Collective tragedy does not negate in any way the individual tragedy, for collective tragedy is made of the people who live under its shadow--tragic heroes, rather than labeling them token victims. Perhaps the cultural memory is limited in its recording of them, yet it alone is the patron of their justice and their contempt, perhaps capable of changing their destinies by writing against forgetful oblivion. It is not possible to pass the anniversary of the Nakba without writing about them. They are the key to the map of ruin that we inhabit today: the holocaust of individual tragedies. It was the world who wanted to get rid of the Jews, who wherever they were found formed a barrier of unrest and bloodshed, and who drove them to those societies which implored them with ideas of culture, such as the “Bilu” society, formed in the year 1882, whose slogan was, “House of Jacob, come, let us go.”
In her memoir entitled The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit, which the publisher subtitled, “A Jewish Family’s Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World,” Lucette Lagnado, a French Jew of Egyptian origin, writes her family history, which became tragic because of their Jewish faith. Her family history is brought to a standstill at key moments in which clashes made tragic the fate of individuals, and all of their individual losses were attributed to the fate that God had chosen for them. Some such key moments included the axis defeat in 1945, with the defeat of Erwin Rommel, the establishment of the State of Israel in the year 1948, and the Egyptian Revolution of 1952.
Perhaps the most captivating quality of a book such as this is the courage and sincerity in talking about family members in moments of strength and weakness, and the imagery of Leon Lagnado: a man of the temple and “the Book” who also wallows away evenings in the players gambling houses with girls of the night, lovers and mistresses (among them the famous Om Kalsoum), a philanderer and the author’s father. “Years later, I would hear that the lustrous lady of song, the devoutly Muslim Om Kalsoum, who was raised in a remote village where her dad had been the imam, had been my father’s mistress.”
The trap of objectivity is a dangerous one as well. It may result from a scientific absolute, just as it may result from an intelligent charmer. The book recounts the dissatisfaction with the state of Israel, “Perhaps the greatest irritant of all was the creation of Israel in 1948.”
Each side tells the history which laid heavy tragedy on the breasts of many, the history which we call by the name of “memory,” and whose substance is the same as imagination. It is also the right of the other party to read the history of the other, formed the same way. Th author describes her family leaving Egypt in the sixties of the last century, and how she could still remember despite the passage of all these years, how her father was screaming that afternoon on the boat that took them from Alexandria, ‘Ragaouna Masr! Return us to Egypt!”
The history takes us back to Aleppo, where Zarifa, her paternal grandmother, was the beauty of the Arab tribes and a descendant of the city’s rabbinical authorities, who carried the rigid and conservative traditions of Aleppo’s Jews to the life of her family in Cairo. These traditions informed them in marriage, work and in their understanding of successive tragedies: finding out that one of her sons had, unforgivably, converted to Christianity, becoming one of the most famous priests in Lady Zion, Palestine, the Promised Land; followed by the killing of her daughter and family in Italy during the second world war, to life in foreign diaspora, caused by the historical accident which made them Judea, moving nomadically from one place to another.
The magic of the narrative is that is makes us get carried away with empathy, even when the tragedy is not related to their minority status, as we do when we learn of the second grandmother, Alexandra, a descendant of the wealthy Alexandria, betrayed to a fate in the arms of a man more than twenty five years her senior, a man destitute and deceitful, and lead into poverty. She bore him three children, not knowing how to comb their hair having grown up dependent on maids, and one day her husband came home to tell her that he had sold their young child in the souk. She kept looking for her child until the end, and that is the toughest scene in the entirety of the tragic chapters--it is a scene of an individual, not of a sect or tribe.
Life became precarious for the Jews, as well as for the irreverent King Farouk, “whose corruption in every sphere of life, even friendly poker games, was the stuff of legend.” After his demise, Egyptian Jews lived in eternal nostalgia for the Egypt they had known, victims in every place they went, even America: “Jewish Cairo was a distant memory, and we had been banished to a string of shabby hotels in Paris and New York, until finally ending up in a corner of Brooklyn no wider than ten blocks, where thousands of other refugees from the Levant had also fetched up.”
The writer wants us to weep with her and for the charming narrative to occupy us, for us to forget all those who left their mothers in Palestine. We need a great deal of awareness, and maybe hardness even, not to weep with the enemies, and to stop us from convincing ourselves that the history of the victims looks so much alike, as if the two are not mutually exclusive.
This is the same cultural game that made Edward Said, himself the son of a Christian Jerusalemite, leave his homeland: “All this had begun when we entered New York harbor on the Saturnia in early July 1948. Palestine had fallen, unbeknownst to us our lives were turning us toward the United States, and both my mother and I were starting the process of life and cancer that would end our lives in the New World.”
I insist on not dealing with this history with a great deal of pacification, and I am not comforted by the last burst of passion which was carried out by the Arab soft powers, through the cinema, novels and drama, in order to promote the idea of serene co-existence with the perpetrators who came to Palestine.
Sixty seven years after the Nakba we have entered into the world of post-modernism, whose philosophy urges us to forget. Aside from logical appeals, I will remain in the ranks of those who decided not to forget.
Those who weep with the enemies have many sorrows. Behind their warm-hearted humanity is something that is sometimes sympathetic, sometimes covetous and sometimes a cumbersome third, but even if I could resist the cultural experience of memory, we must always remember that the enemies do not weep with anyone.
Dr. Shahla Ujayli is a professor of Arabic Literature at the American University in Madaba. She is the author of the award-winning novels The Cat’s Eye and The Persian Carpet.
*The Arabic of this op-ed article appeared on May 19, 2015. The views expressed herein are those of the author and are not necessarily representative of AmmanNet.
Translated by Julia Norris