Before the fog that blurs the mind
settles around my head and erases
slowly the drawers of my mind,
I want to rescue those memories
I so want to preserve. I pull at
random imaginary cards from an
imaginary bag, postcards with
images, images of people, of places,
of events, jumping back and forth
in time and place.
The little four-year old girl sits on the porch of a
house in a summer resort in Egypt. Ras El Bar, a
beach community, is constructed for the summer
seasons only. Straw and wood huts are assembled
for just this short period of time, three months of a sand paradise before the Nile gushes down with its
fertilizing mud and erases the site. The silt is thick,
red, and coarse and floats heavily like islands on
the river. Before the flooding takes over the place,
houses are literally moved by barefoot workers
and pulled by carts harnessed to donkeys, leaving
this delta stretch desolate and silent. The little girl
contemplates the scene and wonders how all this
will be moved and brought back again the next year.
It is now the night my father died. I
remember noises, commotion, and from the
hallway only a few feet away, my eyes still heavy
with sleep, I saw my parents’ bedroom. My mother
at the side of the bed is jumping up and down
screaming as my father lay still on his back. This
was a brass bed with a canopy trimmed with lace
borders. My mother disheveled, out of control, her
face barely recognizable, was a frightening picture
Terrified, I run to my brother’s room, find
him sitting on his bed, sobbing, his head between
his hands. I asked him what is happening, he
answers “Papa est mort,” Realizing I did not
understand what that meant, he replied by moving
his head from side to side and by raising his arms
That was the first time I was confronted with
death; I was confronted by it without knowing its meaning. I remember how tormented I was
by the fear of my father being buried alive. What
if the dead were not dead? I was obsessed by the
notion that he could never come back. I could not
understand it. I waited for his footsteps in the
hallway, but they did not come. I remember that
week and for some time after, the house was filled
with visitors. Large brass trays filled with little
cups of Turkish coffee, went back and forth from
the kitchen. The ritual of Shiva lasted eight days.
Chandeliers and mirrors were covered with black
muslin fabric. People visited once,
three times or more, as the local
superstition demanded. One did
not go home directly after a Shiva
visit or a funeral. When coffee
was brought in, it would first be
served to the bereaved who would
barely bring it to their lips, then
the visitors would be served.
No one refused a Shiva coffee.
Nothing else was served. For thirty days rabbis
would arrive in the late afternoon to say their
prayers and eat a meal.
For a long time, my mother dressed only in
black. Her dress was black, her hat was black, and
her veil was black. Many years later, she would say again and again that she mourned for eight years.
True to the culture, she made her grief very visible.
I had started kindergarten. I was five years
old. On very rare occasions my mother would
pick me up from school. She was a big woman,
attractive and impressive in her mourning attire.
All eyes turned towards this twenty- eight-year-old
widow with two small children, a girl five, and a
I have few recollections of my father, shreds
perhaps of his tall image as he arrived home from
work. He would place his hat and cane on the coat
hanger and clap his hands to call me. I would run
down the hallway to land in his arms as he lifted
me. My father Albert Hettena had studied in Paris.
He was a serious violinist who helped pay for his
education by playing the violin weekends in an
orchestra. After receiving an engineering degree
at the Ecole Des Travaux Publiques and leaving a
heartbroken mistress behind, he returned to Cairo.
There, his brothers and sister convinced him to
remain at home, and arranged a match with Suzanne
Levi Iskandari, my mother. She came from a good
family, studied in a French convent and inspired by a
very musical nun, she played and loved the piano.
My father worked for the government,
building roads and bridges. He became Chief
Engineer of the Egyptian Railroad System and
made a very good living.
After his death, my father’s name was never
mentioned. Maybe there was too much pain, maybe
there was too much anger. My mother felt that life
had betrayed her. Her husband’s death had left her
feeling abandoned and rejected and as though, her
life as a woman had been snatched away from her.
His body was buried together with his memories. I
never really knew who he was.
In the following years, I was to witness many
more deaths in our family and many
funerals. The funerary carriage
pulled by four horses, with its black
frame and white stained glass, was
a familiar sight. The coachmen in
formal attire, with top hats held
the reins. Following the hearse
was a procession of mourners who
accompanied the deceased part of
the way to the cemetery. Muslim
funerals were different: men carried the casket on
their shoulders and were usually accompanied by
“criers,” professional women who wept, lamented
My Uncle Benjamin, who lived across the hall
from us, died some three months after my father. One afternoon, he and his wife Emma took my
mother for a ride in their new car, a Studebaker.
Barely two hours later they returned with Benjamin
dead, in the arms of the chauffeur and the doorman.
My father’s family was comprised of six brothers
and three sisters, none of whom lived very long
lives. Heart disease was present in the family.
As a consequence of my father’s death, my
brother and I were driven out of the nursery before
our time and the business of our childhood was
over too soon. Furthermore, we had to move to less
expensive quarters, servants were discharged and
only one remained for housekeeping.
I was very fond of Mohamad, he was kind
and compassionate and worked for us with his
wife Zenab as a couple. I remember my mother
whispering that she had to cut expenses, and that
the couple had to go. One afternoon, perched
on the table of the large kitchen, I told them in
confidence of their upcoming discharge. I often
think of that moment, and how I must have hurt
them. Believing I was letting them in on a secret,
I must have caused them a lot of pain, but perhaps
my telling them made it easier for my mother.
The year my father died, I was very sickly.
A big gauze bandage covering my eyes, I had to
be led on the way home from the eye doctor by
my mother. Some time later, I lay in bed crying as
Tante Farida tended two large boils. Tante Farida,
the friendly aunt, was an accredited midwife who
was loved by all. She was known to ride a mule to
tend the sick and to deliver babies in villages in
Upper Egypt. She also delivered all the babies in
the family, and many more.
Shortly after my father’s death I started
kindergarten. At school there was the French
teacher, small, blue eyed, and attractive.
The first day of school, I
sat on the little chair, my head in
the hollow of my arm, against the
little table which served as a desk.
The room was painted gray and
was populated by little people.
Intimidated and frightened, I
sat there and cried silently. I
believe I must have remained in
that position all morning until
it was time to go home at noon. Before we were
dismissed, the teacher passed around the class
a box of hard candies, offering the children the
sweets. As she walked by me, she paused, and
said “for you there is no candy, you were crying
all morning.” I needed comfort, a hug, a smile of
reassurance, I wanted someone to say, “it is all
right.” Instead I felt the cold blue eyes of scorn. I
felt humiliated. I must have understood then that
crying was a bad thing. To this day I cry very little
if at all.
We are in a new apartment having left behind the
Manach Street building that was owned by my
uncles: twin structures which were considered
very tall and prestigious.
Life in Rue Mohamad Hagag was pleasant
and were it not for its association with the death of
my father, I would not have found the move very
significant. Our building was very white, brand
new and seven stories high. Our apartment was one
of three on the second floor. We entered through
a little vestibule that led to the foyer, a large room
at the center, and from which one could enter
every room, as well as the hallway, which led to the
bedrooms, bathroom and the kitchen.
Years went by going to school, to the Lycee
with my brother. Returning home in the late
afternoon, there was the usual homework. Winter
evenings in the family room, were spent around
the square table, which served for meals as well as
I remember chestnuts being roasted on
the kerosene stove, releasing a pungent aroma of
kerosene, and tangerine peels. In the evening, the
tangerine peels were placed on top of the stove to
perfume the room, while a light meal was served.
Whenever we had fried eggs, my brother and I would
divide them so that he would have all the yokes and I
all the whites. This arrangement suited us both since
we each liked the different part of the egg.
The corner room, the family room, was
bright and cheerful, with two pairs of large French
doors leading to the balcony, which
ran the whole length and width of
On the balcony, my brother
and I played a crude version of
soccer. There, sometimes a Milan
would dive into my snack, snatching
it away from me, without so much
as touching me. These birds of prey
resembled large crows and would
often circle where there was food. On that balcony
wall, my brother with screwdriver and hammer
carved an unsuccessful bull’s-eye, which he turned
into a mask to cover the holes. This engraved
figure was still there some forty years later when I
visited Cairo and looked up to the second floor. Every morning at around 7.30 a.m., Ronnie
and I were on our way to the Lycee. Since I was
too young to walk alone to school, Ronnie was to
take me with him. One day, about half way, as we
passed the Cairo Museum, I spotted a glove on the
sidewalk. Ronnie picked it up. It was the right hand
of a beautiful brown leather glove, a man’s glove.
Cairo was never too cold in the winter, and if we ever
needed gloves to warm our hands, it would have been
a light knitted wool. This glove was leather, luxurious
and uncommon and to us it seemed the ultimate in
opulence. Ronnie who had a big hand, slid his fingers
in it and carried his bag. The left hand, went into his
pocket to cover the fact that he possessed only one
glove. The next day, as I protested, Ronnie gave me
the glove to wear, for part of the way. I too proceeded
to put it on, even though it was huge for my hand, but
it gave me a great feeling of importance and grandeur.
We got into the habit of sharing the glove for a while.
Every Sunday afternoon we went to the
movies. My brother would choose the film, usually
a Charlie Chan story or a comedy with William
Powell and Myrna Loy. Sometimes it would be a
western. Titles like Snow White or Fantasia did
not come into consideration. It was his decision
since he took me with him more as a favor than for
At the death of our father, Ronnie was thrust
into the role of man of the house. Overnight he had
ceased to be the carefree boy, without worries or
obligations. He played with intensity and purpose.
He became competitive and earned himself the
reputation of being a very serious student. I began
to perceive him as the responsible and wise older
brother, on whom one could count. We were devoted
to each other, but without being demonstrative.
We cared but never outwardly expressed it. We
were weighed down by the expectation of duty and
performance. We felt our mother
had sacrificed her life for us. Years
we knew we could not repay.
Ronnie and I never really
fought. He was not the kind of
brother who tortured his little
sister, I was not the kind of sister
who pestered her older brother.
We lived close but parallel lives.
We concentrated on keeping our
heads above water. We did not understand then
that bonding more intensely would have helped
us in our journey. We missed out on the joys of
confiding in each other, we missed the support
we could have given each other. Perhaps this was
partly due to the difference of age and maturity, in addition to the fear of being further burdened.
However, we had high regard for each other,
respected each other’s privacy, and above all had
great affection for each other.
We did not have toys. I remember a chess
set that Ronnie played with, when friends came.
A couple of pieces were missing but he replaced
them by carefully carving his own rendition
of the knight and queen. When I was alone, I
played teacher and class. The salon Louis XV and
the dining room were closed, and only used for
holidays, guests and formal occasions that were
few. I would line up the chairs of the dining room
in rows and distribute copybooks. I would recite
the latest poem we had learned in school to these
pretend pupils who paid absolute attention to my
every word. I reprimanded or praised, and they
On other occasions, I played cashier at the
movie house. This invariably happened when the
seamstress Zina came home to mend and fit our
clothes. When the sewing machine was open its
shape suggested the ticket window of the cinema. I
would sit behind it and sell tickets to the customers
with a little polite conversation now and then.
There were times when I played manicurist, and
pretended I had to work to raise my poor children.
I don’t ever remember being bored. I satisfied
myself with games that I created, with toys that I
would fabricate with wooden bobbins of thread,
making sure I put them back in place after play.
My mother never bought me a toy or a book.
I don’t remember her telling me a story, or even
having a conversation. Her talk was mostly about
household matters, essentials, or her economic
worries. She always gave the clear impression that
she carried with her a great fear of the future.
I remember occasional visits of my maternal
grandmother, who came to
console my mother for her great
misfortune. She sighed with her,
pitied her but never encouraged
her to attempt to remake her life.
The culture seemed to accept that
a widow’s life was terminated
after the death of her man. She
was to remain alone, sad, denying
herself any right to happiness.
She was expected to devote herself to her children
and find joy in family. Since my father died without
leaving any fortune behind, we were dependent on
his brothers, who stepped in and made sure that
we were well taken care of. They were wealthy and
assumed very naturally the responsibilities of the family of their deceased youngest brother. We were
included and welcomed at every family occasion and
we went to the best schools. What we did not have
was a father to guide us, love us and protect us.
We lived decently though modestly. We never
felt materially deprived; we did not have money,
but we were not poor. We were taught pride and
honor, sometimes to an exaggerated degree; this
developed in us an extreme sensitivity and a
tendency to take offense easily. From the ways
of our culture and our mother’s insecurities, we
learned consideration and respect for others, also
an obsessive habit not to disturb. I in particular
learned to please and not to confront. My world
then was made of little things as well as grave and
dramatic ones. Even though they had different
impact and consequences on me, I treated both
with equal importance.
I acquired my taste for poetry and literature from
my brother, by spending time with him while he
memorized Moliere, Racine, Corneille, Beaudelaire
and Prudhomme. I would hear him as he recited
by heart, while I followed text in hand, correcting
here and there. That is how I could declaim
passages of Le malade imaginaire, L’Avare, Le Cid,
and more. Those moments were very precious and
left a very profound influence on me. I remember
them with tenderness and nostalgia.
I am now in the Lycee where I spent the first
seven years of school. In the yard is the huge mango
tree, and the poncianas which shaded us from the hot
sun. The imposing stone stairs right at the center of
the far wall led to a terrace and closed doors. Those
doors were opened only once at the end of each
year, at which time the whole academic faculty sat
above on the terrace, presiding over the students and
families sitting below in the school yard on chairs
aligned for the occasion. They read
very formally the “Palmares” and
My brother was amongst
those who were mentioned
with honor. I was not. A very
average student, I would only be
receiving a mention in recitation
and drawing. The girls and boys
schools were separated by a
wall that to me seemed impenetrable. Since the
school took the whole length of the block, the girls
entered from one street and the boys from another
parallel street, thus never meeting.
The bell sounded at the beginning and end
of every class. Like a church bell, it was pulled by a cord from below and its pleasant sound could
be heard in the distance. The doors were closed
after the bell tolled. At that time, one would have
to go through the administration entrance and that
In that same school yard, I learned about
feuds, politics, and hatred. Denise and Fanny
were the best of friends, and inseparable. One day,
behind the long row of fountains, war erupted,
and two barricades were formed. The two girls
had a following of fanatics who shouted and
screamed on their behalf. More so, the clan of
Denise was articulating fury and spitting fire,
singing La Marseillaise. Everyday Fanny’s clan
became more and more depleted. I had joined the
weaker clan because their vulnerability appealed
to me. As pressures mounted and barely half a
dozen fans were left, I succumbed and joined the
other party. I still think of that act of shifting.
I wanted to be accepted and included amongst
the strong, the mainstream. I could not oppose
so many. For that I had betrayed my original
choice. No one ever knew what the feud was
about. That was the first time I had witnessed a
senseless fight, a meaningless conflict and a need
to express vociferous anger without understanding
Many years later, I went to the theater to
see Les Miserables. The wonderful scene at the
barricades brought me back to the schoolyard.
The Lycee being a French school taught
French history and the 1789 revolution was of
course very important and central. “Liberte, Egalite,
Fraternite” were printed above the blackboard for
us to see everyday. That period of French history
was perceived as heroic and exciting. It is likely that
the students identified with the heroes and heroines
and the fight for a cause.
Sundays and holidays in
particular were always spent with
family. My Uncle Elie, the eldest,
lived in a villa in Guiza. He was
the brightest of all the brothers,
and the head of the family and
the business. When my father
died he told his son Maurice,
“you had one brother now you
have two.” He was referring to my
brother Ronnie. We spent many wonderful days
at the villa. We would sometimes leave home in
the late afternoon as life in Cairo began to drift in
with the evening breeze. The carriage drawn by
two horses went on its way, in no special hurry,
crossing the Kasr El Nil Bridge, then the Dokki bridge and reached its destination in time for tea.
This ride was beautiful and it had the real flavor of
Cairo, the splendor of the Nile, the Palm trees, the
bougainvilleas, all amounted to the enchantment of
Elie’s beautiful house was called “the Villa,”
and many happy occasions took place there.
Among them the Bar Mitzvah of my brother
which was celebrated together with that of Cousin
Maurice. It was a grand party and a glorious
evening. I remember a large elegantly dressed
crowd and heaps of presents for the boys. On a
huge table, covered with lace cloth, were onemeter
high decorated cakes. Everyone called them
“mounted pieces”; they were gracefully wrapped
in pink sugar ribbons, painted with marzipan
fans and hazelnut lace, each with a particular
theme, color and flavor. Groppi was the pastry
place par excellence, and the most glamorous
caterer in Cairo. He was a superb Swiss chef, a
legend in his field, who came to Cairo to dazzle
the Royal Palace as well as the Careens. Everyone
knew Groppi’s and his place became the most
fashionable meeting place in Cairo. They had thé
dansant and dinner under the stars with music and
dancing. Thé dansant took place in the afternoon,
where people would meet in the open garden at
teatime. Mothers, to see and be seen would take
their daughters or nieces there. Occasionally,
these young women would be introduced to young
men, or to the family of a young prospect. It was
My mother’s social life was mostly
concentrated around family gatherings and events.
Between her family and my father’s, there were
many aunts and uncles, also a lot of cousins of
my generation. They would meet around coffee
and home-made goodies, Egyptian style. These
had a distinctive taste and their aroma of orange
blossom and rose water cried for praise. After they
complimented each other, they would exchange
the latest news and gossip. Thus, many afternoons
and evenings were spent on balconies, everyone
fanning themselves in an automatic gesture. There
was also a lot of card playing. My mother would
always bring us a chocolate back from her visits, a
marron glace or some kind of candy. This was her
way of saying “I love you.”
Some weekends I would go to Uncle Jacques
and Tante Adele. Their daughters were about my
age and Sophie, who was a “blue baby” and had a
heart condition was often home and sometimes
in bed. Their apartment was in Garden City, and
their home was always filled with guests and card games. They often took me with them to the
famous Guezira Sporting Club, on which grounds
the races took place. There, one met the chic, the
rich and the beautiful, as well as the gamblers. The
space was divided into First and Second classes,
the latter being mostly used by the “natives” with
While Egypt was not a colonial country, it
had many aspects of one. The British presence
was felt; officers would appear with their baton,
haughty and important in their uniforms, a bit like
lords of the domain.
The races were held in the winter, always
on weekends. The gardens were meticulously
groomed. Besides watching the races and the
parading of the beautiful Arab horses, nervous and
proud, spectators sat at tables where tea and dainty
pastries were served with panache. The Nubian
waiters clad in white turbans and snow-white
galabeyas with red or green sashes, poured tea with
impeccable manners. Sometimes there would be
gold embroidery on their chest and sleeves but that
was reserved for higher-ranking attendants.
Tante Adele was always considerate and
kind to me. She bought me my first watch, took
my brother and me to the Luna- park of what was
at that time thought of as a world exposition. She
took me on vacation with Huguette, her younger
daughter with whom I spent a lot of time. Adele,
however, was not so attentive to my brother. I
believe there may have been some feelings of
jealousy since Ronnie was intelligent, a good
student, and responsible and Richard her son was
not. He was a bad student, often got in trouble and
gave his parents a hard time.
Adele was a very energetic woman, who had
married Jacques who, in fact, was her maternal
uncle. She drove her own car, was bossy, enterprising,
and took care of herself and of others. She was very
different from my mother who criticized Adele’s
independence and did not particularly like her.
Adele’s husband Jacques was a hardworking man,
who was in charge of supervising the construction
sites. Though not highly educated, he was invaluable
to the business. My uncles were builders and
contractors and many large projects in Cairo were
attributed to the Hetttena Bros. They had introduced
the Simplex system for digging foundations in to
Egypt, and their huge machines were seen and heard
all over Cairo. Having a brother in the field was
very advantageous in a business where theft and
corruption were common occurrences.
Two or three times a year, we would visit
Uncle Joseph and Tante Farida and their five children. Their apartment was in Guiza, on the top
floor of the splendid building that Tante Farida
had bought with her own money, money for which
she had worked hard. Their apartment had four
exposures. The facade was on the street facing the
zoo. Sometimes at night the animals would roar
and scare us. On the opposite side was the Nile and
the most beautiful view. There the dahabiyas or
houseboats languorously anchored on the banks
of the River awaited the evening cool. Joseph
was a peculiar man. He uttered sentences that no
one understood and spoke in riddles. His family,
however, was likable and pleasant. Tante Farida
was an outstanding woman; she was bright, kind
and modern. She drove a little Fiat Topolino, the
tiniest car ever made. Sometimes, she came to pick
up her children from school and would invariably
take along anyone from the family that was there.
I often had the fun of being stuffed into her twoseater,
together with a few other cousins. We must
have struck people like a circus act, so many of us
piled in one small vehicle.
There was also Uncle Isaac. He was our
favorite. His was a strange story. Mrs. Atal,
whom we all called Granny and whose husband
was associated in business with the Hettenas,
apparently adopted him. For some reason he
remained with her in Manchester, and grew up as
her son and very much an Englishman. Mrs. Atal
dearly loved him. Why he was separated from his
brothers was never told. Some said that this was a
business deal and that she was barren. Many years
later, he came back to Egypt and she came with
him and his family.
Isaac, an early riser, had the habit of visiting
at seven in the morning, when he came to have
breakfast with us. He would ring the bell in
consecutive rhythm, and that was the signal for
the whole household to get up and greet him. Even
though it was early, we were always delighted to
see him. He was amusing, perceptive, and friendly.
Aunt Margaret, his wife, intensely disliked life in
Egypt, and had no appreciation for the exotic. She
left Egypt to return to England with our cousin
Marjorie. We missed Marjorie, she was sweet and
lovely, and we had great times together.
As Hitler began marching over Europe, many
debates on political issues were heard. Still, life
went on for a while almost unperturbed. Europe was
far… The carefree atmosphere of Egypt however
was destined to be disturbed. With the threat of
war, many people became very weary and cautious.
Business slowed down, construction stopped. That
of course meant that the family with its assets in construction material and machinery was left with
very little work to do. Everyone participated in
tightening up during that lean period.
Elie, Jacques, Emma and of course my
mother looked for more modest quarters.
Once again, we moved due to circumstances
we could not control.
We found an apartment at 51 Rue El Falaki,
a five-room flat, very near the Lycee which was
decent and light. The building was less exclusive
but there were many families with children my age.
A more informal style dominated. For my mother,
this must have been a strain. She valued her
privacy and fortunately friendly neighbors soon
Sarina who lived in the building across the
courtyard had five daughters. Her husband, whom
she called Rafla, short for Raphael, worked in a
“domaine” or plantation in Upper Egypt and soon
became romantically involved with the wife of the
landowner. Sarina was heart broken, unhappy and
she lamented the betrayal. She would refer to the
other woman as Madame Zeft, an Arabic insult
meaning, “tar.” Looking at him, it was hard to believe
that this insignificant man could arouse such passion.
On the third floor was Mrs. Hara, a widow
with her daughter Cecile, who was my age. We
went to the same school, and saw much of each
On the fourth floor was Celine, an orphan
who lived with her aunt, an old lady, Mademoiselle
Amar. Both women were sisters to the landlord,
Monsieur Gabai. The two cousins were very close
and soon we all became good friends. We played
hopscotch on the service stairs, going from floor
to floor usually through the kitchen where the
doors were left open. The kitchen door opened on
to a landing which was like a small balcony. This
entrance was reserved for deliveries. The iceman,
the milkman, the Syrian baker with his fresh bread,
all came to that door. There, we sometimes sat and
giggled about the Zilber boys who lived on the
third floor and whose attention we tried to get.
Because of the heat, earthenware jugs of water
were always placed on the kitchen windowsill in the
shade. Any one was welcome to drink. These jugs
were called ‘gargoulettes’ and they kept the water
cool and fresh. They had shiny polished brass covers
in the shape of a dome, on the surface of which we
could see our distorted reflection.
At times, we watched from the second floor
to see the “Menagued” upholsterer beat the cotton
and renew the comforters. He would appear once
a year, sit in the courtyard and set up his tools. We would follow the rhythm of his beat as he
separated the lumpy old cotton to transform it into
snow-white flakes. For that, he used a tool that
resembled an archer’s bow. The wire would be
stretched tightly on each end of the long stick and
he would beat the wire with a wooden mallet as
the cotton passed through it. He would then stuff
the fresh cotton in the new fabric cover, which he
sewed together in elaborate designs.
From that same spot, we would watch the
milkman arrive with his cow. The servant from the
fourth floor would come down with her jug and
he would milk his cow. When the milk reached the
“rattle” sign, which was equivalent to one pound,
he would stop and pour the warm, foamy milk
into the jug. It was not unusual to meet this cow in
the fashionable streets of Cairo, side by side with
chauffeured cars. My own family never made use of
the cow. Another milkman brought our milk to our
door, and of course we had to boil it. We would also
learn how to skim the heavy cream from the top of
the milk as it cooled. On rare occasions, the same
milkman would bring donkey’s milk for those who
wanted it, as it was reputed to have great qualities.
Tante Farida claimed that the reason my brother
was so smart was because he was given donkey’s
milk as a child.
The milkman was also the suitor of our maid
Hanem, which is Arabic for “noble lady.” She had
come to us as a very young woman and this was
her first job. She was not attractive, had buckteeth
and was very skinny for she hardly ate. However,
she was very kind, decent and hardworking. In the
language of the employers, she was a “perle.” She
invested all her savings in gold jewelry which she
wore on her arms, ears and neck. As she moved,
the precious metal trembled and made pleasant
sounds. Egyptian women believed that wearing
one’s capital was a safe and prestigious thing to do.
Over the years she developed a relationship with
the milkman and subsequently they married and
had a beautiful daughter.
One day my brother came home from school
devastated. The administration had called him in
to say that tuition was overdue. We knew that the
situation was difficult but had not realized it had
come to that. My mother decided to take me out
of school, as only two months were left before the
end of the school year. She made arrangements to
have me tutored at home by Gisele, Sarina’s eldest
daughter. Thus, my brother could remain to the
end of the year. Boys in Egypt were regarded as
more important than girls. Besides, Ronnie was in
a more advanced class and he could not afford to miss classes. I often think of how simply my mother
accepted that fact. She never even went to talk to
the administration to ask for an extension.
I left the Lycee without regret. It was
anonymous, crowded and sometimes strict. On the
wall of the main stairway that led to all classes,
was a large blackboard hung in a very conspicuous
place. There, for the duration of one month,
one could read the names of students who had
cheated or done something inappropriate. They
had a system of shaming students and exposing
misbehavior. Fortunately, I was never inscribed on
that blackboard of shame, but I often thought of
what that did to those who were.
A sense of urgency about the future began to
surface. Soon we began to see a lot of uniformed
personnel, British, Americans and Free French.
They became more visible in the street, in
restaurants. Groppi’s became very populated
with officers and local people began to mix with
the military. Cairo was bustling with different
nationalities and appearances. There was a great
deal of activity and information being exchanged
and passed around. Business began to pick up
and there was an air of prosperity. Every empty
apartment became very valuable. Across the hall
from us, a couple of women moved in. If this was
not a brothel, the tenants must have been call
girls. None of the neighbors complained because
apartments were scarce and rents high. These
women were discreet and never disturbed anyone.
In my mind this added a touch of exotica.
Sham El Nissim was the holiday to celebrate
spring. Egyptians went on outings. The parks
filled with people who came from all over. Carts
pulled by horses or mules carried Arab families.
The women, in colorful dresses, sang and clapped;
the children joined in, accompanied by indigenous
drums and tambourines. Rod el Farag, on the Nile,
was transformed into a fair ground. It was a day for
picnics, magicians, puppets, games and food. There
was joy, and everybody participated. On that holiday
Tante Farida held a big party every year, inviting the
whole family and friends with their children.
The British began the preparation for war. It was
1940. The High command was responsible for the
land forces of Egypt and would have to defend the
Suez Canal. There was also the threat of the Italians
in Libya and Ethiopia, who outnumbered the British
and were far better equipped. The British began a
furious training and building program of military
bases, depots, workshops, etc. to accommodate
the 300,000 troops that were to come. The local community participated and profited in this effort.
In the midst of fear and anxiety about war, Egypt
prospered. The climate of public opinion amongst
Arabs was now shifting towards the Axis. The
considerable French influence in North Africa began
to wane. The capitulation of France and the Vichy
Government had disappointed many Francophiles.
The French, for decades, had gained their influence
in this part of the world by importing their language
and culture. The English were seen by many, as the
enduring heroic nation that stood up to Hitler. The
European community and European press certainly
saw it this way. For the British, their presence in
Egypt was crucial. Although public opinion was
restrained and not always friendly, the British made
sure that the government in power was favorable to
them. In the meantime, one felt safe in Cairo.
Believing that the English were the future, many
families took their children out of French schools to
send them to English ones. I was sent to St. Mary’s
English School, which was a forty- five-minute
ride by tram from our home. It had large grounds,
attractive buildings, a spacious courtyard, where we
played baseball and volleyball. The classes were not
as crowded as at the Lycee, teachers were much more
attentive to the needs of the students, and it was run
like a small private school.
There, I felt more like an individual than
in the French school, where it was hard to keep
track of students in crowded classrooms of forty
and more. The nuns were kind and helpful and
mother Magdalene was a real educator. She had a
good command of language and literature. There
were teachers like Miss Monypenny and Miss
Baldassar who were very special. Miss Monypenny,
who was tall and skinny with spectacles, was the
daughter of a Presbyterian missionary, who had
lived many years in Singapore. She taught us to love
Shakespeare and poetry and told us a lot about the
world outside. She had many stories of her travels
and of life in the mission in Asia. She developed
our curiosity and interest. She was a born teacher
with a great love for children and people. Miss
Baldassar, short and portly, pounded English into
us methodically and with patience. Three months
later, we were able somehow to manage the new
language. In St. Mary’s, I blossomed, often receiving
little medals that we were allowed to keep for a
whole month pinned on our uniforms. They were
given for merit and scholarship.
I was surprised to be mentioned in my senior
year, during the special school assembly for the
distribution of medals in the big hall. The whole
school listened with attention as Mother Magdalene read aloud two papers. They were compositions
written by an English girl called Natalie Radi and
myself. The subject was the autobiography of an
old shoe. Natalie’s was about a shoe that the tide
brought back to the shore after great adventures.
Mine was about an old shoe that found its way to the
bottom of a closet. It was a lucky charm that trailed
after the bride and groom’s car. The text began
with an arrogant remark made by a new shiny shoe,
sitting on the top shelf.
The school bus took ages to reach its
destination, so I often took the tram, which began
shortly after seven. I would take the number 30
tram, sit in the Ladies compartment, because, like
the first class it was upholstered, and private. The
number 30 was printed above for all to see. It was
also accompanied by a color code for those who could
not read. I would read or dream, and sometimes
chat with girls who came on a couple of stops
further on. We would pass through a populated area
where busy men and women were on their way to
work or to do errands. Many women were dressed
in the native style. Black melayas would shroud
their bodies, leaving only a suspicion of what their
shape underneath was really like. They walked
anonymously and proudly. Beneath their shrouds
they carried their pain, their secrets and their hopes.
Some would cover their faces with a ‘boroh’, leaving
their eyes exposed. Eyes were usually heavily made
up with kohl to appear very large. In Egypt eyes
communicated powerfully. The ‘boroh’ had a golden
bobbin piece at the top of the nose that enabled it
to sit comfortably on the face. It was appealing and
mysterious and created an aura of the unknown.
Since the days of ancient Egypt and Cleopatra, eyes
played a dramatic role in beauty. It was common to
hear the Arabic expression “on the beauty of your
eyes.” Kohl was used generously. Sometimes hands
and feet were painted orange with henna.
I would look at all those people with
fascination. The tram would make a detour,
reaching Cairo’s main train station, go round the
circle and travel straight on to Shubra where my
school was. I would return home at around four,
when I would have lunch at the little table near the
window in the entrance way.
On one of those afternoons, my mother
had visitors, and from my seat I overheard their
conversation. They discussed marriage, and my
mother made a comment that stayed with me. She
said she wished for her children to be married and
be happy but absolutely not to have children. While
at the time I was not very disturbed by the remark,
the thought returned to me again and again over the years. Why would she feel otherwise? At
twenty- eight, her life as a woman had ended. She
was victim of her culture, as well as of her own
character and passivity.
Summer months lingered. For much of the
year, the weather was warm, and the light was
bright. Schoolchildren had a long vacation and
offices closed between the hours of 1 and 4pm. At
the height of the summer, the temperature would
easily reach 45 degrees or more. During those hours,
people would find shelter in shady spots and those
who could afford it would remain at home till the
late afternoon. Shutters would stay closed to keep
out the torrid heat and many enjoyed the siesta.
In August, some fled the city to Alexandria
or to another seashore. We spent two or three
summers with Tante Marcelle and Uncle Emile,
in their Alexandria home. Alexandria had the
most beautiful 11 km. long corniche, on the
Mediterranean. My aunt and uncle lived in
Sporting, only a block away from the sea. Everyday
my cousins and I went swimming, either at the
local beach, or else we took the crowded bus to
Stanley Bey or Sidi Bichr. Most of the time we rode
standing. The bus ride took about a half hour and
the conductor would shout “Chatby,” “Smouha,”
“Sporting” as we stopped at different stations
along the way. People would get off, others would
come on. On that line, most were vacationers,
with straw hats and baskets for the beach. These
were wonderful beaches. The sand was white, the
water clear and calm. At Stanley Bey, hundreds of
cabanas built on terraces embraced the bay. There,
vacationers remained for a good part of the day,
taking their meals and sometimes their naps.
The fashion of the time was to wear long
cotton robes in vibrant prints, tied at the waist,
which ladies liked to show off together with their
large straw hats. These hats were usually trimmed
with colorful ribbons and silk flowers. We always
found family or friends to sit with under a parasol
or in the shade of a cabana. Agami was the finest of
all beaches, but it was far, and mostly patronized by
people who had cars.
In the evenings we would walk on the
corniche or join the grown ups in one of the cafes
on the water for a cool lemon granita. In Sporting,
crowds would stroll among the many shops and
vendors, between the displays of souvenirs, sweets,
kebab and ice cream.
Other summers we went with Tante Adele
and Uncle Jacques to Ras El Bar. We would drive
towards the Delta, Damietta, park the car in the
nearest town, and from there, take a Felucca on the Nile, to bring us as close to the hut in Ras el B ar as
possible. The hut was situated at about half way
between the River and the sea so that it was a five
or ten minutes walk either way.
I remember Uncle Jacques leaving for the
beach very early in the morning and returning to
sit on the verandah, in the shade. The loukomadis
vendor would pass singing its praises, and Jacques
would bargain with him, often buying the whole
tray. Loukomadis was a Greek egg fritter sprinkled
with sugar or honey. It was sometimes served
as a treat for breakfast. Later in the morning,
men would walk in their fresh pajamas to visit,
or to do errands, dragging their feet in the
sand. These pajamas were considered proper
by some. For instance, Emile would go about in
his pajamas while Jacques would never indulge.
Emile was more indigenous in his ways, language
One summer was spent with Jacques and
Adele in Port Said. There, Uncle Isaac, Margaret
and our cousin Marjorie joined us. I have very fond
memories of that summer and of taking long walks
on the jetty with the sculpture of Ferdinand de
Lesseps at the tip. The builder of the Suez Canal had
a permanent place of honor in that port. During that
summer, Uncle Jacques and all the cousins around
him built a huge kite. It was the nicest on the beach,
strong and very colorful. In the late afternoon
breeze, we would all go to fly it.
Most of the population, however, remained
in Cairo. To escape the heat, they would stroll in
the Public Gardens. The Persian Garden was a
favorite, even though one had to pay an entrance
fee of one piastre. It contained a knot garden, a
beautiful fountain with intricate Persian mosaic
patterns, and a great variety of flora. Sometimes
people simply walked along the banks of the Nile.
Coffeehouses were filled, and men would linger for
hours reading the newspaper attached to a wooden
stick, so it could not be removed. They would play
with their Sebha, or amber beads, and were often
engaged in noisy games of backgammon. In Arab
cafes, the radios would blast. Open-air movie
houses were a good place to spend a hot evening.
On street corners, jasmines strung as bracelets
and necklaces were sold, and young women would
wear them. The heat would further intensify the
already strong aroma of the flowers. The air was
very dense and most public places had ceiling
ventilators. Although summers were extremely hot,
I have no memories of their being unbearable.
Sporting Clubs with swimming pools
were the social meeting places of the elite. The grounds were splendid, with Palms, bougainvilleas,
hortensias and Oleanders. There would be
swimming, dining, music and card playing.
Chatting and flirting, suntanned women, dressed
in white or in pastels, would socialize around the
pool with long frosty drinks. Many were elegant,
attractive, charming and witty.
There was a layer of society that paid a lot of
attention to its pleasures and entertainment. They
dressed well and had an intense social life. A small
group participated in the war effort, and ran clubs
for British officers. Meadi and (Guezira) were the
very popular Clubs, where Jews and Christians
mingled easily. The Guezira Sporting Club was
One morning in 1942, my mother sat in her
bed, sipping her coffee, reading the newspaper.
She read aloud Churchill’s speeches, those
superbly inspiring words that the whole world
remembers. She read with pathos. We were
beginning to be aware of Hitler’s evil, of the
danger if he were to advance further. During
family gatherings, there was talk of crossing
to Palestine or to the Sudan. There was fear of
rape and assault. Cousin Henriette said that she
knew how to make herself look very old and
unattractive. My friend Suzanne recently told
me that she remembers waiting for her husband
in the car while he stocked up on gasoline for
the possible journey to the Sudan, when a young
Arab put his head through the car window and
threatened her: “tomorrow I will have you.” In
general, there was fear that the local population
would rise against all Europeans. Centuries of
occupation, of control and suppression, were
bound to erupt in anger.
There were demonstrations and riots. One day, large
angry crowds screamed and gesticulated as they
marched through our street. Some demonstrators
tried to break into buildings along the way, including
ours. That same evening, the “bawab” or doorman
who normally slept across the doorway, went from
one apartment to another with a plate decorated
with flowers and pound bills in the center. He was
clearly saying, “thanks to me you have not been
harmed.” All the tenants showed their gratitude by
adding generously to the contents of the plate. To
thank him of course, and also in the hope that he
would not turn against us.
While anti-Semitic feelings were dormant
in the past, it was clear that the Jews were now a
target. The Jewish population of Egypt numbered
65,000 to 80,000. They were mostly middle class and hardworking. Some had been there for
centuries. They enjoyed a certain freedom, and
the different governments since the Ottoman
occupation in 1517 were tolerant. Before that, the
position of Jews was less secure.
In general Jews socialized amongst
themselves. We had few non-Jewish friends.
Zachary Nasr was a very good friend of Ronnie’s.
He was a brilliant student, very sophisticated, and
well read. He came from a very well to do Muslim
family. He visited our house often and freely, playing
chess, sometimes with eyes closed and engaging in
animated discussions. Ronnie rarely went to him.
He lived in a far away neighborhood, while we
lived in the heart of the city. It was easier for him to
drop in and visit. Only once he gave a party for us
and invited all the cousins. His mother and sister
were there and they received us very warmly. They
put out a spread that was generous and elegant,
Egyptian style. Huge copper trays, on which a great
variety of foods were displayed, were brought out
by waiters and placed on low tables. The hosts
were open and made us feel very welcome. Jewish
families entertained in a more European style with a
buffet or around the dining room table.
Egyptians were generally very hospitable.
They received with warmth and generosity. In
hot weather, guests were greeted with a tray of
cold water and confiture. An attractive tray, with
matching spoon holder and confiturier, would be
offered to sweeten the palate. A crystal bowl sitting
in its silver container would hold the candied fruit.
The guest would spoon some dates or orange or
quince, according to the season, taste it approvingly,
then discard the spoon in a glass of water. One
would then proceed to drink from another glass
of cool water. The silver spoon holder had an
intriguing design. It was forged gracefully in such
a manner as to enable each spoon to have its own
niche; I still have one of those confiturier. The
little spoons would hang from their handles, and
as the tray moved, they would gently sway. Later,
Turkish coffee would be served with a biscuit or a
homemade cookie. Egyptians loved sweets, and the
culture of sweets was everywhere.
In general, they knew how to make one feel
very welcome, and always went out of their way to
convey that feeling. It was not unusual in an Arab
home to pour the contents of the candy dish into
your bag as you went home. When a guest arrived at
the door, he or she would be received warmly with
exclamations of “Ahlan,” meaning welcome. They
also had the habit of insisting, whether it was to
invite one to stay longer or to have a second serving. Politeness demanded that you accept only after
One did not have to be rich to be generous.
People would partake of their modest meal with a
guest, or just break bread, or offer rosewater as a
While the Egyptians were kind and warm,
they could also be agitated in a brawl. Pride and
honor played a big role, on those rare occasions, one
had best keep away. The bottles would break and
be brought out with the Nabouts or heavy sticks as
The Fodas were a well-known Muslim family.
They were landowners, and very respectable. They
lived in a beautiful townhouse, had four daughters,
and a son. I was quite friendly with the daughters,
and we saw a lot of each other. Mademoiselle,
their French governess was a lovely woman. They
went to an excellent Catholic school, Les meres de
Dieu, where many aristocratic families sent their
daughters. One Easter vacation, I was invited to
go with them to their Esba, in the country. This
Country Estate encompassed a vast area of 1000
Fedans or acres. The main house was very large
and beautiful with separate wings for the girls
and the boys. It was bright and cheerful and over
the beds, white netting hung from the canopy to
protect against bugs and mosquitoes. The farm was
irrigated by man made canals that carried the water.
There were trolley wagons pulled by horses. Rails
had been built to facilitate transportation, and we
rode every afternoon in the hay all over the farm.
We were given small pouches filled with coins that
we threw to the village children as they ran after
us shouting in joy. “The masters are there, and they
brought with them coins and candies.”
While the privileged enjoyed a good life, and
Cairo enchanted many, the jasmin and bougainvillea
did not make up for the poverty and squalor that
was all around.
The writer, Naguib Mahfouz described
brilliantly the dark alleys where amputations took
place. Beggars would have limbs cut off so as to
practice begging more profitably. In the streets
of Cairo, it was common to see beggars without
limbs, or mothers with babies hanging from their
breasts, waiting for coins to be tossed their way.
Barefoot and clad in rags, the poor walked the city
endlessly. While the streets of the rich were spared
these sights, the more populated areas were filled
with the illiterate, the hungry and the blind. Misery
Most accepted this with passivity. It was
part of the panorama, part of the culture. A visit at Satout’s,
my mother’s wet nurse, was enough
to make one understand the degree of poverty
She lived in a tenement in a remote
neighborhood. To reach her room, one had to climb
three flights to the roof while making sure not to
stumble on the loose steps or fall through the gaps
in between. One finally arrived at a very small
room, with mere holes for windows. There was no
electricity, no bathroom. A little wooden stool, an
old blanket and an old trunk furnished the place.
A Turkish coffee pot, a few utensils and a primus
stove indicated that someone lived there. She must
have sold her belongings and all that my mother
gave her to help her son and supplement the meager
allowance she received from us. Her grown son was
indolent and did not work, but somehow, she kept
Ignorance was commonplace. The poor could
not read. Word of mouth and the blasting radio
of the wretched neighborhood café were the sole
source of information. News, prayers and sermons
were broadcast and, of course, the music of Om
Kalsoon and Abdel Wahab. Om Kalssoon was the
great singer of her time, a legend in the Arab world
and is still heard today on the radio all over the
Middle East. Her voice was unique and her songs
were very long, with the same short phrase being
repeated throughout. It was the quality of her rich
voice and the nuances that made her extraordinary
success. For me, this kind of music had no appeal.
A cannon sounded at about 5pm, and all work came
to a complete stop. It is Ramadan, the Holiday when
Muslims fast from dawn to dusk. It stretched over a
period of 30 days.
During hot spells, it was especially hard on
workers to go without food or water.
In our house, the maid and sometimes the
neighbors’ servants together with Satout, would sit
around the tableya, a foot-high wooden table, and
have their fast-breaking meal.
The “tableya” would be spread with all sorts
of good salads, foul – an Egyptian dish made of
dried fava beans and well-seasoned, along with
condiments, onions and cheeses. On other nights, it
would be lamb and rice and, of course, salads. Satout
would first reach for a cigarette, then water, and
only a little while later would she begin the meal. I
used to love to join them sitting on the kitchen floor
and around the tableya. We used to break the native
fresh bread and dip it into the fool. There were no
plates. We all ate from the same platters placed at
the center. Somehow, those meals had a special taste
and a certain solemnity. It was as if food and water
deprivation were a reminder of the suffering. The
radio blared prayers and sermons. This was a time
when religious beliefs and passions seemed to reach
The evenings would be spent munching on
sweets and drinking Turkish coffee. I loved that
holiday because Satout came and stayed with us for
the whole month. To me she appeared to be about a
hundred. In reality, she must have been in her late
sixties. She used to sleep on the floor, anywhere at
all, on a little carpet. She was blind and somehow
managed to come to us from afar by asking people
for directions. She used to tell us stories, sometimes
quite terrifying, about Brahmans and Mamlooks.
After that, everyone would go to bed, to be
awakened by the sound of the cannon at about four
am. Those who fasted would wake up, set up the
tableya once again, and have the last meal until dusk.
Pessach at the Villa was a very festive event. The
house was filled with flowers and the huge table
in the “grande salle a manger” was set with a
white embroidered cloth. All the silver was out,
arrangements of flowers were aligned the length
of the table. The seder food and the matza were
spread out in a repeat rhythm so that all could
reach it. This seder was Iraqi style. There was an
abundance of Harosset (Iraqui style), a thick liquid
date syrup garnished with loads of walnuts. Uncle
Elie would preside at the head of the table, and
the Seder would last for a long time. The chanting
and singing would fill the house, interrupted only
by the passing around of the different traditional
Seder foods. Then the meal would be brought in by
a retinue of soufraguis or waiters, all in their formal
attire, turbans and red sashes over snow white
gallabeyas. Mountains of lamb with rice, as well as
mayena, which was an Egyptian kind of pie made
with matza so thin that it resembled filo dough. This
would be layered with chopped beef, pine nuts, and
grains of pomegranate and placed in the oven until
it reached the golden colour. Matza in Egypt was
very thin, and made in a very large, flat, and round
shape. There was also the traditional chicken, the
fava beans cooked with lamb, dill and green onions
and more. Glasses of wine would be filled one after
the other. At the end of the meal, there was more
chanting and prayers. In Sephardic tradition, the
Seder is celebrated the first night only.
The next day was usually celebrated by lunch at
Jacques and Adele’s. I remember one occasion
when Adele had a lamb slaughtered for the holiday.
The lamb was brought to the roof of the house, and
the shohet came to do the slaughtering. Bloody
handprints were carefully marked on the walls of
the rooftop, possibly to ward off evil and harm and
as a reminder that the sons of Israel were spared.
Hamsa, meaning five in Arabic, was represented in
the form of a hand. The Hamsa is an amulet that
people in the Middle East have adopted as a good
luck piece against the evil eye. They wear it out of
superstition as well as a decoration.
Adele would fuss at Pessah, directing the cook
to prepare the many different plates, and creating an
atmosphere of festivity.
Even though Pessah was focused on foods, and
on parties, we all participated in the celebrations.
I remember with joy the holidays. Not all Jews
in Egypt were very observant, however, every
Jewish holiday was celebrated and marked with its
particular style. Being Jews, there was no doubt they
were different and mostly kept amongst themselves
socially; still, they got along well with Arabs as well
as Christians in their daily contacts and at work.
Yom Kippur was celebrated at Tante Emma
or at Tante Adele’s. Because I wanted to appear
grown up, I began to fast at age eleven. That day was
usually spent in quiet respect and solemnity also in
idleness and laziness, reading a novel or magazines.
Towards the end of the fast my mother would begin
to look up at the sky and pray to heaven in murmurs
The breaking of the fast was a big party with
guests arriving after the first star appeared in
the sky. There was a buffet with a spread of salty
goodies and sweets that were lavish and plentiful, as
well as cool lemonades and tea and coffee. A couple
of hours later a proper hot meal would be served.
As a rule, all the family was there and the children
too. It was joyous and happy.
There was little mingling between the
communities. Sometimes in the skating rink, we
chatted and flirted with young Muslim men, mostly
University students who came to skate. But all in
all, there was a very strict code of behavior for girls.
They were simply kept away from boys and even
more so outside their community. There was very
little intermarriage and when there was, it was
mostly limited to Jews and Christians.
Muslims could have many wives, and could
divorce by simply declaring so. It was a situation
that was hard to tolerate. Even though many
emancipated men did not marry more than one wife,
it was a risk very few girls would take. Jewish girls
expected permanence in marriage.
There was more interaction with Coptic
families. Mr. Milad, a Copt, was my father’s
best friend. He was a mathematician, who had
an enormous library in which every book was
catalogued, covered meticulously in brown paper
and labeled in an identical manner. After my father’s
death, he often came to see us. We would tell him
about our studies. Sometimes he would offer to
tutor us in Math during final examinations.
The Copts were native Christians, considered
by some to be the original Egyptians who remained
in the region after the birth of Christianity. They
were educated, and contributed extensively to
Egyptian society. Many entered politics and the
academic field and they were generally hard
working and well respected.
Now there was discontent. The germ of
anti foreign feelings had pierced. ‘Foreign’ meant
anything that was not Muslim. King Farouk was
also a source of displeasure. Instead of leading,
he was busy being a playboy and a tyrant. Anti
British feelings became openly apparent as Rommel
advanced in the desert.
That week was crucial. It was June of 1942.
The Germans were advancing, crushing the British
8th Army. Over a two-week period, the Axis forces
stormed into Egypt, reaching within sixty miles
of Alexandria by the end of June. The British, in
desperate fighting, held off the German advance.
Evacuation was in progress, families of military
personnel were sent off to South Africa, amongst
them my cousin Edgar’s family. He was a doctor and
a colonel in the British army.
One afternoon Uncle Joseph appeared;
he had come to have a talk with my mother. He
explained that in this crisis she would have to worry
about herself and the children. When he left, my
mother, tears running down her face, once more
felt abandoned. In my imagination, I saw images of
trucks and cars filled with military personnel and
civilians leaving the country. A couple of days later
my uncle Isaac came to the house and told us that
under no condition would we be left behind. There
would be room for us in his son’s car. We would
be joining him, his son Victor (the English) and
his daughter in law Erica. We felt relieved by the
thought of not remaining alone. We also knew that
there would be less room for gasoline cans.
We all waited in an atmosphere of gloom
and anxiety. The situation was at a standstill. After
a succession of changes in the high command of
the 8th Army, General Montgomery appeared on
the scene. He brought with him inspiration and a
sense of hope. The great battle of El Alamein in late
October of 1942 ended in victory for the British who
had finally defeated the Germans, pushing them
back to Tripoli. The immediate danger had passed
and we all began to breathe. Being British subjects,
Ronnie was mobilized in the British army, and began
his training not far from home. I continued my
life with school. Meanwhile war songs were heard
constantly over the radio. Vera Lynn, Bing Crosby,
Rina Katie with “j’attendrai,” all the nostalgia of the
troops pouring into the lyrics. A lot of energy and
vitality was in the air.
Social and cultural life in Cairo, as well as
entertainment ranged from family and friends,
meetings and visits and card playing, to club
life, to dancing parties that the young organized
around birthdays and other events. There was the
gramophone or the electric pickup with records
borrowed from everyone. People talked about the
fancy balls at the Mena House and the Shepperds
Hotel that were the pride of the Middle East. They
were opulent palaces, elegant and lavish. Some
Cairenes belonged to literary, or musical clubs,
or political discussion groups. There were no
significant concerts and theaters except for visiting
companies- mostly it was limited to local companies
and comedians. A very talented actor of the time
At the opening of the Suez Canal, in 1889,
Imperatrice Eugenie came to Cairo for the
celebrations. The Opera House had been built
for the occasion and Verdi had composed Aida.
The event was extraordinary as the joining of
the Red Sea and the Mediterranean had great
political and commercial impact on Egypt and the
world. The Opera House, with all its glamour, had
attracted some theatrical groups from Europe to
come to Cairo, the Comedie Francaise amongst
them. In 1946, I was lucky to secure a seat in the
second balcony to see the Comedie Francaise, in a
performance of Le Malade Imaginaire. I was in awe
of the place, of the atmosphere, and of how a book
was transformed into a play on stage. I believe this
was the first time I was in the presence of a visual
art that had nothing to do with Ancient Egypt.
There were also night spots like the Auberge
des Pyramides, for dinner and ambiance, near
the Pyramids. There, King Farouk could be seen
accompanied by various women, night life of
cabarets and music halls with belly dancing and
music, were there to entertain. Badiaa was famous
on the Place de l’Ezbekiah where some of the
greatest belly dancers performed. Men would go
crazy over them. There was a lot of gossip around
the conquests of those stars, for whom men lost
their heads and contemplated suicide. I was once
taken to a matinee performance by Tante Andrée
and her family. It was a sensual dance, very graceful,
and not at all vulgar. In the context of the time,
women taunted, and tempted, and did not feel
degraded. Mostly men patronized those places.
Cairenes would venture into the exotic and
colorful bazaar of Khan El Khalil. There one could
find silver, copper, jewelry and Egyptian antiquities.
Local people would get bargains, and the foreigners
would pay ten times the price and believe they got it
for a song.
Some would ride to the Citadel, sitting on a
hill frowning at Cairo. This structure, impregnable
in the age of Saladin, is visible from a distance.
There was the Egyptian Museum that
possessed the greatest art treasures of ancient Egypt
and where Tutan Khamoun’s gold chambers were
exhibited in tight quarters, badly lit, and without
fuss. Visitors were few, and occasional lovers
wandered hand in hand through its halls, knowing
they did not risk being seen.
There was no Modern Art around. Events
like the weddings of King Farouk to Farida and his
sister Fawzeya to the Shah of Iran prompted many
artists to decorate Cairo for the Occasions. At that
time huge columns and arches with portraits in
color of the couple were erected. Some designers
were brought from Europe, but most work was
done locally. Creativity however excelled in pastries
that looked like art. On those occasions, colorful
tents were erected in intricate patterns. Guests
clad in holiday clothing would sit on gold and red
armchairs that were lined all around the tent walls,
listening to music and watching belly dancers
undulating their firm bodies. Huge platters of
pastries, as well as colorful syrupy drinks were then
brought in for the guests to consume. Women and
men were separated in different areas.
Life was leisurely, and did not abound in
energy and action. It was absorbed and enjoyed at
the pace at which it was lived. Everything seemed
to have more depth. I sometimes think of how much
we miss, moving as fast as we do.
I began to be aware of myself as a girl. Jimmy,
a boy whose father was English and his mother
Maltese, asked me to go to the movies. He was a
nice young man who came regularly to the Skating
Rink. We skated together on our roller skates to the
music of Marches, Bolero or Comparssita. We rolled
around the Rink, tirelessly, with all the other young
skaters. Some were good, the rest tried to imitate
them. This was a place that was transformed
into an open-air cinema in the summer. When I
approached my mother to ask permission to go
to the movies with Jimmy, she responded very
negatively. She never asked me who this young man
was nor did she explain why it was wrong for me
to go. She simply said that it was shameful. I went
anyway to a matinee performance, chaperoned by
my cousin Odette, held hands with the boy, and
thought it was bliss. On other occasions Fernand
Hendi would wait outside my window to catch a
glimpse of me. From a distance he would stand
there for long periods of time looking towards the
balcony. Though he meant nothing to me, I liked
the attention. In Egypt, men in general, liked to
woo girls silently, and often sigh, and sometimes
cry. It was part of the culture. Interaction amongst
the young was very difficult and the need for
flirtation and contact was often translated into
melodramatic behavior. It was as if to reassure
oneself that love existed and also to appear in the
eyes of others as someone to whom this love was
happening. These manifestations of loving someone
from afar were common and did not detract from
the intensity of the experience. Eyes behind the
Boroh sent messages much stronger than words
could express. The intense passion that existed in
the imagination was no less important. Actually,
the restrictions that were imposed on the young
increased their passion and curiosity, as well as
firing their imagination.
My mother’s cousin Henry, who was a
professor, was known for his love for Blanche. His
suffering and his pain were the subject of many
conversations. Although the relationship was
mature, and Blanche had been his mistress for a
period of time, he and his mother would discuss the
unfolding of this adventure in every detail with the
entire family or whoever would listen. His tears were
the envy of his cousins and also the source of their
French education was prevalent. Nineteenth
and twentieth century literature influenced
behavior and the imagination. We all read Madame
Bovary and Colette. We somehow expected a
beautiful woman to have the respectability of a
husband, as well as a lover swooning over her.
Grown ups often spoke about whose lover was who.
Honor and appearances were central in
the bourgeois existence of Egyptian Jews. The
Mediterranean passionate behavior was extensive
and was also mixed with the Egyptian pride and
The El Alamein crisis had prompted many
families living in Alexandria to come to Cairo.
Alexandria had been bombed and it was closer to
the front line. The rumbling of tanks was only a few
kilometers away, and the fear of the German advance
was increasing every day. Fearing for their lives,
people began to leave the city. My mother’s sister
Marcelle, her husband and their two daughters left
for Cairo. They left for safety but also because Emile
had not succeeded in his business. Marcelle had
married her maternal uncle, because the family had
decided it would be good for Emile. He was in fact
a good for nothing man, lazy, a man who ran after
every skirt he encountered, and who was oblivious
to the pain he was causing his wife. Marcelle on the
other hand, was a good woman who never revolted,
and who swallowed her pride. She sat and fed her
frustrations literally and waited. Many years later,
the artist Ziona Shimshi did an installation at the
Herzliya Museum which consisted of some twenty
figures in different poses sitting, passive, gazing at
nothing… She called the exhibit: “They are sitting and
waiting.” It brought to mind the many “Marcelles” I
encountered in Egypt, and elsewhere.
The cousins Chouchou and Lily were around
my age and we saw a lot of each other when they
came to Cairo. They lived across from Groppi’s and
from their huge terrace we could hear the music.
The neighbors’ boys often came up to dance and we
would have our own little party.
It was now 1943. Ronnie was stationed in
Aden, where he directed the operations of BOAC.
In January of that year, I received a letter from
him, wishing me a happy birthday. He also wrote
that in his armoire, in the right pocket of his tweed
jacket, I would find an envelope. To my surprise,
the envelope, which was addressed to me contained
birthday wishes and a five-pound note. I had never
received such a present. That my brother found the
time to be so attentive before his departure to Aden
moved me beyond words. It was something I would
remember for the rest of my life.
Many European civilians found refuge in
Cairo, among them the entourage of the deposed
king of Yugoslavia. Three or four young men from
this group moved into the fifth-floor apartment
of our building. They were good looking, in their
twenties, well educated, and with very good
manners. One of them, Guy de Sansin, claimed to
be a count, and seemed very proud of his title. In
reality, he was extremely refined, knew a lot about
the world, and his attitude was that of fine breeding.
We began a flirtation talking from one balcony to
another and soon this developed into a friendship.
He came to our house met my family, including all
the cousins. My mother somehow allowed those
encounters without objections. I believe that this
was because she had met Guy and appreciated his
ways, also perhaps because the war had brought
a new measure of understanding and perspective.
In order to see me, Guy had to include my two
cousins Lillian and Lily as chaperon. We would all
go to Groppi’s for tea, or we would take long walks
exploring the different parts of Cairo, like Guezira,
the Citadel or the Pyramids. We went to all those
places, but always accompanied.
Guezira is a place one never forgets. Its
gardens, its aroma of jasmines and the rows of
Poncianas and Jacarandas with their red and blue
flowers are engraved in my memory. Every Cairene
of that period knows the magic of those alleys of
huge trees with red blooms on fire and the heavenly
fragrance of the ‘fol’, that cluster of jasmine blossom
the size of a rose.
This was a wonderful year, I was happy and
doing well in school. I was in love.
But a few months later, Guy was transferred.
I relished and lingered in the memory of the
relationship, not questioning the workings of life,
of the presents it gives us, of its license to take
them away. I thought of the wonderment of love,
of that feeling which sweeps one’s entire self
away. This was my first love. I had discovered the
emotion in my teen years, with intensity and with
innocence. I had felt privileged to be able to feel
Sometime after Guy’s departure, two British
intelligence officers came to our house and spent
some time with us, chatting, inquiring, questioning.
After a couple of visits, they never returned. Many
years later Ronnie told me that Guy belonged to an
Elite intelligence unit which had been parachuted
behind enemy line.
With my neighbors, Celine and Cecile, we
would often join a group of young friends in a
café called Issaivitch, known for its ice cream
and ‘foul ‘. The teenagers would hang around the
square, with their ice cream cones, chatting, and
then would move towards the bridge. The Nile
attracted like a magnet. Gliding on the river were
the feluccas with their huge sails. Those same boats
used since ancient Egypt were still sailing the river.
Four thousand years had not altered their lines or
their grace. The Kasr El Nil Bridge was cool, and
there was often a breeze in the evening. The sky
at night in that part of the world is unique, a most
extraordinary vision. The millions of stars are so
bright that one feels immersed in them.
At that time, the Pyramids were an hour away
by tram. We would go down at the terminal station,
walk up the winding little hill, and arrive at the
foot of the Pyramids. The place was almost always
deserted and silent. One felt in total communion
with these gigantic structures, emerging from the
sand. Camels would slowly roam, or simply sit.
One felt in awe and overwhelmed, it was a magical
moment. History was all around.
A little further out was the Sphinx in all its majesty
and splendor. It did not matter how many times we
visited the place; we always felt compelled to return.
Even though at the time I had not realized the power
of its impact and the influence this experience would
have on me, I knew I was privileged to be there, to
touch the stones, and to walk on the site.
When I visited some forty years later, the site
was built up with many souvenir shops blocking
the view. One could not experience anymore the
Pyramids emerging from a distance as one slowly
approached. Thousands of visitors came to spend
the day, littering the grounds and just having a good
time as if in a picnic ground. The feeling of a sacred
and unique place was lost.
That feeling, however, was retrieved in Luxor.
There, the environment and its monuments were
respected and protected.
Youth in Egypt in the forties felt in turmoil.
While many enjoyed and participated in the “dolce
vita,” some had the need to belong to a cause.
Europe was burning and bleeding, many felt that
it was wrong to be completely on the outside.
The Lycee had a group, which was called the
‘Amicale’. There, young intellectuals met socially
and discussed politics. Franco, Stalin, Hitler were
favorite subjects. They were communist oriented
and attracted the young who wanted to help make
a better world. I joined that group for a short time
through my cousin Fifi, who was a member. She was
my only contact and she spent time teaching me the
structure of the party, its cell organization and how
it functioned. I soon tired and dropped the idea.
In November of 1944, two Jewish young men,
members of the Stern Gang, assassinated Lord
Moyne, Minister in residence in the Middle East, in
Cairo. The assassins came from Palestine to commit
the deed. It was in protest of British policy to forbid
entrance of Jewish war refugees to Palestine. The
British were furious. Some Arabs, particularly the
Muslim Brothers, sympathized for a while with
the Zionist cause but otherwise it was condemned.
The Jewish population was terrified. Even though
no one could condone assassination, many admired
the two young men who crossed the border to bring
attention to a tragically pressing problem. They
knowingly committed a deed from which there
was no escape.
Shaken and disturbed by the event and the
cause behind it, I went to see Mr. Weissman a few
days later. I was told by a friend that he was the
father of Aviva Naggiar, a family very committed
to the Zionist cause. I arrived at his office in the
afternoon without an appointment. I asked to see
him alone because of the personal nature of my
mission. I faced him across the desk and explained
that I was very moved by the courage these young
men displayed. I wanted to do something for the
Jewish cause. Our people were dying in Europe, and
I wanted to help. He listened very attentively, and
explained to me that actions like that were not really
commendable and terrorism was wrong. I left not
knowing what to make of this conversation. He did
not indicate what was right.
I had graduated from St. Mary’s and was
holding a job teaching English, at a private school,
while working afternoons at the British Consulate.
Evenings I tutored a young cousin of mine, Claude.
Claude was the son of Mimi and Saul. Cousins that
we all loved and admired. Mimi was beautiful, kind
and lovely and Saul her husband was handsome,
charming and a great sportsman. He was Egypt’s
fencing Champion and we were all in awe at
his accomplishment. One Sunday I went to the
pool at the Sporting Club, and there met some
acquaintances who invited me to accompany them
that evening to a youth center called Maccabi. We
The Club was in a large apartment in an office
building on the Rue Emad El Din. There, I met a
large group of young people who had come to listen
to a lecture given by a man called Shertock, who
later on would be known as Sharrett and would
become foreign minister of the State of Israel. He
spoke for a long time and he spoke in Hebrew,
assuming that young Jews knew the language,
although we did not. There was also a lot of singing,
the atmosphere was pleasant and friendly, and
I felt very much at ease. This was the beginning
of my interest and involvement with Zionism. I
returned again and again and soon I found my place.
The youths were interesting and intelligent. The
‘movement’ as we called it, provided for the young
and particularly for girls a place to meet other young
people, establish friendships and get away from
home to escape close and strict parental supervision.
The movement was divided into groups, each
bearing a Hebrew name. At the head of the group
was a leader. The latter would lecture on the history
of the Jews and Zionism. That is how I learned
about the Dreyfus affair, the Balfour Declaration,
Herzl, and anti-Semitism. The leaders talked a
lot about building the Jewish State. Many were
preparing for Aliya, to go to Palestine to build a
country where Jews could have a haven. Boys and
girls went on excursions together, learned about
defending themselves in case the Arabs would
attack the Jewish Quarter. Young idealists argued
with their parents, the latter not wishing to see their
children leave a comfortable life, to go toil the land
for a dream. They loved Egypt and had no desire to
see their offspring venture to unknown grounds.
In the meantime, the Muslim faction was
restless and discontented. There were increasing
demonstrations and riots, they wanted the British
out and the Jews by the side were also in disfavor.
There was serious information that on Balfour
Day, in November of 1945, the mobs would attack
the Hara, (Jewish Quarter). I was assigned to
accompany DR with a basket of grenades to bring
to the Quarter. We had covered the top of the
basket with oranges, and went on our way. The
Haganah in the Hara had built roadblocks. The
whole day was spent with “yes, they will attack, no
they will not,” we were fed information every hour.
At the end of the day we received news that the
alert was over. The Quarter was safe. At about ten
that night we set out to leave the Jewish Quarter to
return home. We had to walk through a long street
in a totally Arab neighborhood, the Mouski. The
Mouski was a very colorful local shopping district
by day, a sort of a bazaar. That night it was totally
dark and deserted.
We walked straight without exchanging a
word, about half way to the end of the street; a huge
slab of glass came forcefully down missing us by
inches. We kept going silently, hoping for the best.
It was dark, but we did not light our flashlight. We
just kept going till we reached the end of the street,
which was a big square Ataba Khadra, where all
trams of Cairo converged. We were still within half
an hour walk from home and we hurried along the
silent and deserted streets.
Whoever was in charge of that operation
should have taken into account that it was
dangerous to be on the street that night. We were
young and did not ask questions, we thought that
that was the nature of the mission. Strangely enough
we never really discussed what had happened. It
was a shared danger, a sort of a secret. Perhaps D.
who was very involved in the Haganah told his
superiors about it, but he never mentioned it to
me. That same night the Jews of Alexandria had
suffered severe damages.
Around that time, I was sworn in into the
Haganah. I pledged in a most dramatic way to
serve my people and defend them. I was brought
to an apartment, (I knew to whom it belonged
because my grandfather lived across the hall)
in total darkness, my eyes bound, and made to
sit in a barber’s chair. A blaring light flooded
my face, a Bible and a gun were brought in, and
I ceremoniously swore to defend and protect
my people. Egyptian Jews, while being very
committed, also had a very marked sense of
humor. They turned a dramatic commitment into a
theatrical experience. They kept the rules, but they
also exaggerated and laughed at the ceremonial
aspects. They liked to play the hush-hush games,
took unnecessary chances, and risks that later
would backfire. They made sure the Jewish
Quarter would be defended.
The Hara was a very old quarter where
Jews were concentrated and segregated for
years. It is estimated that some 10,000 Jews lived
in the Quarter around that time. Most of them
were indigenous, or immigrants from other Arab
countries; they were generally poor and many
depended on the charity of the community. In their
lifestyle, the indigenous Jews had assimilated into
their Egyptian environment.
The Ottoman rule had gradually given Jews
of the area more freedom and enabled them to
develop their skills as merchants, financiers and
middlemen, professions that were not accorded
high status in the Muslim world. In the 19th
Century, first Montefiore and Cremieux and later
on the Alliance Israelite Universelle, had introduced
schools and western education. Well to do Jews left
the Quarter as the Automan Empire allowed them
to live elsewhere and gave them more rights. They
began to play an economic role. By the twentieth
century, there remained in the Jewish Quarter only
the poorer class. The rest of the Jews lived all over
the city. They lived well with their neighbors and
enjoyed their respect. They were the wealthy, the
professionals, and the middle class.
Besides the indigenous population, there
were a number of Jewish immigrants from different
parts of the Ottoman Empire, North Africa, and
Europe, who came to Egypt in the 19th Century. The
composition of the population at that time ranged
from Sepharadim from Greece and Turkey, to Iraqi,
Syrians, Tunisians and Moroccans, Italians, and
some Europeans. World War I had also brought
some Jews from Palestine who had been expelled by
the Turks and came to find refuge in Egypt.
My brother returned from Aden. I could
not wait to draw him into the movement. As I had
hoped, he embraced it without difficulty and took
on an important role. Soon he had many important
responsibilities, amongst them the building and
operation of a clandestine radio station that emitted
and received messages every day to and from
Palestine. This he did from his bedroom in Rue El
Falaki. He transmitted in code and was in charge of
decoding the information.
The girls in our group were given different
assignments. N.S. together with another girl were
given the task to accompany men to an apartment
regularly at 2 o’clock in the afternoon when it was
scorching hot and no one was out in the streets. The
place was used originally as a radio station but when
this became dangerous, they moved the station
to Rue El Falaki, our home. “The apartment” was
subsequently used as a meeting place, to exchange
information and other uses. The place was supposed
to appear like a natural place of rendezvous and
the girls had a grand time playing the mistresses.
To see the humor in this, one must know what
N. looked like. She was the intellectual type with
glasses, a serious girl who looked like anything
except mischief. They would make up their faces
heavily with rouge and eye shadow, wear high heels,
and look very guilty and grown up. They would sit in
one room all afternoon and do homework. (N. was a
student at the American University).
D and I were in love. We made a beautiful
couple. We were both committed, good looking, we
shared an ideal, and belonged to a group that was
supportive. That year was spent in excitement,
activities, and a total feeling of belonging. The group
would go on long walks in the evenings on the Kasr
El Nil Bridge. We sang a lot, patriotic songs, also
songs of love to Jerusalem. D. was a decent young
man, intelligent, good natured and caring.
Akiva was the Shaliyach (the emissary). He
was sent from Palestine, together with a couple of
others to lead, prepare and educate the youths to
go to Palestine. He was born in Germany, and lived
with his wife and daughter on kibbutz Naan. He
was intelligent, handsome, had a lot of charisma,
and was a wonderful teacher. He inspired us all,
lectured, and projected his enthusiasm. We looked
upon him with admiration and respect.
In December 1945, a new Shaliyach arrived,
(new to me). He came to the “locale” accompanied
by Akiva. I learned subsequently from an older
member that he had been in Egypt in 1943 together
with Akiva to establish this Zionist youth group.
The two of them were very successful despite the
fact that forming a nucleus group was no easy
matter in Cairo and Alexandria. The youths were
argumentative, loved the good life, joked about
everything and were not so keen on hearing about
the holocaust and the tragedy of the Jews. However,
they were listening and understood very well what
this was all about. Soon a serious group of youths
was formed and developed into a force that focused
on Palestine and the Jewish State.
The Shaliyach was Raphael. He had returned
on a second mission. This time he came to organize
the Aliya Bet, the underground immigration. He had
just lost his father and there was a sad, reserved look
about him. Because of his role, he was effaced and not
very visible. That night there was a big party; there
was a lot of singing and dancing, and I was having a
grand time. Raphael asked Akiva who I was, because
he explained he was going to marry me. That evening
he came with Akiva to our house, went up to the
apartment in the elevator, then decided that to ring
the bell and present himself could appear strange.
They left intent on postponing the meeting.
Raphael somewhat resembled Orson Welles;
he was good looking, a bit stocky, with a very brisk
walk. One had almost to keep up pace with him.
He was intelligent, sharp, quick, and very sure of
himself. He was determined and somehow one had
the impression that he always got his way. He had
beautiful teeth and an engaging smile. His long
eyelashes were the envy of many girls.
Raphael began to work. He had no papers,
and had entered Egypt illegally through the desert.
He needed a safe place to stay. My mother under
pressure from my brother and myself agreed that he
could stay with us. Raphael and I began to see more
of each other. I accompanied him on assignments.
We went by train to Alexandria for the day to plan to
buy a ship for Alya Bet or illegal immigration.
The discussion took place in a rowboat, in
the port itself, in broad daylight. I sat at the bow,
while the others were discussing how to move a few
hundred Jews from one country to another, without
arousing suspicion. Eliahu Braha and Albert Guetta
as well as R. sat in that boat planning. My presence
was to make this outing appear to be innocent.
They did not however go through with this project.
Instead a plan for one thousand Jews to be moved
to Palestine went successfully into effect. It was
scheduled for Pessach vacation when trains were
full with travelers and Jewish soldiers going on
leave to Palestine. Overnight, one thousand Egyptian
Jews, young men and women dressed as soldiers
with legitimate papers passed the border between
Egypt and Palestine.
I was to accompany R. in different missions
and meetings; he did not talk Arabic and I was the
one to answer conductors or others. On one occasion
I accompanied him by train to Ismaillia, where he
had an important meeting. I waited all day for him at
the ATS Club and we almost missed our train back to
Cairo. That night we had a rendezvous with Ronnie
at Midan Ismaillia shortly after 11 p.m. The train was
expected to arrive a little before that time. When
we reached Cairo, we learned that the governing
party had fallen, and that the Prime Minister had
been thrown out of office. The government was in
chaos. The city was under curfew. In silence and in
darkness we made our way to the rendezvous point.
But Ronnie was not there. After waiting a while we
made our way home, walking briskly in the shadows
of the buildings, and in the hope that we would not be
stopped and asked for our papers.
During that period Raphael made a number of
trips to Palestine without proper papers. He crossed
the border ten times through different routes. On
one occasion he traveled with false papers by plane.
While waiting for departure at the Cairo Airport, he
met Yolande Gabai, a young woman who was also
doing underground work. She asked R. to yield his
place to her on the plane, she had to get to Palestine.
She spoke in a slightly loud voice to make her point
and to convince him. He was traveling under an
assumed name and she almost caused him great
trouble, not realizing what she was doing.
The arrival of Raphael brought with it more
excitement. I was very flattered to be paid all
that attention. I was chosen for assignments. The
Shaliyach for us was a sort of a Prince of Israel and
to be included in that inner group was the utmost
This situation also brought with it its
anxieties. My emotions began to shift from D to R
and then back again to D. I loved the action, the
glamour and the overwhelming inspiring strength
and personality of Raphael- I also loved the familiar
culture, the gentleness and caring personality of D.
I would shift back and forth, while D. waited and
Raphael, sure of himself, knew it was a matter of
time. I felt loved, appreciated, desired and wanted.
What more could an eighteen-year-old wish for.
I chose to embark on a new life and share
it with Raphael. It was July of 1946. In our
conversations he said he had to study shipping, a
profession needed to link the shores of Palestine to
the world. This would be our lifeline for survival
and the development of the economy when the
new state would be established. He spoke with
assurance, vision, and conviction. This would have
to come to pass. There was not even a shadow of a
doubt. I believed him. We would have to marry in
October, so as not to miss the school year. We would
travel to England to study.
Raphael left Cairo for the last time with
false papers and with the fear of being discovered.
Because I worked at the British Consulate, I was
able to obtain a visa for Palestine for him. I took the
Egyptian passport where the photo of the owner
was switched for that of Raphael, to the consul
in charge of visas, Mr. Boreman. He stamped the
visa on the spot, but may have felt that something
was not right. He handed it to me and said kindly
Raphael returned to Tel Aviv, to his family.
As he walked up the stairs, his mother greeted him
and said how good it was to have him back. She
also added that now he would have to settle down
and that they would find him a novia or bride. To
this Raphael replied that she need not bother, this
was already done. His mother had lost her husband
barely the year before. Her older son Daniel had
gotten married to Mati that same year and it must
have been hard for her.
A few days later, I was to travel to Tel Aviv
to meet the family. I had never been to Palestine
before. In my mind, the country was beautiful,
exciting, and a place where I would instantly feel
happy and at home.
Ronnie and I decided to fly to Lod. At
Heliopolis, we boarded a one-engine plane that
transported seven passengers. The pilot looked us
over and sat us according to what his judgment
considered our weight to be. We flew very low, and
we could see the expanse of the Sinai Desert that
separated Egypt from Palestine. It was vast and dry
We arrived at Lydda, which was more of an
aviation field than an airport. There, Raphael met us.
Meeting the Recanatis was an experience. They
appeared to me as a formidable group, a Sephardic
family, French speaking and very traditional.
Mathilde, the matriarch, carried an appearance of
reserve, severity, and sadness. She was a no-nonsense
person, who did not utter redundant phrases or
words. She did not dispense warmth or friendship,
and seemed to be critical of her surroundings. The
rest of the family, in a tribal gesture, gathered around
her. There was no hostility, just suspicion. This was a
style I had not known. I learned later that strangers in
general, were not easily welcome, and that the family
was very private. The silly notion that the bride to be
would be received with enthusiasm and open arms
was soon dissipated. I observed, took it all in and filed
it somewhere in my mind. My main interest was my
love for R. and nothing else really mattered. I was
surprised that the land was dry, with little green, and
very few trees. Water was scarce and often there was
none. There were very few services. Women would
carry their heavy bundles and grocery shopping,
sometimes for long distances. Many were fragile
European women who were not used to the heat, and
walked dragging their swollen feet.
There were some wonderful moments as
we traveled around the country. In the Kibbutzim,
young men and women in their sandals and shorts
worked and toiled, exposing their long tan legs.
They glowed with energy and determination.
The future was theirs. In Tel Aviv, we would have
breakfast or tea on the seashore in Viennese type
open-air cafes where orchestras played light music.
The real enchantment however was Jerusalem.
It seemed that centuries had not touched it. This
magical city reflected thousands of years of history.
It was the summer of 1946 and the British
were still very much there and visible. Soon I had
to leave for Cairo, to get ready for my wedding and
upcoming trip in October.
In the meantime, back in Cairo, my mother
made preparations for my departure. She sold the
jewelry my father had given her, which consisted of
a pair of diamond earrings, a diamond bracelet, and
a solitaire, to send me off in a proper manner. She
took me to a well-known house that specialized in
Bridal trousseaux. There, young ladies trained at a
local convent, embroidered a number of nightgowns
and lingerie in silk and satin. She also took me to
a fashionable dressmaker to make a lace wedding
gown as well as a couple of dresses for the trip. She
gave a party for all the family and friends. It was a
strange celebration since R. was not there and no one
had ever met him except for Uncle Isaac. I had very
little need for silk embroidered gowns where I was
going. A student life hardly included laundresses. My
mother took pleasure in preparing what she believed
was the correct thing to do- she sacrificed the little
savings she had. This was a culture where one had to
appear with dignity.
The day came when we had to leave. My
mother and I arrived at the Cairo Main Station,
accompanied by Tante Andrée, my mother’s younger
sister. We were on our way to Palestine where I was
to be married, and the occasion was a happy one.
Friends and family came with boxes of chocolate
and flowers. People around us hurried with packages
and bags. There was noise and joy and tears. I was
leaving for a new life. As the train pulled slowly
away from the station, I looked up at the large clock,
watching the seconds click, and wondered whether I
would return. Egypt had been good to me: I loved the
Egyptians, I knew their ways and mentality. Although
not an Arab Egyptian, I had felt at home. Despite the
tragic loss of my father, I had spent eighteen years of
my life in a place where people were kind, generous
and hospitable and wished me well. The sun always
shone, and the beauty of the place was overwhelming.
Here, my experiences had been good. I left Cairo
behind, as well as friends and family and streets that
I was not to see again for a long time. Here I had felt
accepted and wanted. As the train accelerated, I felt
pretty happy with the world and myself.