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 Mohamad, 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 5 hour taxi ride from Taba to Cairo that turned into 9 1/2(!) 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 Mohammed, our driver, surely heard. (Yes, most of the people we interacted with in Egypt were indeed named ‘Mohammed’ 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.

Traveling, Egypt-style

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 ten 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.

Egyptian price list

We were somewhat overwhelmed at the traffic and the roads, and found crossing the multi-lane city streets of Cairo to be downright frightening on our first day. A local picked up on our hesitation and literally crossed us over a ridiculously busy section of the road. I asked him how they do it and with a twinkle in his eye, and without missing a beat he said, “You have to walk like an Egyptian…”

We certainly couldn’t pull off doing anything like an Egyptian. But 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, but once inside we had a bit of a mini adventure. I went behind the curtain to the ladies’ section while my friend stayed in the main men’s section. I was quiet and tried to be invisible but it seemed my very existence – or my blonde hair? – drew attention.

The women, and particularly the girls, wanted to know my name, take pictures with me, and just be near me. Apparently things got a bit loud for a house of worship (giggling, etc… but it wasn’t me! I promise…) because someone got angry at the irreverent behavior and started shouting. My friend on the other side of the curtain spent a few panicked moments hearing anger and not knowing what was happening, but thankfully all was fine.

In the ladies’ section of the mosque there wasn’t a lot of praying going on…

We went to numerous other possible structures as part of our search, residential and otherwise, and even asked a tour guide, but the most Jewish thing 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…

Street scene in old Jewish Cairo

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 300,000 Jewish manuscript fragments, some dating back over 1000 years) was found. 

Locals also believe it to be the place where Moses was pulled from the Nile. Though the Nile was nowhere near the synagogue, it was actually much higher in ancient times, and reportedly 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 7 – 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 to what the teachers were teaching. They just wanted their pupils to understand the different religions.

Textbook used by the students in the Ben Ezra Synagogue

It was strange and discomfiting to be standing in a synagogue, listening to an abstract lesson about Jewish people, while there we were – actual living and breathing Jewish people – and we 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 shuk. Being scammed by ridiculously clever con-artists (a whole article in and of itself)… We were seeking adventure and we found it and then some. We were looking for signs of the rich Egyptian Jewish heritage and found it desperately lacking. We were hoping for a memorable journey and that is indeed what we had.

A version of this article originally appeared in Jerusalem Post.

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