Egypt: The land where I shouldn’t be

The Jerusalem Post - The Jerusalem Post Magazine - - CONTENTS - • By LAURA BEN-DAVID

When my friend and I de­cided to go on an ad­ven­ture, we could have cho­sen any place in the world. We were in­trigued by Egypt, how­ever. The mys­tery, the Jewish his­tory, the pyra­mids all drew us in. And the close prox­im­ity made it seem the ideal trip as it would be quick and easy to get to.

Ex­cept that it was nei­ther quick, nor easy.

Our friends, when we told them of our plans, mostly thought we were nuts. “Why would you go to Egypt?”

“Aren’t you scared to go to Egypt?!”

“It’s dan­ger­ous for Jews in Egypt!”

I asked my friend Muham­mad, a Cairo res­i­dent, if it would be safe for us to travel there. “Absolutely!” he as­sured me. “Egypt is very safe! Just be sure you never men­tion ‘Is­rael.’” Not ex­actly re­as­sur­ing, but at that point we were com­mit­ted. So it was with slight trep­i­da­tion, but mostly pure ex­cite­ment, that we set off on our ad­ven­ture.

Over the course of the planned five-hour taxi ride from Taba to Cairo that turned into nine-and-a-half(!) hours, we dis­cov­ered that keep­ing our Is­raeli con­nec­tion un­der wraps would be dif­fi­cult – since I kept on drop­ping words like “Is­rael,” “Jerusalem” and other dead-give­aways that Muham­mad, our driver, surely heard. (Yes, most of the peo­ple we in­ter­acted with in Egypt were in­deed named “Muham­mad” with one spell­ing or an­other.) I con­tin­ued to spill our Is­raeli beans through­out our trip. Luck­ily we never felt any less safe due to my ver­bal trans­gres­sions.

Once in Cairo, ev­ery at­trac­tion we went to had signs that listed the price for “Egyp­tians and Arabs” and the price for “ev­ery­one else.” The dif­fer­ence for for­eign­ers was of­ten al­most 10 times the price for Arabs! While I would not have blinked if the dis­counted price was for Egyp­tian cit­i­zens only, the fact that the dis­count was for an en­tire eth­nic­ity felt in­cred­i­bly strange and dis­crim­i­na­tory. Imag­ine if Is­raeli attraction­s of­fered dis­counts to any­one who was

Is­raeli or Jewish, or if Amer­i­can attraction­s of­fered dis­counts to any­one was Amer­i­can or white. You get the idea.

Not want­ing to truly give away our be­ing Jewish or Is­raeli, we found it was very dif­fi­cult to find some of the Jewish sites that were an im­por­tant part of what we hoped to see in Egypt, since we were un­com­fort­able ask­ing peo­ple where they were. And so we set off look­ing for the Ram­bam (Mai­monides) Sy­n­a­gogue and some other Jewish land­marks with Google maps and a fair dose of op­ti­mism.

Ex­cept that we could hardly find any­thing.

OUR FIRST at­tempt brought us to an al­ley end­ing in a brick wall. So we walked around to where we thought was the other side and found a mosque. Fur­ther in­ves­ti­ga­tion led us to think the mosque had never been a sy­n­a­gogue, and we kept on search­ing. We went to nu­mer­ous other pos­si­ble struc­tures, res­i­den­tial and oth­er­wise, and even asked a tour guide, but the most we came up with were a cou­ple of Stars of David on a build­ing gate. An ob­scure web­site we found led us to be­lieve that the first brick wall we found was likely cov­er­ing one of the sites we had been search­ing for.

But we did fi­nally find a sy­n­a­gogue. It’s sort of the “Jew mu­seum” of Cairo. The Ben Ezra Sy­n­a­gogue, aside from those

Jewish stars on a lone res­i­den­tial dwelling in Old Cairo, was the only Jewish struc­ture we iden­ti­fied.

The sy­n­a­gogue is the place where the Cairo Geniza (a col­lec­tion of ap­prox­i­mately 300,000 Jewish man­u­script frag­ments, some dat­ing back more than 1,000 years) was found.

Lo­cals also be­lieve the lo­ca­tion to be the place where Moses was pulled from the Nile. Even though the Nile was nowhere near the sy­n­a­gogue, it was ac­tu­ally much higher in an­cient times, and flowed over the very spot where the sy­n­a­gogue was later built.

But the most in­ter­est­ing thing for us was stum­bling upon a group of young Egyp­tian

stu­dents on a class trip there, per­haps seven to 10 years of age, who were learn­ing about Ju­daism from their teacher. Upon fur­ther in­quiry, we dis­cov­ered that these stu­dents, clearly chil­dren of wealthy fam­i­lies, were on a spe­cial trip to learn about the three monothe­is­tic re­li­gions. There was no neg­a­tive sub­text that we could dis­cern in what the teach­ers were teach­ing. They just wanted their pupils to un­der­stand the dif­fer­ent re­li­gions.

It was strange and dis­com­fit­ing to be stand­ing in a sy­n­a­gogue, lis­ten­ing to an ab­stract les­son about Jews, while there we were – ac­tual liv­ing and breath­ing Jewish peo­ple – and felt we couldn’t say a word.

While Egyp­tians are by and large very friendly, there is a strange feel­ing of be­ing an out­sider beyond just be­ing a tourist. And it wasn’t just the fact that ran­dom Egyp­tians on the street would ask to take a selfie with us, as if we were name­less celebritie­s or sim­ply cu­riosi­ties. Com­ing from the eth­nic melt­ing pots of Is­rael and Amer­ica as we were, and es­pe­cially as we were both Jews and Is­raelis, we knew that we could never truly fit in there, even if we wanted to.

We did all the touristy things around Cairo: the pyra­mids, camel rides, the Nile, shop­ping in the Khan el-Khalili bazaar and souk (shuk), be­ing scammed by ridicu­lously clever con artists. We were seek­ing ad­ven­ture and we found it in spades. We were look­ing for signs of the rich Egyp­tian Jewish her­itage and found it sorely lack­ing. We were hop­ing for a mem­o­rable jour­ney, and that is in­deed what we had.

The writer is a pho­tog­ra­pher, writer and mar­ket­ing con­sul­tant. Her sub­jects of choice in­clude Is­rael, aliyah and so­cial me­dia – and some­times all three at once.

Foreign res­i­dents and new im­mi­grants have cer­tain rights and priv­i­leges. New im­mi­grants can en­joy these rights for a par­tic­u­lar num­ber of years, and foreign res­i­dents can use them for as long as they have the rel­e­vant res­i­den­tial per­mits.

The fi­nan­cial needs of foreign res­i­dents and new im­mi­grants dif­fer from the prac­ti­cal needs of the lo­cal pop­u­la­tion. This in it­self jus­ti­fies a spe­cial di­vi­sion at the bank’s head of­fice in Tel Aviv, as well as de­part­ments at the bank’s branches.

Amit Tabac, head of the di­vi­sion, says, “The In­ter­na­tional Pri­vate Bank­ing sec­tor of Dis­count Bank wants to make foreign res­i­dents and new olim feel at home in all as­pects of their bank­ing needs. We are well aware that when­ever a per­son moves from one coun­try to an­other, he or she is faced with cul­ture shock. The level of shock dif­fers ac­cord­ing to the per­son’s coun­try of ori­gin, but it ex­ists in all cases.

New­com­ers con­front fac­tors such as a dif­fer­ent lan­guage, dif­fer­ent cus­toms, dif­fer­ent so­cial and busi­ness cul­ture and dif­fer­ent fis­cal reg­u­la­tions. At the In­ter­na­tional Pri­vate Bank­ing di­vi­sion, we en­deavor to help these clients face the new en­vi­ron­ment by ac­quaint­ing them with the new re­al­i­ties such as other forms of bu­reau­cracy, how to go about pur­chas­ing a new home, set­ting up a busi­ness, in­vest­ing sur­plus cash, and pen­sion ar­range­ments, es­pe­cially for new olim. All this in­for­ma­tion is im­parted within the frame­work of the per­sonal and pro­fes­sional level of ser­vice for which Bank Dis­count has been fa­mous for the past 84 years.”

Tabac fur­ther ex­plains that a lot of thought and ef­fort have been in­vested in creat­ing the ap­pro­pri­ate sur­round­ings and se­lect­ing the ap­pro­pri­ate staff. Since the aim of the bank is to make clients feel at home, the dé­cor is strongly ori­ented to­ward mod­ern bank­ing es­tab­lish­ments over­seas. Clients are at­tended to by staff mem­bers who are mul­ti­lin­gual. They not only speak English, French, Span­ish or Rus­sian, but they have also lived in the var­i­ous coun­tries and have ex­pe­ri­enced first­hand the busi­ness and so­cial cul­tures of those coun­tries, thereby mak­ing it easy to cre­ate a com­fort­able rap­port with the tar­get clien­tele. The mul­ti­lin­gual and mul­ti­cul­tural per­son­nel come from coun­tries such as the US, the UK, France, Venezuela, Brazil and Tur­key.

There are In­ter­na­tional Pri­vate Bank­ing di­vi­sions at Dis­count Bank’s branches in Tel Aviv, Jerusalem, Ne­tanya, Ash­dod and Her­zliya, with more added ac­cord­ing to need.

This ar­ti­cle was writ­ten in co­op­er­a­tion with Dis­count Bank


TRA­DI­TION MEETS tech­nol­ogy.

LO­CALS PLAY a game: ‘There is a strange feel­ing of be­ing an out­sider beyond just be­ing a tourist.’

A VI­BRANT street scene in the Old Jewish Quarter.


MOSQUE IN the Old Jewish Quarter.

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