x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Bearers of a dimming torch

Fifty years of war and political conflict have reduced Alexandria's Jewish community to just 18.

At 53, Youssef Gaon is the youngest Jew in Alexandria. Its Eliahou Hanabi synagogue is deserted, as most Jews live in nursing homes.
At 53, Youssef Gaon is the youngest Jew in Alexandria. Its Eliahou Hanabi synagogue is deserted, as most Jews live in nursing homes.

Sweating in the mid-morning heat, Abdul Salaam gently brushes the dirt off a grave to reveal a faded Star of David. Mr Salaam, a committed Muslim, has lived as a resident guard within the high walls of this Alexandrian Jewish cemetery for 41 years, just as his father did for five decades. The cracked headstones and marble tombs around him bear witness to people who first made this Egyptian city their home more than 2,300 years ago, and in their heyday numbered almost 80,000. Last summer, the final remnants of that vibrant community gathered here to bury their leader. So few of them were left that the Kaddish, a Jewish funeral blessing, could not be recited. The significance of that was obvious to all who attended; this once-cosmopolitan corner of the Arab world will soon entomb its final Jewish resident, and Mr Salaam will be left alone with the graves.

The death of Max Salama, 92, an Egyptian Jew who once served as King Farouk's personal dentist, leaves 18 surviving Jews in what was once one of the religion's greatest cultural capitals. The majority of those remaining are in their 70s or 80s and reside in old people's homes, no longer interacting with the city they have always called home. At the tender age of 53, the new leader, Youssef Gaon, is now the youngest Jew in Alexandria by a considerable margin, and he is childless.

"What can I say?" he shrugs, as he gives a tour of a beautifully decorated but deserted synagogue in the old city centre. Jews have been an integral part of Alexandria's history ever since the port city was founded by Alexander the Great in 332BC. Their numbers have ebbed and flowed over the years but reached a zenith in the early 1900s, when Jews from across Europe and North Africa flocked there to escape persecution.

"It was an immigrant community drawn from all corners of the world, especially the remnants of the old Ottoman Empire," said Yves Fedida, an Egyptian Jew now living in France, whose grandparents emigrated to Egypt from Palestine at the turn of the century in search of work. These were the rekindled glory days of Alexandria, an urbane melting pot of nationalities where poets, scientists and intellectuals mingled freely on the Corniche.

Egyptian Jews lay at the heart of the city's revival, with individuals such as the anti-colonial Egyptian nationalist Yaqub Sana and the prominent psychologist Jacques Hassoun becoming household names in the region. But after revolutionary fervour swept Gamal Abdel Nasser to power in 1952, the ancient city's worldly reputation began to fade and subsequent hostilities with the newly founded state of Israel gradually eroded Alexandria's Jewish population.

Mr Fedida's parents were forced out in the first wave of expulsions, prompted by the outbreak of the Suez conflict. As Israeli tanks advanced on the Suez Canal, his father, previously the financial director of the national Egyptian Petroleum Company, was given 10 days to leave the country. "He had to take us away and start again in England with just 20 Egyptian pounds in his pocket," remembers Mr Fedida, who now works for the Nebi Daniel Association, a French group that brings together Egyptian Jews from around the world.

The exodus of Alexandria's Jews continued following wars with Israel in 1967 and 1973, and many of those who clung to their homeland were imprisoned by the Egyptian state, suspected of being Zionist spies. Today, the remaining Jews at the magnificent Italianate synagogue of Eliahou Hanabi are vastly outnumbered by policemen and officials from the Egyptian ministry of the interior, who pay for the site's security.

"We are in very good hands," said Mr Gaon, anxious not to upset the fragile working relationship the surviving community has established with the Egyptian government. "Even after we have gone I know they will look after this place." But as the final echoes of Alexandria's Jewish ancestry die out, a new battle is raging over their heritage. At stake is the set of religious and civil registers maintained by Egyptian Jewry under the Ottoman Empire, which devolved such record-keeping to its non-Muslim communities.

Mr Gaon and his elderly compatriots are the final custodians of these logbooks, which run to 60,000 pages detailing all the births, deaths and weddings of the community stretching back to the 1830s. These documents are of vital importance to descendants of Alexandrian Jews such as Mr Fedida, as the Jewish faith requires individuals to prove their maternal Jewish bloodline in order to get married. The problem is that issuing such certification from Alexandria is increasingly burdensome for the small number of Jewish pensioners left and the process is often hampered by local bureaucracy. The Nebi Daniel Association is lobbying the Egyptian government to allow copies of the archives to be placed in a European institution where they could be more easily accessed, but so far their efforts have met with failure.

The reluctance of the current Egyptian regime to enable easy access to the documents springs from fears that the offspring of Alexandria's Jews will use them to make financial compensation claims against the government for Jewish property confiscated under Nasser's nationalisation programmes. The issue is a sensitive one; last year an unspecified amount was paid by the state to the Jewish family who originally owned The Cecil, a luxury Alexandrian hotel immortalised in Lawrence Durrell's novels The Alexandria Quartet and seized by the government in 1957. Earlier this summer, a planned Cairo conference of Jews hailing from Egypt was cancelled after local media questioned the intentions behind the event.

According to Mr Fedida, however, fears of compensation demands are misguided. "We are absolutely not interested in financial claims," he said. "Our generation are the children of those who really suffered from expulsion and imprisonment. Although our parents tried to reconstruct their lives elsewhere, we saw their grief and we need to do them justice by giving them back the identity that led to them being uprooted in the first place."

Regardless of the outcome of this tussle over the logbooks, the human element of this once grand community will soon be extinguished and there will be no more burials at Abdul Salaam's overgrown cemetery. For Mr Fedida though, who was born in Alexandria, optimism prevails that Jews might one day make a return to the city. "You never know; we lost it once before when the Byzantines kicked us out in 400AD," he said. "I think it's a wonderful city, and I long for it on a daily basis. But deep down I know I'm longing for a world that no longer exists."

* The National