Part history lesson, part requiem, Amir Ramsis’s documentary is a dense, often chilling work that manages, in 95 minutes, to devote equal screen time to an overwhelming number of Egyptian Jews, some born and raised in Alexandria, some arriving in the 1930s and ’40s as native French speakers, and all exiled by the mid ’50s.
The interviewees reflect fondly on a golden era in which Christians, Jews, and Muslims respected and often celebrated each other’s holidays, and Jews were appreciated for their contributions to Egyptian culture and industry.
Ramsis’s subjects scoffed at Zionists and, despite the rise of the outwardly anti-Semitic Muslim Brotherhood and the Egyptian authorities’ growing distrust of even secular Jews, refused to relocate to Israel, dismissing it as a “land for [the] oppressed.”
That these men and women of varying economic backgrounds were eventually imprisoned, deported, and officially stripped of their Egyptian nationality — most notoriously after Israel, Britain, and France’s 1956 attack against President Nasser’s Suez Canal nationalization — has not quelled their enthusiastic memories of Alexandria’s more tolerant days.
Jews of Egypt comes perilously close at times to being an anti-Israel polemic, as some of the interviewees seem to blame Israel’s sheer existence for their banishment rather than the government figures who actually ousted them.
Ramsis may have benefited from including one survivor of the period who equally loved Israel and Egypt. Still, he achieves many poignant moments, especially when his subjects express that they have never felt at home anywhere outside Egypt. One describes arriving in a totally unfamiliar part of Alexandria in 1988, 30 years after his deportation, and recognizing the city from its aroma; another recalls a recent cruise around the Nile, during which his forgotten Arabic suddenly returned to him.
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on March 26, 2014