On November 23 1956 the ancient Jewish community of Egypt was obliterated overnight.
Thousands of people, many of whose families had helped to create the country’s modern infrastructure, were expelled on the orders of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. His move was naked revenge for Israel’s role in the three-pronged attack on the country following his nationalisation of the Suez Canal.
But memories are short and when sixty years later a survivor like IBM executive, Alexandre (Alec) Nacamuli mentions that he was born in Egypt, people remark “’that’s interesting, but didn’t all the Jews leave with Moses?’”
Then there’s writer and International Forum for the Literature and Culture of Peace founder-director Dr Ada Aharoni, whose devotion to her cause far predates the modern ’second exodus’ of Jews from all Arab lands, not just Egypt.
Indeed, her interest first blossomed aged only 12 during a “Women for Peace and Equality" meeting at her grandmother’s Cairo home, where she saw “women of all ages: Muslim, Jewish and Christian women and young girls … many of them sitting on the carpet, because there were no more free chairs.”
So it is difficult to grasp that any and all inter-community goodwill in Egypt was meaningless and that in a grotesque reprise of what had happened in Nazi Germany a bare 20 years before, the Nasser regime ordered 25,000 Jews to leave the country while 1,000 more were imprisoned or sent to detention camps.
The exiles were allowed to take only a suitcase, a small amount of cash and also forced to sign declarations "donating" their property to the Egyptian government. Some Jews were even hostaged to quell potential protests.
But Aharoni’s family had already been expelled in 1949 after her father’s work permit was revoked and even then the Egyptian authorities confiscated the money he had transferred to a Swiss bank.
The family fled to France, but 16-year-old Aharoni moved on to Israel where despite everything – including two personal tragedies - she has continued writing and lecturing and has even produced a documentary movie, The Pomegranate of Reconciliation and Honour.
Aharoni, who writes in English, Hebrew and French, recently invited me to look at several of her 27 books, all devoted to her abiding concern for world peace and reconciliation, focussing largely on that between Arabs and Jews.
A favourite must be the prize winning memoir of German-Jewish Nurse Sister Thea Wolf who was head nurse at the Jewish Hospital in Alexandria during World War II and where, contrary to what I’ve written above, an extraordinary close, affectionate collaboration between all staff and local citizens helped to save many European Jews from perishing in the Holocaust.
No wonder everyone who reads Not in Vain: An Extraordinary Life is charmed by the way in which Aharoni uses Sister Wolf’s haphazard medical and diary notes, charting her life and work in an episodic Dr. Finlay's Casebook fashion, revealing a woman at once beguiling and formidable; an apparent doe-eyed innocent who is yet immensely shrewd.
Next I turn to Aharoni’s play, A Day of Honey A Day of Onions which follows the story of Egyptian Jewry’s ‘second exodus’ through the eyes of a cherished, spoilt Cairo girl and her a lover, a Holocaust survivor. Here, the author illustrates first, the sinister reality beneath apparent Muslim-Jewish cordiality and later describes the real privations endured by earlier waves of immigrants to modern Israel and even the occasional friction between those from the west (Ashkenazim) and the east (Sephardim).
The author continues her peace quest in a children’s book, Peace Flower: A Space Adventure for Children and Youth.
Then there are two poetry collections, New Poems from Israel (Not in Your War Any More) and The Pomegranate: Love and Peace Poems. Last, I looked at an edited collection of women’s writing, Women Creating a World Beyond War and Violence, where Aharoni encourages readers to reproduce parts of the book gratis “in as many languages as possible, to as many people as possible.”
Most remarkable is correspondence between a Haifa resident, the late Ruth Lys and Jehan Anwar El-Sadat, wife of the Egyptian President Anwar Sadat. Mrs Lys’s son was aged only 20 when he was killed in the opening hours of the 1967 Six Day War while Mr Sadat, who made peace with Israel in 1979, was assassinated in October 1981.
** All the books mentioned above are available on Amazon.
© Natalie Wood (16 October 2016)