Here at Habibi.Habibi.Habibi headquarters, life is more than rainbows, unicorns, froyo and the first 3 seasons of the West Wing. Going forward, we will tackle stories that other poorly written blogs won’t touch. Our resounding confidence, often misplaced, will take investigative journalism to a new level. Now, allow me a moment to put on my Wendy Mesley slacks and a Strombo deep V (hard hitting yet edgy) and we can get started.
When I told people I was moving to Egypt, reactions varied. Danielle (a friend of mine) was on the “this is a good idea” end of the spectrum. While Egypt is Danielle’s motherland, it is a country she isn’t in a rush visit. Why you ask? Well, her family was already kicked out of the country once. Danielle is Jewish.
Danielle’s grandmother (her Nona) was born in Cairo in 1925. Renee Guetta was the third of six kids. When she was 14, she met her future husband Cesar Saul (Danielle’s Nono). Born in Aleppo Syria, Cesar was the youngest of nine children. He met Renee when he was 22 and they married 4 years later. You’ll notice there are quite a few boy scouts in the wedding picture, that’s because Cesar was the head of the Maccabi Cairo boy scouts. I’ve been assured that heading up the Maccabi boy scouts was a bit of a big deal as they weren’t “just camping trips and stuff”. No disrespect to the Maccabi boy scouts, but as a graduate of the Canadian boy scouts system, I can say with confidence our program is more than “just camping trips and stuff”. We learned how to tie knots, sell apples and build race cars out of blocks of wood.
Starting in 1948 with the creation of the State of Israel, relations between Egypt, Israel and its very own Jewish community began to strain. The Arab-Israeli War began soon after and the conflict didn’t end until February 1949 with the signing of the first Armistice Agreement with Egypt. With the Suez Crisis in 1956, Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser brought in legislation that curbed civil liberties and created a hostile environment for Jewish, British and French communities. In November of 1956 it was clear Jewish Egyptians were being targeted and expelled. They were only allowed to take one suitcase, a small sum of cash, and forced to sign declarations “donating“ their property to the Egyptian government.
One night the Egyptian army came to collect Nono from his house in Cairo. At the time, Danielle’s mom was 7 and her aunt was 11. The army returned two days later and told Nona she had 48 hours to leave the country but wouldn’t say where they had taken Nono. She refused to leave without her husband and spent the next month looking for him. She broke curfews looking for her husband in Cairo while trying to arrange documentation for her family to leave. Nona had a French passport, but the French embassy had closed, so she got help from the Swiss to get the family out. She still didn’t know where Nono was, but arranged passports and visas as if he would be traveling with them. About a month after he was taken, Nono unexpectedly showed up at home and joined the family as they left for Paris on December 25th, 1956. A real Jewish Christmas miracle! After spending a few months in France, they joined Danielle’s great uncle Fred in Montreal. Nona’s brother Robbie and her sister Laly followed with their families soon after.
Nona is still buying bagels in Montreal but winters in Florida with a huge Egyptian senior citizen ex-pat crew. From what I’m told, she is a shark at shuffleboard, so pickup a paddle at your own risk. She has three grandchildren (two of which are doctors…but I’m sure she doesn’t love them more Danielle) and her third great-grandchild is on its way. Danielle’s Nono passed away about 15 years ago.
Since Danielle isn’t headed to Cairo anytime soon, she has enlisted me to visit and take pictures of her Nona’s favourite places in Egypt.
Next week, “A Gentile’s Egyptian Scavenger Hunt”
Renee Saul (maiden name Guetta) on her wedding day
The Happy Couple with the Maccabi boy scouts!
“Nona is in the background on some awards day, she’s in the white dress to the right of centre, and the girl in the foreground is my mom – my aunt Nadine is just to the left of my Nona. She actually taught both of them at some point.” – Danielle