[ places - december 02 ]
Leila was wizened and bent-over, giving the impression that she carried the cares of the world on her old shoulders. Yet, there was still a light in her dark eyes, as she prepared the hot coals soon to glow atop her tall, antiquated Yemeni narghileh (water-pipe).
As she sat each evening sipping from a small cup of Arabic gawha and smoking on her porch, she would struggle with her fading memory to recall every detail of her far away home.
Home was a land where the pace of life was slow and everyone got along, a land where religious differences were of little consequence and where, although its people were mostly poor, almost everyone wore a permanent smile. This was a warm land of decency and hospitality.
In the country of Leila's birth, people left their front doors open so that neighbours and friends could pop in for a friendly gossip, where crime was almost non-existent and where people dressed and behaved in a modest fashion, respectful of their maker. Leila still recoiled in horror and said a prayer at the sight of an overturned shoe, thought by her community to be an insult to God.
In this new land, she sought to re-create the ambience of the old and invited her old friends every Saturday afternoon to feast on chorba (stew) made from chicken, onions, garlic, potatoes and tomatoes, flavoured with 'dukka' her own mix of ground spices and fresh coriander leaves. After the chorba was 'mishui' - beef cooked on a slow heat in the oven for hours until it fell apart in strands.
Leila had spent nearly all her life in Aden, yet she could no longer visit the small house where she was born, or the simple dwelling to which she moved after marriage at 15 and where she bore her four sons. She could no longer bake bread in her clay oven or visit the unmarked graves where her husband and her fifth stillborn child were buried.
Still speaking Arabic with a Yemeni dialect, Leila had somewhere along the road become an Israeli. She was one of 43,000 Yemeni Jews, who had been promised a dream and spirited away by Israel between 1949 and 1950. This secret exodus was codenamed 'Operation Flying-carpet'.
They had told her that the Arabs were bad people and that she and her small sons would be murdered if they stayed. At first she hadn't believed them because her community had always traded their handcrafted silver jewellery with their Moslem neighbours and many had become life-long friends. They had even attended each other's wedding parties and exchanged gifts during holidays.
As news of skirmishes between Jews and Moslems began to trickle through, Leila, then a young widow, reluctantly packed her family's prized possessions and waited with trepidation for the big birds to lift her and her children into the sky from where they would be deposited in the Promised Land.
For Leila the promises turned out to be empty. Unable to speak a word of Hebrew and with very little English, Leila and her compatriots were treated as second-class citizens by their westernised cousins who had fled Europe and the Soviet Union. The Yemeni Jews, along with those from Morocco, Iran, Iraq, Egypt and other Arab lands were given menial jobs and shuttled into barren or poorer areas, which gradually evolved into little more than ghettoes.
They were told to forget their memories and their Arab culture and instead, to work on adopting Ashkenazi habits and customs. The Eastern chants emanating from their synagogues were considered too reminiscent of the prayers in the mosques, and their music the antithesis of the more 'cultured' tones of Brahms or Bach.
The privileged Europeans frowned on their children marrying an Eastern Jew and for the very first time in their lives the immigrants from Arab lands experienced the full force of 'racism'.
Under the constant pressure to assimilate into a European/Eastern European culture, the Arab Jews have almost lost their own along with their history.
Most of the descendants of the Arab Jews, or Mizrahim who arrived in Israel after the birth of the state in 1948 know little about their fast disappearing heritage and care even less. However, there are still some who bitterly regret its demise, such as Ella Habiba Shohat, an Iraqi-born Israeli university professor.
She recalls the story of her grandmother, who upon arrival in Israel in the 50s from Baghdad was convinced that the people who 'looked, spoke and eat so differently the European Jews were actually European Christians.
Shohat writes: "My grandmother, who still lives in Israel and communicates largely in Arabic, had to be taught to speak of 'us' as Jews and 'them' as Arabs. For Middle Easterners, the operating distinction had always been 'Muslim', 'Jew' and 'Christian' not Arab verses Jew".
She remembers the pull of different loyalties, which she experienced during the Gulf War when Iraqi Scuds fell on Israel where she has relatives, and when American missiles were unleashed on Baghdad, her childhood home.
She complains: "The Jewish experience in the Muslim world has often been portrayed as an unending nightmare of oppression and humiliation, and although there was occasional discrimination, tension and even violence, on the whole we lived quite comfortably within Muslim societies".
The attempts to obliterate the history of the Arab Jews also extend to the Diaspora. American Sephardi writer David Shasha echoes Shohat's feelings.
While reviewing Lucien Gubbay's book Sunlight and Shadows, he wrote: "the largest dilemma currently facing the Sephardim is the problem of self-knowledge. Our children who attend American Jewish day schools are faced exclusively with Ashkenazi oriented curricula and administrators and teachers, who, even if they are Sephardi in ethnic origin, have been trained in the methods of the ubiquitous Board of Jewish Education..."
He goes on to say: "With the recent political struggles in Israel over Palestinian rights, the Israeli government, with the help of academics and the benighted Sephardim themselves, has been able to manipulate the complex history of the Jews of the Middle East".
Lucien Gubbay's book expresses the view that "there was nothing of what we could call racism or personal antipathy to Jews as a people, as could quite easily be found in European Christendom".
While it is true to say that the Baghdadi Jews suffered the Shavuot massacre (Farhud) in 1941, when incited Arabs descended upon them murdering, raping and pillaging, this tragic incident was the exception rather than the rule.
The Jews of Egypt, certainly, lived well, many better than their Moslem cousins. They were mostly well to do, owning cotton plantations and mills, agricultural farms, coffee wholesalers, shipyards, fabric stores and jewellery shops.
They were architects, professors and doctors, sending their children to the best private schools, such as Victoria College and St Mark in Alexandria. They were frequent patrons of the Cairo Opera House and were members of the exclusive, Colonial-style Al Gazira Club.
Today there are very few Jews left in Egypt - certainly not enough for a minyan, yet the few remaining synagogues are guarded rigorously by the Egyptian military. An elderly man and woman (not related) still take care of the Nabi Daniel synagogue in downtown Alexandria and also help out with the sale of Jewish-owned property.
When asked why they stayed behind, they both said that they were too old to move on, and, in any case, someone had to look after the loose ends. Neither complained of any discrimination or threats but admitted that they kept a low profile in the society.
They proudly showed me around the synagogue, although (as I later discovered), as a non-Jew, I should have taken permission from the Egyptian government. On the wall of the entrance was a large, highly polished wooden board upon which were names of those who had financially supported the synagogue over the past century.
To my surprise, many of the names were Moslem, including one Ramadan Bey. Inside, the backs of the benches were affixed with plaques displaying the names of benefactors. I wondered whether the Cohens, the Levis, the Sassoons, the Corals and others were still alive.
Fatima Ahmed, an octogenarian Alexandrine who was born in the city's once predominantly Jewish neighbourhood, remembers with affection the Jewish friends of her youth. She recalls befriending the Sassoon family as a teenager, whose brood referred to her as Mama Fatma. Later in life, she met up by chance with one of the children, now a doctor in London, and speaks of it as an emotional moment for both of them.
Fatima recalls little animosity from the Moslem community towards the Jews until 1948, when the plight of the Palestinians came under the focus of the Arab world.
Once Israel was formed, resentment against the Jews in Egypt increased until it peaked in the 1967 war, when by that time most Egyptian Jews had relocated to the US, Europe, South America or Israel. Today, she is incredulous and disappointed that Oriental Jews have forgotten their friendships with Arabs cemented in their youth, choosing instead to unconditionally support the policies of the Israeli government vis-à-vis the Palestinians.
Fatima lives today in a rambling, now decrepit, villa, previously the home of Jacques Coral, a Jewish architect. In the corner of the enormous salon still stands a rosewood bookcase stuffed with musty French, English and Hebrew volumes and faded pre-war magazines.
I picked out a copy of Black Beauty and read the poignant message inside the flyleaf: "to our dearest son on his 14th birthday from your loving Mama and Papa". She showed me a torn and dusty folder containing copperplate correspondence between father and son, when Coral junior was away at school in France.
The missives were written in the early 50s and it wasn't surprising in those post-Holocaust days that Jacques Coral ordered his son to keep his Jewish origins secret. As the Corals were preparing to leave Egypt, the correspondence came to an abrupt end.
Tucked at the back of the folder were black-and-white studio photographs. As I looked at the smiling aristocratic faces of Monsieur and Madam Coral and their two teenage children, I felt like an intruder, and, saddened, put an abrupt end to my journey into the past.
If we look back at history, we can see that Jews were often treated far better in the Arab world than they were in Christian lands. Jewish writers, poets, scholars, singers and composers were prominent in the cultural life of the Mid-East and North Africa, while some occupied high positions in the government and the judiciary. Ella Shohat says that it is ironic that it took the Arab Jews until 1990 to reach such heights in the Jewish state of Israel.
Today, there are still substantial Jewish communities in Morocco and Tunisia. In the case of Morocco, they live under the direct protection of the King. Many have visited Israel, and are free to emigrate at any time, yet prefer to stay where they are.
At one time there were hundreds of thousands of Jews in Algeria, but most left along with the French as they were considered French citizens. One such was the singer Enrico Macias who fondly recalls his home country in the words of a song: O soleil, soleil du mon pays perdu.
Jews and Arabs are today separated by bitterness and recriminations, while both sides look to the West to be the arbiter of peace in the region. Ironically, it was the Europeans who created the seemingly unbridgeable divide in the first place.
The Holocaust and the pogroms perpetrated against Jews were European and Eastern European atrocities, which fuelled the ambitions of the 'father of Zionism' Ze'ev Jabotinsky and his followers for a Jewish homeland.
The United States should share much of the blame for the growing animosity between Arabs and Jews. The superpower could have brought peace and security to the region at any time of its choosing. Instead, it has become Israel's mentor, feeding it regularly with American tax dollars and sophisticated weaponry out of geopolitical self-interest.
Admittedly former presidents Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton tried their utmost to forge positive links between Israel and her hostile neighbours, but George W Bush has succeeded in destroying decades of effort.
Nowadays, the offspring of the Jews from Arab lands often share the same goals and aspirations of some of their more ruthless leaders and view the Palestinians and the Arabs with suspicion born of ignorance. Israel's SHAS party is made up of such individuals who are more fervent in their pursuit of a Greater Israel than even Likudists Ariel Sharon and Benjamin Netanyahu.
David Shasha explains this by saying: "having lived since 1948 as second class citizens in the Jewish state, Sephardim have continually sought to displace their rage at the Arabs and are presented, or rather have been manipulated into 'Arab haters'".
If not for the destructive intervention of the West would Jews and Arabs today be living in harmony with one another? Sadly, we might never have the chance to find out.
As for Leila, she died in a Tel Aviv hospice, surrounded by her children and grandchildren, whispering pleasant stories of her girlhood in Aden, some of the last to ever pass her lips.