Letter from Cairo: Funeral for one, but Egypt’s community is long buried

By Rami Conn, March 21, 2014

Last week, the funeral of Nadia Haroun, the deputy head of Egypt’s small Jewish community, was held in downtown Cairo.

In many ways, the event encapsulated the story of a community on the edge of extinction.

At 59, Ms Haroun was the youngest member of the community and her death is hammer-blow to the dwindling group. “We are all in shock right now,” said Nevine Amin, a close friend of Ms Haroun’s sister.

On the day of the funeral, rows of armed police officers surrounded Sha’ar Hashamayim synagogue.

The shul was packed out for the service — a tent was erected nearby to hold the overflow, and prayers were broadcast to those outside the room where her casket was held.

While the majority of those in attendance were locals, some relatives and friends had flown in from Europe and parts of the service were conducted in French. The presence of Muslims and Christians were a testament to the influence Ms Haroun had among Egyptians beyond the Jewish community.

Once the prayers concluded, emotional family members emerged from the room and the coffin followed close behind. Even after the service, security remained a priority as police closed the street to traffic and mourners boarded buses to travel to the burial site.

Their destination — Cairo’s crumbling Bassatine cemetery — is emblematic of the decimation of Jewish culture in the city.

Decades ago, the graves were capped with marble engravings. After stones were looted during the construction boom in the 1960s, the cemetery became a gouged-out expanse of ash, dust and stagnant water. Burnt garbage is stuffed into many of the run-down plots and stray dogs sun themselves atop the tombs.

Last year, after the burial of community president Carmen Weinstein, local children waited until the police left and desecrated the grave site.

Throughout the 20th century, Egypt’s complicated relationship with its Jewish population swung between malice and benign indifference. While there was a thriving Jewish population in the early 1920s, numbers dropped sharply during the wars with Israel.

“When you talk to Egyptians about the 1967 and 1973 wars, it’s either a war between the Egyptians and the Jews or between Egypt and Israel. The two concepts became really mixed up in an average person’s mind,” said Amir Ramses, director of the 2013 documentary The Jews of Egypt. Mr Ramses’s film aimed to re-engage Egyptians with the role Jews have played in the story of the country.

The sight of armed police encircling mourners in the trash-filled cemetery makes Mr Ramses’s worthy initiative look like an exercise in futility.

Rami Conn is a pseudonym; the writer preferred to remain anonymous. Article courtesy of Transterra Media

Last updated: 12:45pm, March 21 2014