Eliyahu Hanavi Syn­a­gogue, Alexan­dria, Egypt. Pho­to by David Lis­bona via Wiki­me­dia Commons

In my sepia-toned mem­o­ries, I am four years old, and it’s my first vis­it to Cairo. We are stay­ing with my aunt in her lux­u­ry apart­ment in the Zamalek neigh­bor­hood over­look­ing the Nile, but I have no appre­ci­a­tion for it. I long for McDonald’s, Sesame Street, and piz­za, the kind that is so saucy and cheesy, my moth­er must wash my clothes after I eat it. I’m afraid of the man’s voice that stretch­es over the city in the bel­ly of the night. My uncle patient­ly explains to me that it’s not the sound of a King Kong – sized giant roam­ing the streets, but rather some­thing called Fajr prayer, a Mus­lim prayer ampli­fied by micro­phones and per­formed by a muezzin. My anx­i­eties and home­sick­ness are pal­pa­ble, so my grand­moth­er, whom I’ve just met, decides to take me out for a day. I’m to spend the night at her place, a small­er, quaint­er apart­ment in an old neigh­bor­hood of Cairo called Daher. 

She holds my hand, guid­ing me through her streets, intro­duc­ing me to the shoe shop own­er, the roast­ed corn sales­man, and, my favorite, the toy store man­ag­er who gives me a few bal­loons after my grand­moth­er buys me a doll and a col­or­ing book. The first morn­ing in her apart­ment, she hands me a bas­ket and shows me how to low­er it five sto­ries so the bread man can place a stack of steam­ing pitas in it for our bowls of morn­ing fava beans. It isn’t a McDonald’s Hap­py Meal, but I begin to set­tle into this new world, guid­ed by a woman whose ten­der­ness still fills me with serenity. 

Mem­o­ries of those two days alone with her would cas­cade upon me four decades lat­er, dur­ing the writ­ing of my first nov­el, The Oud Play­er of Cairo. They would return as I attempt­ed to cre­ate Zacharias Haroun, a Mizrahi Jew whose fam­i­ly has lived in Egypt along­side Chris­tians and Mus­lims since the 1500s. What I couldn’t have known then, stand­ing on my grandmother’s small bal­cony, bas­ket in hand, was that I was walk­ing-dis­tance away from Ets Hay­im, one of the old­est syn­a­gogues in the city. Built in 1900 and dam­aged dur­ing World War II, the syn­a­gogue is still osten­si­bly pro­tect­ed by the Egypt­ian Supreme Coun­cil of Antiq­ui­ties. There are many syn­a­gogues in Cairo, but I imag­ined Zacharias attend­ing ser­vices at Ets Hay­im because it was in Daher, and I had walked its streets, eat­en hot pita there, talked to its mer­chants. I was tied to this place, and my char­ac­ter would have to be as well. But my per­son­al expe­ri­ence wasn’t enough to cre­ate a life, a per­sona, a set of lived expe­ri­ences dur­ing a tumul­tuous time in Egypt. I need­ed to learn about the Jews of Egypt. I read research papers, arti­cles, and, final­ly, André Aciman’s mem­oir, Out of Egypt

The first morn­ing in her apart­ment, she hands me a bas­ket and shows me how to low­er it five sto­ries so the bread man can place a stack of steam­ing pitas in it for our bowls of morn­ing fava beans.

In many ways, the mem­oir doesn’t just chron­i­cle a bygone era of Egypt­ian Jews, but describes a belle epoque in Egypt that is set dur­ing the same peri­od as my nov­el (1934 to 1956). There was a large Euro­pean pres­ence in Egypt then — a pres­ence that came to be syn­ony­mous with civ­i­lized order and a lev­el of pros­per­i­ty that Egyp­tians often tie to a pre-Nass­er gold­en age, a time before Nasser’s social­ist regime spelled demise for the Egypt­ian econ­o­my and for the gen­er­a­tions of Egyp­tians who failed to pros­per. One can rec­og­nize this blend of cul­tures in Aciman’s col­or­ful dia­logue: Ladi­no phras­es, Ital­ian say­ings, and French words are all inter­spersed into the lin­gua fran­ca. Such a dias­po­ra sets the stage for Aciman’s mem­oir, his life as a boy in the cos­mopoli­tan city of Alexan­dria, and his family’s sur­vival as, unbe­knownst to them, tem­po­rary res­i­dents of this city by the sea. My Zacharias would expe­ri­ence a sim­i­lar set of cir­cum­stances, loose­ly based on what I learned from Aciman. 

Aci­man tells his sto­ry as a flash­back, in which he speeds up and slows down the nar­ra­tive at the whim of his mem­o­ry. Among the cast of char­ac­ters are the charis­mat­ic and slight­ly cru­el Uncle Vil­li, defeatist Aunt Flo­ra, a phi­lan­der­ing father, a deaf moth­er, and a great-grand­moth­er who lives to be a hun­dred years old. All the while, Aci­man reveals the love affair he’s hav­ing with Egypt. Not a rosy-hued love affair, but the kind of love affair in which a young man becomes accus­tomed to the blue Alexan­dri­an seas, the city’s bustling neigh­bor­hoods, its suc­cu­lent foods, and the scent of the breeze that ush­ers in Mediter­ranean springs. Alexan­dria was, after all, the only place Aci­man called home until the 1952 Egypt­ian Rev­o­lu­tion changed the way he and his fam­i­ly lived, lead­ing to their depar­ture in 1965. It brings change for my Zacharias too, and, like Aciman’s father, he is giv­en lit­tle choice. 

Jew­ish cul­ture echoes through­out Egypt. For exam­ple, Ben Ezra syn­a­gogue is sit­u­at­ed in the same area as Ibn Tulun mosque, the old­est in Egypt, and direct­ly behind the Saint Vir­gin Mary’s Cop­tic Ortho­dox Church, which is often referred to as the Hang­ing Church. Accord­ing to an arti­cle by Rebec­ca Ann Proc­tor, pub­lished on jew​ishin​sid​er​.com, in 2020, Egypt­ian author­i­ties invest­ed close to six mil­lion dol­lars for the restora­tion of the Eliyahu Hanavi Syn­a­gogue after a com­mit­tee at the Min­istry of Antiq­ui­ties rec­om­mend­ed preser­va­tion of the syn­a­gogue, which dates to 1354.” Under the regime of Pres­i­dent Al-Sisi, a small Jew­ish com­mu­ni­ty has gained approval for fur­ther restora­tion projects. 

I lis­tened to an inter­view with Aci­man on ajc​.org. He dis­cussed how his ear­ly ado­les­cence in Egypt, par­tic­u­lar­ly Alexan­dria, influ­enced his writ­ing. He also recalled a painful time, when anti­semitism became so strong under Nass­er that he was forced to hide his iden­ti­ty, pre­tend­ing he was Protes­tant when he knew noth­ing about the sect. It made me remem­ber some­thing my moth­er once told me in pass­ing. One of her cousins mar­ried a Jew­ish woman dur­ing the ear­ly Nass­er years, and he con­cealed her Jew­ish roots to pro­tect her. Of course, the fam­i­ly knew, but even she, the wife, nev­er talked about it. She con­vert­ed to Catholi­cism before they mar­ried, and soon after they moved to the Unit­ed States. But she nev­er returned to Judaism. Their three chil­dren were raised Catholic, and her sto­ry is but a trace of a mem­o­ry now. I had ques­tions. How did she con­vert? What were her feel­ings about this? Did she have any keep­sakes? Had she attend­ed a syn­a­gogue? If so, where? 

Recent­ly, she and her hus­band retired to Flori­da, mov­ing from up north to escape the cold. I asked my moth­er to arrange an inter­view with her. I’d take her to lunch, I said. My moth­er thought her cousin’s wife would be reluc­tant to speak but insist­ed that she’d try to talk to her. As of this writ­ing, I have not heard back. Maybe some wounds are not meant to be opened. But we can still use his­to­ry to breathe life into lit­er­a­ture, to res­ur­rect what once was as accu­rate­ly as we can. 

I have writ­ten a sto­ry about Egypt, my ances­tral home, a place where Chris­tians, Jews, and Mus­lims lived, loved, pros­pered, fought, and are buried in the same ground. The nov­el would have been incom­plete with­out Zacharias — would have been a song with­out a refrain, a poem unfin­ished, a his­to­ry untold. I invent­ed him, but I didn’t invent his life, his sor­rows, his pas­sions. Those are things that were already there, and will be there long after I can no longer remember. 

After earn­ing a bachelor’s degree in Finance and an MBA, Jas­min Attia spent over fif­teen years work­ing for for­tune 500 com­pa­nies in the worlds of finance and tech­nol­o­gy. Despite her inter­est in her day job, sto­ry writ­ing became her night job. In 2021 she grad­u­at­ed with her MFA in cre­ative writ­ing from Ben­ning­ton Col­lege. Her debut nov­el, The Oud Play­er of Cairo, has won the Nicholas Schaffn­er Award for music in lit­er­a­ture. Her non­fic­tion work has also appeared in The Writer’s Chron­i­cle (Sept 2022 issue). Jas­min lives with her hus­band and two chil­dren in Palm Beach Gar­dens, Florida.