Bright Lights Film Journal

“It Could Cause a Popular Uproar”: Interview with Amir Ramses on his controversial documentary Jews of Egypt

“They were educated in security, and these guys are raised with the concept that the word ‘Jew’ means ‘enemy.’ They all look at themselves in the mirror, and they imagine themselves to be superheroes, spy killers . . . I doubt they even saw the film before banning it.”

Jews of Egypt, Amir Ramses’s new documentary, begins by asking ordinary Egyptians on the street what they think of Jewish people. The answers are mostly negative; “damned” says one, “enemies of Islam” says another, “doomed by God.” Whilst talking to Ramses, one man remarks that the Egyptian singer Leila Mourad was “good.” Then his eyebrows shoot up as he realises something, “What? She was also Jewish? Then she was not good!”

There are now fewer than a hundred Jewish people living in Egypt, but there were once over 80,000. Many notable figures in Egyptian society and culture were Jewish; including film director Togo Mizrahi, the actor and musician Mounir Mourad (brother of Leila), and political activist Henri Curiel. After the creation of Israel in 1948 and following the 1956 Suez Crisis, most Jews in Egypt fled the country or were forced out. “Now when we say the word ‘Jewish’ the word ‘enemy’ jumps to mind” Amir Ramses told me during our interview, “my film is addressing anyone who has that mentality.”

I met Ramses in the café of a bookshop in Zamalek, Cairo, on March 26, 2013. The young Egyptian director is a slight figure. His spectacles lend him an intellectual air. He has a caffeinated energy, and his thin hands flit and flicker around his head when he is anxious to make a point.

“Everybody knows that I’m very influenced by [Egyptian film director] Youssef Chahine,” he told me. “I decided to become a filmmaker when I was 10 years old after going to see one of his films. Somehow his films are always intrigued by the ‘other’ . . . how you conceive the other, how you accept them.” Ramses first encountered the name Henri Curiel in one of Chahine’s films, and learning about this figure (Curiel founded the Egyptian communist organisation Democratic Movement for National Liberation or Hadato) was “one of the reasons why I wanted to make the Jews of Egypt.”

Recent best-selling books about the exiling of Egypt’s Jews, such as Lucette Lagnado’s memoir Man in the White Sharkskin Suit and Jacques Hassoun’s Histoire des Juifs du Nil, also gave Ramses the confidence he needed to tackle the subject.

Jews of Egypt predominantly focuses on a relatively narrow group of well-educated, leftist Jews who fled Egypt, usually to live in France. This reflects Ramses’s political interests, but it is also determined by a shortage of funds, which prevented him from traveling to many countries. He made the decision, along with producer Haitham Al Khamissi, to fund Jews of Egypt himself (the budget was €156,000) as he wanted to protect the integrity and artistic freedom of the film.

Ramses did all the research, shot most of the film himself, and edited it with Al Khamissi, who also provided the music. Ramses considers Jews of Egypt his first independent film.

Self-funding ensured artistic freedom but is sometimes apparent in the film’s limitations; archival footage is often repeated and some of the editing is not quite seamless. It lacks perspective from people from different levels of society or those who left to different countries. Nevertheless, the film is frequently beautiful and elegiac.

‘Egypt Was a Utopia Back Then’

Many Jewish people could trace their families’ existence in Egypt back hundreds of years. Egypt had been a safe haven for Jewish people; Sephardic Jews came to Egypt to escape the Spanish Inquisition, and Jews escaping pogroms in Eastern Europe settled in Egypt during the early twentieth century.

Ramses sees the 1930s and 1940s as Egypt’s golden period. “I think for tolerance and acceptance of the other, Egypt was a utopia back then.” In Jews of Egypt, several interviewees recount their Egyptian childhoods as being happily multilingual, multicultural, and overwhelmingly free from prejudice. Many express their love of Egyptian culture and the music of Om Khalthoum. They describe the warm community they had enjoyed in Egypt and the colder relationships they found in exile in Northern Europe. One interviewee, Aline Clauel, remarks that “Alexandria was the lost paradise of my youth.”

The film thrums with nostalgia. Ramses uses archive footage to reveal a long-lost Egypt. Contemporary footage of Alexandria and Caro is shot in a sort of dreamy soft focus, as if looking too closely would reveal that the past insufficiently haunts the present.

Jews of Egypt does not attempt to address the faultiness of nostalgia or memory (history of the cosmopolitan nature of Alexandria in particular is prone to idealisation.) Yet, although every idyll is a myth, Egypt was more cosmopolitan then, and a range of cultures, ethnicities, and religions did peacefully coexist.

Tolerance of the “other” is distinctly weaker in modern Egypt. Ramses encountered this when trying to convince Jews currently living in Egypt to talk to him on camera. They were nervous about appearing in the film because “people don’t want to spread the fact that they are Jewish.”

Ramses finally persuaded Albert Arri to appear in the film. He speaks to the camera whilst enveloped in his armchair in the apartment in downtown Cairo where he has lived since 1935 and recounts the tribulations of his life in a wry tone. Like many of Egypt’s Jews, he was a leftist, an Egyptian patriot, and an anti-Zionist — yet he was harassed, persecuted, and imprisoned.

In Jews of Egypt, Ramses is keen to make a sharp distinction between politics and religion; between Zionism — which Ramses opposes — and Judaism. There is much emphasis on the Egyptian patriotism of many of Ramses’s interviewees in the film. Henri Curiel — despite living in exile — acquired advance plans of the 1956 tripartite (British-French-Israeli) attack and attempted to hand them to Nasser, only to be rebuffed.

Despite the patriotism of many Egyptian Jews, serious harassment began in the 1940s. One of the most shocking moments in the film is when an elderly member of the Muslim Brotherhood says that Jews “spread like cancer” wherever they go and claims that his organisation was justified in harassing Jews and burning Jewish property in Egypt because “we were defending ourselves.”

After the 1956 war, persecution of Jews by the Egyptian authorities and by radical Islamists reached an unbearable level. Jewish property was looted and burned, Jews lost their jobs, and some were imprisoned on spurious grounds.

Jews who were forced out were made to renounce their nationality and prevented from returning. All of them left Egypt in their youth and are elderly now, so none talk about returning to live in Egypt. Some returned decades later to visit by changing their names or circumventing the rules, but many have never been able to return to visit. The pain of exile is still palpable decades later. One woman in the film, her eyes shining, said that she doesn’t know who she is. “I’m not French” she said “but I’m no longer Egyptian.”

Controversy and Censorship

Jews of Egypt generated controversy in Egypt before it was released. It made it past the beady eyes of the Egyptian Board of Censors twice, and was due to be released in Egypt on March 13, 2013; yet on March 12th it was announced that the security authorities had intervened to prevent its release, on the grounds that it could cause “popular uproar.”

After wide coverage in the Egyptian media and public support, the decision was reversed and the film was released on March 27th — incidentally, in the middle of Passover, the Jewish holiday commemorating how the “children of Israel” were freed from slavery and led out of ancient Egypt by Moses over 3,000 years ago.

Ramses is not sure what the authorities were so scared of. “They were educated in security and these guys are raised with the concept that the word ‘Jew’ means ‘enemy.’ They all look at themselves in the mirror, and they imagine themselves to be superheroes, spy killers, and they have these notions. I doubt they even saw the film before banning it.”

Ramses is keen to argue that interference by the security authorities in decisions taken by the Board of Censors should be prevented by previous court judgements. “Their legal right is the same as my aunt’s legal right — she can like it or not, but she has no right to ban it!” In a perverse way, the decision to ban the film helped publicize it. “They are stupid,” laughed Ramses. “By banning the film they gave it a reputation!”

The director believes that censorship of Egyptian culture remains at a similar level to before the revolution and that there have always been ways to circumvent it. He says he knew a famous screenwriter in Egypt who “could always get a lot more through censorship than anyone else. He used to say, ‘I just add some stuff that is hard to tolerate. If I have a political thing that I want to pass, I just add a few love scenes and then negotiate what I want to keep in.'”

The financial crisis in the wake of the revolution is a greater threat to filmmaking, according to Ramses. Foreign investment in filmmaking has dried up, and box-office takings have dwindled as cinema audiences have fallen due to a mixture of expense, security problems, and preference for internet downloads.

In terms of his political hopes, Ramses seems conflicted. On the one hand he is more optimistic about Egypt’s post-revolutionary future: “I think that time is on our side. Things [political development] that have taken 200 to 300 years’ time in the history of humanity, right now they can’t take that long. Information is there, it’s faster.”

But ask him if he thinks that Egypt can become more tolerant and he says, “I’m not very optimistic. We are living in a time when even Muslims are having problems amongst each other.” He mentioned that after protests the previous week, “the official Ikhwan [Muslim Brotherhood] TV channel had callers saying ‘demonstrators were speaking to each other in Christian and calling each other Christian names.'” What does “talking in Christian” even mean? “I don’t know!” he laughed. “Maybe Aramaic or something!”

Indeed, in lamenting a lost past, Jews of Egypt also contains warnings for the present post-revolutionary Egypt, with parallels in worrying trends in contemporary Egypt, especially with the way the Christian minority are treated with increased hostility and suspicion. “I think it is a different situation but might be leading to the same result,” he says, passing his hand over his hair as he searched for the precise argument. “Of course, what happened to the Jews of Egypt is linked to the war of 1948 and what happened after the 1956 war and political events. But it’s relevant, the comparison is there, but the background is different.”

I ask Ramses what he makes of a recent statement by Essam Al-Ariam of the Muslim Brotherhood that he wanted exiled Jewish people to return to Egypt, “their homeland.” Ramses doesn’t take it seriously, not only because Al-Ariam failed to talk about the role of his own party in exiling the Jews but also “why only talk about the Jews of Egypt who went to Israel? I mean, that’s less than 50 percent of the Jews who left Egypt.” Ramses is skeptical of this rhetoric whilst there are “people still living in Europe who are banned from returning until this day because of the documents that they signed in 1956. Why not give these people their rights?”

Watching Jews of Egypt in Alex

Ramses’s next film will be a return to fiction about the “‘bearding’ or the ‘veiling’ of the revolution”; how it has been hijacked, as he sees it, by radical Islamist forces. He is writing the screenplay at the moment and hopes to begin filming later this year. But right now he is busy promoting Jews of Egypt and is getting ready to screen it at various international film festivals. Ramses has already taken the film to Rotterdam and Palm Springs.

I saw Jews of Egypt in an Alexandrian cinema on the day of its release with an Egyptian-Christian friend. The large auditorium was sparsely filled — I counted a total of ten people in the audience. My friend, a lifelong Alexandrian, told me he had never met an Egyptian Jew.

Afterwards, he and I stood waiting in the evening chill for a rickety Alexandrian tram to arrive. My friend expressed his sadness about a lost Egypt depicted in the film but not surprise; he knew the history. He was also worried for his own future. “These people loved Egypt from the bottom of their hearts,” he said, “and look how they were treated.”