Nostalgias: Beyond Nationalism?
Rahel Maccabi's autobiographical memoir, Mitzrayim sheli (My Egypt), was one of the first Hebrew books to portray Jewish life in Egypt for an Israeli audience. Maccabi grew up in an upper-middle-class family in Alexandria, but her life history is exceptional. After several visits with her family, she emigrated to Palestine in 1935, joined a kibutz of ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir, and became an officer in the Haganah and then the Israeli army. These pioneering Zionist credentials authorized her to write about her youth in Alexandria of the 1920s and 1930s.
Maccabi's childhood milieu was almost entirely isolated from everything Arab or Egyptian. She made only the slightest effort to learn Arabic in school; even her knowledge of colloquial Egyptian was minimal, as is evident from the errors in simple Arabic words in her text. She knew of a neighborhood in Alexandria where Jews spoke Arabic, but never went there. At an early age she “came to the conclusion that the world of the Egyptians is frightening.”  Her father's family, originally from central Europe, Arabized rapidly after her paternal grandfather married into the Qattawi family and settled in Cairo. Her father was educated in Arabic and had worked for the Qattawi family in the sugar industry. Rahel and her mother avoided Cairo and her father's family, whose members they regarded as Egyptian others.
Rahel Maccabi's mother became a Zionist in 1904 by reading the British Jewish Chronicle. She belonged to a wealthy Baghdadi family that emigrated to Bombay to trade in precious stones and then moved to Egypt at the time of Napoleon's invasion. Though she was far more deeply rooted in the Arab world than her husband's family, Rahel's mother had learned to regard everything Arab as dirty, foreign, and barbaric. Internalizing this message, Rahel perceived “an unfathomable distance that separated Cairo of those days, with its Jews dressed in Eastern style and living in a quite traditional, patriarchal, primitive world, from the atmosphere in which mother grew up.”  For Maccabi, everything Egyptian was unreal, inferior, or frightening except for her exoticist memories of flowers, food, and rose water.
Mitzrayim sheli affirms the Zionist national narrative: Some Egyptian Jews became good Zionists even before 1948; they were unaffected by contact with anything Arab, and their Jewish identity was preserved by leaving Egypt as soon as possible. In the triumphalist atmosphere following Israel's overwhelming victory in the 1967 war, the publishing house of ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir easily found a market for this image of Egypt and its Jews. Conquest of a substantial piece of Egyptian territory in that war stimulated a desire for knowledge about Egypt that explained military victory as a consequence of civilizational superiority.
The first chapters of Mitzrayim sheli were written in 1965 and appeared as essays in Keshet, the journal of the Canaanite movement, which rejected Zionism and the concept of a worldwide Jewish people in favor of a native Hebrew identity rooted in the Middle East. In Israel of the 1950s and 1960s, it was rare to find any literary recognition of the fact that a high proportion of Jewish Israelis were born in Muslim countries of the Middle East or were children of those born there. Rahel Maccabi's acknowledgment of her birthplace was apparently sufficient for Keshet's editor, Aharon Amir, to find her writing of interest. He dubbed her essays Mitzrayim sheli. She disliked the title's suggestion of a sentimental attachment she did not feel toward Egypt and would have preferred “Qantara-West”—the last train station in Egypt on the way to Palestine. This title would clearly proclaim her Zionist trajectory, but the reference was too obscure to market to the Israeli public.
Jacqueline Kahanoff, like Rahel Maccabi, was also raised in an upper-middle-class family and educated in French schools where Zionism was a rarity among the Jewish pupils. Many of her essays, including her signature piece, “The Generation of Levantines,” were written in English, translated by Aharon Amir, and published in the late 1950s and early 1960s in the first issues of Keshet, whose outlook was far more congenial to Kahanoff than to Maccabi. Unlike Maccabi, Kahanoff felt a strong positive connection to Egypt, noting with pride that her schoolmates were “pro-nationalist as a matter of principle,” though their parents were “pro-British as a matter of business and security.”  Sensitive to her location in a potentially explosive cultural and political border zone, she consciously sought a creative Levantine synthesis:
[E]ven though we sympathized with the Muslim nationalists' aspirations, we did not believe them capable of solving the real problems of this society, and for this they could not forgive us. As Levantines, we instinctively searched for fruitful compromises, feeling as we did that the end of the colonial occupation solved nothing unless western concepts were at work in this world, transforming its very soul. We knew that Europe, although far away, was inseparably part of us because it had so much to offer. These radically different attitudes toward Europe and towards our conception of the future made the parting of our ways inevitable.
Although they wished to identify with Egypt, Kahanoff and her schoolmates had no doubt that European culture was more advanced and should be the dominant component in the Levantine synthesis she aspired to. She “wondered how those young Muslims intended to change conditions in Egypt if they did not realize that learning what the Europeans knew was the most important thing of all.”  Until 1956, she could have found many Egyptian nationalists who agreed with her. Decades after formal independence, Egypt's upper classes continued to regard the European imperial powers as cultural models. The Suez/Sinai War initiated a new phase in the process of decolonization in which bourgeois European culture was widely repudiated.
Because they felt they could not be full participants in the Egyptian national movement, Kahanoff and her Jewish friends tried to realize their youthful ideals by starting a clinic in harat al-yahud. Despite their initial success, they had to abandon the project because the head of the Jewish community in the hara accused them of advocating birth control and Zionism. They responded that the second allegation was a lie. Blocked in both the Egyptian national arena and in the Jewish community, Kahanoff left Egypt in 1940. “I loved Egypt, but could no longer bear to be part of it, however conscious I was of its queer charm, its enchantment, its contrasts, its ignoble poverty and refined splendor,” she recalled. After living in the United States and Paris and publishing a novel in English, Kahanoff moved to Israel in 1954.
Keshet was a highly regarded literary journal, though very few Israelis embraced its cultural politics. Kahanoff's celebration of Levantinism was abhorrent to the dominant Ashkenazi Zionism that required the mass migration of the Middle Eastern Jews to Israel to populate the country but detested their culture and regarded Levantinism as a curse to be avoided at all costs. Critics praised Kahanoff's sensitivity and emotional range, but Levantinism was not an idea that could elicit a serious response from the militantly Eurocentric Israeli cultural establishment. One critic who tried to consider Kahanoff's cultural formation dismissed her youthful aspirations as “fruitful illusions”—“an interesting addition to the psychology and sociology of one more exile.” 
Until Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat's visit to Jerusalem in 1977, the centrality of Egypt in the Arab confrontation with Israel made it difficult for Egyptian Jews to say anything positive about Egypt or their lives there. The al-Sadat visit created a receptive audience in Israel that enabled Jews from middle-class backgrounds in Cairo and Alexandria to contest Rahel Maccabi's representation of the Jewish experience in Egypt. Remembering Egypt in a positive light allowed them to reclaim their places as cultural, and in some cases economic, intermediaries. Post-1977 memories of Egypt generally reject Maccabi's colonialist Orientalism and insist that there was much that should be valued in Jewish life in Egypt. For this generation, Jacqueline Kahanoff's work is a point of departure. In the hopeful atmosphere following al-Sadat's visit to Jerusalem, her essays were collected in a warmly received book, Mi-mizrah shemesh (From the east the sun). A review in an avant garde literary magazine endorsed her revalorization of Levantinism. Such critical receptivity, though far from unanimous, was encouraged by the soaring hopes for peaceful normalcy in Israel.
Yitzhaq Gormezano-Goren's Kayitz aleksandroni (An Alexandrian summer), a semiautobiographical novel recalling his family's last summer in Alexandria before they emigrated to Israel in December 1951, also appeared during the post-al-Sadat visit euphoria. Like Kahanoff, Gormezano-Goren relishes the hybrid Mediterranean identity of Egyptian Jews. His story begins with a sardonic lesson in cultural geography: “Yes, precisely Mediterranean. Perhaps it is by virtue of this Mediterraneanism that I sit here and spin this tale. Here, in the Land of Israel, which lies on the shores of the Baltic Sea. Sometimes you wonder if Vilna is really the Jerusalem of Lithuania or if Jerusalem is the Vilna of the Land of Israel.” 
The novel is suffused with unstable dualities and shifting identities. The narrator is and is not Robbie, the ten-year-old son of a midlevel employee of the Ford Motor Company. The middle-class propriety of Robbie's Jewish family is undermined by homoeroticism, which his mother identifies as Arab. The Muslim servants of the family speak French. Many of the central characters of the novel are not exactly who they seem to be and slip easily in and out of ostensibly incompatible roles. The retired jockey, Joseph Hamdi-‘Ali, is a Turkish Muslim who has converted to Judaism. His son, David Hamdi-‘Ali, is also a jockey but does not have his father's single-minded passion to win. David's rival, Ahmad al-Tal‘uni, embodies Muslim Egyptian aspirations and resentment of the privileged foreigners and minorities. The competition between them ignites chauvinist rioting. Yet al-Tal‘uni is not a typical Egyptian, but a bedouin favored by the wife of the British consul. Because of al-Tal‘uni's appetite for victory, Joseph Hamdi-‘Ali regards him as his spiritual heir and a more worthy successor than David. Rabbi Ferrara consistently refers to Joseph by his Muslim name, Yusuf. Toward the end of his life, Joseph Hamdi-‘Ali worries that Allah may punish him for converting. In the style typical of the rationalist intelligentsia of the Iberian convivencia, the one God shows different faces to Muslims, Christians, and Jews.
Kayitz aleksandroni received several positive but patronizing reviews that avoided engagement with the themes of the book and treated it as a light and pleasant diversion or background to current political developments. Reviewers who noticed Gormezano-Goren's valorization of Mediterraneanism were distressed by it. One did not understand the passage about Vilna and Jerusalem and wondered if it could mean that Israel was a foreign implant in the Middle East. Another found nothing at all positive in Gormezano-Goren's memories of Alexandria and concluded, “if this is Mediterraneanism, then it is better for us for now to remain on the coast of the Baltic Sea.” 
Perhaps in response to such arrogant Eurocentrism, the second volume of Gormezano-Goren's projected Alexandria trilogy, Blanche, has a more sharply anti-Ashkenazi tone. Unlike Jacqueline Kahanoff, Gormezano-Goren is not sure that Europe should be the dominant element in the Mediterraneanism he advocates. But he is not naive, and Blanche directly engages the historical processes that led Jews to “leave the flesh pot of Alexandria in exchange for the food ration books of the early 1950s in Israel.” But Gormezano-Goren is equally conscious of the loss of his community's distinctive heritage. Raphael Vital, who sang in the taverns of Alexandria, lost his voice “in the desolate desert between Alexandria and Be’ersheba.”  Although modulated by years of accommodation to Israeli Euro-Zionist discourse, the reassertion of Middle Eastern Jewish identity following the 1977 electoral victory of the Likud and the peace with Egypt enabled Yitzhaq Gormezano-Goren to attempt to retrieve this Egyptian Jewish voice.
Blanche was not well received by reviewers. The influential Dan Miron dismissed it as “Alexandrian kitsch” and pronounced the whole genre of Mediterranean Jewish writing to be “an entirely marginal phenomenon” in Hebrew literature. Tamar Wolf also denounced Blanche as “Alexandrian kitsch” (perhaps one of these critics was less than entirely original) and, with unwarranted self-confidence, she scolded Gormezano-Goren for anachronistically inserting Flash Gordon and Superman cartoons into Alexandria cinemas of the 1940s. She apparently believed that, like so much that is valued and recognized by Israeli yuppie culture, they were a commodity of the 1980s.
I suspect that one element of Blanche that offended the critics, though none of them dared to refer to it, is the portrayal of Zionist activity in Alexandria in the late 1940s as a dilettantish and ineffectual Ashkenazi-initiated project with no appeal to the young members of Robbie's family except for cousin Rosie and the superficial and flighty Raphael Vital. Characters in Kayitz aleksandroni and Blanche acknowledge that there is no future for Jews in Egypt, but Gormezano-Goren is ambivalent about the Zionist resolution of their problem. In an interview after Blanche appeared, Gormezano-Goren ridiculed the heroic pretensions of Zionism: “Operation Susannah in 1954, during which Jews were arrested and hung in Egypt, revealed the infantile Zionist base there.” 
And so we return to Operation Susannah—the Israeli-led campaign of espionage and sabotage—with which we began. Robert Dassa spent fourteen years in an Egyptian prison for his role in that fiasco. In 1979, eleven years after his release, he returned to Egypt as a journalist for the Arabic service of Israeli television to cover Prime Minister Menahem Begin's visit to Alexandria. Thirteen years later he finally wrote about his memories of Egypt in his own name.Be-hazarah le-kahir (Return to Cairo) is a report of his twenty-some return trips since 1979 interwoven with a recapitulation of the events of Operation Susannah, the trial of the conspirators, and their experiences in Tura prison. Publication of this book by Israel's Ministry of Defense permitted both a long overdue payment of a debt to the author and supervision over its contents.
Did Dassa, once he was permitted to speak in his own voice about his identity, confirm Aviezer Golan's assertions about the identity of Egyptian Jews with which this chapter began? Dassa oscillates between recapitulations of well-worn elements of the official narrative—the Cairo judicial proceedings were a show trial; Paul Frank was a double agent who betrayed the network; Dassa felt no connection to Egypt —and disclosures that undermine it. Dassa grew up in a mixed Alexandria neighborhood with no apparent anti-Semitism. His parents, both twentieth-century immigrants to Egypt, were Middle Eastern Jews from Jerusalem and Yemen. Zionism was “quite an exceptional thing in the Egyptian Jewish community.”  No other members of his family were Zionists. His sister married a Muslim Egyptian and lived with him in the fashionable Muntazah district of Alexandria as of the writing of his book.
Dassa's central preoccupation is his repeated accusation that Israeli military and political authorities never assumed full responsibility for the operations he and his colleagues undertook on behalf of the state. He accuses the mythic figures in the history of Israel's security establishment-David Ben-Gurion and Moshe Dayan—of failure to request their release in the prisoner exchange following the 1956 war because they were a political embarrassment, causing them to spend twelve more years in jail unnecessarily. By focusing on such issues, Dassa's charges reinforce the discourse of national security regulating discussion of the Lavon affair in Israel. Dassa never asks, What was the purpose behind the orders he executed? Was it justified to endanger the entire Egyptian Jewish community by ordering him and his colleagues to bomb civilian targets in Egypt? What does this activity imply about Israel's policy priorities? What was the effect of the Lavon affair on Israeli-Egyptian relations?
Dassa's confessions that he craves connection with Egypt undermine the many normative elements in Return to Cairo: “I do not come to Egypt as a tourist. I never was and never will be a tourist there. I come to it as a free citizen, and only there can I express the full feeling of liberation.”  Throughout his years in jail, Dassa yearned for Alexandria, and after leaving Egypt, he dreamed and hoped for the moment he would return. When he did revisit Alexandria, he felt as though he had never left it. Dassa concludes his account of his travails by revealing, “In order to feel complete freedom, I need to walk freely in the streets of Cairo. Only there do I feel that I really have been released.” 
Robert Dassa's admission that he requires continuing contact with Egypt is a sharp repudiation of Aviezer Golan's endeavor to contain Operation Susannah within the boundaries of the Zionist national narrative, which views Jewish authenticity and security as possible only in Israel. Dassa, even as he justifies his acts of espionage and sabotage against Egypt, like Jacqueline Kahanoff and Yitzhaq Gormezano-Goren, acknowledges that his well-being requires him to maintain a strong tie to Egypt. In fact, Dassa seems schizophrenic in a modern political universe defined by the proposition that individuals must identify with only one state.
The writings of Robert Dassa, Jacqueline Kahanoff, and Yitzhaq Gormezano-Goren attest that the currently prevailing exclusivist conceptions of national identity and national sentiment are a relatively recent construction. They do not conform to previously existing forms of political community in Egypt. And they fit uneasily in contemporary Israel.
Aviezer Golan's attempt to impose the Zionist representation of Jewish identity on the “heroes” of Operation Susannah obliterates the complex multivocality of Egyptian Jewish identities and histories. Both the Zionist vision of Jewish identity and the rearticulation of Egyptian identity in nationalist terms ultimately excluded Jews from membership in the Egyptian political community. Operation Susannah illustrates one of many instances in which Israel was actively complicit in that exclusion. Golan also shares the common Ashkenazi expectation that the Jews of the Middle East would abandon their identities and cultures in order to be absorbed into a more modern, dynamic Israel. Egyptian Jewish writing since Jacqueline Kahanoff contradicts this expectation and reveals the inadequacy of essentialist, state-centered discourse and conceptions of the nation and citizenship in both Egypt and Israel.