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Gal Gadot, Cleopatra and the Jews of Egypt

By Dana Avrish

Tel Aviv, Israel — Within the early 1980s, in lots of Israeli houses, Friday
afternoons had been devoted to household gatherings across the TV to
watch Egyptian motion pictures. I used to be captivated by the distinctive, musical
Egyptian dialect of Arabic, the dramatic appearing and the emotional
songs. I used to be particularly intrigued by the Jewish actress Leila
Mourad, born 1918. Along with her fastidiously etched eyebrows and radiant
face, she was referred to as the “Cinderella of the Egyptian Cinema.”
Mourad’s excessive standing is telling of the spirit of these years, which was
characterised by pluralism, and of a relative freedom loved by
Egyptian Jews.

Quick ahead to some days in the past after I got here throughout an article about
the Israeli actress Gal Gadot being forged as Cleopatra. I used to be so completely happy
for her. As a former actress myself, I do know what it means to obtain
such a job. Furthermore, after her nice function as Surprise Lady, I used to be
positive she would mesmerize us once more. Nevertheless, the escalating
backlash about Gadot’s casting that adopted the announcement
struck me to my core. One tweet, particularly, affected me in its
need to silence Gadot’s publicity. It mentioned “the issue right here is
letting Israelis be concerned in telling tales about Center Japanese
historical past”.


Disappointment combined with disappointment handed by me. My
quick response was a visceral and deep anger, which shortly
translated to a have to act.

Without delay, I used to be reminded in regards to the significance, and relevancy, of the
deep analysis I did about Jews in Arab and Islam international locations throughout
my Grasp’s in Diplomacy. This groundwork turned a journey in
time to locations the place my ancestors as soon as lived (my grandparents
had been from Lebanon, Syria and Iran), and past, as I studied and
labored to retell the forgotten tales of Jewish communities in
Muslim-dominant lands.

In the middle of my life, I developed a deep connection to 11 Jewish
communities within the Arab world: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya,
Egypt, Yemen and Aden, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. After
working in Morocco, as an actress and as an government producer of
Israeli and French motion pictures, for about two years and turning into
acquainted with the tales, each day rituals, and wedding ceremony ceremonies, I
determined to translate my analysis right into a reside exhibition.

“Leaving, by no means to return!” debuted on the Eretz Israel Museum in
Tel Aviv, 2019. The exhibition title was impressed by the Arabic
stamped on the exit certificates and passports of lots of of
hundreds of Jews: رجعة بدون رحلة) literal translation “a visit with no

Theirs are tales value telling. They had been my ancestors’ tales,
and Israel’s ancestors’ tales. Descendants of the Jews of Arab and
Islam international locations make up greater than half the present inhabitants of
the State of Israel.

However how did this Arab-Jewish historical past occur? Does it nonetheless exist?
And, and why don’t individuals speak about this interwoven cultural hyperlink
and reference to our Arab neighbours? Like a variety of unstated
historical past, I consider that the ache has prompted us to overlook the great.


For over 2,500 years, lots of of hundreds of Jews lived in
historical and affluent communities in North Africa and the Center
East. Nevertheless, however their sense of connection to the
cultures of the Muslim international locations through which they lived, Jews
all through the generations, and particularly within the fashionable age, additionally
suffered hardships. This pressured a lot of them to uproot and turn out to be
refugees, finally numbering about 850,000 between the years

A mix of various components led to the mass exodus of Jews
from Arab international locations. A number of the Jews lived below risk and
persecution, riots and harassment; their property and belongings
expropriated or confiscated, their rights breached. Some had been pressured
to signal paperwork that required them to relinquish their possessions
with a view to be permitted to go away the nation. Basically all of their
property was confiscated and sometimes their wealth was decided by
what they may carry in a single suitcase.


Sadly, all through my analysis, I noticed how many individuals
lacked this info — I choose to not name it ignorance. However when
I learn the ugly social media responses to Gal Gadot’s casting, which
mainstream media broadcasted with no second thought, this lack
of knowledge appeared to spotlight a cultural illiteracy. That critics
felt emboldened to say Israelis don’t have any place to contribute to Arab
or Center Japanese storytelling was a reminder why I created my
exhibit within the first place.

I had a urgent have to appropriate the injustice accomplished to Arab Jews by
giving them a platform to have their tales heard about their
contributions and connections to international locations they as soon as referred to as residence.
That silencing was not going to occur once more in my lifetime.

My deep and broad analysis included in-depth interviews with
surviving Arab Jews of various origin international locations; finding unique
sound, video and lots of of uncommon and sacred paperwork and
objects like ceremonial gown, devices and even a Piano that
as soon as belonged to the nice Jewish-Tunisian well-known singer,
Habiba Msika. Analyzing all of those helped me in deciphering a
cultural, social, non secular and political cipher of a millennium of
Jewish life.

What I found was that alongside the tragedy, there was a
flourishing cultural, financial, social and communal prosperity and even the Islamic setting through which the Jews lived positively
influenced their lives and works.

Jews built-in nicely past their relative share of the inhabitants
(each Muslim and European) into the state’s financial system: commerce,
banking, personal enterprise and professions (together with medical doctors, nurses
in hospitals and clinics, pharmacists, journalists, legal professionals, college
professors and lecturers).

Jews of Egypt — an extended, wealthy historical past

For the #Cleopatra critics, let’s give attention to Egypt, the place the Jewish
individuals have an extended, cultural wealthy and sophisticated historical past. Our story
extends nicely past the biblical and Pharaonic time of Joseph and

A number of of the best Jewish thinkers – together with Rabbi Saadia
Gaon and Maimonides – prospered in Egypt. In 1864, the Cairo
Genizah was found on the Ezra synagogue in Fustat (Outdated
Cairo), shedding gentle on the lives of the Jews within the ninth to 11th
centuries. The golden age of Egyptian Jewry started within the early 19th
century, below the Ottoman ruler Muhammad Ali Pasha, and
continued till the mid-20th century. Throughout this era, the
neighborhood grew from 7,000 members (together with some 2,000
Karaites) to 80,000 members. This was a extremely heterogeneous
neighborhood by way of the origins of its members, the languages
they spoke, and their occupations. A couple of quarter of them had been native Jews, and the remaining had been Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Karaite, Greek,
Turkish and Italian Jews.

One instance of the cultural heterogeneity attribute of this
interval is the Yiddish theater that operated in Cairo for over 30
years, catering to the Ashkenazi neighborhood that had come from
Europe within the 19th century and didn’t converse Arabic. A Jew, Joseph
Katawi, was appointed as King Fuad’s minister of finance. The primary
banks and sugar refineries in Cairo had been established by Jews. The
Jews additionally cultivated the desert land alongside the Nile, offering
agricultural work for lots of of hundreds of peasants. The
Suaretz-Mosseri household constructed the primary community of railroads in Egypt.
The inventory market and a lot of the banks had been closed on Saturdays
and on Jewish holidays, since most of their staff had been Jews.
The department shops and trend import enterprise had been additionally owned
by Jews. The neighborhood based dozens of faculties, which catered
to each rich and poor college students, in addition to synagogues in Cairo,
Alexandria, and peripheral cities. Jewish athletes represented Egypt
at worldwide competitions and received medals. Jacob James Zanuaa
based the primary theater in Egypt, and Togo Mizrahi was one of many
pioneers of the Egyptian movie trade. Jews had been among the many
nation’s finest actors and singers. This was the golden age of
Egyptian Jewry within the fashionable period – 150 years of cosmopolitan
coexistence on the boards of the Nile that ended within the mid-20th


Leila Mourad, the legendary screen-star who fascinated me throughout
my childhood, was born to a lineage of rabbis and spiritual judges.
Her father was of Iraqi origin; her mom, Polish. Sure, Ashkenazi
Jews lived and thrived in Arab lands. Mourad left behind a musical
legacy together with over 1,200 songs and movies which have turn out to be half
of recent Arab tradition, and her different Jewish friends had been additionally main
pillars within the cultural historical past of Egypt.

So, having Gal Gadot, an Israeli (of Ashkanazi descent who’s
married to an Israeli of Turkish descent), play Cleopatra, is just a
direct continuation of the wonderful historical past of Jews dwelling and
contributing to the complicated and cultural wealthy in Egypt for hundreds
of years.

If there’s something I discovered from Leila Mourad, it was the
intermingling of cultures and identities that occurs within the arts and
tradition. Leila could have been Jewish, however her listeners had been Jewish,
Muslim and Christian, and he or she wanted her various viewers to
turn out to be a star. It’s in that house of mutual interdependence that
offers us hope. There was not solely cultural contribution, however an
understanding of a shared humanity.

Now, if solely I might make that message go viral on the earth’s

Dana Avrish is a multi-disciplinary artist, creator, curator, lecturer,
designer, researcher & mom of two stunning youngsters. A 3rd-generation Israeli to grandparents from Iran, Lebanon and Syria.  Primarily based in Tel Aviv.

— to thejewishvoice.com

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