CAIRO, Egypt — “Jewish Africa would be Egyptless.” I thought so, anyway, when I wrote that in my blog story, “Let My People Know” in July last year.
At that time, I had surrendered to the hard fact that acquiring official government permission to access and photograph the remnants of Jewish Egypt in Cairo and Alexandria was a hurdle too high. I later realized, however, that I could not, I should not, I will not complete my Jewish Africa journey without at very least going to steal a few Jewish images somehow, some way. Something, anything. I was determined because there’s been a Jewish presence here for longer than anywhere else on this continent making Jewish Egypt a crucial chapter in the story. No Jewish Egypt photos at all would be a gaping hole in my Jewish Africa opus, and not making every reasonable effort would be a regret for the ages.
Jewish Africa has no room for regrets.
So I leapfrogged the bureaucracy and went to Egypt as a tourist. That’s easy enough: just book a flight, and get a tourist visa upon arrival. But to make things go a 1000% easier, I booked myself a private 5-day Cairo tour, plus a day in Alexandria (that was ultimately cut short to 4 days in Cairo due to the brilliant services of Turkish Airlines). Without being too explicit about my purpose, I explained to the tour agency that I was very interested in visiting certain Jewish sights and hoped to get some photos for my personal interest and use.
Signing them up proved to be a hugely wise move. They were brilliant. They did everything possible to make it happen for me, even when they first doubted access to a couple of the places on my wish list. My guide, Osmond, a 60s-ish father of five, was my partner and friend for the duration (and Tariq was my reliable, responsible driver too). He would say things like, “I like to be outspoken” and “Sadat was far-sighted” and, perhaps best of all, “Moses, peace be upon him.”
ON MY FIRST FULL DAY in Cairo, I visited a few extraordinary mosques, including the Great Mosque of Muhammad Ali Pasha. Built in the 1830s, its soaring domes are fantastic engineering feats. With my Jewish eyes, the one single detail literally above all else that I noticed was a Magen David adorning the very center of the very highest dome.
Ok, so maybe it’s not a true Star of David, but this was my first day in Egypt and I was eager to photograph anything “Jewish” that I could find. I lay flat on my back and zoomed in. Later in the day, I spied other Jewish Stars here and there. Seeing them made me feel optimistic that something more legitimate would be coming my way.
For lunch, Osmond asked if I wanted “koshary.” I was not sure what he meant, but the name piqued my curiosity. He took me to a divey neighborhood spot, just the sort of local dining experience I like. Koshary (or kushari) is an Egyptian dish from the 19th century made of a mixture of rice, macaroni, lentils, chickpeas and topped with fried garlic and tomato sauce, even a garlic juice and hot sauce if you like.
“Interesting and tasty,” I said, tucking in. “Perhaps this is named for the fact that it’s kosher. There’s nothing here that would make it forbidden for even the most observant Jew,” I noted. Or perhaps that was just wishful thinking. We chased it with some outstanding rice pudding.
“Mmm. Almost as good as my mother’s,” I stated.
DAY 2 was pyramids day. We set off from the hotel at 8:00 and first visited Dashur, about 45 minutes south of town. I got to see the so-called bent pyramid and also got inside another nearby. It was a little unnerving being in there on my own.
From there it was a short drive to Saqqara and the famed step pyramid and a number of other tombs. With all the great columns and old main square, I almost felt as if I were in Luxor.
But it’s the Great Pyramids of Giza that really are most impressive. Being a blustery, chilly day, and already a bit tired after exploring the other pyramid groups, I didn’t really want to linger in the elements or the crowds longer than necessary. I spent most of an hour or so imaging these remarkable triangles as one half of a great Magen David. Two pyramids inverted on top of each other make a star, a Jewish Star. That’s what Jewish eyes in search of Jewish things to photograph do.
MY THIRD AND FINAL DAY started at 8:00 a.m. “Tariq has turned my whole plan around,” explained Osmond. “He thinks we should go to the Bassatine Cemetery before people are up and out. Once their bellies are full,” he warned, “some of them maybe ready to look for trouble.” Yes, I mused, earlier seems smarter.
We pulled off the main road down a bumpy, dusty side lane leading to the cemetery. It was the road below the flyover from where I snapped a few overview shots two days earlier. From ground level, things felt somewhat sketchier than from the relative safety of the main road.
After Tariq positioned the van, Osmond and I stepped out — my camera in my pocket. We strolled over to the gaping hole in the wall and I began to quickly shooting around. A 20-something local came over immediately and Osmond gave him a short comment on my interest in cemeteries. I had told him to keep whatever he says short and simple. The fewer the words, the better. Turns out, this local guy was actually looking out for our interest. He told us to be quick, and that if the guard saw a camera, he’d seize it.
I was uneasy the entire 5 minutes we were there, and so was Osmond, though he didn’t confess that till we were away from the area. This historic cemetery is in dire straights. It’s filled with fetid garbage and animal droppings, and has basically been left to ruin. The few headstones that I managed to approach had no readable markings on them. But I only saw a sliver of this gigantic burial ground. After banging out about 50 images, I put the camera back in my pocket, then Osmond and I made haste for the vehicle.
“Let’s get out of there,” I said, closing the door. Later, Osmond told me Tariq was nervous being there.
We bounced ourselves out of there and headed to Old Cairo to visit Ben Ezra Synagogue which is open daily to visitors, so I had no concern about getting in. I was, however, skeptical about getting photos as taking photos is officially not allowed. Completed in 1892, it’s supposedly located on the site where baby Moses was found.
Also called El-Geniza Synagogue or the Synagogue of the Levantines, Osmond had warned me about a very strict lady guard who forces people to delete unapproved photos. But she was not there, but there were several guards and police. In these parts, a little backsheesh (a bribe to the giver, a tip to the receiver) goes a long way. And with no one else there, I was able to bang out about 75 images of marginal quality…for a small price.
I was impressed with the fine condition of the building. It’s one of several religious buildings in the immediate area that is on the tourist circuit, so it’s no real surprise actually.
Round about noon, we headed downtown to the Shaar Ha’Shamayim Synagogue, also known as Temple Ismailia and the Adly Street Synagogue. Getting in here is a little more involved. Fittingly built in the Egyptian architectural style, this fortress-looking synagogue is today surrounded by high-rises and steel and concrete barriers and a well-armed police presence (completing that fortress look). But they were, in all fairness, welcoming and friendly.
“Are you a Jew?” the head honcho dressed in plain clothes asked. He also asked who told me it was possible to enter, and for the life of me I drew a blank on the name of the President of the Jewish Community whom I’d not only written about in a previous blog story, but had spoken to briefly on the phone a few times and as recently as 10 days earlier.
As I struggled to remember her name, I said, “A lady…aarrrghhh…I just forget her name. The president of the community.”
“Haroun,” he said.
“Yes! Magda Haroun. That’s it.”
Then he handed me his cell phone with Magda on the other end.
“Hello, Magda. My name is Jono. I am sure you don’t remember me. I spoke to you recently about visiting and you told me the synagogue is open. But I’m not sure why he wants me to speak to you.”
“Yes, it is open,” Magda confirmed. “But you have to pay a 100 Egyptian Pound (US$12) entrance fee. It’s for maintenance.”
I agreed, but I told Osmond that it was only worth it to me if I could get some photos. Osmond quietly asked the caretaker, not the policemen, and he nodded. That required “greasing the wheels,” as my guide liked to call it. Upon leaving the synagogue, that caretaker was more direct. He rubbed his thumb and forefinger together and said, “A little backsheesh?” He seemed pleased with the additional 25 pounds in pushed into his hands.
I was again the only visitor and the synagogue keeper, once inside, gave me the go-ahead to take some photos. He made it clear in his broken English that the police don’t allow photos, so I had to be quick. But just when I thought he was telling me to stop, he gestured to this corner and that fixture to take more photos. I got out of there with about 100 images. I thought I’d get zero. Not too shabby, I thought. Though I was a bit nervous because the last thing I wanted was trouble — or to have to delete the prized images I had just taken.
When I was done, I walked out with my camera tucked in my pocket. The head security guard returned my passport and he started chatting, telling me he was in England in 1985 and hadn’t been back since. When I told him I was in Egypt for the first time since 1985, he seemed to consider it was time for his own return trip. After a few niceties and thanks, I stepped outside the security barrier to wait for Osmond and Tariq to circle round the block for me. I was eager for them to show up and be on my way.
“Come on! Where are you guys?” I muttered to myself.
And then the caretaker beckoned me over and wanted my passport again.
So I handed it over again trying to be cool but thinking, “You’ve got to be kidding. Let me go!…Let my people go!”
He also asked where I was staying so I gave him a card from my hotel, and he dashed off across the street and out of view to photo copy it and my visa. I had visions of never seeing him or the passport again. He returned an eternal 5 minutes later and returned that precious document (but not the hotel card, oddly enough).
I spent the rest of the day and evening distracted by wild, irrational thoughts that I was going to be stopped and questioned by immigration. At the Museum of Egyptian Antiquities, where I spent the remainder of the afternoon, my mind drifted betwixt Osmond’s enthusiastic guidance, the glint of Tutankhamen’s gold, and thoughts of interrogation. Egypt’s unrest in recent years was not lost on me, and there were people via Facebook who made it clear they were worried for me.
“Be careful and maybe share those pictures after you leave the area,” one commented in response to my Jewish Egypt highlights gallery. It had crossed my mind to delay any postings, so I did refrain from posting all my galleries. Out of an abundance of caution and paranoia, I changed my mind and “hid” the Egypt highlights gallery too till I was back in transit in Istanbul.
At Cairo Airport the next morning, my mantra was: “Just get past immigration, and you’re in the clear. Breathe. Just get past immigration, and you’re in the clear. Breathe.” I felt like that guy in Midnight Express when at the end of the film he walks out of the prison in disguise, and when he realizes he’s made it, he walks faster and faster till he runs with joy. At any given moment, I thought someone was going to tap me on the shoulder or to call me over or to ask me to open my computer. Or I imagined having to open my camera gear bag and getting drilled with questions in a very small room. With all the wires and cables and chargers, it looks like I have a lot more gear than I actually do.
So, after all the rush rush, hush hush, quickly snap snap the photos and move on, I thought it was fitting that I should make a quick getaway from Egypt via gate F1.
It wasn’t until the wheels raced down the tarmac and lifted off the ground that I thought I should have just turned up as a tourist from the beginning. Too many questions, too many problems. All the bureaucratic fuss was for nothing, nothing but aggravation.
Now, my people know.
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