The memoir of Abdel Hameed Gouda al-Sahar (1913-1974) is a rare example of an Egyptian intellectual telling of his encounters with Egyptian Jews during the country’s so-called Belle Époque era, in which Cairo was socially diverse, liberal, and cosmopolitan.
In many nostalgic memoirs about this “Belle Époque,” the era before the ousting of King Farouk by the Free Officers Movement in 1952, Egyptian intellectuals — liberal and leftist — tend to portray Egypt and Cairo in particular as space for religious tolerance and social openness.
The imagined Egypt of that time allowed a broad swath of people, irrespective of religion, race, or beliefs, to contribute to the nation’s renaissance. In the first national census issued in 1882, there was a column for foreigners in every city in the country. In Cairo’s Abdeen district, non-Egyptians were 4,390 out of 14,925. In Azbakeya, where the first Cairo Opera House was, non-Egyptians were 8,131 out of 40,368.
Starting from the 1897 census, there was a column on Egyptian “Christians, Israelites and others.” Middle-class Azbakeya was a striking example of heterogeneity. It had a population of around 28,000, of which around 15,000 were Muslim and 10,000 “Christians, Israelites and others.”
In such an atmosphere, it wasn’t strange to have a Copt, Boutros Ghali (1846-1910), as the prime minister from 1908 to 1910. Wissa Wassef, also Coptic, was speaker of parliament in 1928 and 1930. Jews also played a central role in this diverse landscape. Members of the influential Cattaui family were senators and ministers. Yaqub Sanu (1839-1912), a Jewish journalist, is considered a pioneer of the Egyptian press. Singer and composer Dawood Hosni (1870-1937) is known for spearheading the regeneration of Eastern music.
However, the presence of ordinary Jews is rare in the vast majority of writings by Egyptian intellectuals from the era. There are exceptions, of course. In Waguih Ghali’s novel “Beer in the Snooker Club” (1964), written during the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser, Ram’s beautiful girlfriend is beaten up by soldier for being Jewish. In the movie “Alexandria, Why?” (“Iskindiriya, Leh?”, 1979) by Youssef Chahine, the communist character Ibrahim has a romantic relationship in the 1940s with an Egyptian Jew named Sarah.
However, the few examples that do exist do not offer much on how Muslims and Jews were once part of the same society.
Sahar’s autobiography gives us a counter-narrative in which Jews are bad, manipulative, immoral, and greedy people. The book, “This is My Life,” was republished in 2013 in a popular edition by Egypt’s book agency. I failed to determine the exact year in which it was first published. But it seems it was written in the late 1960s or early 1970s, when anti-Jewish sentiment was reaching its peak and cosmopolitan Egypt was waning.
Sahar wrote about this cosmopolitan era but from a different perspective. Egypt was under colonial rule, and in one of the book’s most striking sentences, he writes that “Since I was born, Egypt has not experienced any time of relief. It suffered the disasters of the First World War, and as soon as the war ended, Britain imposed its protectorship over the country.”
Sahar is a well-known literary figure among traditional cultural circles. He authored scores of monographs and novels. His works on the history of Islam are still widely read, and are a major component in most of the country’s public school libraries. Moreover, his brother Said was the publisher of the novels of the legendary Naguib Mahfouz.
Contradicting all the nostalgic talk about religious tolerance during the “Belle Époque,” Sahar’s memoir is a pure example of prejudice and outright hostility towards Jews. We know that during the 1930s and 1940s Egypt witnessed an ascendancy of fascist and semi-fascist movements. However, these movements’ convictions weren’t common at all among the mainstream of Egyptian intellectuals.
But Sahar combines anti-colonial views with Judaeophobia. What is exceptional about his autobiography is not only its anti-Jewish stance but also how he represents and misrepresents Jews and Jewish tradition and culture.
Throughout the book, Sahar presents a dichotomy between Egyptians and others. The other, according to him, is every other social and religious community in the country, including Armenians, Bahá’ís, Freemasons and Jews. But his treatment of Armenians (and to some extent Bahá’ís) is gentle compared to his portrayals of Egyptian Jews, who at one point numbered around 80,000 in the first half of the 20th century.
Sahar was raised in Daher, long considered one of the finest middle-class districts of Cairo, along with nearby Abbaseya and Sakakini. This whole area witnessed a boom in Egypt’s cultural life before 1952. Theaters were built and publishing houses established. Daher and neighboring Ghamra had a population of around 15,000, according to the 1927 census, and nearly half were Christian, Jewish or foreign. So it wasn’t strange to see mosques, churches and synagogues close to each other.
Sahar, however, didn’t find this kind of existence tolerable. His intolerance had a mix of political, social and religious elements.
For example, he expresses anti-colonial sentiments, but his hatred was mostly directed at Jews rather than the British colonizers. He writes about Jews being protected by foreign powers because of the capitulations system, which lasted from 1875 until 1949 in Egypt and caused much discontent. It made foreigners and other expatriates immune from prosecution in Egyptian courts, meaning that all litigation between them and Egyptians had to be brought before mixed courts of European and Egyptian judges.
Abolishing this system was a major demand of the Egyptian national movement. Many non-Egyptians living in the country enjoyed protection under it, including Britons, Ethiopians, the French, Greeks, Italians, Spanish and the Dutch. But what was painful for Sahar was that it also protected Egyptian Jews. He wrote, “The Jews of our neighborhood were proud that they are under the protection of Britain or France … and they enjoy the capitulations.”
Historically, it’s not clear how Jews enjoying capitulations were a special case compared to other communities, but Saher claims the problem was that Egyptian Jews were born and raised in Egypt but not proud to be Egyptian. He later tells a story about his Jewish girlfriend Esther: “She claimed to be Spanish despite being born and raised in Egypt… There was not a single Jewish being proud to say he or she was Egyptian.”
He goes on: “Their arrogance makes them feel that they are a better race… Despite their small number, they established in our area a Maccabi club which they banned others from entering.”
Political justifications was not the only aspect of Judaeophobia. There were also social aspects mixed with sayings and superstitions. In one of the book’s most surprising moments, he writes: “Our families told us that the Passover pie, which Jews eat at Passover, would not be a religiously acceptable pie unless it was kneaded with the blood of a Muslim.” This claim, known as “blood libel,” that Jews slaughter children to use their blood in rituals, is an anti-Jewish European invention from the 12th century. Reading Saher’s book was the first time I heard that the superstition also existed in Egypt.
The autobiography makes bizarre links between Jews and the ills of society. Prostitution, for example, was a legal practice in Egypt since the early years of the British occupation, but Sahar also relates this to Jews. In one such incident, he says, “Most of the neighborhood’s residents were Jews. A [Jewish] boy of my age gathered some young Jewish girls… [and] he invited us to learn how to have sex with them…”
Interestingly, Saher’s Judaeophobia becomes more intense in tone when he speaks about his suffering due to a Jewish woman he loved as a young man. Fortunee was a Jewish neighbor of his, and is described as dissolute, immoral and a sexaholic.
He reports that she asked him once to accompany her in order to kill time while she was fasting. They went to her friend’s house and suddenly, “she put her hands around my neck and started kissing me. I was confused. Is this an act of a fasting girl? I wasn’t happy with what she did…”
Throughout the book, a pattern emerges of Sahar using one arbitrary incident to prove how evil Jews are. For example, he builds a whole narrative out of this incident with Fortunee.
“What Fortunee did at that day perplexed me. I didn’t understand the justifications of their [Jewish] behaviour until I grew up and read their Torah and Talmud. Adultery isn’t considered adultery until it is between a Jewish man and Jewish woman. Having sex with a non-Jew isn’t considered adultery. To steal from a non-Jew is legal. Killing a non-Jew is legal. This is because they are God’s chosen people and everybody else are the dogs of humanity.”
Surprisingly enough after all this labeling, he did not break up with Fortunee. And later on he had another Jewish girlfriend as a sort of rebound from that failed relationship.
The worst part of the autobiography is when Sahar distorts the legacy of notable Jewish characters who served the whole of Egyptian society. The clearest example is the German Jewish doctor Max Meyerhof. This notable man (who died in 1945), a relative of Nobel prize-winning physician and biochemist Otto Meyerhof, was a widely respected figure in Egypt. Newspapers from the time hail him as the man who saved scores of Egyptians from blindness. Known as Dr. Max, he managed to cure Sahar’s brother from pains he suffered in his eyes.
Instead of celebrating Dr. Max, Sahar condemns him because he was among the doctors that his family consulted and therefore paid. He wrote, “all the doctors we knew at that time [1930s-1940s] were Jews… all the people we dealt with were Jews. If we want to buy gold, we go to Massouda’s, if we consider buying cloths, our chosen store is Benzaion… Even the shopkeepers in our neighborhood were Jews. All the money we get seeps into their pockets.”
In 2013, a documentary was made about the Jewish community in Egypt. “Jews of Egypt” (‘An Yahood Masr, 2013), by Amir Ramses, was an attempt to restore the faded memories of Egypt’s so-called Belle Époque. But the dominant narrative right now is still that supported and heralded by Sahar’s anti-Jewish autobiography.