When considering the literature that Jews of the Middle East and North Africa wrote in the first half of the twentieth century, one tends to think either of Iraqi Jewish authors, such as Anwar Shaul, or Sephardic writers from British Mandate Palestine, like Yiṣḥaq Shami and Yehuda Burla. In the case of Jewish writers of the Maghreb and Egypt many professional and amateur writers chose to publish their works in various languages, for example French, while maintaining a profound attachment to their Arab homeland and to Judaism.
As many Jewish families started to move to Egypt at the turn of the 20th century from non-Arabic-speaking territories like Greece, Anatolia, or Italy, cultural exchanges with Arabic-speaking scholars were less pervasive than in Iraq. One notable case, however, is the Cairo Jewish writer Ya’qub Sannu’, who is predominantly remembered for his significant role in late nineteenth-century Arabic journalism and theater.1 Respectively, virtually all the texts written in Egypt in Hebrew, during colonial and monarchic times, were rabbinical studies.2 The choice of writing in French thus depended on one’s education and family background, but was also due to the fascination that France, and especially Paris – as a global capital of culture – held for the Egyptian middle class.3
“Wake up, Pentaour, and sing a novel song! A song of grace, of euphoria, a song of joy!”: these words open Georges Cattaui’s 1921 poem Lève-toi, Pentaour!4 Cattaui was born in Paris in 1896, a son of one of the most prominent families of the Cairo Jewish elite. He was educated in both France and Egypt, and in the 1920s after acting as secretary to King Fuʾād, began work as a diplomat in Prague, Bucharest, and London. In the 1930s, he embarked on a full-time literary career. He converted to Catholicism in the 1920s and subsequently left Egypt for France and Switzerland, where he died in 1974.5
Cattaui evokes a nation where Muslims, Jews, and Copts live together peacefully and stresses how Egypt maintained its unique characteristics against all odds for four thousand years.
In Lève-toi, Pentaour!, Cattaui goes back to the Pharaonic era, using it as a lens to discuss early twentieth-century Egypt. The protagonist is Pentaour, priest, poet, and scribe of Ramses II, who wrote a poem about the Battle of Kadesh (1274 BC), where the forces of Ramses II battled the Hittite empire. From the distance of a millennia, Cattaui celebrates the upcoming Egyptian independence from the British, which would lead to the birth of the monarchy in 1922:
Egypt, among perishable people,
you kept your essential character for four thousand years,
you are here again without a yoke, without a chain under your sky,
you are here free again ruling over your sand!
On the tomb of Amrou, may, oh Muslim,
this holy day be blessed among your propitious days!
Blessed be this day, oh Jew, next to the Nile whose waters
took the fragile cradle of Moses;
and you, oh Copt, in your mysterious church,
where the Virgin and the Child rested!6
Cattaui evokes a nation where Muslims, Jews, and Copts live together peacefully and stresses how Egypt maintained its unique characteristics against all odds for four thousand years. His words echo ideas of Egyptian exceptionalism, which in the 1920s expressed itself through Pharaonism, vis-à-vis the other Middle Eastern countries. According to Cattaui, Egypt had a separate identity, rooted in the country’s ancient past, which went beyond its Islamic heritage and made it different from the rest of the Arab world.7
Cattaui was not alone in attempting to inscribe the Jews within the Egyptian national narrative. A second notable author is Emile Mosseri, born in 1911 into another upper-class Jewish family in Cairo. A lawyer by training, Mosseri wrote several plays and collaborated with magazines like L’Egyptienne. Mosseri’s most important achievement was the publication of the collection of poems La ballade de la rue in 1930.
The poem J’ai marché quelque soir describes a visit of the poet to Luxor:
I marched one night when the moon was round,
in the temple of the gods of Thebes and Luxor
I passed under your shadow at this hour when everything sleeps,
and I thought that just like the priest of Hathor
a people followed me, enlivening the blonde night.8
Mosseri travels back to ancient Egypt in search of his lost past and identity, wandering around the ruins of the city. The evocation of ancient Egypt and its archaeological vestiges had a clear national connotation and reinforced claims to Egyptian sovereignty. Let us also recall the Arab Egyptian poet Ahmed Shawqi, who talked about Pharaonic ruins as markers of the country’s national past. In the case of the Jews, ancient Egypt related to one of the most important episodes of the Tora, the Yeṣiʾath-Miṣrayim (“Exodus from Egypt”). This ancestral connection to the land was of utmost importance in the 1930s, when notions of citizenship and the status of minorities were being discussed and the Egyptian liberal party system entered into a crisis.9
Egyptian Jewry, around the 1930s, exhibited strong sentiments towards Egypt, celebrating its modernity and their ability to maintain their religious and national feelings of belonging. This received particular importance, as Europe was becoming an inhospitable environment for Jews. Subsequently, some found solace in the promises of the past, among Muslim countries:
…the green banner [of Islam],
on a tent or on a city,
declares to the man who follows a desert road:
‘Come, brother, the door of hospitality
is wide open!’.
It says: ‘Oh brothers of race,
let us ask together, kneeling,
that God keep us under his grace,
that he protect us and encourage us,
and that peace may be upon us!’10
Sciuto, in his poem, wrestles with the fact that at the time he was writing, Europe had become an inhospitable place for Jews; yet in the Islamic world, they had found and could still find refuge from persecution.
The author of these lines is Lucien Sciuto, a journalist of Jewish origin born in Thessalonika, Greece, in 1868 who later moved to Cairo in 1924 and died in Alexandria in 1947.11 The poem Islam is taken from his 1938 volume Le peuple du messie. The book, written “under the Egyptian sky, on the borders of the desert, in a serene and peaceful setting,”12 was dedicated to Faruq, the second and last King of Egypt, who reigned from 1936 to Nasser’s Revolution in 1952. Sciuto, in his poem, wrestles with the fact that at the time he was writing, Europe had become an inhospitable place for Jews; yet in the Islamic world, they had found and could still find refuge from persecution. Drawing on the shared Semitic ancestry of Jews and Arabs, including his own experiences in the former Ottoman lands, Sciuto’s words hinted at a possible future coexistence and cooperation between Jews and Muslims.
|French Original:||English Translation:|
|O frère, que tu sois musulman ou chrétien,|
Sais-tu quel est mon Dieu ! le sais-tu ? – C’est le tien.
Il n’en est qu’un pour tous les êtres.
L’univers est le livre où son nom est écrit.
De livre éternel et saint il est l’esprit,
Et nous n’en sommes que les lettres. 13
|whether you are a Muslim or a Christian,|
do you know who my God is? Do you?—It is your God.
There is but one God for all human beings.
The universe is the book where his name is written.
Only ten years separate 1938 and 1948, and the war that opposed a coalition of Arab states to the nascent state of Israel. However, this timespan was sufficient to initiate the creation of a seemingly insurmountable division between the Arab world and its Jewish population. In reading the poems of Cattaui, Sciuto, and Mosseri, it is clear how integral Jews were to an early modern Egypt, especially – yet not exclusively – to the propagation of its urban middle classes and its rich and linguistically diverse culture. It would be far too simplistic to read the writings of Cattaui, Mosseri, and Sciuto as evidence of the fact that during monarchical times Jews and Muslims lived in perfect harmony, or that Europeans, local Zionists, and Egyptian nationalists were never engaged in conflict. But these Jewish writers attest to the existence of a bygone Middle East in which issues of ethnonational, religious, and cultural belonging were debated in ways that nowadays seem inconceivable. Their books are testimonies of a frequently forgotten moment when it was possible to think of oneself, and of each other, beyond the divisive categories that have since prevailed. 14
Due to the variable nature of our posts and the wide spectrum of ideas exchanged, we feel it is important to clarify that the thoughts and opinions shared in posts and articles reflect the opinions of the author and are not representative of our contributors as a whole.
- Adam Mestyan, “Arabic Theater in Early Khedivial Culture, 1868-1872: James Sanua Revisited”, International Journal of Middle East Studies 46, no. 1 (2014): 117-137.
- Zvi Zohar, “haYetsirah haHalakhtit veHaToranit shel rabbane-Mitsrayim baMeʿataim haShanim haʾAḥronot” (“The halakhic literature and Torah commentaries of the Egyptian rabbis in the last two hundred years”), Pe’amim 86-87 (2001): 175-213.
- Jean-Jacques Luthi, La littérature d’expression française en Egypte, 1798-1998 (Paris: L’Harmattan, 2000). See also: Ovadiah Yeroushalmy, La presse juive en Egypte 1878-1952 (Paris: Nahar Misraïm, 2007).
- Georges Cattaui, Lève-toi, Pentaour! (Cairo, 1921), 1
- Daniel Lançon, “Georges Cattaui ou la France participée”, in Entre Nil et sable, ed. Marc Kober with Irène Fenoglio and Daniel Lançon (Paris: Centre National de Documentation Pédagogique, 1999), 87-103.
- Cattaui, Lève-toi, 2.
- Israel Gershoni and James P. Jankowski, Egypt, Islam, and the Arabs: the Search for an Egyptian Nationhood, 1900-1930 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1987); Donald M. Reid, “Nationalizing the Pharaonic Past: Egyptology, Imperialism, and Egyptian Nationalism, 1922-1952”, in Rethinking Nationalism in the Arab Middle East, eds. James P. Jankowski and Israel Gershoni (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997), 127-149.
- Emile Mosseri, La ballade de la rue (Cairo: Michels, 1933), 20.
- Shimon Shamir, “The Evolution of Egyptian Nationality Laws and their Application to the Jews in the Monarchy Period,” in The Jews of Modern Egypt: A Mediterranean Society in Modern Times, ed. Shimon Shamir (Boulder: Westview Press), 33-67.
- Lucien Sciuto, Le peuple du messie. Poème (Alexandria, 1938), 98.
- D. Gershon Lewenthal, “Sciuto, Lucien”, in Encyclopedia of Jews in the Islamic World, vol. IV, ed. Norman Stillman (Leiden: Brill, 2010), 274-276.
- Sciuto, Le peuple, 7.
- Sciuto, Lucien. Le Peuple Du Messie: Poème, Et Autres Poèmes. Le Caire: Editions d’Orient, 1938, 69.
- This article is based on: Dario Miccoli, “A Fragile Cradle: Writing Jewishness, Nationhood, and Modernity in Cairo, 1920-1940”, Jewish Social Studies, 21/3 (2016): 1-29 and is being published with permission of Indiana University Press.