Egypt: The land where I shouldn’t be
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
THE FAMED Sphinx.
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.