OSAKA, Japan — The Book of Genesis and the Book of Exodus are stories from the Old Testament that describe Hebrew servitude in ancient Egypt. That’s an over-simplified summary.
The Book of Madness is from the Newest Testament. It describes the trials and tribulations of a single Jew and his fruitless sojourn in a vast and barren bureaucratic Sigh-Nigh Desert to secure permission to enter Egypt in order to photograph in the Jewish communities of Cairo and Alexandria for his Jewish Africa photographic survey project. This debacle was on again, off again over the span of 40 years. Well, it felt like it. In the Diplomatic Diaspora, where even emails move at a snail’s pace, time slips down the curvature of a 40-year hour glass, seducing one to believe anything is possible only to realize it’s all a mirage.
JEWS HAVE BEEN IN EGYPT for a long time, perhaps longer than any other place on the African continent. (That’s another simplified summary of events.) So, of all the 30 or so countries and territories that I am including in my Jewish Africa opus, it is truly a pity that my wish to include Jewish Egypt is officially not going to happen. There are other conspicuous gaps in the project such as Algeria and Libya, but the risks aside, permission, language barriers, and zero contacts on the inside make those places simply not even worth considering. That does not mean I wouldn’t like to go, however. (In fact, I was in Libya in 2001 and managed to get some photographs of Jewish headstones in a couple of the War Memorial Cemeteries.)
But going to Egypt? That’s easy. Tourists get on planes and land in Cairo everyday. They gawk at the Pyramids of Giza, snap selfies with the Sphinx, get bedazzled at the Egyptian Museum, and flock to Luxor, Aswan, and cruise on the world’s longest river. I did those things in March 1985, long before I ever had an inkling that I’d wind up photographing all things Jewish. I didn’t even think about Jewish Egypt back then.
But I’ve been thinking about it ever since I conceived of this Jewish Africa project in 2010. I even thought I’d begin in North Africa, though I was dissuaded when I realized it made better sense to get my feet wet, make contacts, and build momentum by working Southern Africa first where language is not a barrier, contacts come easily, and permission is warmly granted.
I WENT IN SEARCH OF Magda Haroun, head of the minuscule Jewish community of Egypt (there are perhaps a couple of dozen Jews there, many of them aged, and a few dozen more in Alexandria). I simply could not find her contact information. I sent out emails. I posted ISO notices on Facebook. I scoured the internet. Finally, after a few months, I hit upon the contact information motherload: the Bassatine News, the only Jewish newsletter that is reported directly from Egypt. There were telephone numbers, email addresses, synagogue addresses, opening times, plus contact information for the Jewish Community of Alexandria and community president ,Youssef Ben Gaon. Upon closer inspection, I realized I had actually bookmarked the website ages before, but I simply overlooked the contact information. Face palm.
When I saw that the Shaar Hashamayim Synagogue and the Ben Ezra Synagogue are open daily to visitors, I thought all I had to do was contact Magda directly, introduce myself and my Jewish Africa photo project, and she’ll be happy to welcome me, same for Alexandria.
Oh, how I was wrong.
While the Jewish communities welcome visitors, photographs are strictly forbidden without official government approval. I think, in fact, that the Jewish communities themselves would gladly welcome me for photographs, but the facilities in the Jewish communities fall under the direction of the Ministry of State for Antiquities. But permission must first be granted by the Press Office of Cairo. Without official press credentials, the hurdles would ultimately prove too high. In my first telephone call with Magda, she said as much. “You need to get permission from the Ministry of Antiquities,” she said. “Then get back in touch with me.” I gave it my best shot, however.
I SPENT MONTHS THINKING of creative ways to get permission from the Press Office. I reached out to a few credentialed people in the press world, including one guy at the New York Times. I wrote emails to editors I had worked with directly basically begging for them to provide a letter of support stating that I was on assignment for them on a feature on Jewish Egypt. All but one responded with reasons why they couldn’t do me the favor. The one who agreed graciously pasted a pre-written letter that I provided onto their letterhead. They did this twice. Neither was ever actually used because I never got to the application stage despite being very close. I pulled back when I realized another key document was even more improbable to obtain: a guarantee for my camera equipment from a bank. Yeah, I know…a letter of guarantee?
Next, I reached out for help at the Embassies of Egypt in Pretoria, South Africa (because that is country where the magazine who provided the letter of support is based), London, England and Washington, D.C. (because of my passports), and Tokyo, Japan (because I reside in Osaka). But I only fell deeper into the vortex of bureaucratic mumbo-jumbo.
By this point, my heart had pretty much surrendered, and my mind had resigned itself to this dismal outcome: Jewish Africa would be Egyptless.
I called Magda Haroun again several months after my first call.
“What if I come as a tourist and meet with your privately? Perhaps I can get a few photos of some synagogues and meet with a few people,” I inquired very gently. But she wouldn’t allow it. “I only meet with official press,” she said.
“I understand,” I replied, and wished her and the community long life. Alas, I know there isn’t much life left there.
I then sent emails to five current and former Ambassadors of Israel to various countries, all of whom I had met or had direct contact with, inquiring if they had diplomatic channels connecting to Egypt, plus a minister in the government of South Africa. The three leads I got lead to dead ends.
I even had the very long-shot idea of inquiring directly with the President of Egypt Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, so I sent an email to the Embassy of Egypt in Tokyo (the last of dozens from a back-and-forth that ultimately got me no where) asking how I can post a letter to the office of the president.
Mr. Visa Section (that’s how the emails were always signed, “Regards, Visa Section”), replied, “I consulted the Consul and he regrets that we can not provide you with President Sisi’s contact details for privacy issues. Please kindly search the internet for the contact of the government.”
That’s odd, I thought. I wasn’t asking for his personal contact details. I did search the internet, but I found no specific office for the president.
What a pity, I thought, not so much for me and what I am trying to achieve, but for the people of Egypt and the government mess and distrust they hold.
It’s a particular shame because there have been recent glimmers of hope for relations between Egypt and Israel. In June 2009, the Egyptian government officially sanctioned a US$2 million restoration of the Maimonides Synagogue (aka Rav Moshe Synagogue), a historic synagogue site in the Jewish Quarter dating to the 10th century (the current building dates to the 19th century). Dr. Zahi Hawass, Egypt’s antiquities czar at the time, commented, “It’s part of our history. It’s part of our heritage.” (A Synagogue in Cairo, by Andrew Baker, NY Times, Opinion pages, March 3, 2010.)
More recently, “The Jewish Quarter” (“Harat al-Yahud” in Arabic) was a popular topic of conversation in Egypt and even the Palestinian territories. It’s a TV mini-series shown during the Ramadan holidays. The show featured…gasp…a Jewish-Muslim romance and, for the first time in years, portrayed Jews as…wait for it…people, not animals.
So why not let a photographer guy on a personal mission who’s not officially press credentialed in and take some pictures? Let my visit be another bridge to cultural acceptance, no matter how small that bridge may be.
Egypt, you once let my people go, now let me let my people know.
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