By Emily K. Alhadeff, Associate Editor, The Jewish Sound
Jean (Mosseri) Naggar was 19 when her family received an expulsion notice. It was 1957 Cairo, in the aftermath of the Suez Crisis, and Jews were fleeing Egypt en masse. The office they were to report to, ironically, was on a street named for her grandfather.
“I thought it was the end of my life, which hadn’t begun,” said Naggar. “I used to get very sad and every depressed about it. Maybe I’ll never know love, I’ll never have a baby; all the things a woman wants, I’ll never have.”
Her family’s expulsion from the country they had lived in for generations is the subject of her memoir, “Sipping from the Nile: My Exodus from Egypt” (Lake Union Publishing, 2012).
Naggar was in Seattle visiting her son and daughter-in-law, David and Karen Naggar, and their five children in early June. She spoke at The Summit at First Hill on June 10 and Sephardic Bikur Holim on June 12.
Naggar’s family had connections in Europe, and was able to resettle in England. In time, she reunited with the “boy next door” from Cairo, and after a brief courtship they married and moved to New York, where she established a literary agency.
Only when grandchildren came into the picture did Naggar sit down to write a memoir.
“I looked at these little people and I thought, they will never, ever know — or begin to understand — the childhood I had,” she said.
What started as a personal anecdote project about her large extended family turned into a book that has sold more than 30,000 copies.
“There was absolutely nothing written in the press about the Jews from Arab lands,” she said.
The Arab-Jewish expulsion narrative has gained awareness, and Naggar has blogged about it on Huffington Post. Though they lost a great deal of possessions (her grandfather’s house is now occupied by the Russian embassy), what Arab Jews truly lost was not material, she says. In step with Jewish history, they took what they could and moved on.
Naggar sees the expulsion as the precedent for Egypt’s current turmoil.
“The economic chaos started when they got rid of a fully functioning layer of British, French and Jews,” she said. “They all disappeared in a year…. It took 50 years for it to burst.”
Looking back, she feels sadness and also hopelessness as Islamist forces gain traction in the region.
“It’s a beautiful country,” she said. “There’s a tremendous amount of nostalgia for people who were born in Egypt.”
The most rewarding aspect of the memoir is passing it down to her grandchildren, and she urges people to write their stories.
“The day where you could find a bunch of letters in a blue ribbon in an attic are gone,” she said. “People should write their stories for the next generation to find.”
The Seattle Jewish community also had the pleasure of welcoming Vic Alhadeff (no direct relation) the weekend of May 30. Alhadeff, the CEO of the New South Wales Jewish Board of Deputies and a chair on the Community Relations Council in Sydney, Australia, was also visiting his extended family in Seattle. He presented at Congregation Ezra Bessaroth over Shabbat dinner on May 30.
In a story Alhadeff submitted to this paper last year, he recounts his father’s escape from the Island of Rhodes during World War II to Zimbabwe (then Rhodesia). His parents and fiancé, he later learned, had been killed. He married and raised a family, only to discover decades later that his fiancé, Becky, had survived the war and ended up in Belgium. (Becky also thought her fiancée had been killed.) In their 70s, the former couple reunited for an hour in the Brussels airport.
Alhadeff spoke about the Jewish reality in Australia, where Jews are an integral part of the society and have high rates of connection to the Holocaust, Israel, and Jewish education, and are prominent on the “rich list” every year.
Alhadeff encouraged Seattleites to pick up programs his organizations have implemented, like a version of Model UN, which foster interfaith and intercultural dialogue among the youth.
“Many kids will have opportunities for the first time to ask questions,” he said.
Before his position as a community leader, Alhadeff was editor of the Australian Jewish News, and before that, sub-editor of The Cape Times in apartheid South Africa.
“It was very challenging time period, because there was a minefield of censorship,” he said. Alhadeff balks at the comparison of Israel to apartheid South Africa. “To describe Israel as an apartheid state is an insult to those who suffered under apartheid,” he said.
Alhadeff covered Nelson Mandela’s career and has written two books on South African history, and he has covered game-changing events like the freedom of Soviet Jewry, the fall of the Berlin Wall, and Yitzchak Rabin’s assassination.
When it comes to Alhadeff’s most controversial issue as a Jewish newspaper editor in Australia, he didn’t hesitate to cite gay rights.
“The most controversial issue, and the one I remain proudest of, [is gay rights],” he said.
It was 2000, and a Jewish float was going in the pride parade for the first time.
“I published a photo on the front page,” he said.
He received hundreds of letters, most in support of the coverage.
“I was accused of suppressing critical letters,” he said.
“The most gratifying part of this whole issue was that months and years later gay Jews in Sydney point to that moment as a sea change to being accepted,” he said. “Many family members for the first time understood they were not being gay on a whim, but that was who they were.”
Alhadeff said he found the Friday night service at the EB synagogue “moving and nostalgic. I hadn’t heard those tunes since my Bar Mitzvah years at the Sephardi synagogue in Zimbabwe, and it was very special to be there and to meet so many people from Rhodes.”
Rabbi Ron-Ami Meyers said about 70 people turned out for the dinner.
“Full credit to Rabbi Meyers for organizing the dinner,” said Alhadeff, “and to the community for responding with such interest.”