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Back to Egypt

par Victor Teboul
Ph.D. (Université de Montréal), Directeur,®


In December 1956, we left Alexandria along with a few thousand Egyptian-born Jews who held French and British passports, expelled from Egypt because of the Franco-British and Israeli campaign to discourage Nasser from nationalizing Egypt's own Suez Canal.

In January 1988, El Al flight 334, which I boarded in Israël, landed in Cairo. Armed troops immediately formed a protective circle around it. The. few Israelis who wore skullcaps removed them before disembarking.

The real thrill of my trip was to go back to Alexandria, my home town, where I was born and spent the first 11 years of my life. Rediscovering thé street and the house where we lived, and our former neighbors, was a truly moving experience. The house had remained unchanged, unaffected by time.

The people, especially the young, are intent on immigrating to Canada. I was surprised by the number I met who have applied for an immigration visa and apparently have received favorable responses. Some stress that their command of French is an advantage.


Young Egyptians are as Westernized as their Israeli counterparts, except that Israeli society in its music, its food and its taxi drivers' tempéraments seems to have become a typical Middle Eastern society. The slow pace of restaurant service in Israel rnakes the North American in me impatient. Why do waiters and waitresses — Jews or Arabs — constantly ignore clients?


Israelis have been very enthusiastic about the peace treaty with Egypt. They rush by busloads to the Pyramids. This enthusiasm, however, has not been shared by Egyptians, who invoke the unresolved Palestinian question and the troubled situation in Gaza.

In my Cairo hotel room, I tried to find El Al's téléphone number, to no avail. The American Express brochure I picked up in the lobby listed all the airlines, but not El Al. Another brochure gave a complete list of churches — but not the Cairo synagogue.

I had the strange impression that Egypt's relations with Israel were almost illicit. A short story on the front page of thé Egyptian Gazette brought back memories of Nasser's days: An Egyptian teacher had been arrested on charges of spying for Israel.


The next day at the Pyramids I came across a group of Israelis wearing clearly identifiable American university T-shirts and declaring quite loudly that they were Americans. None of them, of course, was wearing a skullcap.


Alexandria's synagogue on Nabi Daniel St. was bustling with activity, while at the main entrance, a soldier in full uniform was yawning.

Clément Setton, the 83-year-old president of Alexandria's Jewish community, was in high spirits. He had welcomed important people here, he said: Moshe Dayan, Menachem Begin. Setton claims 30 visitors a day come from Israel alone. His office still boasts a large portrait of Anwar Sadat.

There are only 17 male adults left. When no one is left, the synagogue will become government property.

Setton speaks several languages fluently: Arabic, Hebrew, German, Italian, French, English. He is the last représentative of a cosmopolitan species once typical of Alexandria's society.

The huge mansions that belonged to this bourgeoisie still exist, guarded by uniformed men; they seem occupied today by foreign Arab banks or consulates. The luxury hotels are booked solid by thé Saudis and people from the emirates, who seem to enjoy the pleasures of Egypt's liberalized society.

In the casinos, where Egyptian nationals are not allowed, you must present your passport; if you happen to have been born in Egypt, a slight complication arises until some superior offical decides a form has to be filled which he then files in a box. In Egypt as in Israel, bureaucracies flourish.


On my flight back to Cairo, I distractedly scanned Egyptair's magazine, Horus. My eye was caught by the word "Canada" in a full-page color ad.

"You pick your own numbers playing Lotto 6/49," read the enticing ad, which promised millions of dollars and came complete with an order form. Just in case the Saudis got bored with Egypt's casinos, I thought.

The above article was published in The Gazette (Wednesday, January 27, 1988, p. B. 3). I had travelled to Egypt on my return from Israel where I was working on my series on Israel’s 40th anniversary for the French language radio network of Radio-Canada, which was aired later that same year.

Read about the novel I have published about our 1956 Exodus: Please click here.

© Victor Teboul

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