Brave Film Tells Story of Egypt and Its Jews

'Jews of Egypt' Details Long History and Sudden Demise

Lingering Signs: Egypt’s Jews were expelled after Israel’s founding but their long presence remains visible in Cairo’s Harat Al-Yahud, or Jewish Quarter, abutting the city’s famous Al-Azhar Mosque.
Courtesy of ‘Jews of Egypt’
Lingering Signs: Egypt’s Jews were expelled after Israel’s founding but their long presence remains visible in Cairo’s Harat Al-Yahud, or Jewish Quarter, abutting the city’s famous Al-Azhar Mosque.

By Aaron Ross

Published October 15, 2012, issue of October 19, 2012.
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Today, Egypt’s Jewish population numbers no higher than a couple of hundred, and possibly as low as a couple of dozen. Meaningful discourse on Judaism and the history of Egypt’s Jews is hard to come by. Trying to nudge his way closer to the front of the line as he waited to enter the cinema, Nader, a 21-year-old university student in Cairo who asked that his last name not be used, said that he had devoted time to studying the subject on his own. This included reading “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit,” a 2007 memoir by the Egyptian-American Jew Lucette Lagnado. The book vividly recounts her family’s expulsion from Egypt in 1963. This film, however, marked the first real public platform addressing Jewish issues that Nader could remember in his lifetime.

Ramses was heartened by the turnout. And while he reported some angry emails and ignorant comments on the YouTube trailer for his film, the response overall has been unexpectedly positive. In a question-and-answer session after the screening, audience members praised the film for tackling a subject that remains hard to talk about.

One spectator named Randa commended the film’s boldness as she emerged from the theater. “It’s good to look back and reconsider mistakes you might have made,” she said. She disagreed, however, that anti-Semitism is a major problem in Egypt. “Anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist, maybe. But not anti-Jewish,” she said.

Despite his satisfaction with the premiere, Ramses acknowledged that the audience — middle- and upper-class, well-educated and largely secular — was hardly representative of most Egyptians, with whom his film is likely to encounter more resistance or never be seen at all. But he insisted that he was committed to engaging whoever will listen. Ramses said he hopes to secure a television deal soon so that he can reach a wider audience.

He could use the money to recoup his costs. The film, which took four years to make, was a labor of love that he and his producer almost entirely self-financed to the tune of more than $100,000. “We didn’t want to have any person inclined to impose any prohibitions on us, considering the subject,” he said. “We were already expecting to have a certain point of view that we wanted represented in the movie.”

One film alone, Ramses acknowledged, cannot fundamentally change perceptions. But he is hopeful that his work can at least be a catalyst.

“We’re talking about a subject that has been neutralized for like the last 30 to 40 years. I expect the movie to provoke discussion,” he said. “Maybe the movie will provoke someone to write a book about it. Or maybe a feature film. It’s just like the first stone thrown at the subject. I’m not hoping to change how Egyptian society sees things, but at least I hope it [lights] the first spark.”

Contact Aaron Ross at feedback@forward.com


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