|BASSATINE NEWS the ONLY Jewish newsletter reporting directly from Egypt|
|A Community Chronicle put out by the Jewish Community Council (JCC) of Cairo since 1995|
From: Leon Wahba
Cleveland, Ohio, USA
To: Ms. Carmen Weinstein
Date: March 2001
You will be pleased to read that it was my repeated visits to egy.com in general and its Judaica link in particular, that were the inspiration for my decision to visit Egypt with my family and our best friends for 2 weeks this past December.
I was born in Cairo in January 1946, during a period that I believe you (in Bassatine News) and Mr. Raafat (in egy.com), have occasionally referred to as "La Belle Époque"! My family and I emigrated to the US in September 1959.
My memories of my childhood in Cairo were always pleasant and favorable. We left in 1959 because Nasser's brand of socialism when coupled to the ardent nationalism then running rampant throughout Africa made remaining in Egypt rather difficult for all of its minorities. As you have often reported objectively, it is not only the Jews who left in those stressful years. So did many Greeks, Italians, French, and Armenians. And, as the number and ranks of fine respected surgeons at many of the Western World's hospitals would attest, so did educated professional Egyptians, both Muslims and Copts.
It is indeed quite true that while we lived in Egypt and rarely did I--or anyone else in my family, witness flagrant acts of anti-Semitism. It was always a sanitized version that alluded principally to anti-Zionism.
However, we Jews also left because we knew that the establishment of the State of Israel, now duly recognized by the enlightened Arab governments of Egypt and Jordan, was crucially important to the welfare of our Jewish people in general. We had very quietly supported the creation of Israel in our hearts and minds. But, with such sentiments running counter to the prevailing attitude of all Arabs, we realized that we could not remain in the Arab world and thereby risk being considered as anything less than loyal citizens of those countries where we had resided for generations.
After the Holocaust, we the Jews just had to have a home of our own. 50 years after that fact, the 650,000 Jews who left for that same reason from the Arab countries of Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Sudan, Syria, Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, and Yemen continue to stand by their often painful but inevitable decision.
Upon my return to Egypt some 40 plus years later I was not surprised to note that so much had changed. And, as you often indicated in your many interesting articles Mr. Raafat, not always for the best. The beautiful, stately Cairo of my childhood remains a vibrant cosmopolitan city. But, it is now a much too overly populated city for my liking. Traffic is the most chaotic I have ever witnessed in 31 years of trotting all over the world as an International Banker. Fortunately, what has not changed however is the sincere warmth, hospitality, and friendliness of the Cairenes and the Egyptians in general.
You can perhaps imagine the apprehension that this Jewish-American family experienced in the weeks and months leading to our trip. After all, the destroyer Cole incident in Yemen and the volatile situation in the West Bank and Gaza were still front-page news. Yet, the moment we boarded our EgyptAir Flight at JFK airport our concerns began to lessen. Halfway on our long flight to Cairo we were the recipients of dinner invitations from very kind and well meaning Egyptians we had but just met. By the time we had landed in Cairo our concerns had evaporated. Yes! security was exceptionally tight but that was very comforting for our group. In a developing country of nearly 70 million folks it is not unreasonable to believe that less than a handful of radicals are capable of causing great harm to the all important tourist industry. However, all went exceptionally well.
The weather, which was at least 50 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than the Cleveland we left from, was absolutely perfect and much to our liking. The accommodations were very comfortable. The service was quite friendly and very well meaning though, at times, a bit unsophisticated. We loved the sights everywhere in Upper Egypt. We stood in awe before the pyramids of Giza. We spent 6 amazing hours at the crowded Cairo museum raving about its riches. And we tugged at the memories of my youth in Cairo and Heliopolis.
Our 2 weeks in Egypt started with 7 memorable nights on a cruise from Luxor to Aswan and back. I had never been there in my youth. It was absolutely splendid Floating down the Nile with nary a smokestack in sight! Beautiful lush farms with plantings of banana trees, alfalfa, and sugar canes. The quiet often punctuated by the soulful call to prayers emanating from the many minarets that dotted the peaceful and soothing landscape. The Temples at Karnak, Luxor, Essna, Edfu, Kom Ombo, Abu Simbel, and Phileas Island reminded us of the glory that was Ancient Egypt.
The felluca ride from our cruise boat over to the Cataract Hotel in Aswan for high tea was all the more memorable for the stunning sunset we witnessed, followed immediately by the twinkling lights that were then turned on merrily to announce the end of that Ramadan day's fasting.
It was then, on to Cairo. Almost immediately upon arrival at our Hilton Hotel on the Midan Tahrir, we braved the chaotic auto traffic and walked over to the Soliman Pasha Street which is where I was born and where I resided for many years. At one time, that had been a prominent address. While things do change with the passage of time, there were still many stately buildings remaining on that street. Our house at 12 Soliman Pasha Street is no longer there. But the Stella Brasserie that was immediately across the street from that building, and where I often spent quality time there with my maternal grandfather, Youssef Balestra, while he enjoyed a cool Stella on the hot summer afternoons, is now one of Cairo's most popular and pleasant restaurants: The Felfella! Just a bit further up the street from there the Café Riche and Groppi remain, with the latter one appearing to have been refurbished.
At the Soliman Pasha circle, I was pleasantly surprised to note that one of my father's dearest friend's former apartment residence has now been converted into a popular Internet Café.
The streets were very crowded but the atmosphere was friendly and welcoming. We never felt threatened. I was delighted to find a street vendor peddling fragrant jasmine necklaces which I then proceeded to purchase for my wife and daughter. They very happily wore theirs the balance of that day and evening. We continued happily and excitedly on up Soliman Pasha Street, past the Cinema Radio, Cinema Metro, the Excelsior and l'Americaine restaurants. Again, due to the passage of time, all seemed to have lost much of their luster, really not unlike their counterparts in the US and Europe. We also walked out to the Cicurel department store building on King Fouad Street and were disappointed to find it closed. My maternal grandfather, my mother, her sister and her husband had all worked there at one time or the other. It was our favorite shopping store. King Fouad Street remains full of busy retail stores.
While in Cairo, we also enjoyed crossing the Kasr El Nil Bridge with its formidable lions standing guard on this busy crossing. We made it over to the Andalousian Garden only to find out that it was closed as well. The balance of our stay in Cairo was quite hectic as we took in all the magnificent sights. Can there be any more impressive experience than the sight of the Pyramids and Sphinx under its Sound and Light show?
It was all so thrilling and so pleasant.
Because we were booked on an organized tour, and our respective intestinal systems had each suffered minor bouts of Pharaoh's Revenge, our meals were mostly taken in Western Hotels. Fortunately, delicious Egyptian items such as Foul, Falafels, Mahshis and kebabs were served regularly and enjoyed by all.
For the first time, my children got to taste and enjoy delicious fresh dates and fresh guavas. It was very touching, to me and my family, that on our very last evening in Egypt, we were taken to the Felfella Restaurant for dinner.
From there we went on a walking tour to visit the Abdeen Palace now dark and deserted but very well guarded. What a magnificent palace it was and still is though it was hard to tell if it is still in use.
When our apartment building in Cairo was replaced by a high rising office tower in 1953, my father moved us to a lovely place in Heliopolis. We spent a busy morning there retracing my youth. The beautiful and elegant horse race track of Heliopolis that was across the street from our multi-story apartment house is long gone. It has been replaced by modern high rises. Our beloved Heliolido Club has not changed much. It remains stately and attractive though now surrounded by too many tall buildings that now overlook it ominously. My old school, the College des Freres Heliopolis, is now run by the Freres Patriarchal. The principal there, Father Jules El Zerey, received us warmly and allowed us a detailed tour of the school. My daughter, the teacher, was impressed by the school's extensive and varied curriculum. It appears to remain a very fine school. We walked happily and safely through the streets of Heliopolis with me pointing to my family where aunts, uncles, cousins, and special friends lived.
We walked past the Abraham Btesh Temple, where I was bar-mitzvahed a few short months before we emigrated It is obviously no longer in use and appeared to be in truly bad shape. It continues however to be well guarded by a squadron of very bored looking policemen.
One of the major highlights of our 2 weeks trip to Egypt was the opportunity to meet the soft spoken but firmly tenacious Ms Carmen Weinstein. This kind woman is singularly intent on "preserving" the evidence of the Jews' long, happy, and prosperous stay in Egypt. A stay during which, I submit, they contributed much to the welfare and advancement of Egypt, their beloved and adopted country.
As you may be aware, many other Egyptian Jews would prefer for their patrimony to be on display in a museum in New York while Ms. Weinstein has been advocating that the resources be directed instead towards the preservation of the many synagogues, the cemetery, and the remaining Judaic artifacts in Egypt. This debate will most likely go on for yet many more years to come and I can state categorically that I sincerely believe that both camps advance legitimate arguments in favor of their stand. While this debate continues to rage I can indeed confirm that I believe Ms Weinstein to be very sincere. She was kind to meet with the seven of us to explain about the status of Cairo's remaining, but dwindling, Jews. She was also very kind to take us on an extended tour of the Adly Street synagogue.
Memories of weddings and bar mitzvahs flooded my mind as we walked as reverently as we could through this magnificent structure where my grandparents, parents, and each of my many uncles and aunts were married. This synagogue is also well protected by the Egyptian police. We found it to be in particularly good shape. Very clean and orderly as befits such a historic temple. Earlier in the week, we had had the opportunity of visiting the beautiful Ben Ezra synagogue as well. What an absolute gem!
All in all it was a delightful, relaxing, informative, family vacation. My 2 children and my wife now understand me a bit better. A lot of what my Father and Mother, of blessed memories, had tried to explain and describe to my children was displayed to them. They loved the trip. They will surely want to take their own children there someday and tell them proudly where the WAHBAs came from. I was so proud of my son when, in the course of introducing himself, he pronounced our family name the Egyptian way it is supposed to be pronounced, i.e., with the emphasis on the H that is unfortunately always silent in the American pronunciation.
I would indeed recommend to others an Egyptian vacation. The fall and winter months, it would seem to me, are absolutely ideal. The fact that we were there during Ramadan did not lessen the pleasures. Instead, the evenings were all the more enjoyable as we joined Egyptians on the busy streets of Cairo, Luxor, Aswan, Esna et al and wished everyone a "Ramadan Kareem". We were delighted with our memorable experience. We shall keep those memories in our hearts and minds for evermore and will delight in the pleasure of telling our friends and relatives of all that we saw, heard, smelled and tasted.
Finally, a message to Jews from Egypt who will read this article:
While the debate between the Historical Society of Jews from Egypt (HSJE) and the Jewish Federation of Cairo - now headed by Mrs. Esther Weinstein and her daughter Carmen - continues allow me to suggest the following. I have come to the conclusion that the Weinsteins are very sincere and forthcoming in their quest to keep and protect from destruction and pilferage all the Jewish temples and other buildings. In addition, they have taken upon themselves the care and welfare of that tiny remaining colony of our co-religionists. The initiatives for the upkeep and maintenance of Bassatine Cemetery, the Ben-Ezra and Ismaeleya synagogues are costly. The approximately 40 remaining Jews in Cairo are not wealthy and do not contribute a lot of resources to the Federation. There are many projects that the Weinsteins would like to attend to. Clearly, they could use our help. Arrangements have been made through the Jewish Federation of Seattle, Washington for funds to flow through it to designated projects administered by the Weinsteins. I respectfully submit that they are deserving of our support and I urge all readers to join me in support of the safety and welfare of that historical community.
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