August 15, 2022
In the first half of the 20th century, Egypt went through profound social and political upheavals culminating in the rise of President Gamal Abdel Nasser and his campaign of Arabization, creating an oppressive atmosphere for the country’s Jews, and leading almost all to flee or be kicked out of the country.
Hear the personal story of award-winning author André Aciman as he recounts the heart-wrenching details of the pervasive antisemitism during his childhood in Alexandria and his family’s expulsion in 1965, which he wrote about in his memoir Out of Egypt, and also inspired his novel Call Me by Your Name.
Joining Aciman is Deborah Starr, a professor of Near Eastern and Jewish Studies at Cornell University, who chronicles the history of Egypt’s Jewish community that dates back millennia, and the events that led to their erasure from Egypt’s collective memory.
Aciman’s modern-day Jewish exodus story is one that touches on identity, belonging, and nationality: Where is your home when you become a refugee at age 14?
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ANDRÉ ACIMAN: I've lived in New York for 50 years. Is it my home? Not really. But Egypt was never going to be my home. It had become oppressive to be Jewish.
MANYA BRACHEAR PASHMAN: The world has overlooked an important episode in modern history: the 800,000 Jews who left or were driven from their homes in Arab nations and Iran in the mid-20th century. This series, brought to you by American Jewish Committee, explores that pivotal moment in Jewish history and the rich Jewish heritage of Iran and Arab nations as some begin to build relations with Israel. I'm your host, Manya Brachear Pashman. Join us as we explore family histories and personal stories of courage, perseverance, and resilience.
This is The Forgotten Exodus. Today's episode: leaving Egypt.
Author André Aciman can’t stand Passover Seders. They are long and tedious. Everyone gets hungry long before it’s time to eat. It’s also an unwelcome reminder of when André was 14 and his family was forced to leave Egypt – the only home he had ever known. On their last night there, he recounts his family gathered for one last Seder in his birthplace.
ANDRÉ: By the time I was saying goodbye, the country, Egypt, had essentially become sort of Judenrein.
MANYA: Judenrein is the term of Nazi origin meaning “free of Jews”. Most, if not all of the Jews, had already left.
ANDRÉ: By the time we were kicked out, we were kicked out literally from Egypt, my parents had already had a life in Egypt. My mother was born in Egypt, she had been wealthy. My father became wealthy. And of course, they had a way of living life that they knew they were abandoning. They had no idea what was awaiting them. They knew it was going to be different, but they had no sense. I, for one, being younger, I just couldn't wait to leave. Because it had become oppressive to be Jewish. As far as I was concerned, it was goodbye. Thank you very much. I’m going.
MANYA: André Aciman is best known as the author whose novel inspired the Oscar-winning film Call Me By Your Name – which is as much a tale of coming to terms with being Jewish and a minority, as it is an exquisite coming of age love story set in a villa on the Italian Riviera.
What readers and moviegoers didn’t know is that the Italian villa is just a stand-in. The story’s setting– its distant surf, serpentine architecture, and lush gardens where Elio and Oliver’s romance blooms and Elio’s spiritual awakening unfolds – is an ode to André’s lost home, the coastal Egyptian city of Alexandria.
There, three generations of his Sephardic family had rebuilt the lives they left behind elsewhere as the Ottoman Empire crumbled, two world wars unfolded, a Jewish homeland was born, and nationalistic fervor swept across the Arab world and North Africa. There, in Alexandria, his family had enjoyed a cosmopolitan city and vibrant Jewish home. Until they couldn’t and had to leave.
ANDRÉ: I would be lying if I said that I didn't project many things lost into my novels. In other words, to be able to re-experience the beach, I created a beach house. And that beach house has become, as you know, quite famous around the world. But it was really a portrait of the beach house that we had lost in Egypt.
And many things like that, I pilfer from my imagined past and dump into my books. And people always tell me, ‘God, you captured Italy so well.’
Actually, that was not Italy, I hate to tell you. It was my reimagined or reinvented Egypt transposed into Italy and made to come alive again.
MANYA: Before he penned Call Me By Your Name, André wrote his first book, Out of Egypt, a touching memoir about his family’s picturesque life in Alexandria, the underlying anxiety that it could always vanish and how, under the nationalization effort led by Egypt’s President Gamel Abdel Nassar, it did vanish. The memoir ends with the events surrounding the family’s last Passover Seder before they say farewell.
ANDRÉ: This was part of the program of President Nasser, which was to take, particularly Alexandria, and turn it into an Egyptian city, sort of, purified of all European influences. And it worked.
As, by the way, and this is the biggest tragedy that happens to, particularly to Jews, is when a culture decides to expunge its Jews or to remove them in one way or another, it succeeds. It does succeed. You have a sense that it is possible for a culture to remove an entire population. And this is part of the Jewish experience to accept that this happens.
MANYA: Egypt did not just expunge its Jewish community. It managed to erase Jews from the nation’s collective memory. Only recently have people begun to rediscover the centuries of rich Jewish history in Egypt, including native Egyptian Jews dating back millennia.
In addition, Egypt became a destination for Jews expelled from Spain in the 15th Century. And after the Suez Canal opened in 1869, a wave of more Jews came from the Ottoman Empire, Italy, and Greece. And at the end of the 19th Century, Ashkenazi Jews arrived, fleeing from European pogroms.
DEBORAH STARR: The Jewish community in Egypt was very diverse. The longest standing community in Egypt would have been Arabic speaking Jews, we would say now Mizrahi Jews.
MANYA: That’s Deborah Starr, Professor of Modern Arabic and Hebrew Literature and Film at Cornell University. Her studies of cosmopolitan Egypt through a lens of literature and cinema have given her a unique window into how Jews arrived and left Egypt and how that history has been portrayed. She says Jews had a long history in Egypt through the Islamic period and a small population remained in the 19th century. Then a wave of immigration came.
DEBORAH: We have an economic boom in Egypt. Jews start coming from around the Ottoman Empire, from around the Mediterranean, emigrating to Egypt from across North Africa. And so, from around 5,000 Jews in the middle of the 19th century, by the middle of the 20th century, at its peak, the Egyptian Jews numbered somewhere between 75 and 80,000. So, it was a significant increase, and you know, much more so than just the birth rate would explain.
MANYA: André’s family was part of that wave, having endured a series of exiles from Spain, Italy, and Turkey, before reaching Egypt.
DEBORAH: Egypt has its independence movement, the 1919 revolution, which is characterized by this discourse of coexistence, that ‘we’re all in this together.’ There are images of Muslims and Christians marching together.
Jews were also supportive of this movement. There’s this real sense of a plurality, of a pluralist society in Egypt, that’s really evident in the ways that this movement is characterized.
The interwar period is really this very vibrant time in Egyptian culture, but also this time of significant transition in its relationship to the British in the various movements, political movements that emerge in this period, and movements that will have a huge impact on the fate of the Jews of Egypt in the coming decades.
MANYA: One of those movements was Zionism, the movement to establish a Jewish state in the biblical homeland of the Jews. In 1917, during the First World War, the British government occupying Egypt at the time, issued a public statement of support for the establishment of a "national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine, still an Ottoman region with a small minority Jewish population. That statement became known as the Balfour Declaration.
DEBORAH: There was certainly evidence of a certain excitement about the Balfour Declaration of 1917. A certain amount of general support for the idea that Jews are going to live there, but not a whole lot of movement themselves.
But we also have these really interesting examples of people who were on the record as supporting, of seeing themselves as Egyptians, as part of the anti-colonial Egyptian nationalism, who also gave financial support to the Jewish project in Palestine. And so, so there wasn't this sense of—you can't be one or the other. There wasn't this radical split.
MANYA: Another movement unfolding simultaneously was the impulse to reclaim Egypt’s independence, not just in legal terms – Egypt had technically gained independence from the British in 1922 – but suddenly what it meant to be Egyptian was defined against this foreign colonial power that had imposed its will on Egypt for years and still maintained a significant presence.
DEBORAH: We also see moves within Egypt, toward the ‘Egyptianization’ of companies or laws that start saying, we want to, we want to give priority to our citizens, because the economy had been so dominated by either foreigners or people who were local but had foreign nationality. And this begins to disproportionately affect the Jews.
Because so many of the Jews, you know, had been immigrants a generation or two earlier, some of them had either achieved protected status or, you know, arrived with papers from, from one or another of these European powers.
MANYA: In 1929, Egypt adopted its first law giving citizenship to its residents. But it was not universally applied. By this time, the conflict in Palestine and the rise of Zionism had shifted how the Egyptian establishment viewed Jews.
DEBORAH: Particularly the Jews who had lived there for a really long time, some of whom were among the lower classes, who didn't travel to Europe every summer and didn't need papers to prove their citizenship, by the time they started seeing that it was worthwhile for them to get citizenship, it was harder for Jews to be approved. So, by the end, we do have a pretty substantial number of Jews who end up stateless.
MANYA: Stateless. But not for long. In 1948, the Jewish state declared independence. In response, King Farouk of Egypt joined four other Arab nations in declaring war on the newly formed nation. And they lost.
The Arab nations’ stunning defeat in that first Arab-Israeli War sparked a clandestine movement to overthrow the Egyptian monarchy, which was still seen as being in the pocket of the British. One of the orchestrators of that plot, known as the Free Officers Movement, was Col. Gamel Abdel Nassar. In 1952, a coup sent King Farouk on his way to Italy and Nassar eventually emerged as president. The official position of the Nassar regime was one of tolerance for the Jews. But that didn’t always seem to be the case.
DEBORAH: Between 1948 and ‘52, you do have a notable number of Jews who leave Egypt at this point who see the writing on the wall. Maybe they don't have very deep roots in Egypt, they've only been there for one or two generations, they have another nationality, they have someplace to go.
About a third of the Jews who leave Egypt in the middle of the 20th century go to Europe, France, particularly. To a certain extent Italy. About a third go to the Americas, and about a third go to Israel. And among those who go to Israel, it's largely those who end up stateless. They have no place else to go because of those nationality laws that I mentioned earlier, have no choice but to go to Israel.
MANYA: Those who stayed became especially vulnerable to the Nassar regime’s sequestration of businesses. Then in 1956, Egypt nationalized the Suez Canal, a 120-mile-long waterway that connected the Mediterranean Sea to the Indian Ocean by way of the Red Sea – that same waterway that created opportunities for migration in the region a century earlier.
DEBORAH: The real watershed moment is the 1956 Suez conflict. Israel, in collaboration with France, and Great Britain attacks Egypt, the conflict breaks out, you know, the French and the British come into the war on the side of the Israelis. And each of the powers has their own reasons for wanting, I mean, Nasser's threatening Israeli shipping, and, threatening the security of Israel, the French and the British, again, have their own reasons for trying to either take back the canal, or, just at least bring Nassar down a peg.
MANYA: At war with France and Britain, Egypt targeted and expelled anyone with French and British nationality, including many Jews, but not exclusively.
DEBORAH: But this is also the moment where I think there's a big pivot in how Jews feel about being in Egypt. And so, we start seeing larger waves of emigration, after 1956. So, this is really sort of the peak of the wave of emigration.
MANYA: André’s family stayed. They already had endured a series of exiles. His father, an aspiring writer who copied passages by Marcel Proust into his diary, had set that dream aside to open a textile factory, rebuild from nothing what the family had lost elsewhere, and prepare young André to eventually take over the family business. He wasn’t about to walk away from the family fortune – again.
DEBORAH: André Aciman’s story is quite, as I said, the majority of the Jewish community leaves in the aftermath of 1956. And his family stays a lot longer. So, he has incredible insights into what happens over that period, where the community has already significantly diminished.
MANYA: Indeed, over the next nine years, the situation worsened. The Egyptian government took his father’s factory, monitored their every move, frequently called the house with harassing questions about their whereabouts, or knocked on the door to issue warrants for his father’s arrest, only to bring him in for more interrogation. As much as André’s father clung to life in Egypt, it was becoming a less viable option with each passing day.
ANDRÉ: He knew that the way Egypt was going, there was no room for him, really. And I remember during the last two years, in our last two years in Egypt, there wAs constantly references to the fact that we were going to go, this was not lasting, you know, what are we going to do? Where do we think we should go? And so on and so forth. So, this was a constant sort of conversation we were having.
MANYA: Meanwhile, young André encountered a level of antisemitism that scarred him deeply and shaped his perception of how the world perceives Jews.
ANDRÉ: It was oppressive in good part because people started throwing stones in the streets. So, there was a sense of ‘Get out of here. We don't want you here.’
MANYA: It was in the streets and in the schools, which were undergoing an Arabization after the end of British rule, making Arabic the new lingua franca and antisemitism the norm.
ANDRÉ: There's no question that antisemitism was now rooted in place. In my school, where I went, I went to a British school, but it had become Egyptian, although they taught English, predominantly English, but we had to take Arabic classes, in sort of social sciences, in history, and in Arabic as well. And in the Arabic class, which I took for many years, I had to study poems that were fundamentally anti-Jewish. Not just anti-Israeli, which is a big distinction that people like to make, it doesn't stick. I was reading and reciting poems that were against me.
And the typical cartoon for a Jew was a man with a beard, big tummy, hook nose, and I knew ‘This is really me, isn't it? OK.’ And so you look at yourself with a saber, right, running through it with an Egyptian flag. And I'll never forget this. This was, basically I was told that this is something I had to learn and accept and side with – by the teachers, and by the books themselves.
And the irony of the whole thing is that one of the best tutors we had, was actually the headmaster of the Jewish school. He was Jewish in very sort of—very Orthodox himself. And he was teaching me how to recite those poems that were anti-Jewish. And of course, he had to do it with a straight face.
MANYA: One by one, Jewish neighbors lost their livelihoods and unable to overcome the stigma, packed their bags and left. In his memoir, André recalls how prior to each family’s departure, the smell of leather lingered in their homes from the dozens of suitcases they had begun to pack. By 1965, the smell of leather began to waft through André’s home.
ANDRÉ: Eventually, one morning, or one afternoon, I came back from school. And my father said to me, ‘You know, they don't want us here anymore.’ Those were exactly the words he used. ‘They don't want us here.’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ ‘Well, they've expelled us.’
And I was expelled with my mother and my brother, sooner than my father was. So, we had to leave the country. We realized we were being expelled, maybe in spring, and we left in May. And so, for about a month or so, the house was a mess because there were suitcases everywhere, and people. My mother was packing constantly, constantly. But we knew we were going to go to Italy, we knew we had an uncle in Italy who was going to host us, or at least make life livable for us when we arrived.
We had obtained Italian papers, obtained through various means. I mean, whatever. They're not exactly legitimate ways of getting a citizenship, but it was given to my father, and he took it. And we changed our last name from Ajiman, which is how it was pronounced, to Aciman because the Italians saw the C and assumed it was that.
My father had some money in Europe already. So that was going to help us survive. But we knew my mother and I and my brother, that we were now sort of functionally poor.
MANYA: In hindsight, André now knows the family’s expulsion at that time was the best thing that could have happened. Two years later, Israel trounced Egypt in the Six-Day War, nearly destroying the Egyptian Air Force, taking control of the Gaza Strip and the entire Sinai Peninsula, as well as territory from Egypt’s allies in the conflict, Syria and Jordan. The few remaining Jews in Egypt were sent to internment camps, including the chief rabbis of Cairo and Alexandria and the family of one of André’s schoolmates whose father was badly beaten.
After three years in Italy, André’s family joined his mother’s sister in America, confirming once and for all that their life in Egypt was gone.
ANDRÉ: I think there was a kind of declaration of their condition. In other words, they never overcame the fact that they had lost a way of life. And of course, the means to sustain that life was totally taken away, because they were nationalized, and had their property sequestered, everything was taken away from them. So, they were tossed into the wild sea.
My mother basically knew how to shut the book on Egypt, she stopped thinking about Egypt, she was an American now. She was very happy to have become a citizen of the United States.
Whereas my father, who basically was the one who had lost more than she had, because he had built his own fortune himself, never overcame it. And so, he led a life of the exile who continues to go to places and to restaurants that are costly, but that he can still manage to afford if he watches himself. So, he never took cabs, he always took the bus. Then he lived a pauper’s life, but with good clothing, because he still had all his clothing from his tailor in Egypt. But it was a bit of a production, a performance for him.
MANYA: André’s father missed the life he had in Egypt. André longs for the life he could’ve had there.
ANDRÉ: I was going to study in England, I was going to come back to Egypt, I was going to own the factory. This was kind of inscribed in my genes at that point. And of course, you give up that, as I like to say, and I've written about this many times, is that whatever you lose, or whatever never happened, continues to sort of sub-exist somewhere in your mind. In other words, it's something that has been taken away from you, even though it never existed.
MANYA: But like his mother, André moved on. In fact, he says moving on is part of the Jewish experience. Married with sons of his own, he now is a distinguished professor at the Graduate Center of City University of New York, teaching the history of literary theory. He is also one of the foremost experts on Marcel Proust, that French novelist whose passages his father once transcribed in his diaries. André’s own novels and anthologies have won awards and inspired Academy Award-winning screenplays. Like Israel opened its doors and welcomed all of those stateless Egyptian Jews, America opened doors for André. Going to college in the Bronx after growing up in Egypt and Italy? That introduced him to being openly Jewish.
ANDRÉ: I went to Lehman College, as an undergraduate, I came to the States in September. I came too late to go to college, but I went to an event at that college in October or November, and already people were telling me they were Jewish.
You know, ‘I'm Jewish, and this and that,’ and, and so I felt ‘Oh, God, it's like, you mean people can be natural about their Judaism? And so, I began saying to people, ‘I'm Jewish, too,’ or I would no longer feel this sense of hiding my Jewishness, which came when I came to America. Not before. Not in Italy. Not in Egypt certainly.
But the experience of being in a place that was fundamentally all Jewish, like being in the Bronx in 1968, was mind opening for me, it was: I can let everything down, I can be Jewish like everybody else. It's no longer a secret. I don't have to pretend that I was a Protestant when I didn't even know what kind of Protestant I was.
As a person growing up in an antisemitic environment. You have many guards, guardrails in place, so you know how not to let it out this way, or that way or this other way. You don't speak about matzah. You don't speak about charoset. You don't speak about anything, so as to prevent yourself from giving out that you're Jewish.
MANYA: Though the doors had been flung open and it felt much safer to be openly Jewish, André to this day cannot forget the antisemitism that poisoned his formative years.
ANDRÉ: I assume that everybody's antisemitic at some point. It is very difficult to meet someone who is not Jewish, who, after they've had many drinks, will not turn out to be slightly more antisemitic than you expected. It is there. It's culturally dominant. And so, you have to live with this. As my grandmother used to say, I'm just giving this person time until I discover how antisemitic they are. It was always a question of time.
MANYA: His family’s various displacements and scattered roots in Spain, Turkey, Egypt, Italy, and now America, have led him to question his identity and what he calls home.
ANDRÉ: I live with this sense of: I don't know where I belong. I don't know who I am. I don't know any of those things. What’s my flag? I have no idea. Where's my home? I don't know. I live in New York. I've lived in New York for 50 years. Is it my home? Not really. But Egypt was never going to be my home.
MANYA: André knew when he was leaving Egypt that he would one day write a book about the experience. He knew he should take notes, but never did. And like his father, he started a diary, but it was lost. He started another in 1969.
After completing his dissertation, he began to write book reviews for Commentary, a monthly American magazine on religion, Judaism and politics founded and published, at the time, by American Jewish Committee.
The editor suggested André write something personal, and that was the beginning of Out of Egypt. In fact, three chapters of his memoir, including The Last Seder, appeared in Commentary before it was published as a book in 1994.
André returned to Egypt shortly after its release. But he has not been back since, even though his sons want to accompany him on a trip.
ANDRÉ: They want to go back, because they want to go back with me. Question is, I don't want to put them in danger. You never know. You never know how people will react to . . . I mean, I'll go back as a writer who wrote about Egypt and was Jewish. And who knows what awaits me? Whether it will be friendly, will it be icy and chilly. Or will it be hostile? I don't know. And I don't want to put myself there.
In other words, the view of the Jews has changed. It went to friendly, to enemy, to friendly, enemy, enemy, friendly, and so on, so forth. In other words, it is a fundamentally unreliable situation.
MANYA: He also doesn’t see the point. It’s impossible to recapture the past. The pictures he sees don’t look familiar and the people he used to know with affection have died. But he doesn’t want the past to be forgotten. None of it. He wants the world to remember the vibrant Jewish life that existed in Cairo and Alexandria, as well as the vile hatred that drove all but a handful of Jews out of Egypt.
Cornell Professor Deborah Starr says for the first time in many years, young Egyptians are asking tough questions about the Arabization of Egyptian society and how that affected Egyptian Jews. Perhaps, Israel and Zionism did not siphon Jewish communities from the Arab world as the story often goes. Perhaps instead, Israel offered a critical refuge for a persecuted community.
DEBORAH: I think it's really important to tell the stories of Mizrahi Jews. I think that, particularly here we are speaking in English to an American audience, where the majority of Jews in North America are Ashkenazi, we have our own identity, we have our own stories. But there are also other stories that are really interesting to tell, and are part of the history of Jews in the 20th and 21st centuries. They're part of the Jewish experience. And so that's some of what has always motivated me in my research, and looking at the stories of coexistence among Jews and their neighbors in Egypt.
MANYA: Professor Starr says the rise of Islamist forces like the Muslim Brotherhood has led Egyptians to harken back toward this period of tolerance and coexistence, evoking a sense of nostalgia.
DEBORAH: The people are no longer living together. But it's worth remembering that past, it's worth reflecting on it in an honest way, and not, to look at the nostalgia and say: oh, look, these people are nostalgic about it, what is it that they're nostalgic for? What are some of the motivations for that nostalgia? How are they characterizing this experience? But also to look kind of critically on the past and understand, where things were working where things weren't and, and to tell the story in an honest way.
MANYA: Though the communities are gone, there has been an effort to restore the evidence of Jewish life. Under Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi, Egypt’s president since 2014, there have been initiatives to restore and protect synagogues and cemeteries, including Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in Alexandria, Maimonides’ original yeshiva in old Cairo, and Cairo’s vast Jewish cemetery at Bassatine. But André is unmoved by this gesture.
ANDRÉ: In fact, I got a call from the Egyptian ambassador to my house here, saying, ‘We're fixing the temples and the synagogues, and we want you back.’ ‘Oh, that's very nice. First of all,’ I told him, ‘fixing the synagogues doesn't do anything for me because I'm not a religious Jew. And second of all, I would be more than willing to come back to Egypt, when you give me my money back.’ He never called me again.
MANYA: Anytime the conversation about reparations comes up, it is overshadowed by the demand for reparations for Palestinians displaced by the creation of Israel, even though their leaders have rejected all offers for a Palestinian state. André wishes the Arab countries that have attacked Israel time and again would invest that money in the welfare of Palestinian refugees, help them start new lives, and to thrive instead of using them as pawns in a futile battle.
He will always be grateful to HIAS, the Hebrew Immigrant Aid Society, for helping his family escape, resettle, and rebuild their lives.
ANDRÉ: We’ve made new lives for ourselves. We’ve moved on, and I think this is what Jews do all the time, all the time. They arrive or they’re displaced, kicked out, they refashion themselves.
Anytime I can help a Jew I will. Because they've helped me, because it's the right thing to do for a Jew. If a Jew does not help another Jew, what kind of a Jew are you? I mean, you could be a nonreligious Jew as I am, but I am still Jewish.
And I realize that we are a people that has historically suffered a great deal, because we were oppressed forever, and we might be oppressed again. Who knows, ok? But we help each other, and I don't want to break that chain.
MANYA: Egyptian Jews are just one of the many Jewish communities who in the last century left Arab countries to forge new lives for themselves and future generations. Join us next week as we share another untold story of The Forgotten Exodus.
Many thanks to André for sharing his story. You can read more in his memoir Out of Egypt and eventually in the sequel which he’s working on now about his family’s life in Italy after they left Egypt and before they came to America.
Does your family have roots in North Africa or the Middle East? One of the goals of this series is to make sure we gather these stories before they are lost. Too many times during my reporting, I encountered children and grandchildren who didn't have the answers to my questions because they had never asked. That's why one of the goals of this project is to encourage you to find more of these stories.
Call The Forgotten Exodus hotline. Tell us where your family is from and something you'd like for our listeners to know such as how you've tried to keep the traditions alive and memories alive as well. Call 212.891-1336 and leave a message of 2 minutes or less. Be sure to leave your name and where you live now. You can also send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org and we'll be in touch.