Book Review: Crossing Cairo

— by Rabbi Goldie Milgram

Crossing Cairo is a fascinating and useful read for potential travelers to the region, armchair adventurers and also for those who contemplate the lessons of personal experience and history.

The book is a memoir of the 2006 six-month stay in Egypt of a Jewish couple and their children, aged 12 and 17.

As the author, Rabbi Ruth Sohn, pointed out in her prologue, 80,000 Jews lived in Egypt in the early 1940s, and today, there are barely any remaining Jewish Egyptian citizens. She finds them though, and introduces us to their story and takes us to what remains of Jewish sacred spaces.

She also makes interesting connections with local Muslims and other groups, and so is able to give us a window into the daily lives of those with cultural norms quite different to those of the West.

More after the jump.
Both the author and her husband are rabbis. Rabbi Sohn’s husband specializes in “explaining Islam to Jews and Jewish communities,” so the trip comes about through his needs and contacts.

While the children attend the American International School, we primarily hear Rabbi Ruth Sohn’s own adventures in the neighborhood and shops, and benefit from her open ways of getting to know the locals and appreciate the cultural differences between Egypt and America.

Honest, well-written reporting prevails in the book. We learn of her fears, friendships, mishaps and cultural missteps and discoveries.

This approach affords legitimate reader anticipation: Will Sohn’s fears, or her hopes, about Egyptian life and culture prove true? Will her natural openness prove sustainable? Will it be safe to tell people that the family is Jewish — let alone with two rabbis? What major cultural differences will emerge? What will healthcare be like? Transportation? Food? Employer-employee relationships? Will they be welcome? Might they leave prematurely?  

“It’s all about relationships, here in Egypt.” Kathy had commented the first time we got together…

There was even a culture around extending greetings to people. Anyone you passed on the street or saw in a shop, if you saw them on a semi-regular basis, you were expected to acknowledge with a greeting, even if you did not know their name. This was a real greeting, not just a nod, or a smile, or a casual hello…

when I asked someone on the street for directions, the person would start to explain  and then pause and say, “Come, I will show you.” And then walk me to my destination…

As I was soon to discover, the culture of helpfulness also had its downside. That is, the obligation to be helpful is so strong in Arab culture that one is expected to never respond to a request for help by saying no, or even “I don’t know.” It was considered far better to try to help, than not to try at all.”

Open discussion by locals about government corruption in front of Sohn is taken as a sign of acceptance, and a warning of what she might expect.

After 1000 people drown in a ferry incident, she notes that “when it became clear the ship was going to sink, it was the captain who was the first to leave and the crew ‘jumped ship’ in the lifeboats, leaving the passengers to fend for themselves.”

We get to meet many local characters through Sohn’s ability to cultivate close relationships and confidences, including Musheera, a Muslim who grew up in Tunisia and is married to a Jew.

They were bringing up their two children as Jews, they said, although they celebrated the holidays of both religions at home…

Musheera explained how she had really looked forward to moving to Cairo… but she was deeply disappointed. “Egypt is a far cry from a cosmopolitan society,” she said, shaking her head. “It may have been once, but it is the opposite today…

People here are very close-minded and inflexible, even though they are warm and friendly when you first meet them…

You don’t know what they really think… [Musheera] recalled an incident where someone actually stabbed a man and woman who were kissing in public. I am really scared sometimes that as a Muslim woman married to a Jew, I could end up the victim of such an attack…

Rabbi Sohn gives a vibrant accounting of the history of the Jews of Egypt within only a few pages:

The downturn in prospects for Egyptian Jews seems to begin when the Muslim Brotherhood is founded in Egypt in 1928. Anti-Zionist demonstrations are held in Cairo and Alexandria then, in April and May of 1938, with marchers shouting, “Throw the Jews out of Egypt and Palestine.”

By the late 1930s, the leaders of the Brotherhood and the nationalist group, “Young Egypt,” had adopted the antisemitic rhetoric of Hitler and his followers, claiming, for example, that the major political and social problems of the Muslim world were the result of a Jewish conspiracy.

Despite the intent of Egypt’s Jews to remain, it increasingly became impossible due to arrests, freezing of Jewish assets, expulsions with documents marked in Arabic “one way-no return,” blacklisting of Jewish businesses and accusations of espionage, torture, and two Jews condemned to execution, and others to long prison terms.

Then we learn that:

Legislation was passed in 1956 that enabled the government to deny Egyptian citizenship to people classified as Zionists; by 1958, the language of the new laws and speeches of government officials no longer distinguished between “Zionist” and “Jew”… within a few months, 14,000 Jews left Egypt.

Rabbi Sohn honestly reveals how easily she came to off-base assumptions about locals when in early arrival, or tourist, mode. Her shifts in perspective are sometimes in appreciation and sometimes in distress of what the probable truth of local views on matters economic, American, Israeli, Jewish, and governmental might be.

Sohn does some very inspiring acts to help those she meets along the way, without regard to religion, race, creed, gender or color. She also uses humor to good effect.

In Crossing Cairo, Sohn demonstrates how extended exposure to the people and practices of a culture may lead to significantly different interpretations of their comments and behaviors.  

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