The issue of the Jewish minority living in Egypt before the 1952 Revolution became a source of inspiration for many novelists in the past few years, among them was Kamal Ruhayyim in his novel Diary of a Jewish Muslim.
The title is eccentric; are there Jewish Muslim people? Actually, there is. How can a person become both a Jew and a Muslim at the same time? Simple, according to Judaism, the son of a Jewish woman is Jewish, regardless of his father’s religion, while in Islam the son of a Muslim man is Muslim, no matter what his mother’s religion is.
So if a Muslim man marries a Jewish woman their son or daughter belongs to both religions. This is exactly the story of Galal, the novel’s main character.
This mixed marriage was never approved by either sides, but accepted as a matter of fact. Both parties loved each other, defied traditions, and got married. The mother raised her son with her parents and the father visited when he could until he died defending his country in the 1956 War, or the “Suez Crisis.”
Once Galal’s origin became known to the reader, the confusion starts. Most of today’s readers did not have Jewish neighbours or friends in Egypt. Reading through history books and watching black and white movies are the only proof that Egypt had Jews living among us. Most of them left Egypt by the 1960s due to political reasons and of course they were mistrusted due to the military conflict with Israel; they were regarded as fifth column for the Jewish state. So seeing an Egyptian Jewish family in a novel raises the reader’s curiosity.
The Jewish woman’s son became the centre of harassment and bullying by his neighbours and schoolmates, but eventually he grew to be able to stand up for himself and step up as an equal to his counterparts.
The writer was keen to show that his grandfather Zaki was respected and liked among his Muslim neighbours: a poor Jew who earned his living honestly and made ends meet with his hard work.
The concept of poor Jew is not common in literature in general. The stereotype is that of a rich stingy person who cannot be trusted. The grandmother was the stereotype: bad relations with the neighbours, stern with her Muslim grandson, hating that her daughter married a non-Jewish man, trying to get her daughter married for a second time but to a Jew. Basically the writer drew her so that the reader would not like her.
Other than having a different religion, Galal’s family looks like any other Egyptian family from the lower class. The moral behind showing a non-famous, non-influential Jewish Egyptian family is that they were part of Egypt and letting them go or forcing them out of Egypt was a loss to the society.
This family was not fifth column to Israel; in fact it was split into a part who does not like their life in Egypt, led by the grandmother and her two other children, and the grandfather, who is reluctant to leave his life and neighbours.
Galal’s mother is staying with her son specially that she made contact with his father’s family and claimed his inheritance and they accepted him half-heartedly but recognised their son and his rights.
The part that the writer described shrewdly was the internal struggle within Galal. Was he a Muslim or a Jew, were his grandparents going to hell because they weren’t Muslims? There are many questions about identity people think about, at least from time to time.
The novel is an easy read. It gets straight to the point with an attempt to go through the day-to-day life of Egyptian society.
The writer did not attempt to add big events or political turmoil in the story, which is a point to his side. He wrote about the people who were not in history books, who did not influence the societal changes, just those who lived in Egypt a few decades ago.
As mentioned before, the novel unravels that Jews were part of the fabric of Egyptian society. Coming out and saying that losing that part of the Egyptian population was a grave mistake was a message that the writer avoided giving. He gave the reader the freedom to either reach that conclusion or disagree with it.
When the small family reached Paris, we see the grandfather regretting leaving Egypt and missing his friends in the old neighbourhood, versus the grandmother who mocks him for thinking that way despite living a harder life in France.
The innovative character in the novel is Sarah, Galal’s cousin from his mother's side who had moved to Paris a few years earlier with her mother. Sarah is a pragmatist who earned her living escorting rich Arab tourists when they visited Paris. She wore a cross instead of declaring her Jewish identity; her clientele would not have liked having a Jewish escort to show them around.
These types of characters are rare in Arabic literature, particularly because such a career is almost never documented and might include illegal activities, so the writer gave the reader the liberty to fill in the spaces regarding Sarah’s history and future.
Not delving into the details of his characters was the writer’s signature and weakness. The Muslim/peasant side of Galal’s family was quite marginal, their characters were handled lightly and had almost no role or interaction with their in-laws.
If this dimension was added the novel would have been much more interesting. Nevertheless, tackling this subject was courageous enough to make the novel memorable.
The significance of this novel has to do with today’s geopolitical reality. Israel and many Arab countries have political and economic relations. Mixed marriages between Muslims and Jews have been taking place for a couple of decades at least, which creates a future population a portion of which did not exist before nor created artificially in various Arab countries, they will be part of our future.
This detail seems to be a fact that Arab societies have to be ready to deal with, the Israeli one as well. The ending is shocking and unpredictable: an easy way out of the identity crisis Galal was suffering from, a sad one even.
Out of curiosity the reader will continue reading the book to know what Galal will do regarding his “unconventional” existence.