The Last Traces of Jewish Cultures in Arab Countries
by Shelly Schoeneshoefer
With all the upheaval that is going on between the Palestinians and the Israelis, there is a focus to reflect on how it could have come to this and could it perhaps be different in the future. There is now a movement to investigate and discuss the history of the Jews in Arabic lands. More and more books are being written about this theme, as well as films made. That time period where Jewish and Arab cultures had a peaceful co-existence.
Eldad Beck interviews Egyptain director Amir Rames, who made Jews of Egypt
, and Moroccan director Kamal Hachkar who made Tinghir – Jerusalem, the Echoes from the Mellah
Beck: Both of you directors, Rames and Hachkar, were born between 1977 and 1979, which coincided with the first time (1977) that the Egyptian Prime Minister Anwar Sadat visited Israel for peace talks, and then in 1979 went to Washington D.C. to sign a peace treaty between Israel and Egypt. Did that have an influence on you, when you decided to make these films?
(Both directors denied that this had any direct influence on their films but they were both searching for something from the past. Each film shows different versions of history, reflecting what was happening politically.)
Hachkar: I was not thinking of the dates of the 1970s. I was more interested in the dates of the 1940s during the time when the Jews were expelled from Morocco.
Rames: In 2002 and 2003 Egypt was beginning to become extremely intolerant and I wanted to look back to see a more tolerant time. I actually was inspired by a man I met in Egypt who was originally Jewish and then became a communist and refused to leave Egypt. This man gave me a starting point to look at the lives of the Jewish population in Alexander. In the 1940s there was a huge multicultural population that was very culturally active and wealthy. It was a joyful and thriving time for Egypt.
Beck: What was the moment when you decided to make a film about this theme?
Hachkar: I couldn’t understand why the Jewish of three small villages were forced to leave all their things over night and travel to Israel just like that. The Jewish community had a good relationship with the Arab community; they were successful. It was only due to the Zeolites that Jews had to leave and were not allowed to return. On the other, hand when they entered Israel, they were treated like third-class citizens and were the last people to get housing, etc. The times were hard and many wondered why they left in the first place. Despite my background as a historian, this also has a personal connection. I became interested in this subject since my grandfather, who now lives in France, always painted a different picture of Morocco and so I decided to find out what really happened and traced many of the people who were in old photographs to find out their story.
Rames: In Egypt the Zionists became very active and powerful. They were also backed by the Egyptian government, so that many Jewish people had to leave against their will. It did not matter if they were famous or not; they were sent into exile and had to go to Israel. I was most surprised by the fact that the people who left were never allowed to return even for a visit, whereas a non-Egyptian Jew has no problems visiting Egypt.