By: Alexandra Kinias
For more than half a century, stories about the injustices done to the Egyptian Jews were concealed from the public. Fabrication. That’s probably the word that best describes the news that has been fed to Egyptians over the decades to make them believe that the Jews voluntarily left the country. The facts were twisted and the victims were portrayed as enemies and perpetrators. Since history can be distorted, but never altered, the truth eventually began to surface, especially when the children of those who were expelled began asking for compensations for the properties and assets they were forced to leave behind. Egyptian filmmaker Amir Ramsis brings some of these stories to life in his documentary, Jews of Egypt. The documentary has been screened at the Arab Film Festival in Rotterdam in the Netherlands, the New York Film Festival and the Palm Springs Festival in California. In Egypt, homeland security objected to the screening of the movie, since it might endanger national security. But as it officially has no legal rights to ban movies and due to local and international pressure, the movie producers won the case against homeland security and the movie was screened, and was well received.
In Egypt, until the mid-twentieth century, Muslims, Christians and Jews were intricately woven into the fabric of the cosmopolitan society. They lived, worked and shared a country they all called home and in doing so, they also demonstrated acceptance and tolerance of the other, a practice so unfamiliar to the new generation. The eruption of nostalgia for the old days that Ramsis never lived through, but watched in black and white movies as he was growing up, inspired him to learn and investigate the other Egypt that had once been. I had a chance to interview Ramsis when he was in the United States, after attending the screening of his documentary, and question him about his career and his movie.
“I think I wanted to become a director when I was ten years old. I remember that particular week when I watched two movies that left a big impression on me – The Last Emperor by Bertolucci and Alexandria Forever and Ever by Youssef Chahine. The intense experience[s] of these two movies made me want to be a part of this universe. I vividly remember how Chahine’s film told the story of a director tormented by his desire for perfection in the movies. These two movies made me realise that filmmaking is what I wanted to do,” Ramsis says.
After graduating from the Higher Institute of Cinema in Cairo in 2000, he landed his dream job as an assistant director to Youssef Chahine where he worked with him for four years. “It was all fate. Chahine wanted assistants and I was available,” he says. In 2006, Ramsis directed his first film Edge of the World, and two years later he began working on the documentary Jews of Egypt. It took him three years to complete the project.
The documentary highlights an era in Egyptian history that Nasser’s regime wiped out from history books, an era that was eventually erased from the hearts and minds of Egyptians. Egyptian Jews were an integral part in all aspects of the Egyptian society, until the middle of the nineteenth century. Today, most Egyptians may not be aware that many businesses, which still carry the names of their founders, and many of their favourite singers and actors were Jewish. Their names are still remembered long after they were gone. No one had labelled them according to their faith and no one questioned their patriotism. They were loyal Egyptians as anyone else. However, with the constant brainwashing the Egyptians have been subjected to in the last six decades, their views toward the Egyptian Jews have become negative and aggressive.
After more than half a century living under the rule of Nasser and his successors, the very few Jews left in Egypt were reluctant to speak with Ramsis. They only opened up to him after he showed them the interviews with the Egyptian Jews he met in France. The documentary is a chain of a heart-wrenching testimonials immersed in sorrow, sadness, nostalgia, and perpetual love to a place that was once called home and to a citizenship they were forced to give up.
Following Nasser’s nationalisation of the Suez Canal in 1956 and the escalation of events that led to the tripartite invasion by England, France and Israel, which resulted in the expulsion of both English and French nationals and the confiscation of their assets, the Egyptian Jews also came under fire. Thousands were arrested, their businesses and assets sequestered and life became too intolerable for them to stay. Yet to be granted a laissez – passer, or one way exit visa, they had to sign papers revoking their Egyptian citizenship and giving up their right of return. Contrary to the belief of many, they left the country penniless and stateless with nothing but the clothes they wore and the memories of the land they would never be able to set foot in again.
Even though most of Ramsis’ experience in filmography is in feature movies, he consciously chose to make Jews of Egypt a documentary because of its controversial topic, especially at this time in the history of Egypt. “What happened to the Jews of Egypt has to be accurately portrayed or else it would lose its objectivity. Movies, even the ones that are inspired by true events, are still viewed as a fantasy. With the negative sentiments towards the Jews, such a movie is doomed to failure. A story about the Jews of Egypt is not yet ready to be made into a feature. Maybe one day after the message of this documentary is well received I may consider making a fictional film about it,” Ramsis explains.
With the rise of Islamists to power, Ramsis, like many others, is concerned about the future of minorities in Egypt, and rightfully so. He believes that it is unlikely that their fate will dwindle as happened to the Jews, yet he can’t help but think of the worst. When asked if the finished product of his documentary lived up to his expectations, Ramsis responded that it is still too early to judge. “The documentary so far is well received, nationally and internationally. I will not be able to judge its success until I sense its impact on the Egyptians audience. I made this film to show how the Egyptian people are becoming discriminate towards the minorities in Egypt and how dangerous this can be [for] our future. I would like to see its [the documentary] social impact and how it changes the views of people toward the other. If the documentary [achieves this] objective, then it has succeeded. However, I believe the movie may have started to change the image people had of the Jews. This was evident in the huge number of Egyptians and media press who attended the funeral of Carmen Weinstein, the late head of the Jewish community. For Egyptians to attend a funeral of a Jew prior to the screening of the movie was unheard of.”