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Sam-I-Am Violin on the streets, fundamentalist Judaism, planting organic vegetables, and the like.

The House of Bondage

EGYPT | Sunday, 20 April 2008 | Views [3938] | Comments [2]

View from the minaret, of further minarets.

View from the minaret, of further minarets.

Let me see if I can paint this extraordinary picture properly.

Just yesterday, I rode a train down the Nile Valley to Luxor, which was once known as Thebes, the legendary capital of Ancient Egypt's New Kingdom (think Ramesses and Tutankhamun). Now, Luxor is not just a big trashy tourist trap, as I had once dismissed it. It's a fascinating city split in half by the great Nile, with a populous semi-modern city on one bank, and two throwback Egyptian villages on the other bank. Its symmetrical swaths of fertility on either bank end abruptly in a sharp line parallel to the Nile, so you can see where the desert wilderness begins oh so clearly; this is normal for the Nile Valley. What's not normal is that the people of Luxor live in the shadows of some of Ancient Egypt's most epic monuments. Names like "Valley of the Kings", "Temple of Karnak", and "Colossi of Memnon".

At Karnak, there is a sign in the entryway to the main hall that reads: "You will not find a hall of this type equal in size, anywhere in the world." The columns dwarf you, and the heiroglyphs adorning every last cranny of the carved behemoth mesmerize you.

At the Valley of the Kings, you descend long hallways deep into the depths of the desert mountains towards tombs of the great, the godly, pharaohs of Egypt. In the best tombs, yellows and blues and clay reds paint a heiroglyphic picture even more ridiculous and beautiful than at Karnak Temple. And you think, this underground wonder was built, maybe 3000 years ago. Maybe a little more.

And I remember that it is Passover time, when we Jews like to celebrate leaving Egypt. Well. I have entered Egypt. And to think, I am treading the same ground that my enslaved forefathers trod, maybe building things like these tombs, these temples. I mean, if the Exodus happened at all, then it happened here, in Luxor.

And so I return that night to the modern capital of Egypt, having already located the Jewish Synagogue in the heart of downtown Cairo, and having met an Egyptian Jew named "Dvash" ("honey" in Hebrew), thus connecting me to the Cairene Jewish Community, ever small and struggling amongst a city of 20 million. The only article I read about Cairene Jews is that they are hiding. That their synagogue is more or less boarded up. That everyone had left by the 70s.

And now I know. Because I gave my passport to the army contingent in front of the Great Synagogue. And I spent the 1st night of Passover in Cairo, in the back of the Great Synagogue, with a motley crew of 75 odd Jews from all over the world and from all kinds of insane histories. An Israeli man happened to be in town this week and led the Seder. Of course you know who was the first to answer his call for help. I stood up and read once, and then again, and then again, a portion of the story of Passover. In Hebrew of course, because just like in early 20th century Palestine, tonight Hebrew was the unifying language among speakers of English, Arabic, French, Italian.

In the far corner of the room sat the eternally mighty Jewish Community of Cairo: five or six odd Egyptian Jewish women, married to Muslim men, kids grown and gone, and in their seventies or later, all of them. During the Seder, they were the ones making the most noise, needing to be shushed. During the song 'Dayenu', at every chorus they issued shrill cat calls before bursting out laughing amongst themselves.

I interview curiously the woman across from me, Magda, a surprisingly younger mother at the table. Her niece was with her. Magda's family came originally from Syria, Iraq, Iran, but has been in Egypt for a hundred years. Her father was a staunch socialist, but after 1948, and then 1956, and then 1967, the family disapproved of Israel's actions. As everybody else left to escape the fear and compromise of living as Jews in Egypt, her family stayed. To this day they have not been to Israel, by choice, and by principle. Magda's father was never big on faith and prayer. But the sense of identity was strong. And so the struggle to instill Jewish identity in her kids continues, in the face of an Egypt that isn't really ready to fully, uniformly accept Jews. Her niece must be close to my age. And I would guess she is the only young Egyptian Jew in the entirety of Cairo's masses. 1 in 20 million maybe.

Perhaps this, yet again, is why I travel.

Tags: religion; history; culture

Comments

1

We have enjoyed your blogs. We just returned from Egypt and Luxor today.
Find your comments and experiences of great value and regret having missed you since we did overlap.
We hope you continue to enjoy and relish the experiences.
Hi to Harold as well.
Best
paul and Harriet

  Paul and Harriet Apr 21, 2008 6:02 AM

2

Just got around to reading about your a"return" to Egypt. I'm remembering when grandpop and I went there and made the trip (by boat) to Luxor and saw all the sights you have described. Just remembering them is exciting. Upon our return to Cairo we visited the pyramids. We entered one and climbed very slowly to the top (dark,damp,and terribly hot). When we saw the sphinx it was much smaller than we had thought it would be. We took photos on top of a camel. A tour of the Cairo museum was awesome, especially King Tut's tomb with all the "stuff" that was entombed with him.
Somewhere in my clutter are photos of our Egypt sojourn. By now Harold should be with you. Enjoy your time together. Luv, grandma.

  Grandma Apr 25, 2008 2:39 PM

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