Sitting in a Cairo coffee shop, with his boyish face and gaunt physique, Amir Ramses looks at first glance like someone half his age. But the prominent 33-year-old film director has already directed three major commercial films and several acclaimed documentaries. His new film, the independently produced “Jews of Egypt,” Ramses says, is his most important feature film to date.
“There is all this offensive, racist stuff you hear about Jews in Cairo,” explains the Egyptian filmmaker as he sips a cup of coffee. “We managed during 40 years to combine or relate the concepts of Jewish, Zionist and Israeli into one word and create an enemy out of that word, although they’re not necessarily related.”
The documentary, about 90 minutes long, premiered the night before his coffee shop sit-down with the Forward, and it will not be mistaken for an olive branch to Israel. A self-described secularist in the mold of Egypt’s most famous director, his late mentor, Youssef Chahine, Ramses opposes Zionism for the same reason he opposes the concept of a Christian or a Muslim state. “I don’t believe that any country in the world should be based on religion,” he says. But he is equally adamant that hostility toward Israel or Zionism is a lousy excuse for anti-Semitism.
The goal of the film, Ramses says, is to disentangle Judaism from Zionism in a country whose enmity for its northern neighbor has long served as the lifeblood of widespread anti-Jewish prejudice. The film does so by recreating the years in which some 80,000 Jews lived in Egypt, mostly in Cairo and Alexandria, amid Muslims and Christians in a cosmopolitan potpourri that seems impossibly distant today. And it does not shrink from describing the brutality with which these natives of Egypt were expelled en masse, as recalled in their own words.
The October 6 unveiling of Ramses’s film at the week-long Panorama of the European Film in Cairo coincided with a hallowed date in Egyptian history. On that date in 1973, Egypt’s army crossed the Suez Canal in a surprise attack on Israeli forces that produced its most celebrated modern military triumph. Even as the film opened, Egypt’s new, democratically elected Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, was commemorating the attack in a major address before tens of thousands inside Cairo Stadium. But the lobby of the Galaxy Theatre in Cairo’s Manial District, was also packed to the gills, albeit with a smaller crowd, well before the film’s 6:30 p.m. start time. In fact, so many flocked to the theater that organizers had to scramble to organize a second screening later in the evening.
There was a touch of the taboo in the event — a chance to engage a piece of Egyptian history long suppressed and ignored, and vaguely shameful, in contrast to the loud declarations of pride that characterized the larger gathering.
The film highlights a substantial Jewish community in Egypt during the first half of the 20th century for whom Zionism held remarkably little appeal. A heterogeneous mix, Egypt’s Jews had roots in the country that predated Islam. They included Mizrahim, descended from Jews who had lived there since ancient times; Sephardim, who emigrated in large numbers from Spain in 1492, and Ashkenazim, who came to Egypt fleeing persecution in Europe during the 19th century. There was also a community of Karaites — Jews whose forbears had rejected the authority of the Talmud and the rabbis in the early Middle Ages, and who hewed instead to a Judaism based on the Torah alone.
Egypt’s Jews considered themselves full-fledged members of Egyptian society. Those Ramses tracked down in Western Europe, where many ultimately migrated, recall an almost idyllic Egypt in which diverse faiths easily coexisted, particularly in centers like Cairo and Alexandria.
Comfortably ensconced in society, Egypt’s Jews eyed the Zionist project warily. Many were aware of the potential repercussions for them of burgeoning tensions in Palestine. With Israel’s founding, those fears were quickly realized as thousands were expelled and others intimidated into flight.
And yet, the vast majority did not head for Israel. “For us, Israel was the country for the oppressed Jews,” says one émigré in the film who now resides in Europe, “and the Egyptian Jews were not oppressed.” Instead, they headed en masse to places like France and Italy, from where many retained close ties to Egypt. In France, the exiled founder and leader of Egypt’s Communist party, Henri Curiel, even got his hands on a copy of the Israeli-Anglo-French plan to attack Egypt 20 days in advance of the 1956 strike and forwarded it on to President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser dismissed the Egyptian Jew’s warning as implausible.
Except for the opening shots of the film, in which a few Egyptians on the street share their thoughts on Jews and Judaism (“They are damned,” says one; “[They are] enemies of Islam in everything,” inveighs another), Ramses steers clear of the contemporary. “Jews of Egypt” is an ode to a lost past. And yet, implicit in that nod to the past is a searing indictment of the present.
“I guess the comparison is really there without saying it,” Ramses reflected. “And also the contemporary part is the part we’re living, so I guess the film indirectly makes some comparison with the situation that you are already seeing around you and the one you are seeing in the movie.”
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 firstname.lastname@example.org