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'Jews of Egypt' tells story of Egypt's exiled Jewish community
Ahram Online talks to Amir Ramses, director of new documentary 'Jews of Egypt,' scheduled for release in Egyptian cinemas next month
Sara Elkamel, Monday 25 Feb 2013
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Jews of Egypt
Director Amir Ramses. Photo: Courtesy of Ramses

On a quest to discover how Egyptian Jews went from partners to enemies within the span of a few decades, Egyptian filmmaker Amir Ramses spent three years researching and shooting a documentary that presents a valuable insight into the nostalgia that haunts the exiled Jewish community. In an interview with Ahram Online, Ramses shares his motivations for tackling this controversial part of history in his latest film.

The filmmaker explains that it all began with an overbearing question – a reflection – over the ingredients that comprise the Egyptian identity. "Like any Egyptian living here within the past ten years, I have been consumed with the quest for defining Egyptian identity," says Ramses.

In light of the current deluge of socio-political conflict and intolerance, it is hard to believe that Muslims lived in peace with fellow Muslims in Egypt’s recent history, let alone with Christians and Jews. Ramses was compelled to make his film to understand the transforming fabric of Egyptian society, and was driven by the question: 'In the eyes of Egyptians, how did the Jews of Egypt go from compatriots to enemies?'

Scheduled to be screened in movie theatres across Cairo in the first week of March, the documentary zooms in on the lives of the Egyptian Jewish community in the first half of the twentieth century, and the key events that shaped their lives: the birth of the state of Israel in 1948; Egypt's 1952 Revolution, which ended the British occupation; and the tripartite attack of 1956, which forced them into exile.

The multi-layered documentary reminds audiences of the influence of Egyptian Jews in various sectors during the first half of the twentieth century, including the art scene – in which Jews such as Laila Mourad, Mounir Mourad and Togo Mizrahi thrived – and the business industry, in which Joseph Cicurel owned a series of major department stores.

Both a historical and personal account, the film weaves testimonials by figures such as Mohamed Abu El-Ghar, author of 'Jews of Egypt: From Prosperity to Diaspora'; sociologist Essam Fawzi; and a Muslim Brotherhood member who participated in the 1947 attack on Jewish shops; together with nostalgic accounts by exiled men and women, mostly residing in Paris.  

Along with presenting an account of the lives of politically engaged communists who participated in founding liberal, anti-imperialist movements in Egypt – including a snapshot of famed left-wing political activist and co-founder of the Democratic Movement for National Liberation Henry Curiel (a character who deeply intrigues Ramses) – the film also poignantly presents the candid, heartrending stories of Elie, Andre, Gerard and Isabelle, who were yanked out of their beloved Egypt.

Through a collection of personal contacts in Paris, Ramses was able to access French journalist and Curiel’s son, Alain Gresh, along with relative Jolie Greish, who was the link to Curiel's 'Rome' group, which consisted of exiled communist Jews living in France. The filmmaker was also keen on including testimonials of characters who weren't political, saying that "luck" helped him stumble upon many valuable individuals.

He explains that while most Jews interviewed were eager to appear in the film, one of the estimated 100 Jews still living in Egypt, Albert Raeel, who emerges in the film as a sort of historical guide, was initially reluctant to join the production. Raeel had been living in seclusion and did not necessarily embrace the camera's intervention. "I ended up showing him the film after I finished it, and then he came on board," says the director.

Ramses had been toying with the idea of the film for years, yet the actual research started in late 2008, and they began shooting in 2009. The revolution on 25 January 2011 forced the project to pause, but after a trip to Morocco, the director and his team resumed work for one more year, until the film was finished in September 2012.


The film was largely self-funded by Ramses and the producer, Haitham El-Khameesy. The pair decided that taking on an Arab or non-Arab sponsor would affect the content and integrity of the film. Limited resources meant that plans to travel to New York and Switzerland to interview ex-members of the Egyptian Jewish community were put off. But these limited resources also expanded the filmmaker’s creative horizons, as Ramses and El-Khameesy were forced to adopt different roles along the way. Ramses reveals that, at times, besides directing the documentary, he was the cameraman, a sound engineer and an editor.

Learning on the job seems to be a habit of the young director. After graduating from the Higher Institute of Cinema, Ramses studied under late iconic Egyptian director Youssef Chahine from 1999-2004, an experience that he describes as "life-changing." The filmmaker admits that he acquired skills during that five-year period that he could not have acquired anywhere else in Egypt.

"I enrolled in the Chahine School, as they call it in the industry, and I graduated a completely different director and different human being," he says. One of the most important lessons Ramses took away from his mentor was the ability to control his mood while creating a film. "I was once very tense and aggressive while directing," Ramses recalls. "But one of the things I learned from Chahine was to take pleasure in my work as I do it, not merely after it’s done."

To prepare for 'Jews of Egypt,' Ramses embarked on a six-month journey of discovery, which he thoroughly enjoyed. The research underlying the film entailed three intertwining strands: finding and interviewing the actual Jews of Egypt, building the historical skeleton, and collecting archival material, including videos and print media. He was not completely oblivious to the historical background and evolution of the Egyptian Jewish community, yet he still was struck by the personal stories he was exposed to while making this film.

"There were details I was completely unaware of and would have never imagined, such as the fact that until this moment, some of them [Egyptian Jews] are still forbidden from returning to Egypt," he says.

Speaking slowly and with a hint of pain detectable behind his little sliver-rimmed glasses, Ramses says he regrets the wide array of cultural barriers and prejudices hindering peaceful coexistence in contemporary Egyptian society, and "sending us back to the Middle Ages."

"We are in a very dark place," Ramses says. "Egyptian society has become pre-emptively racist. They fear and shun ‘the other’ until proven otherwise."

Ramses reveals that a sense of alienation is a recurring theme in his work. "Like any average Egyptian citizen, of course I have a sense of alienation... internally, and within your society."

Saddened by the various political and religious stereotypes and misconceptions pervading Egyptian society, the filmmaker sought to challenge the constant mix up between the following labels: 'Israel,' 'Judaism' and 'Zionism.'

So far, the film has been attacked sporadically in the press, mostly in the form of 'normalization with Israel' accusations, but the filmmaker has not received death threats or direct attacks. Yet the film's avant-première took place in what Ramses calls a "blatantly intellectual context," during the Panorama of the European Film, in October 2012. 'Jews of Egypt' was also screened in the Arab Camera Festival held in Rotterdam in winter 2012, and at the Palm Springs International Film Festival in January 2013.

The real test of the public's reaction will be when the film comes out in Egyptian movie theatres in a couple of weeks. Ramses, for his part, says he welcomes criticism. "If the film stirs debate, or stimulates discussion…well, that’s a main reason why I made it," he says.





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sultana
04-11-2013 06:12pm
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brave man
I'd like to say that Mr.Ramses is very courageous. I was born in Cairo but had to leave it because we Jews were very badly treated. For instance, the muharabat knocking at our door in the middle of the night and scaring us with their questions. In the streets insults and spitting., I could go on forever: not forgetting the written insults on the walls; I was often shown throat slitting movements and also shouts of Yehudeya bent kalb!. When I told my parents of this, they were so scared they decided it was no longer possible to live there. My aunt who was pregnant was beaten up in the street My father could not work at the cotton stock market because he was Jewish, neither could my uncle. My nonno's shop was confiscated. what more does one need to bear? sultana
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Desirée
21-03-2013 04:35am
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freedom of midia
I really hope !as an Egyptian to watch this courageous documentary!Such initiatives make us hopeful about a peaceful and tolerant arab world.
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Sami
19-03-2013 02:18am
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We loved Egypt. Great courage to make the documentary.
We loved Egypt. Great courage to make the documentary.However Egypt of today is not the same country. Very sad. It was a Paradise.
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Michael Willis
16-03-2013 10:57pm
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question
Will this ever be released in the United States?
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12



Dean Morgan
04-03-2013 11:33am
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Out of their own mouths
“The English (or French or American, etc.) patriotism of the Jew is only a fancy-dress which he puts on to please the people of the country.” — The Jewish World, December 8, 1911. They admit they can not be trusted... so be it.
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Sami
19-03-2013 02:12am
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Mr. Morgan: you are not Egyptian. So stop telling lies. Egyptian Jews were Patriots
Mr. Morgan: you are not Egyptian. So stop telling lies. Egyptian Jews were Patriots
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Mick Crossan
04-03-2013 11:31am
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Londres ?
When is it showing in London .
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Sarina Levy
03-03-2013 11:37pm
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Denial and Rebuttal
Do you think that today's Egyptian society at large would believe your research, or will they think it is a figment of your imagination. They will probably think that you are being paid by the JEWS TO UNDERMINE THEIR BELIEFS. I was born in Egypt and my godfather was an Egyptian Judge and the best friend of my father ... All my friends at school were Muslims and so were my neighbours .. they could not understand why we were treated as enemies with a guard outside our door searching peoples bags when they came in or went out just in case they bought something from us as we were enemies and anyone who helped us were traitors of their country.. our bank accounts were seized and we were left penniless overnight until we left and could not take any of our most precious possessions .. our flat is still there with our furniture, clothes, carpets, silver etc... I saw it on a visit to Cairo. They were nice people living in it. I could not find my grandparents' graves as they had been desecrat
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john in egypt
03-03-2013 10:43am
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Imposters claiming to be the children of Jacob
THE WHOLE WORLD HAS BEEN DECEIVED! OPEN YOUR MIND. WAKE-up! The Jew-WISH People are not the Real Jews! But imposters. Eze 36:5 Therefore thus saith the Lord GOD; Surely in the fire of my jealousy have I spoken against the residue of the heathen, and against all Idumea, which have appointed my land into their possession : GOD is identifying who will be occupying the land of Israel!!! He said the Idumeans! Idumeans are Modern day Romans! They're Romans (aka Europeans) of the Khazaran Empire! They converted to Judaism during the Byzantine era. They aren't from any of the twelve tribes of Israel! Rev 2:9 I know thy works, and tribulation, and poverty, (but thou art rich) and I know the BLASPHEMY of them which say they are Jews, and ARE NOT, but are the synagogue of Satan. As you see THE MOST HIGH (GOD) starts off talking about his chosen people Israel, then he goes on to address a people who would lie about there true origin, and fool the masses ! Job 9:24 The earth is given i
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just me
03-03-2013 02:10am
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G-d bless you
wish you all the luck and be safe:)
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Joseph Abdel Wahed
28-02-2013 01:21am
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Context of the story of Jews pf Egypt
Mr. Ramses, I have not seen the film, so my comments may need editing. First, Jews have been living in Egypt for more than 2-3 thousand years---before the Arabs invaded in the 7th century. In 1950, the estimated number of Jews was about 80,000. The expulsions began in 1952, then accelerated in 1956-7 nd finally in 1967. Why were the Jews kicked out, stripped of their assets and even put in Abu Zaabal and Thora (1967)? Apart from the stupid Lavon affair in 1954, we did nothing wrong, were obedient nd loved our country. But, because of the birth of the state of israel in 1948, we became "Zionists" and therefore enemies. "NO trial, no jury, no justice" My family had been in Egypt since the middle ages but could not get an Egyptian passport. We were "Yahood awlalad el kalb". Before 1940 we lived in harmoney with our Muslim and Christian brothers and sisters. We spoke and read Arabic like natives. We were indiigenous Egyptian Jews. But,the rise of Arab nationalism and xenophobia af
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Sami
19-03-2013 02:15am
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Jews fled Egypt in 1300s and 1500s
Wrong:

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