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The Recovery of Egyptian Jewish Identity
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Peace and Victimhood

Ada Aharoni (b. Andrée Yadid, 1933) was a pioneer in reviving and reconfiguring Egyptian Jewish memories of Egypt in light of the Egyptian-Israeli peace process. She was born in Cairo and educated at the Alvernia English School for Girls in the elite neighborhood of Zamalek, where she began to write poetry in English. Her family spoke French at home and held French citizenship. They left Egypt for France in 1949, after her father's business license was revoked. In 1950, Aharoni left her family in France, went to Israel, and joined the gar‘in of ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir at Kibutz ‘Ein-Shemer. She and her husband, Haim Aharoni, were among the twenty-two Egyptians expelled from the kibutz in 1953 as a result of their political stand in the Sneh affair (see Chapter 5). Eventually, Ada Aharoni pursued her childhood interest in English literature at the Hebrew University and at London University, obtaining a doctorate in English literature from the Hebrew University in 1975. She writes in English and Hebrew. Her early poems and other writings were composed in English and translated into Hebrew by others. More recently, she has translated her own poems and a novel into Hebrew, revising them in the process.

Aharoni began writing poetry on the theme of war and peace during the 1973 Arab-Israeli War. Since then, her career has been closely identified with promoting Arab-Israeli peace. She represented Israel at the 1975 Middle East Peace Poetry Forum in Boston. The same year she founded The Bridge: Jewish and Arab Women for Peace in the Middle East, a nonpolitical association of Jewish and Palestinian Arab Israeli citizens. In 1992, she presided over the Thirteenth World Congress of Poets in Haifa, whose theme was “Creating a World beyond War through Poetry.” On that occasion, she received the Shin Shalom Peace Poetry Prize.[30]

Convinced that the Egyptian Jewish community in Israel could be a bridge to peace with Egypt and the rest of the Arab world, Aharoni designed a questionnaire to survey their opinions. The initial results suggested that in April 1993 (before the Israeli-PLO Declaration of Principles was signed), 80 percent of Egyptian Jews in Israel were prepared to accept Israeli evacuation from substantial portions of the West Bank and the Gaza Strip and the establishment of either a Palestinian-Jordanian federation or a Palestinian state in those territories. Comparable opinion polls indicated that these solutions to the Palestinian-Israeli conflict were then acceptable to only 35 percent of all Jewish Israelis.[31] Hence, the survey research confirmed Aharoni's hypothesis that Egyptian Jews were more conciliatory toward the Palestinian Arabs than the general Israeli Jewish population.

In most of Aharoni's first published poems on the theme of war and peace, her Egyptian origins linger discreetly in the background. The Egyptian-Israeli negotiations and interim Sinai disengagement agreements following the 1973 war apparently encouraged her to advance beyond general calls for peace to articulate more specifically what peace meant to Aharoni through recollections of her previous life in Egypt. Since then, she has emerged as a prominent public advocate for Egyptian Jews in Israel.

As is apparent from her remarks to the Yad Tabenkin roundtable on “Illegal Immigration and Defense in Egypt” quoted earlier, Aharoni has fully associated herself with the dominant Zionist narrative of Egyptian Jewish history. Moreover, she has made herself more acceptable to the general Israeli Jewish public by leaving her political origins in MAPAM on the left edge of the labor Zionist movement and joining the Labor Party. However, like Shlomo Kohen-Tzidon, Aharoni believes in the distinct mission of the Jews of Egypt, who form “a unique type of Judeo-Mediterranean community bridging East and West.” She acknowledges that the literary representatives of her community “cherish warm memories of the Egyptian people and of their own life in Egypt” and regards them as “messengers of goodwill built on understanding, realism, and a shared past.” [32] Thus, Aharoni very self-consciously offers herself and her community in the service of Egyptian-Israeli peace.

“Ha-Shalom ve-ha-sfinks” (Peace and the Sphinx) seems to have been written in 1975 because its themes appear in other poems that can be dated to that year. It offers a precise and succinct definition of peace formed by Aharoni's memories of Cairo. She longs to resume her relationship with a schoolmate and friend and to revisit sites that marked her passage from childhood to adolescence.

Peace and the Sphinx
Peace for me is an eternal flowing golden river
It is to embrace Kadreya in Cairo
And the house where I was born in Freedom Square
To check if I am as tall as a Pyramid stone
And as wise as the Sphinx[33]

The English version of this poem, “What Is Peace to Me?” is longer and more elaborate. The main thematic innovation is the poet's reminder that she and her family were expelled from Egypt, a topic that recurs in several of Aharoni's other writings. Nonetheless, she continues to use Egyptian criteria to measure her maturation.

Peace for me
is to visit
Kadreya in Egypt, and
the spicy house in Midan Ismaileya in Cairo
now the Square of Freedom,
where I was born, and evicted.
To place again my open palm
on the Sphinx's paw,
and check if now I'm as tall
as a Pyramid stone.
Peace for me
is all this,
and so much more—[34]
.…

Although Hebrew is Aharoni's third language, the Hebrew version of the poem seems more lyrical. Writing in Hebrew has often been more critical of dominant norms in Israel than writing in English, a global language accessible to an international audience. The English poem seems to strike a measured political balance in its underlying message: Despite having been expelled, I long for peace and retain fond memories of Egypt and its people. This is congruent with the message that Israeli political leaders have always projected to the international community: Israel always sought peace with its unreasonably hostile Arab neighbors. Aharoni's innovation is to propose that her connection to Egypt makes this goal more achievable. But just as Israel's governments have been unwilling to examine critically the sources of the conflict, Aharoni does not ask why she was expelled from Egypt.

Kadreya appears once again as the addressee in “Letter to Kadreya: From Haifa to Cairo with Love,” which Aharoni published in the Israeli daily ha-Aretz.[35] The letter is an autobiographical memoir recalling the friendship and intellectual adventures of the two girls as co-editors of their school literary magazine. It is also an ideological manifesto in response to Kadreya's question, “Why are you leaving Egypt? You were born here, this is your country!”

Aharoni's answer constitutes the central portion of the text and describes her experience as a “frail girl of six” (seven in the Hebrew version) when her family's maid, Muhsena, led her on a walk through the Bab al-Luq market several blocks from her home in downtown Cairo. Young Ada was repelled by the “sordid and unknown world” of Cairo's streets. She felt insulted when she was accosted as “ ifrangiyya ” (foreigner) and imagined that the people on the street were “hating her for no reason at all.” She was alarmed that Muhsena “seemed different; from her usually cheerful submissive self she had become incommunicative, bent on her private pursuits.” When they arrive at a confectionery shop, the proprietor, whose connection to Muhsena is unclear, explained to her that ifrangiyya is not an insult; it simply meant she was a European, “not an Arab like us.” When she objected that she and her parents were born in Egypt, the shop owner conceded, “If you want to think you're not then you're not, but how will you convince the others?” Then he offered her a sugar doll, a sweet made for the occasion of mawlid al-nabi (the Prophet's birthday), suggesting that she take a white one, like the color of her own skin, rather than a brown one.

The memory of this experience constitutes a proof text legitimating Ada Aharoni's feeling that she did not belong in Egypt. Alienated from the land of her birth, she spent the rest of her years in Egypt trying to understand where she did belong. Arriving with her family in France, she learned that, despite her citizenship and knowledge of French, she did not feel welcome there either. Aharoni made her way to Israel, where she at last felt wanted and at home. Today she feels herself “an Israeli in the full sense of the word.” Consequently, she explained to Kadreya, “Israel just had to exist for rootless people like me.”

On the surface, the story is a morality tale affirming the central tenet of Zionism: Jews cannot live a secure and fulfilling life anyplace but Israel. The narrative is completely uncontextualized. It is difficult to fathom why all this is happening, and Aharoni does not expand on elements of the narrative that might suggest alternative interpretations, or at least a critical understanding of its significance. The story raises many questions that remain unanswered: What were the social and political implications of attending an English language school while the British were still occupying Egypt? Why didn't she know enough Arabic to understand what ifrangiyya meant? What was it about her appearance that caused her to be noticed on the street? Why did she feel frightened walking in the streets only a few minutes away from her home? What social relations produced her discomfort that the family servant was not acting submissively? Answering these questions might suggest that Ada Aharoni's family was economically and socially privileged, identified with European culture, looked down on indigenous Egyptians, and kept themselves remote from the poverty, disease, and misery of the daily lives of those who lived on the streets outside their European-style home. A young girl of seven might not grasp that the family maid had “her private pursuits,” but because they seem to have motivated the entire episode, it seems like a disdainful expression of class privilege for an adult not to attempt to understand them. Thus, Ada Aharoni had more than enough reasons to feel alienated from Egypt, even if the Arab-Israeli conflict had not made her Jewish identity an especially difficult and painful issue to grapple with.

This experience, although undoubtedly traumatic for a sheltered young girl unaccustomed to walking the crowded, noisy, chaotic streets of Cairo, seems inadequate to bear the explanatory weight that Aharoni assigns to it: a justification for the course of her life and for the establishment of the state of Israel presented to a Muslim Egyptian friend who sincerely believed that Egypt was Ada Aharoni's country. Aharoni's own assessment of the significance of this story seems somewhat contradictory. On the one hand, she explained that the memory “has left a sore spot in my mind even after all this while.” On the other hand, she feels that it happened to a person “so remote from me today that I can only recall her in the third person.” Who or what is being protected by narrating the story in the third person? How could the memory of this experience be so powerful if the narrator can no longer identify herself as the subject of the narrative?

This same scene is retold and embellished in Aharoni's first novel, The Second Exodus, in a form that offers clues that may explain why this experience as a six- or seven-year-old left such a powerful and permanent impression.[36]The Second Exodus is a historical fiction set in the milieu of an Egyptian Zionist youth movement from 1946 until the heroes' emigration to Israel. The principal characters, Inbar Mosseri, the nineteen-year-old daughter of a wealthy judge, and Raoul Lipsky, a survivor of the mass murder of European Jewry who has sought refugee with his aunt in Cairo after losing all the other members of his family, meet through the activities of the Zionist youth movement. Raoul is attracted by Inbar's romantic and innocent view of the world. Inbar, having lived a sheltered life of privilege in Egypt, has difficulty understanding Raoul's cynical world outlook. They fall in love. Raoul shares his memories with Inbar. She decides that having heard the “horrible intimate details” of Raoul's past, she should reveal to him a secret from her own childhood so that “he will realize at least, that I, too am scarred.” [37]

What follows is an expanded recounting of the scene in the “Letter to Kadreya.” The streets of Cairo are described in much more elaborate and sordid detail. Inbar is accosted not only as a foreigner but also as a Jew. The most striking difference between the two accounts is that the confectionery shop owner, identified as ‘Ali, the brother of the maid Muhsena, in the novelized narrative, urged on by his mother, attempts to rape Inbar and fails only because he ejaculates before penetrating her. Inbar relates that she later learned that her older brother, Gaby, had previously had intercourse with Muhsena. Moreover, Muhsena's family had requested Inbar's father, the judge, to intervene on behalf of ‘Ali and Muhsena's father when he was imprisoned for theft. Inbar's father refused, and ‘Ali and Muhsena's father went to prison, where he died. Inbar concludes, “Through the attempted rape, [‘Ali] was getting back not only at my father and brother but at all the Jews.” [38]

Raoul, the Ashkenazi Jew, provides the logic and moral force sustaining this interpretation of Inbar's experience. As might be expected of a teenage young man hearing of an assault on his beloved, Raoul focuses exclusively on Inbar as an innocent victim. He minimizes the significance of Gaby's sexual offense in terms that express his feelings of class and racial entitlement: “To sleep with the maid was a widespread affair, even in Europe. They were paid well for it, too!” Moreover, Raoul accepts Inbar's ordeal as comparable to his own survival, saying, “So, you've had your share of the hell of this world, too, Inbar.” Then, deploying a world outlook shaped by his understanding of his own experiences in Europe previously resisted by Inbar as too pessimistic, Raoul establishes an incontrovertible link between Inbar's rape and her Jewish identity: “Isn't it clear to you now that he tried to rape you mainly because you're Jewish [emphasis added]?” 39

Because this second version of the narrative is fictionalized, we cannot simply assume that Ada Aharoni actually survived an attempted rape as a young girl in Egypt, although that would explain why the memory of the experience she recounted to Kadreya remained with her so powerfully even as she tried to distance herself from it. It is possible that Aharoni did not want to admit publicly to having been attacked by a rapist because, as the novel explains, “if a girl is raped, she, as the victim, is usually considered the main culprit.” [40]

If the novel does not necessarily constitute a fictionalized version of a personal truth Aharoni was reluctant to acknowledge, it does affirm a broader social truth. The definitive interpretation of young Inbar's experience has been provided by Raoul, whose understanding of the world and of the Jewish place in it has been formed by his agony in Europe. In the forward to the novel, Aharoni explains, “Inbar and Raoul represent two aspects of the Jewish people: the Oriental-Sephardi Jews from Arab countries—and the Ashkenazi Jews who experienced the Nazi Holocaust. Together they symbolize the unified Jewish people in Israel.” [41] This unity is possible because Inbar does not openly contest the meaning of her experience provided by Raoul, although she does not necessarily embrace it either. But the unity of the Jewish people in Israel depends on accepting mass murder as the central experience of Jewish history. Aharoni therefore legitimated the distinctive voice of the Egyptian Jewish community by representing its history as a mirror image of the experience of Ashkenazim in Europe.

This correspondence is reinforced in the chapter following the recounting of the sexual assault on Inbar. In early 1948, the members of Inbar's Zionist youth organization gather at their meeting hall and discover that it has been closed by the Egyptian authorities (all the Zionist organizations were indeed banned at this time). Inbar immediately thinks of the Spanish Inquisition and Nazi Germany and concludes, “We're being pushed out again!” [42] Once more, European Jewish experiences are immediately available to define the meaning of events in Egypt. The group activity was to have been a lecture on the history of the Jews of Egypt prepared by Inbar. They reconvene to hear it in the nearby home of one of the members, and the closure of the meeting hall, represented as comparable to the worst persecutions of Jews in Europe, frames Inbar's presentation.

When the Egyptian-Israeli peace negotiations opened, Ada Aharoni took the opportunity to reconnect herself to Egypt by sending her “Letter to Kadreya” and a poem titled “From Haifa to Near Faraway Cairo” to Jihan al-Sadat “to extend a hand in Salam-Shalom to you, Kadreya, and the women of Egypt whom I remember with warmth.” [43] Aharoni's writings and cultural-political activity express a sensibility that undeniably reflects her Egyptian origins, while she has consistently represented her personal history and that of her community in the terms of the Euro-Zionist interpretation of Jewish history. This has given her a relatively broad audience in Israel, especially for someone who writes primarily in English. Other audiences may regard her exclusive focus on Jewish victimhood, central in her work as it is in general Israeli political culture, as a barrier to peace and reconciliation.

The Second Exodus was the subject of a lengthy and hostile review by ‘Ali Shalash that appeared in seven installments in the weekly al-Majalla and was republished as the first section of his book, al-Yahud wa’l-masun fi misr (The Jews and the Masons in Egypt).[44] Shalash's essay constructs a counternarrative, correctly pointing out many flaws in Aharoni's version of Egyptian Jewish history. He emphasizes Egypt's tolerant welcome of the Jews, while the Jews sought connections with foreign capital, preferred foreign citizenship, and subverted Egypt by spreading Zionism and communism. Some of the errors in Shalash's historical account mirror those in Aharoni's novel, and it would be tedious and pointless to explicate them in any detail. The anti-Semitic character of Shalash's riposte is advertised in the title and the theme of the book—the Jews and the Masons as social minorities who are, by implication, not “real Egyptians.”

One can perhaps draw some hope from the fact that Aharoni and Shalash are engaged in a direct dialogue that would probably not have taken place before the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty. The dialogue is severely constrained by each participant's insistence that only one of the parties to the conflict has a legitimate national grievance. The painful limits of this dialogue suggest that the diplomatic maneuvers commonly designated as the Arab-Israeli “peace process” have left unaddressed complex sentiments of victimhood that will have to be attenuated if a stable peace is to be established.


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The Recovery of Egyptian Jewish Identity
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