The story of a life

David Tresilian , Tuesday 25 Jul 2023

The autobiography of Albert Arie, one of the last surviving members of Egypt’s once-thriving Jewish community, makes for unique and fascinating reading, writes David Tresilian

 

“People have often asked me why I haven’t written my memoirs,” writes Albert Arie, one of the last surviving members of Egypt’s once-thriving Jewish community until his death in 2021, in the introduction to his autobiography. This is entitled Memoirs of an Egyptian Jew and was published in Arabic earlier this year.

Arie, also a leading member of Egypt’s Communist movement from at least the 1940s onwards, became more widely known towards the end of his life owing to appearances in the documentary film The Jews of Egypt made by Egyptian director Amir Ramses in 2012 and Au Balcon de Titi – a childhood diminutive that stuck – a film about him made in 2016 by French director Yasmina Benari.  

“It’s not in my nature to enjoy fame or appearances in the media,” he says in the autobiography that towards the end of the life he was at last prevailed upon to produce, in large part by dictating it. “But the new social media made me better known in the last years of my life.” All readers of this 424-page book, elegantly produced by Cairo publisher Al-Shorouk and with an appendix of evocative photographs, will be grateful that Arie found time to write the book despite his earlier reluctance.

“I was born during the reign of King Fouad and lived through the whole of the reign of King Farouk. I witnessed the July 1952 Revolution and lived through its successive leaders, beginning with Muhammad Naguib and continuing through Gamal Abdel-Nasser, Anwar al-Sadat and Hosni Mubarak. I witnessed the 25 January Revolution, the rule of Mohamed Morsi, and then of Abdel-Fattah al-Sisi,” he writes.

“Life in Egypt has indisputably become much better because of progress and the spread of education. Many critics of the Nasserite period forget that had it not been for [former President Gamal] Abdel-Nasser they would not have been able to go to school. Every period has its pros and cons. One of the negative aspects of the present time is that we seem to be deliberately forgetting our past or are choosing deliberately not to pay attention to it.”

“As a result, and even without wanting it, I have become a witness to an era,” Arie says, referring to the period from his youth and early adulthood in the 1930s and 1940s onwards. “Many people who talk about the past today make mistakes about it, even if they mostly do so out of ignorance. However, at the same time many members of the younger generations are trying to understand the country’s past better for themselves.”

“I find myself playing the role of someone who can be a source of information – even if this was not one that I ever imagined for myself.”

Born in Cairo in 1930 to a comfortably off Egyptian Jewish family, Arie started work at an early age in the family business, a sporting goods store in Downtown Cairo. His family, as he describes it in the early chapters of his autobiography, did not much practice their religion outside of important occasions such as weddings and funerals.

Ottoman citizens until the citizenship laws brought in by the newly established Kingdom of Egypt in 1922, at which point they became Egyptian nationals, his family had its roots in both the Sephardic and Ashkenazi Jewish communities. While his father could trace his family back to the Jews of Spain, expelled in 1492 with Spanish Muslims and eventually arriving in Egypt via the former Ottoman Empire, his mother’s family were Askhenazi Jews who had fled persecution in the former Russian Empire and arrived in Egypt at the end of the 19th century.

Arie’s family were thus not members of Egypt’s ancient Jewish community, many of whom lived in Historic Cairo as they had done since the beginnings of the Jewish presence in Egypt millennia before. They were also not part of Egypt’s grandest Jewish families – the Cattauis, Cicurels, and others, who played such an important role in the country’s political and economic life from at least the 19th century onwards.

“I was born in Al-Falaki Street in Bab al-Louq in Downtown Cairo where many middle-class Jews lived,” Arie says in his autobiography. “The wealthier Jews lived in neighbourhoods such as Garden City, Zamalek, and Maadi, and it was difficult to mix with them… When we were forced to move because of economic circumstances from the Al-Falaki Street apartment in 1935, we took another apartment in Al-Bustan Street, also in the Downtown district, where I still live today.”

While he was always aware of his Jewish heritage and of the family and other networks that went with it, the main component of his own developing sense of himself as a young man had little to do with religion. From an early age, Arie had a firm sense of himself as an Egyptian patriot and one who was determined to work not only for the end of the British occupation of Egypt, still continuing throughout his childhood and early manhood, but also for widespread social and political change.

It was his political involvements, and certainly not his religion, that brought him into conflict with successive political regimes.

 

Politics and prison: The lion’s share of Arie’s autobiography is made up of memories of his political activities in the Democratic Movement for National Liberation, Arabic acronym HADETU, the largest of Egypt’s Communist groups after its foundation in the late 1940s.

    By his own admission, Arie had a privileged childhood, since his family, though by no means rich, were able to send him to the new French lycée in Cairo, opened by King Fouad himself in April 1932.

“The French lycée took students from every background and from all social classes – as long as their parents could pay the fees,” Arie says. “Teaching of religion of any kind was strictly off limits,” part of the traditions of French secularism, and the school had students of many different nationalities and religious backgrounds. Arie’s father engaged a scholar from Al-Azhar to teach his son Arabic at home, since French was the language used at school. Summers were spent in Alexandria as was the custom for many middle-class families at the time.

However, Arie could not help but be aware of the deteriorating political situation in Egypt, with politics being the main subject of discussion among his friends at school. Cairo and Alexandria had been occupied by British troops during the Second World War, and after its end the country’s economy catastrophically declined. Political demonstrations and even assassinations became commonplace, and the mostly minority governments of the time responded by mass arrests and incarcerations.

The international situation was also changing, with the beginnings of the Cold War between the former Second World War allies and the replacement, obvious to all though perhaps not fully acknowledged until a decade or so later, of Britain by the US as the dominant foreign power. Wanting to see an end to the grotesque inequalities that marked Egyptian society at the time, as well as to European colonial influence, Arie read widely, made contacts with Eastern European embassies in Cairo that were promoting Communist ideas, and helped to produce and circulate political literature despite various government bans.

“The Communist movement in the years before the 1952 Revolution was a mass movement. It worked through the trade unions and the press, and it had two newspapers sympathetic to its ideas,” he writes in his autobiography. While the family business was doing well, the wider political and economic situation continued to deteriorate, culminating in the famous Cairo Fire of January 1952 in which large parts of the Downtown district were burned. Just six months later, there was the fall of the monarchy and as it turned out also of the political system in the military coup in July 1952.

Arie writes about both in his autobiography from the perspective of someone who witnessed these events in real time. His father closed the family business, located in Downtown Cairo, early on the day of the Cairo Fire, and as he and Arie walked home they noticed groups of young men, armed with jerry cans full of petrol, targeting foreign banks, hotels, and businesses, especially British, for looting and burning.

Neither the police nor the fire brigade intervened, raising allegations of a conspiracy of one kind or another. “I cannot describe what I felt at the time,” Arie comments, remembering such scenes more than half a century later. “I saw with my own eyes everything crashing down with nothing to stop it, and the arsonists firing bullets at the jerry cans of fuel they were using to feed the flames.”

Later, on 23 July 1952, “we woke to the news that the army had seized power,” he writes in a following chapter, adding that he immediately went out into the streets to find “soldiers everywhere, setting up cordons around the National Bank building and the Egyptian Radio building in Al-Sharifeen Street.” At first, “no one said it was a ‘revolution,’ merely a ‘movement’ to rid the country of corruption.” But later King Farouk was forced to go into exile, and six months later all political parties were abolished and their assets confiscated.

Arrested for political activities towards the end of 1953, Arie spent the next 11 years in prison, and he describes his life there in five central chapters of his autobiography. It was not only the new regime’s Communist or Communist-sympathising opponents who ended up in gaol, but also members of the Muslim Brotherhood, at first exempted from the crackdown, but increasingly targeted after an attempt on the life of President Nasser in Alexandria in October 1954.

Hundreds of Brotherhood members came to join Arie and his colleagues in prison, some of them joining their study groups and other activities. In fact, Arie’s accounts of life in prison, at first in Cairo and later at camps in the Western Desert, give the impression of a mix of adult education and political consciousness-raising, such that depoliticisation was almost certainly the last thing that would have happened to anyone locked up on suspicion of harbouring political views thought to be inimical to the regime.

Arie was released from prison in 1964 and was therefore still incarcerated during the Tripartite Aggression – the Suez Crisis – that saw Egypt attacked by combined British, French, and Israeli forces after the nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956. As he writes in his autobiography, this led to the sequestration of French and British assets in Egypt and the exodus of French, British, and some other foreign nationals. It also led to a new nervousness among some Egyptian Jews. Little had changed in the treatment of Egypt’s Jewish or other minorities, but the wars with Israel in 1956 and 1967, combined with economic changes, made the lives of many untenable.

Towards the end of his life, Arie began working with others to preserve Egypt’s Jewish heritage. His secular upbringing and politics did not predispose him towards heritage issues, he writes in the last chapter of his autobiography, but he was motivated to help by the fact that “Egypt’s Jewish heritage is part of the cultural history of Egypt.”

While the Ministry of Antiquities has restored the ancient Ben Ezra Synagogue in Old Cairo and the Prophet Daniel Synagogue in Alexandria, Arie worked with the Jewish Drop of Milk Association to preserve and restore Egypt’s Jewish cemeteries and create an inventory of religious properties.

Arie himself converted to Islam in 1965 and is buried in a Muslim cemetery. His son Samy is continuing his father’s campaign to help protect and preserve Egypt’s Jewish heritage today.

 

Albert Arie, Muthakirat Yehudi Misri, Cairo: Dar al-Shorouk, 2023, pp424


* A version of this article appears in print in the 27 July, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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