Skip to content
Our Archives
Link copied to clipboard

The thoughts behind an Egyptian’s handshake

There are some lessons, ancient as sand, that an Egyptian learns as he becomes a man. So it was that the visit to Jerusalem of President Anwar Sadat in November struck a note so harmonious with the music of Egypt’s soul, for it was said when the pyramids were new that to go to the house of your enemy in peace is the climax of generosity.

CAIRO – There are some lessons, ancient as sand, that an Egyptian learns as he becomes a man.

So it was that the visit to Jerusalem of President Anwar Sadat in November struck a note so harmonious with the music of Egypt's soul, for it was said when the pyramids were new that to go to the house of your enemy in peace is the climax of generosity.

And so it was, too, when an American, for experiment's sake last week, was introduced on the streets of Cairo as an Israeli reporter on tour.

Some exclaimed. Most just paused. One uttered a vulgarity in rapid Arabic. Their eyes might tell stories of friends and brothers lost in war.

But from the mouth of each, young or old: "You are welcome here."

For, it was said when Saladin fought the Crusades, to receive your enemy with soft courtesy is a mark of true strength in a man.

It is easy to pose as an Israeli here, especially among the young. Despite the hundreds who came last month from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, an Israeli is still as mysterious to Cairenes as a genie who comes from a lamp.

Most of the young men never have seen a Jew, much less an Israeli Jew. In their minds, Jews and Israelis become one.

The older men grew up with Jews who had lived in Cairo for thousands of years. But an Israeli is something else again and something mysterious indeed.

Chief among the mysteries was Menachem Begin, prime minister of Israel, whom millions of Cairenes watched on television.

For the most part, Begin was not a hit, certainly not as charming to Egyptians as Sadat had been to Israelis. Where Sadat visited the shrines and sights of Jerusalem, Begin merely directed his El Al pilot to fly once over the pyramids.

This difference was felt by many Egptians. "It's OK, Begin. What he said to Sadat, it's OK, probably," said a shoeshine man in El Fishawi Cafe. "But he should have said something to us, too, and to the mothers whose sons died in the Sinai."

Despite the unfailing courtesy with which Israelis were met, it was evident in the week since they left that more than 30 years without contact between the two peoples has left a deep mistrust among the Cairenes and a lack of understanding that will need much more than a few state visits to erase.

In the Riche Cafe, a lonely vestige of the days when Cairo was a city of sidewalk cafes, the Israelis were the talk of the hour.

"We don't know what's an Israeli, so we want to see," explained Sahar Gawfik, 26, a high school Arabic teacher. "We want to know if they are people like us. I have seen people from many nationalities, but I have never seen an Israeli."

Her companion, Magdy Farag, 31, a playwright and critic of drama, broke in: "I have seen one, Shylock."

There was laughter around the table at that, then Farag grew serious and tried to explain:

"The general vision of the artist and the artistic works here see the Jew or the Israeli as a hateable man, although I think it is not a correct idea, he doesn't like people, he likes to live alone, he keeps much of his money like Arbagon of Moliere – these are the main three behaviors of Jews in the Egyptian arts. This is what we see."

Last week, the banners and slogans welcomed Begin and his entourage as "beloved messengers of peace."

A young Cairene remembered similar banners that hung over the streets while he was in high school, only a few years back.

"We will fight, we will fight, the Jews are rabbits."

Until the Israelis arrived last month, there was nothing to convince the young Cairene that Jews were not rabbits, or dogs or birds.

Once, there were thousands of Arab Jews in Egypt. They left in the 1950s, amid a campaign of hate organized by Gamal Abdel Nasser, who themselves.

Emil Pinto, 73, a retired fabric salesman who has led the congregation since the last rabbi died in 1972, looked around the old wooden pews with resignation on his face. Once again on this Saturday, there would be no minyan, the 10 adult men required for a formal service.

Everyone in the temple was old. The congregation's president is 76. The last Bar Mitzvah took place in 1970. The last wedding was so long ago that nobody remembers it.

Emil Pinto hopes for peace. Then, perhaps, some Jews will return to Cairo and the congregation will live again.

But Emil Pinto has long since stopped talking about his hopes, about Israel or about the Jews of Egypt.

"We don't speak anything of that," he said. "We don't speak anything of politics here. I am a man of religion in this house."

Of course, the old Arab men still remember Jews from the years before Nasser, when tens of thousands left.

Ali Azziz is 65 and he has come to the Riche Cafe every night since his retirement from the government eight years ago. One night last week, he sat in his accustomed chair, fingering the beads that a friend brought back from Mecca last year and trying to cast his mind back.

"I believe all the Israelis who lived in Egypt left with sadness in their hearts," he said. "I used to live in El Zahir and that was one of three neighborhoods that held most of the Jews in Cairo. I knew many of them, we were friends. But that's a long time ago and I've forgotten them."

The old men also remember well the name of Menachem Begin.

"He was a terrost, I know him from many years," said Ahmed al Poston, 58, who sits with Ali Azziz most nights. "It was funny to me. He is an old man like I am. Don't know what I thought to see. Perhaps I thought he would be carrying a bomb."

Ali Salem is 42, old enough to remember the Arab Jews. As one of Egypt's best-known playwrights, his opinion of the Israelis was much in demand.

Ali Salem was saying that the Israelis were not like the Jews who had lived in Egypt. "Arab Jews, you can feel them," he said. "They are relatives. You feel you are sitting with a relative."

"Begin and his entourage," said Salem on the other hand, "showed the racial attitude of Europeans." He thought they were arrogant and condescending.

"Begin, you observe, he doesn't hesitate when he talks. He's like a machine. These men of ready answers, I am afraid of them. As a dramatist, I can tell you what he thinks of. We are the new owners of this territory. We are powerful, intellectual and have a holy message too – superior holy message. You know this kind of religious thinking that can lead sometimes to paranoia?

"They are arrogant, real arrogant." All Salem was saying, "If the (Egyptian) people feel a real frustration, they will begin to hate Israelis. Before this, we fought them, but we didn't hate them. And this will be very dangerous, because the Egyptian people have never hated anyone before."

A short time later, Ali Salem was introduced to a man said to be an Israeli on tour. He hesitated. He looked. Then, he stood and extended his hand. "You are welcome," he said.