Saying Goodbye to Egyp
Since the revolution in Egypt last January, the drumbeat of disturbing news has been nonstop--from the sexual assault on an American reporter in Tahrir Square, to the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood, to the ongoing harassment of Coptic Christians, to the horrifying mob attack on the Israeli embassy in Cairo last week.
For me, watching the Egyptian revolution has been an intensely personal affair, and my disillusionment has also been personal: I fear that I am about to go into a second exile, from a place that I'd come to love. I worry that in its democratic turn, as in so many other things, as goes Egypt, so goes the rest of the Arab world.
I hadn't even been born yet at the time of the first modern revolution in Egypt, in 1952, which toppled the monarchy and ushered in the military dictatorship that rules to this day. Yet it, too, was personal. The charismatic Col. Gamal Abdel Nasser made it clear that the new Egypt had no room for outsiders. Jews, once part of a flourishing community of 80,000, left in droves.
My family hung on as long as possible, leaving finally in 1963. There we were, a family of six--without papers, without a national identity and with almost no money.
For decades, my parents and I didn't even think of going back. We stayed away even after the hopeful rush caused by the 1979 peace treaty between Israel and Egypt, when planeloads of Egyptian-Jewish expats began to make return trips, quietly visiting their former homes and neighborhoods. My parents, mournful in their apartment in Brooklyn, never forgot Egypt and never thought they were entitled to return. Nor did I think that I was.
It wasn't until years later, after they died, that I began working on a family memoir and finally went back. In 2005, I returned to Cairo, my birthplace, for the first time.
After my book was published, I was invited back to speak at Diwan, a charming bookstore located on Zamalek, an island of faded mansions and grand embassies connected by bridges to central Cairo. A light, airy intellectual haven, Diwan instantly felt like home. Its co-owner, Hind Wassef, became my friend--and my bellwether of life in Egypt.
At Ms. Wassef's bookstore, I encountered a clientele that conjured up a vanished cosmopolitan era: expatriates from Europe and America, tourists from the nearby Marriott and plenty of local Cairenes, both Muslim and Christian.
I took three trips in five years, and my memoir was generally well received in Cairo. One notable exception was an Islamist critic, who had ties (according to my publisher) with the Muslim Brotherhood. He launched a vicious attack in a Cairo daily. Why, he wanted to know, was my book divided into two parts, each with 12 chapters? Was it a secret reference to the 12 tribes of Israel, he asked, hinting at some sinister plot?
My publisher told me to let it go. I dismissed my critic as a kook and fanatic.
Back in New York, I heard regularly from young Egyptians who had read my book in English or Arabic. They sent loving emails or posted emotional notes on Facebook. On my last trip, in the spring of 2010, I attended a ceremony to mark the renovation of the 800-year-old Maimonides synagogue, situated in the old Jewish Ghetto, now devoid of Jews.
Could there be a place for Jews in Egypt again, I wondered? I considered renting an apartment in Cairo and reclaiming my Egyptian identity. Somehow it all seemed possible. What a great people, I thought--my people. After years of alienation, I finally felt reconciled to Egypt.
Then came 2011 and the revolt on Tahrir Square, followed by the fall last February of Mubarak, the strongman whom Egyptians saw as the cause of all their woes. As everyone around me cheered, I had a queasy feeling. I couldn't understand the protesters' embrace of the military. Weren't these the same soldiers who had led Egypt with an iron hand for so long, who had forced out my family nearly a half century ago?
The country was changing--and not for the better. Jews were long gone, but another minority, Coptic Christians, were vulnerable and became the target of attacks. It seemed chic among the demonstrators and politicians to unite in a display of raw anti-Israel and anti-Jewish sentiment, culminating in last week's terrifying attack on the Israeli embassy and the hasty flight of the Israeli ambassador.
Friends assured me that the Egyptians were simply reveling in their new-found freedom of expression. Some freedom, I thought. This was the Egypt of my first exile: convulsed, angry, scary.
There are some hopeful signs, of course--a hated dictator is gone, the press is more free and vigorous. It could still work out. In Egypt, as in other scenes of the Arab Spring, real democracy, with some measure of tolerance and personal liberty, may yet emerge.
But I am not hopeful. The army has dug in. The young revolutionaries who led the protests in Tahrir Square seem disorganized and ineffectual, even as the Muslim Brotherhood, singing the siren song of moderation, appears poised to reap its reward, after years of watching, hiding and waiting.
Today, my friend Hind Wassef and her Diwan bookstores are struggling. An early supporter of the revolution, she found herself an early victim. One day in February, as mobs attacked businesses and government buildings, they tore through one of her stores in Alexandria. The marauders had no interest in books--they wanted computer equipment and cash. Even so, the books were destroyed.
During those early months, many of Ms. Wassef's customers--the expats, the tourists, the diplomatic personnel--fled or were evacuated. Her Egyptian clientele stayed home; few at first were in the mood to buy books.
She is now struggling to hold onto her business and her employees in a wrecked economy. Some of her customers came back, others never did.
The revolution hasn't worked out the way that she'd hoped. "There is nothing to be optimistic about," she says. It's possible that the Islamists, who are purposeful and intensely organized, will gain power in an open election. But they will be the "Muslim Brotherhood 2.0," she says, a kind of Islamism lite.
Ms. Wassef confides to me that all she wants these days is a measure of stability. She loves Egypt and is prepared to make her accommodations with any regime, even an Islamist one, as long as she can go on with her life and operate her bookstores.
Her bottom line? If the new Egypt forces her to cover her head or lengthen her skirt--or decrees which books she she can and can't sell--"I am out of here," she says.
As for me, I have resigned myself to a second exile.