Interdisciplinary Renegotiation of History, Diaspora, and Memory
The task of representing the heterogeneity of the Egyptian Jewish community has led me to compose this book somewhat unconventionally. It is a self-consciously interdisciplinary text structured not by an overarching linear historical narrative (though several of its chapters are historical narratives), but by the themes of identity, dispersion, and the struggle over retrieval of identity: In what ways were Jews part of yet still a discrete element within Egyptian society? What forces shaped their distinctive culture and identity? What were the forms of Jewish attachments to Egypt? How did those attachments become undone and redone as the community was dispersed and resettled in its several diasporic locations? Why did the Jews of Egypt emerge as a subject of historical knowledge after 1979, and what are the parameters of the contest over that history? I address these questions with a historically informed approach to cultural studies, attentive to critical social and cultural theory without slavishly following its current fashions. The calculated genre mixing in this book seeks to challenge the limits of traditional positivist history while affirming the value of critically informed historical knowledge.
Dipesh Chakrabarty, reflecting the more recent outlook of the Indian subaltern studies school, has argued that history as a category of knowledge is inseparable from the coerced imposition of modernity on non-Europeans in the colonial era:
If the capitalist mode of production and the nation-state were the two institutions that nineteenth-century Europe exported to the rest of the world, then it also exported two forms of knowledge that corresponded to the two institutions. “Economics” embodies in a distilled form the rationality of the market in its imagination of the human being as homo economicus; “history” speaks to the figure of the citizen. “History” is one of the most important ways in which we learn to identify ourselves with the nation and its highest representative, the state.… [P]ositivist historical narratives…are integral to the institutions and practices of power of the modern bureaucracies we are all subject to, particularly those of the state. Just consider how the court of law functions. It wrings positivist historical narratives out of you.
James Clifford makes a similar critique of positivist history in his perceptive investigation of the identity claims of the Mashpee Indians of Cape Cod, Massachusetts. In the court case Clifford described, the central issue was whether the residents of the town of Mashpee constituted an Indian tribe. He suggested that “the trial can be seen as a struggle between history and anthropology.”  Just as Chakrabarty would have predicted, the court relied on positivist forms of historical evidence in ruling that the Mashpee community was not a tribe because in the course of its historical evolution, the group did not always possess the attributes legally required to claim tribal identity. Therefore, its claims to land and recognition were denied. The Mashpee community shared a more anthropological sense of culture, one that privileged its common sentiment and shared experience of struggle. These, it felt, merited legal recognition of the community as a tribe and the economic benefits this would entail.
Arguing, like Chakrabarty, that positivist history is aligned with the oppressive power of states, Clifford proposes that a more dynamic, anthropological conception of culture, privileging shared sentiment and experience, would support the rights of the oppressed (the Mashpee community). Or, to stretch the point some at the risk of losing some of Clifford's nuances, social and historical determinants disenfranchised the Mashpee community while their discursively constructed “anthropological” sense of themselves was a vehicle for empowerment. Clifford offers a sensitive and sympathetic representation of the cultural politics of the Mashpee community that the legal procedures failed to appreciate. I would insist that the historically formed social sources of the court's power are as much a part of Mashpee identity as the community's discursive self-representation.
The movement of postcolonial cultural studies offers another strategy for escaping from the oppressions of history: imaginative literature and cultural criticism, especially that produced by Western-educated émigrés from the former colonies to the metropolitan centers. Salman Rushdie acknowledges that the physical alienation of émigré writers from their places of birth impedes them from reclaiming precisely what was lost and compels them to create “imaginary homelands.” However, he believes that this confers on them a special advantage enabling them “to speak properly and concretely on a subject of universal significance and appeal.”  Similarly, Edward Said sees diasporic postcolonial intellectuals as occupying a uniquely creative position enabling them to overcome the limits of narrow national culture and history. Paul Gilroy favors expressive culture over writing in his appreciation of the African diaspora, but the thrust of his work is allied with the arguments of Rushdie and Said.
Gilroy's conception of “the Black Atlantic” and his critique of ethnic absolutism are especially relevant to this book's project of valorizing the Jewish diaspora. Despite the many strengths of Gilroy's work, it also illustrates the limits of discursive analysis detached from historical specificities. Gilroy acknowledges his borrowing of the diaspora concept from Jewish history in order to explore “the relationship between blacks and Jews in radical politics.” He suggests that “modern Zionism provides an organizational and philosophical model for twentieth-century Pan-Africanism.” Although Gilroy acknowledges the “obvious problems and differences,” this does not deter him from seeking the pragmatic “gains involved in setting the histories of blacks and Jews within modernity in some sort of mutual relation.”  He is willing to speak of the “zionist aspirations of American blacks” and seems amenable to Harold Cruse's call for black intellectuals to practice a cultural nationalism “equivalent to that which has made Jewish intellectuals a force to be reckoned with in America.” 
These arguments detach the abstract ideas of Zionism from the concrete history of the Zionist project's historical alliance with British imperialism in the Middle East from 1917 to 1939 and with U.S. hegemony in the region from the mid-1960s to the present. Among the reasons that American Jewish intellectuals have been able to wield the cultural power that Gilroy admires is that Jews succeeded in defining themselves as “white” after World War II. Christian Zionism (often concomitant with anti-Semitism, a point Gilroy misses in his discussion of Edward Wilmot Blyden), the consecration of Jews as the quintessential victims of the Nazi era, the demographic and financial weight of Jews in the Democratic Party, and the strategic value of Israel as an ally of the United States—all of which are unavailable to African Americans and other blacks—are major ingredients of the power and prestige that Israel and American Jews have enjoyed in the second half of the twentieth century.
I accept the arguments of Chakrabarty, Clifford, and many postcolonial intellectuals that the category of history is to some degree complicit with modern structures of domination, especially the nation-state. Therefore, in sympathetically representing the experiences, memories, and aspirations of subaltern groups, anthropological and literary techniques can be of great value. There is no single “proper” way to combine these genres. Assia Djebar's historical novel, Fantasia, deploys archival research into the atrocities of the French colonial conquest of Algeria, oral history interviews with female veterans of the independence struggle, and a complexly structured fictionalized narrative to insert the presence of Algerian women into a history in which they had previously appeared primarily as reified symbols for both the colonizers and the nationalist elites. Yael Zerubavel's Recovered Roots: Collective Memory and the Making of Israeli National Tradition examines three central Israeli national historical myths: the mass suicide at Massada (73 CE), the Bar Kokhba Revolt (133–35 CE), and the Battle of Tel Hai (1920) that connect a glorious ancient Jewish past in the land of Israel with the heroic origins of modern Zionist settlement. She draws on canonical literary works, political and historical writing, children's literature, school textbooks, newspaper articles, popular jokes, cartoons, and interviews to document the social construction of the public memory of these events using the techniques of textual analysis, literary history, and historical criticism to challenge the hegemonic version of Israeli national history.
In very different ways, Djebar and Zerubavel ally literary and ethnographic techniques with historical knowledge as a strategy for overcoming the limitations of history. At the same time, they are willing to engage history on its own terrain, gathering empirical evidence and marshalling arguments about causes and effects to challenge hegemonic historical representations. This is a viable strategy not only because, as Chakrabarty declares, “to deny now, in the name of cultural relativism, any social group—peasants, aboriginals, Indians—access to the ‘post-Renaissance sense of the past’ would be to disempower them.”  History can also temper and refine textualist poststructuralist theorizing by insisting on the relevance of the temporal and social context of ideas and cultural currents.
In its most extreme form, textualist poststructuralism confuses cleverness and anarchy with realizable social projects. For example, Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari adopt a similar line of argument as Chakrabarty and Clifford in asserting, “History is always written from the sedentary point of view and in the name of a unitary State apparatus, at least a possible one.”  Their strategy for liberating humanity from history is “Nomadology, the opposite of history” and a “rhizomatic” model of identity in which “any point connects to any other point.… [T]he rhizome pertains to a map that must be produced, constructed, a map that is always detachable, connectable, reversible, modifiable, and has multiple entryways and exits and its own lines of flight.”  At a very high level of abstraction, this is an attractive approach celebrating the unlimited potential for liberatory change. But it has little relationship to the social structures of any contemporary societies, hence little capacity to affect them either. This was poignantly expressed by Ines, the mother of the central character of Ronit Matalon's novel recounting an Egyptian Jewish family history, Zeh ‘im ha-panim eleynu (The one facing us): “A person does not need roots, he needs a home.”  Thus, Ines reluctantly abandoned her roots in Egypt to move to Israel in the 1950s, but rhizomatic connections and a life of nomadism were not alternatives she or others in her circumstances could embrace.
In configuring “new maps of desire and attachment”  after their dispersion from Egypt, Jews were constrained by their passports (or lack thereof), wealth, languages, education, the location of relatives and friends, occupational opportunities, and religious or political precommitments. These historically formed social and cultural factors as well as the events and structures of international relations and political economy—the role of the Jewish business elite in Egypt, the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, the decolonization of Egypt, Arab socialism, pan-Arabism, Egypt's military defeats by Israel in 1948, 1956, and 1967, and the Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty of 1979—were the determinants of the matrix in which the repertoire of possibilities for Egyptian Jewish life after 1948 were played out. I have tried to account for these factors in a nondeterministic way that leaves considerable space for the relative autonomy of culture, politics, and economics while avoiding idealization of exile through textualist utopias like nomadology and rhizomatics.
In the same essay in which he seeks to privilege the insights of emigre writers, Salman Rushdie asserts that “description is itself a political act” and “redescribing a world is the necessary first step towards changing it.”  I have sought to redescribe the world of Egyptian Jews while remaining cognizant that the great diversity of their life in Egypt and their diasporic trajectories precludes the possibility of establishing a consensus version of Egyptian Jewish social memory, although Zionist historiography has nonetheless attempted to create one. Therefore, I have not aspired to retrieve the collective memory of Egyptian Jews and to constitute it as a coherent countermemory in resistance to the hegemonic forms of collective memory promoted by nationalist historiography in Israel and Egypt. Countermemory can be oppositional and subversive, and I have tried to highlight these possibilities. But countermemory is rarely sustained and nourished by the array of financial support, social institutions, ideological apparatuses, and ultimately coercive power that reinforce hegemonic collective memory. Countermemory tends to be fragmentary, dispersed, and disunited. It usually cannot, in and of itself, constitute a counterhegemonic project.
This is certainly the case for the countermemories I have sought to retrieve in this book, especially in part 2, where I have employed ethnographic vignettes to draw attention to the experiences of individuals and small groups of Egyptian Jews that would inevitably be lost in a grand historical narrative. In parts 1 and 3, I have used imaginative literature as a way to highlight aspirations and understandings that are marginalized by nationalist discourse as well as literary expressions and historical writing complicit with it. But I do not argue that these literary expressions constitute a coherent counterhegemonic project any more than the countermemories of part 2.
Each of the three sections of this book emphasizes a different method of analysis and exposition. Part 1 consists of social, political, and cultural history. Part 2 is based on ethnographic investigation and oral history. Part 3 emphasizes cultural and social history and literary analysis. In addition, autobiographical segments are dispersed throughout the text as they relate to its several topics.
As in much of my previous work, I have made extensive use of oral history. Writing a history of Egypt in the second half of the twentieth century invites the use of oral evidence because archival materials are generally not available for this period. For example, researchers are not permitted to read the papers of the Cairo and Alexandria Jewish community that remain on shelves in the offices of the chief rabbinates of those cities. In May 1993, I spoke to Emile Risso, acting president of Cairo's Jewish community, to inquire about whether I might see these documents. I introduced myself as an American Jewish professor writing a history of the Jews of Egypt, to which he immediately responded, “Ma lish da‘wa bi’l-ta’rikh” (I have nothing to do with history).
In some important sense he was right. His personal safety and the security of the remaining tiny Jewish community in Egypt could very well be undermined by historical investigations that might highlight episodes of the community's past that the Egyptian state authorities or the leaders of the Jewish community would regard as problematic. “History” had already created difficulties for Egyptian Jews because part of the archive of the Jewish community of Cairo had previously been illegally removed from Egypt. It is currently designated the “Jamie Lehmann Memorial Collection: Records of the Jewish Community of Cairo, 1886–1961” and housed at Yeshiva University in New York. This, too, may have influenced Emile Risso to avoid having anything to do with this project.
About the same time that I spoke to Emile Risso, I interviewed an elderly Muslim merchant in Cairo's Suq al-Hamzawi quarter, a major textile market near harat al-yahud, where many members of the Jewish community had shops. Many of his business associates in the textile trade had been Jews, and I wanted to ask him about his memories of the community. He told me that the mukhabarat (security police) had visited him and instructed him not to speak freely about such topics. While we were chatting, one of the three Jewish women who still lived in harat al-yahud passed by the shop. After some conversation, she began to tell me about her career as a dancer and actress. My host became agitated, tried to stop her, and rudely contradicted her. I could not decide what to make of the woman's story. She appeared somewhat demented. My host insisted that she exaggerated grossly, but he was very likely motivated, at least to some extent, by concern not to be identified with information about Jews given to a foreigner.
Here were clear instances in which the subaltern could not speak. Although Egyptian Jews have, in many ways, been impeded from narrating their own history because of political considerations in both Egypt and Israel, I did not write this book in order to “speak for” them as individuals or as a group. Some may appreciate my efforts to examine their past; others may reject it. I assume full responsibility for my role as the interpreter of the memories of my interlocutors and the other evidence I have gathered. I also acknowledge that my intentions in writing this text and offering these interpretations have no capacity to limit the readings they may be subjected to.