The Uneasy Life of a Jew in Egypt

After Andrew Pochter's Killing, an American in Cairo Reflects

An American Jew in Cairo: Living as a Jew in Egypt’s capital comes with its challenges but also moments of incredible bonding with others.
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An American Jew in Cairo: Living as a Jew in Egypt’s capital comes with its challenges but also moments of incredible bonding with others.

By Anonymous

Published June 30, 2013.
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The writer prefers to write anonymously because of the political situation in Egypt.

I never knew him personally, but it seems I’ve lived a life quite like Andrew Pochter, the 21-year old Jewish American tragically killed in Alexandria, Egypt on Friday.

“He went to Egypt because he cared profoundly about the Middle East, and he planned to live and work there in the pursuit of peace and understanding,” a family statement read.

Here in Cairo there is a network of us Jews who, like myself, came to Egypt with a similar mindset. Just last week I met another “Member of the Tribe,” as we call them. He’d spent time, too, in ‘Disney Land’, our local code for Egypt’s neighbor across the Sinai.

Last September we held a tashlich service of sorts on the Nile. We went out on one of Cairo’s popular felluca boats and symbolically tossed Egypt’s legendary brown baladi bread — the kind they riot about when subsidy cuts are threatened — into the muddied Nile water. Shabbat potlucks followed with friends of all faiths and makeshift vegetarian cholent. We chanted kiddush over Egypt’s infamously mediocre Omar Khayam red wine. For Passover we gathered and broke matzo with some of the last Jews of Egypt. It was a night I could never have imagined.

Being a Jew in Cairo is not easy, but you make of it what you want. It is not a life of silence, but for me the insecurity comes because there are no clear lines about what is right and wrong. The Cairo congestion combined with a steady dose of rumors has a way of numbing reflexes.

Walking in the streets I’m an obvious foreigner. “What’s your nationality?” men at kiosks are quick to ask. In the Middle East I’ve come to know it is not uncommon to be asked your religion at the start of a conversation. In a way, it is like an American asking “What do you do?” It is a means for people to try to place you as a foreigner within a framework that they now. But sometimes when I’m close to losing it with a cat-caller in the streets, I cynically wonder to myself, ‘Would you still want me now if you knew I was Jewish?’

In over a year in Egypt and five years exploring the Middle East I have received less than a handful of hateful responses when disclosing my religion — though I also do so cautiously. When I tell Egyptian friends or acquaintances that I’m Jewish, they often say, “You know, we have no problem with Jews. We are all brothers and sisters.” Some add one caveat, “The problem, you see, is just with Israel.” Soon after, another, “You know, you really shouldn’t tell most people that.”

I know I’m not alone in having lied and said I’m Christian. Sometimes I truly felt uncomfortable about my interlocutor’s intention. “You’re not an Israeli or Jew are you?” a poor bookseller once asked in Cairo’s Azbakeya book market as I handed him the money. “Because we’re enemies.” I needed the book for class the next day, muttered a panicked no, and simply bolted away. Later I laughed with friends about this encounter, marveling at how pervasive conspiracy theories had come under decades of autocratic rule. As if I was an Israeli spy, and was going to find the secrets to Egypt’s demise in that used copy of the revered Taha Hussein’s autobiography.


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