Wednesday, 23 November 2011


 Ahmed rings me. I can hear gun shots and a helicopter in the background.

 “It’s a battle ground here. It’s terrible,” he says in a fragmented voice.

A friend seizes the phone and tells him what to do if he breathes in any of the toxic gas the police   are firing on the demonstrators.   Ahmed suddenly rings off.

He and Abdul have been attending every demonstration in Alexandria. Their demands for  Field Marshal Tintawi, leader of the  Supreme Council of the Armed Forces  to resign, is gaining momentum.  The moment they thought would never come, has arrived. For months they’ve been  attending daily meetings with other activists  around Alexandria – mostly in cafes or in gardens. The last time I saw them, Abdul had  opened up a bag revealing several cans of spray paint and rolls of  black and white photo copied posters. He held one up. ‘We need our rights, our health, our money, our blood,’ it reads.

He was preparing for a late night  session of spreading the message around  the city. I thought of offering to help until Abdul said they would start at 3.00 am.

 “You’d be safe,” he said. ‘We have lookouts posted everywhere.’

It’s not illegal to put up political posters if they are part of the election campaign. Ahmed and Abdul do not have a party – but  are part of a coalition of activists who believe that any  elected government will be  illegal.

‘We haven’t  even got a proper constitution. The Revolution has been stolen from us.  The military are scum,’ Abdul says.

 Every morning in the micro bus I see evidence of their nightly missions. Their posters are plastered all over the granite walls of Haturam Gardens. A huge version dangles from a statue outside the Alexandria Library. Heads turn in the bus. The posters are everywhere.

More recently, travelling to school each morning  has been like turning the page of a book. Ahmed’s black and white  photo-copied posters are soon covered  by the slick posters  of the Muslim Brotherhood party.  By the following morning they, in turn, have been obliterated by the bright  new posters of another party.

For  several months Ahmed and Abdul have tirelessly devoted themselves to keeping alive  the spirit of the 25th January Revolution. “We were cleaning the streets together. ' Abdul says. 'For the first time, I got to know  my neighbours. We were one big community, helping each other, Now it’s gone back to what it was. ' 

Moments later he is in the  middle of junction trying to sort out a traffic jam. 

“This is what we did during the revolution. There was no one to control the traffic.’ Ahmed says.

We pass a parked car belching steam. Abdul rushes over and starts trying to force open the bonnet. The owner is nowhere to be seen . A crowd gathers. Ahmed and Abdul are now pulling so hard on the bonnet, the car is bouncing.  The owner appears.
“We thought it might blow up,” Abdul says peering into the engine. Ahmed examines the battery and gives up.

There’s no time for any of this any more.  Their moment has come – again. Their objective – to rid the country of military rule – looks increasingly likely. 

At a  demonstration in Alexandria, thousands poured through the streets towards the main police station. Flags waved. Voices chanted ‘Mother Egypt we are you sons. We shall relieve you of your burden,' and  called  for freedom.  Families, the elderly, and above all the young,  pushed bravely through the city aware of the risks they were taking.  

Shoes were held aloft when Field Marshal Tantawi, head of SCAF, announced his concessions. (To show someone the sole of a shoe here is an insult) .The crowd jeered and continued their calls   for  him to stand down.

“It’s Mubarak all over again,” someone says.

A candy floss man pushes past us, his bags of pink sugar fluttering from a pole.  A car creates a path  through the crowds. A young woman  in the back is bent double from toxic gas. A small field hospital has been set up under some trees. Further down the road a deadly mist rises above the demonstrators.

I walk back to the apartment block where I live. It’s just across from The Four seasons, a $700 a night hotel.  Attached to it, like an incubus, is the shopping mall.  This is the place where rich kids hang out. Costa Coffee is packed, women buy handbags and shoes, people queue for KFC, Macdonalds, and Pizza Hut.   Outside, someone has pulled down a  large Muslim Brotherhood banner, and slashed the rest. In a shop   people huddle around a television. A presenter announces that the toxic gas cylinders being fired  on the demonstrators, are manufactured in America.

Thursday, 10 November 2011



Nabi Daniel Street was once the heart of  Alexandria's  thriving Jewish community. Set back from the shops  lining the street, is number 69 -  Elayahu Hanavi synagogue. The imposing baroque building  can be viewed from the street.  In front of its  high  iron gate security men and police lounge on chairs  drinking tea.  I hand my passport through the railings to a guard. Several minutes later a key turns in the lock and I step into synagogues peaceful  courtyard. For the first time in a long time, I can hear birds singing.   

The 130 year old synagogue is the largest in the middle east outside Israel, and was once one of 16 synagogues in the city. Most of them have been torn down or converted to other use. Elayanu Hanavi   is an enduring testimony to a community that  until the middle of the 20th century once numbered over  40,000. There are now only 20 elderly Jews remaining, some of whom are married to Muslims. 

My guide is  Rasha  Nabi, whose father, Abdul Nabi, is the synagogue’s caretaker. She is a Muslim, and wears a multi layered jhijab which is fashionable with young Egyptian girls. She understands very well the incongruity of her presence in a Jewish house of worship.  Her father has taken care of the building and its gardens for 26 years and she has lived in its grounds  all her life.  

“I love this place," Rasha says,  as we walk through the tree filled gardens, “It’s like  home to me,”  

Inside the bright interior, rows of polished wooden benches stretch from the dais. Each one bears a name etched onto brass plaques reflecting Alexandria’s cosmopolitan history. Jews  from Egypt, the Maghreb, France , Greece, Britain, Italy, Armenia  all sat together in  the grand pillared interior.  

“You can’t even smell dust, ” Rasha says proudly. “It’s as if  there’s just been a prayer.”

We turn back to the doors of the synagogue as if expecting the congregation to enter. But most of Alexandria’s remaining Jews  are too old to travel.

 The history of the Jews of Alexandria dates from the foundation of the city by Alexander the Great. They continued to form  a very large portion of the population under his successors. A separate section of the city was assigned to them by the first Ptolemies,  They set up hospitals, homes for the aged and charity programmes and they ran many of the city’s successful businesses.  Today’s ramshackle and run down department stores still bear the names of their Jewish founders; Cicurel, Benizon, Chamla. The creation of the state of Israel, the rise of  Arab nationalism  and a series of Arab Israeli wars  led to their mass expulsion. Properties and businesses were confiscated, bank accounts frozen.

But many of the relatives of those who left, return to find their roots and connect to the city that is their ancestral home. 

“It is very emotional when people find the seat their great-grandfather  used to sit in,” Rasha says. “I have seen many Jewish tears.”

Two years ago the synagogue was renovated by the Cairo University Ventre for Antiquities and Environmental Studies. At the time, Ali Hilal, project manager at the Supreme Council for Antiquities said the synagogue was the most notable of preservation plans for Egyptian monuments. 

Rasha admits that  once her fellow Muslims discover what she does and where she lives, she is asked what Jews are like.  “I tell them they are like everyone else.," she says." Egypt has had Jewish communities in its major cities for centuries, and we are not anti-Jewish people.  It’s Zionism  and the state of Israel that is the problem. It’s politics that causes all the trouble. ”

As a Muslim, Rasha believes that Islam is the conclusion to all Abrahamic religions. “It makes sense of it all, but the fundamental basics between Jews, Christians and Muslims are the same. We are  brothers and sisters.”

Light pours down from the high windows as we approach the bimah, the table from which the prayers are read.  Silver candelabra shine upon the dais and books rest upon the rabbi’s desk. It’s as if everyone has left in a hurry, leaving everything behind as it was.  Behind the bimah hangs the curtain of the Torah Ark, behind which  the old religious scrolls are kept. It is a long time since a service was held, but visiting Jews often address the empty synagogue with prayers. 

“One woman came from America," Rasha says.  "Her ancestors  had been Egyptian Jews for centuries.  She considered herself Egyptian although she has never lived here. She started to pray in Hebrew. She was crying and she kept waving her arms about. Afterwards, I asked her what she was saying. She said, ‘I was calling, ‘Come back. Come back. Come back.' "