As political and sectarian strife continue to roil Egypt in the wake of the Arab spring, a new documentary depicts another Egypt. It’s “an Egypt where Muslims, Christians, Jews, atheists lived next to one another in full tolerance,” the director, Amir Ramses, explains. Ramses, himself an Egyptian who previously directed three feature films, acknowledges he knows “the glory and joy of pre-1952 Egypt” only from books and films.
Ramses’ film, “The Jews of Egypt,” which Jewish Studies is sponsoring at the Boston Jewish Film Festival on November 14, portrays the lives of Egyptian Jews during the tumultuous period between the founding of the state of Israel in 1948 and the military coup in Egypt in 1952. The Egyptian Jewish community once numbered over 80,000.
The film follows several characters from their expulsion from Egypt, to exile in France, and then back to their native country for a visit decades later. “The Jews of Egypt” also tracks the stories of famous lawyers Shehata Harroun and Youssef Darwish, who remained in Egypt struggling to help the lower classes and to prove themselves as Egyptian Jews. The film even includes the story of Albert, one of the last remaining Jews in Egypt “who decided that when he dies he will die in the same place where he was born.”
Ramses explained in a director’s note that his own experience inspired him to make the film. “I grew up in a society where when you say the word ‘Jewish’ it [was] always combined with `Zionist, Israeli,’ and of course as soon as you say these words, hatred appears,” Ramses wrote. “Yet I was always fascinated by singer Laila Mourad, musician Mounir Mourad and others like Youssef Darwish who all were amongst the most important persons each in his field in Egypt and all three were Jewish.” Ramses set out to recapture both the individuals and the nation in which they flourished. The “contradiction between modern intolerant Egypt and cosmopolitan Egypt in the first half of the 20th century is what led me to make this film,” he wrote.
The film has not escaped the current turmoil in Egypt. In September, Islamists protested at a Swedish film festival that aired “The Jews of Egypt” and awarded it the “Best Documentary” prize. According to Ramses, protestors shouted slogans against the Egyptian army and the ouster of Muslim Brotherhood president Mohammed Morsi. Ramses said the demonstrators belonged to “Salafi, Muslim, Muslim Brotherhood and Hamas Groups.” Earlier in the year, authorities in Egypt tried to ban the film from local theaters. After the producer threatened to sue, the authorities relented and “Jews of Egypt” was shown. The hostile reception of the film, at least in some circles, only affirms Ramses’ determination to “draw a portrait of not so ancient, yet forgotten Egypt.”
The 25th Annual Boston Jewish Film Festival will show “The Jews of Egypt” on Nov. 14 at 7 p.m. in the Remis Auditorium of the Museum of Fine Arts. A panel discussion will follow the film. Tickets are $12 for MFA members and $14 for non-members.