Egypt: land of the sphinx, the pyramids, the Nile, and – until their sudden expulsion – the home of my mother-in-law and her family.
In the early 20th century, 175,000 Jews lived in Egypt; most had been there for generations, serving as lawyers, doctors, and businessman. They lived in affluence undreamed of by their Eastern European brethren.
With her olive complexion and cream silk scarf draped over her shoulder, my mother-in-law Bella Sharer is a beautiful picture of an Egyptian Jew. Her family lived in Cairo for generations; her grandparents are buried there.
"We lived in a huge apartment," she recalls. “Father was the breadwinner – he was involved in commerce, which sometimes involved him being away for months on end, as he traveled across the Sahara Desert. Once he went on a business trip to what was then called Palestine. He returned with a handcrafted etrog box, fashioned from olive wood, carved with a picture of Rachel’s Tomb. To me, these places were more of a dream than the Sphinx and the Pyramids, both of which were regular Sunday afternoon destinations.
"Going to synagogue on Shabbos was a magical affair: I would stare at the ornate ceiling and marble pillars of the Ben Ezra synagogue. My father would bid for the honor of placing the silver pomegranates on top of the Torah scroll before it was returned to the Holy Ark.
“My dearest childhood memories center on Passover – the fragrance of the crates of dates mingling with that of the freshly-painted walls; the hustle and bustle as the extended family moved in for the holiday.”
It was an idyllic childhood spent in an affluent and influential society, under the benign rulership of King Farouk II. Farouk was a hedonist, and to the large Arab population, a travesty, a betrayal to the people. A military coup dethroned Farouk in 1952, followed by a stormy transition period, after which Gamal Abdel Nasser became president of Egypt. The country paused for breath, as Nasser's domestic and foreign policies increasingly clashed with the French and British colonial interests. When Nasser announced his plan to nationalize, and thereby control the Suez Canal – which, as the only land bridge between Africa and Asia was strategically and economically vital to Britain and France – a crisis ensued.
Door Wide Open
"One afternoon came a knock at the door. Three soldiers stood there, and ordered us to follow them to the police station. Their swarthy faces and black eyes frightened me. I clutched my mother's hand tight as we wordlessly followed them to a huge, imposing building. At the station, the chief brusquely informed us that my father's business had been appropriated by the government, that our bank account and all assets had been frozen, and that we had seven days to leave the country. We were allowed to take clothes and $40 dollars cash.
"Our world was shattered in an instant, as if one of the exquisite crystal glasses that graced our Seder table splintered on the stone floor.
“The Egyptian Jews had been of the highest echelons of society, established, prominent, prosperous. In the blink of an eye, they were reduced to beggars.
"My father visited all his contacts: members of the royal family, political figures, the wealthiest businessmen. No one could help. The decree came directly from Nasser. As for our assets, people threw up their arms helplessly. 'Be grateful that you have your family,' they said.
"What followed was a paralysis of sorts. My mother would walk around our home, touching the furniture, stroking her candlesticks, as if to etch it into her mind. In the meantime, our Arab neighbors, with whom we had always lived side-by-side in peace, were greedily despoiling our home. They would walk in, look around, and point to whatever item they wanted, whether a painting on the wall or my mother's huge diamond engagement ring.
"As we were allowed to take clothes along, my mother took us to a department store and bought a plentiful supply of skirts, tops, trousers and undershirts. In the confusion, she forgot that we would soon grow out of our present sizes. For years we wore clothing that was too small. Then we sold it to buy food.
"My father booked us passage on a ship leaving from Alexandria. Then we stepped over the threshold for the last time: me and my brother, my parents, my aunt, uncle and cousins. We left the front door wide open behind us."
Freedom of the Spirit
In 1957, when she was 10 years old, my mother-in-law and her family boarded a boat to Marseilles, France. There, they were taken to a concentration-cum-DP camp, handed threadbare blankets, and assigned beds.
"We arrived in France in the middle of winter, and the cold penetrated my bones. In the blazing heat of Egypt, we had siesta every afternoon between one and three o’clock, because the heat was so intense. Now, the cold settled on me and I couldn't shake it away. My father, by that time well into his 50s, would go to a nearby forest and chop firewood so that at least we could huddle around the ovens.
My mother-in-law plays with a long string of pearls and sits, contemplating. "Even after I married and had a family, and lived in a nice house in Stamford Hill, England, experiences like that don't go away. I fear change, and have a deep sense of insecurity. On the positive side, having suffered myself, I am able to empathize with others who have suffered. It's also much easier for me to keep my priorities straight: We lost everything, but retained our lives and our health.
“I watch people running after the good life, and I know that in a flash, everything can be taken away. Wealth can disappear, status can dissolve. All that's left is who you are and what you make of what's left. That's what true freedom – freedom of the spirit – is all about."