Writing by Patrick Keddie
The guard on the other side of the wrought iron gate was suspicious and gruff; “It’s closed” he informed me.
I persevered. “No, not possible” came the reply, “are you from Israel?”
‘No, I’m from Britain.’ I persisted some more.
The guard’s colleague entered through the gate, went into the sentry box, and slung the strap of a small submachine gun over his shoulder. They spoke to each other briefly.
“Wait here, let me see…”
I was trying to visit the Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria, Egypt. I stood for a while on Nabi Daniel Street, feeling self-conscious as people passed by behind me. I must have looked slightly odd, just standing there and staring into the grounds of the heavily gated, guarded synagogue. After some time, I was told to go round to a side entrance. I made my way past the police stationed down the side alley and handed over my ID to a man on the gate. Checks were made, I was allowed in.
The man guiding me round the synagogue was Muslim. “You are Jewish?” he asked me. ‘No’ I replied. “A Christian and a Muslim going into the synagogue…” he laughed, as if beginning a joke.
A neatly tended series of flowerbeds and trees leads up to the grand façade of the Italianate building. Inside, Eliyahu Hanavi is immaculately maintained. Pale-pink marble columns, topped off with elaborately sculptured designs, run the length of the synagogue. The vaulted ceiling is the colour of wheat. The synagogue has space for around 700 worshipers. Women wearing headscarves were busily cleaning amongst the aisles. “You can take photos” said the guide, “but don’t show anyone’s face.”
A couple of tourists come each week he told me, but Egyptians are not allowed to visit. ‘That’s a shame’ I remarked. “No it’s not” he replied; “It’s a place of worship, not a museum.”
It is rarely a place of worship anymore. There were once 80,000 Jewish people in Egypt, many of whom lived in Alexandria in a cosmopolitan society. Most Jews – along with many Greeks, French, Italians and English – left Egypt after the 1956 Suez Crisis and amid a climate of growing nationalism under Nasser.
There are now less than a hundred Jewish people left in Egypt and only three Jewish men remain in Alexandria, according to my guide. At least ten men are needed in order to hold a service. Sometimes on Yom Kippur and other holidays people come from Israel and they hold services in Alexandria, otherwise Jewish people must go to the heavily guarded synagogues in Cairo.
Have there been threatened or attempted attacks on the synagogue recently? “No, no” said my guide, “You will find police at many big churches and mosques, it’s normal.” Attacks on synagogues are rare in Egypt but they are not unknown.
Back outside the synagogue, I told him that I had seen the documentary Jews of Egypt last week and I was interested in writing about the subject. Would it be possible to speak to any of the remaining Jewish people in Alexandria?
“No, because they are very old.”
What about the local community’s president, Ben Youssef Gaon (a man in his fifties)?
“No, I’m afraid not” he replied, “they don’t like journalists. We’ve had some problems in the past. You say one word, and they write a hundred. Journalists are very bad people” he added, in a kindly voice.
I protested, somewhat feebly, that not all journalists are like that. “Maybe in the future, insh’allah” he replied, but it was not possible at the moment; “Sorry habibi, good-bye, take care.”