Documentary on Egypt's Jews restores faded memories

AFP and Ahram Online, Tuesday 16 Apr 2013

The exodus of Egyptian Jews in the 50's was captured in Amir Ramses 'Jews of Egypt;' recalling golden-era film 'Hassan, Morcos and Cohen' and the recent film 'Hassan and Morcos' also on Jews and sectarianism

Jews of Egypt

There was a time when a constellation of Jewish Egyptian stars shone on the country's arts and music scene, and when streets in Cairo and Alexandria brimmed with Jewish shops. But by the turn of the 21st century, Egypt's Jews had become a faded memory, their synagogues empty and their old neighbourhoods offering scant testimony to a once-thriving community.

The newly released movie Jews of Egypt by Amir Ramses is an analysis into decades of Egypt's history marked by a massive exodus of its Jewish community. 

With the hubbub around the release of the movie and the death of the leader of Egypt's 200 remaining Jews, Carmen Weinstein, on Saturday 13 April, Ahram Online recalls a movie made in 1954 based on a '40s play.

Hassan, Marcos and Cohen - an immediately successful movie about a Muslim, a Christian and a Jew – premiered on no less than Cairo’s Emad Eddin Street, considered Egypt’s Broadway at the time.

The play included a number of Egyptian famous actors, such as Naguib El-Rihani.

Egyptian-Jewish actress, Nagwa Salem (originally Ninat Salom), played the role of Simcha in both the play and the movie.

In 2008, Hassan and Morcos was released; a movie on the tragic follies of sectarianism.

"People must speak up so it doesn't just become 'Hassan'," Haroun, born in Alexandria in 1952, told AFP.

But the chances of running into a Cohen in Cairo or Alexandria are now no more than 200 in 84 million. That is what is left of a community that once numbered an estimated 80,000.

Jewish community leader Carmen Weinstein herself died in April at the age of 84, with a new head to be elected after she is buried in Cairo's Jewish cemetery, Haroun said.

The documentary by Amir Ramses released in Egypt’s cinemas on 27 March was shot in Egypt and France, where a small community of exiled Egyptian Jews hangs on to its past, and director said it is a case study in what he calls "the marginalisation of 'the other.'"

In the documentary, Ramses interviewed Jews born in Egypt but forced to leave in the decade after the 1948 war. They spoke of peremptory expulsions and a rise of anti-Semitism coinciding with the Arab-Israeli conflict.

"Jews were mixed, whether intentionally or not, in the Arab-Israeli conflict. They were in the grinding mill," Ramses told AFP.

As Ramses found out, even bringing out a documentary on the subject would require a fight.

Its screening in several other cinemas was delayed pending the approval of a national security service, Ramses said.

When the service finally approved the documentary, Ramses said the culture ministry's censorship board asked him to introduce it with a disclaimer that it was a work of "fiction."

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