AFRICA IS A COUNTRY

The Jews of Egypt
Sarah El-Shaarawi | March 16th, 2014

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The subject is fascinating, both broadly and specifically. Specifically, “Jews of Egypt” explores the history of a group that has been all but forgotten in a country whose current Jewish population, by several accounts, amounts to roughly 200 individuals. More broadly, the film’s value is manifold. It investigates how history is written, and the impact of parties who are written out of said history. It also calls into question assumptions surrounding Judaism in the Middle East and support of Israel; and beyond this, the relationship between nationalism and religion.

“Jews of Egypt” is a full-length documentary that uses archival and contemporary footage, as well as interviews with scholars, political figures, Egyptian Jews, and some Egyptians (who appear to have been chosen at random on the street), to document the history of this population, and the reasons for their departure from Egypt around the time of Nasser.

Here’s the trailer:

Based primarily on testimony from Egyptian Jews, the film paints a stark narrative of an inclusive and prosperous existence, which rapidly disintegrated with the establishment of the state of Israel. The producers and participants have taken care to articulate the difference between the Zionist movement in the region, including its manifestation in Egypt, and the rest of the Egyptian Jewish population, several of whom were key opposition figures.

Interwoven into this narrative is the interesting story of leftist political activist Henri Curiel. His life exposed on both a personal and political level, create a particularly attention-grabbing segment.

So much of this film is about identity, and yet there are clearly areas of identity not grappled with that may have contributed to the animosity toward, and subsequent departure of, most of Egypt’s Jewish population (there was never an official policy of expulsion, the population in question either left as a result of coercion or feeling unsafe). Yet these areas of identity, such as language, origin, and social standing, are not nearly as important as highlighting one of the dark sides of Egyptian nationalism, and exposing the dangers of blanket xenophobia.

Interestingly, yep perhaps unsurprisingly, a large number of the testimonials are explicitly intended to distance Egypt’s Jews from Israel. A majority of the interviews are conducted in France, where a large portion of the population settled following their departure from Egypt. One interviewee goes so far as to say: “Egyptian Jews never thought of going to Israel because it was the place for oppressed Jews, and we were the opposite.” In fact those interviewed universally express a love for the country, and exhibited exceedingly fond memories of their lives in pre-1950s Egypt.

Much of the coverage this film has received so far has focused more on the opposition it has faced in Egypt, and less on the content itself. In terms of production the film has some issues that should be mentioned in brief. Firstly, there are some inconsistencies with the translations both from Arabic to English and from French to English. Secondly, a lot of filler footage is reused ad nauseam. These issues however are more distracting than damaging to the story being told. And as the filmmakers refused external funding to maintain a level of neutrality, perhaps they should be excused.

This is a part of Egyptian history that is certainly worth being told, yet one gets the impression that a significant portion of the broader narrative is missing. In part this film seems like it is intended to remind Egyptians of the Egyptian Jewish population of days gone by, and dampen anti-Semitic sentiment. This being the case, it is a shame it has been met with such resistance at home.

* “Jews of Egypt” opens in the US on March 28 at Quad Cinema in New York City. Courtesy of Artmatten Films.

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Sarah El-Shaarawi

Sarah El-Shaarawi is an Egyptian Canadian living in New York City. She holds an M.A. in International Affairs from The New School. Sarah researches and writes about gender, culture and society in the Middle East and North Africa.


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