since religious education was mandatory in school, students were separated during religion class. She goes on to criticise the stereotyped image of Jews that was presented in the media, films and television over the years. The testimonies of both sisters, Madga and Nadia, serve as a cry against the hostility of the media and education.
Focusing on Shehata Haroun's family, the documentary portrays the suffering of Jews in Egypt after 1956. Haroun lost his eldest daughter Mona when she was an infant. He refused to take her overseas for medical treatment because he was told that if he did so his passport would be stamped "no return"' – a procedure to which many Jews were obliged to surrender when wishing to travel outside the country. At the time, the “no return” stamp triggered what is considered to be the final departure of thousands of Jewish Egyptians.
According to Magda Haroun, her father kept hiding Mona's death from his other daughters, they suspect that he did this because he did not want to engender bitter feelings within them towards Egypt.
"The end of the Jewish presence in Egypt cannot be compared to the horrors of the Nazis," Magda says when referring to Gamal Abdel Nasser's regime.
On the other hand, the director presents Magda's passion for the Egyptian heritage, including synagogues in Egypt, which she considers to be an important part of the country's history. She hopes that these edifices can open their doors to the public and be transformed into centers that promote feelings of belonging and tolerance.
With a touching style, Amir Ramses combines Magda's testimonies with the architectural beauty of the synagogues. It is throughout the second installment that we see efforts that Magda exerts in trying to restore these historical buildings which do not fall under the Ministry of Antiquities' umbrella.
In a rather indirect way, the film hints at the possibility that the same destiny may await other Egyptian religious minorities.
Infusing the documentary with a sense of humanity and cinematic romanticism, Ramses documents the unfortunate disappearance of one of the components of the Egyptian society. His documentary is a touching humanist work.
In one symbolic scene, Magda Haroun draws a comparison between the situation of the Egyptian Jews and the has-been Qasr El-Nil cinema. The building is a reminder of an era marked by the cultural and artistic renaissance, abandoned for many years.
Jews of Egypt: End of a Journey is a documentary that holds many values. The documentary is a symbolic masterpiece charged with regret coming from Egyptian citizens driven from their homes by a nationalist leader.
Jews of Egypt: The end of a Journey is being screened by Zawya art-house until 9 September, at 3.30pm, 6.30pm, 9.30pm
Odeon Cinema, 4 Abdel-Hamid Said Street, off Talaat Harb Street, Downtown Cairo