The following true story was told to the editor of East Coast Stories by Leon Bonan who was a young boy in Egypt when President Gamal Abdel Nasser expelled almost every Jew from Egypt.
Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser
Leon was very proud of being Egyptian. Like the other boys in his school he knew that Egypt was far superior to other countries. After all, the Egyptians had invented a system of advanced mathematics and geometry thousands of years ago. Leon was very good at math and his teachers were always sending notes home to his parents praising Leon’s academic skills.
In the classroom there was a picture of President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Like the other boys Leon looked up to the President with a mixture of pride, awe and fear. Even little boys knew that Nasser was the driving force behind Egypt’s modernization. One day the whole class got to go on a field trip to see the newly built dam.
The dam was the pride of the nation and supplied water and electricity to hundreds of thousands. The workers at the dam loved showing off to the school kids. There was a two hour tour followed by a huge lunch for all the kids. Leon was one of those skinny kids that somehow loves to eat but never gets fat. Leon stuffed himself at the lunch and went back to the buses with the rest of the kids. The bus moved smoothly along the road back to the school and Leon dozed off feeling completely happy and safe.
Of course, everyone knew that in Egypt there were some things that you just did not do. One day Leon heard his parents and some other adults talking about a famous night club comedian. Instead of just telling funny stories like the other comedians, this guy started telling political jokes. The adults were amazed that he had dared to tell political jokes, and that he had gotten away with it.
Over the next few months the comedian became more and more famous throughout Egypt. The night club was packed every night. People listened with rapt attention just waiting to see what the comedian would dare say next. He was openly making jokes about things the listeners would never even dream to mention in public.
At first the comedian started with generic political jokes. Then a few weeks later he actually started making jokes about specific government officials. As the weeks went by he started talking about officials higher and higher in the government. Eventually he got to the point where he was making jokes about people in President Nasser’s inner circle. Nothing happened, and the audiences grew.
Then one night he made jokes about Gamal Abdel Nasser. The crowd was stunned. The next night the comedian continued to tell jokes about President Nasser, devoting almost half his show to the topic. When the show was finished there were two very large men in black suits waiting for the comedian. They grabbed his arms and hustled him out through the crowd to the side door. They pushed the door open and the night club audience could see a long black car waiting. The door stayed open and the audience saw as the men in suits climbed into the back of the car with the comedian and the car sped off.
No one in the audience interfered. Secret policemen don’t wear uniforms. But every Egyptian knew that when in the men in the dark suits came for someone, the best thing to do for your own safety was to stay out of the way and to stay quiet. The comedian was never heard from again. No one asked what had happened to him.
Leon did not think much about being Jewish. He was an Egyptian. Being Jewish just happened to be his religion. There were other Jews in his class, along with Muslims and Christians. There were never any problems at school. Leon never even consider which religion his friends were.
But outside of school Egypt was changing. President Nasser was under extreme pressure. Things were not going well in the economy or foreign affairs. Like many leaders before him in history Nasser decided to take a course of action to solve his problems. “Blame the Jews!”
Nasser’s expulsion of the Jews from Egypt took place in stages. At first he just got rid of specific “trouble makers”. Those who dared question the regime were deported. After that Nasser decided that any Egyptian Jew who had a relative living in Israel was not to be trusted. That was a huge number of people.
With Israel right next door, the majority of Egyptian Jews had some family connection in Israel. In fact, Leon’s own father had a distant cousin who owned a little store in Israel. That’s why Leon parents, his older brother and little sister were told they had to get of of Egypt. Right away.
Leon doesn’t even remember how his parents were told. They may have gotten an official government notice, or maybe some men in dark suits just showed up at the door and told them. They had to leave and could only take one suitcase each and a small amount of pocket money. The government had decided that the Jews being thrown out of Egypt should “donate” their money and property to the government, in exchange for all the “services and education” they had received while in Egypt. The fact that the Jews had paid taxes for those things like any other Egyptian was not mentioned.
Leon’s parents now had to find a place for them to go. Ironically they could not get into Israel. There were thousands and thousands of Egyptian Jews in the same position. Israel did not want thousands of Egyptians with no money streaming into the country.
It turned out that Leon’s mother had a relative in France who was willing to take them in . This scared Leon a lot. His language was Arabic. He had taken a little French in school, but was not very good at it. He was not even good at Hebrew, even though his mother kept trying to push him to learn it.
Getting to France was exhausting. There was a long bus ride, then a boat trip then a train ride. What Leon remembers most is that he was always cold, tired and hungry. He missed a lot of things about Egypt but he missed the food the most. As they waited at one bus station in France Leon and his brother and sister spotted an apple tree full of ripe fruit. Their parents were inside getting the tickets so the kids climbed the tree and got the fruit. They did not realize that these were crab apples until they bit into them. They spit out the sour tasting fruit. The crab apples somehow made them realize their hunger even more.
The family finally made it to their relative, where they all lived in the cramped house for a number of years. Leon never really felt at home but he took refuge in his studies. He learned French and English and of course excelled in mathematics.
Leon now is an American Citizen and lives in New Jersey with his wife and children. He is an environmental engineer and his mathematical skills and attention to detail impress even the other engineers. He goes out for Egyptian food whenever he can find a restaurant that has it.
President Nasser died long ago, and Egypt and Israel have had full diplomatic relations for many years. Leon has been to Israel several times as a tourist. With an American passport he could easily cross the border to Egypt and go visit his old neighborhood. Somehow he has just never been able to bring himself to do it.
Sometimes Leon is asked how he describes himself . Does he call himself an American, a Jew, a Frenchman? Every time his answer is the same. He will look you in the eye and proudly state, “I am an Egyptian.”