A speech delivered during Fox’s art exhibition in Jerusalem, ‘Celebration of a Golden Era,’ at the Centre for North African Jewish Heritage in May 2015. The cover art is “Joy and Celebration,” a large oil on canvas painting depicting a wedding party in the garden of the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue on Rue Nebi Daniel in the 1930’s.
This is one of these rare moments in life when reality far surpasses anything the imagination could conjure or fantasize. I am grateful to be here in Jerusalem – the heart of humanity – and humbled that you came to see my pictures depicting a bygone era. This is just a small part of an era which now exists only in our memories. For me, these are childhood memories of a charmed life in Egypt. Lavish children’s birthday parties. Baby Dior clothes bought in Paris by my great aunt Grace on her yearly shopping trips to Europe. Summers spent by the beach in Alexandria, where we had a private cabin. Afternoon tea at the Cecil. Rainy days when I first discovered pencils and paper and began to draw women pushing big prams in the park. Matinees at La Gaite Cinema in Camp Cesar, where my mother never let me miss a single Walt Disney animated extravaganza. Going for visits to my grandfather at his textile store in Anfushi, where we would invariably find him sitting outside his shop wearing his white suit and red tarboush, laughing and joking with the owners of the neighboring shops, smoking shisha and drinking black coffee from tiny cups.
I remember as a six-year-old an incident at our sailing club in Alexandria where my parents were members. Perched on a chaise longue, wet, and wrapped in a towel eating a feta cheese and cucumber sandwich, I was approached by an older French girl – a daughter of expatriates. She asked me: ‘Qués que tu est (what are you)?’ I replied: ‘Je suis Égyptienne.’ With a little patient smile, she repeated: ‘Non non, Je Veus dire ‘qués que tu est?’ Again, I replied: ‘Je suis Égyptienne.’ With that, she gave up and sauntered off. It was only years later that I realized she was asking me: what religion are you?
One day we suddenly left Egypt on a big ship bound for a strange distant land by way of Southern France, because we could not go to that land in a direct route. My last memory of Egypt is seeing one of my grandfather’s business associates running up the gangplank as our ship was about to depart. Breathless he reached into his breast pocket and withdrew a crumpled handkerchief which he placed in my mother’s hand. It contained her engagement ring, her wedding ring, and other small sentimental items of Jewelry which would have been confiscated at our departure if she had worn them. He offered to do this for us and years later I realized that this man had risked imprisonment or worse. Despite the edicts from the new government, the basic decency of many Egyptians did not falter.
We came to Kfar Aviv (Yibna), a Moshav in Southern Israel, established by exiled Jews from Egypt years earlier in 1952. We had very basic housing, no roads and only dirt paths that turned into knee deep mud at the slightest rainfall (which was not too often). No electricity yet, we lit kerosene lamps every sundown and placed black cardboard on our windows in case of air raids. There were sprawling fields of red poppies and the exotic smell of cow manure from our nearby barn which floated in as soon as I opened my bedroom window in the morning. We were farmers now and I fell in love with my new life!
One of my earliest memory of moshav life is of my Nonna Gamila standing on the stoop of our house warning me of the impending raid by the predatory flocks of geese that roamed around, uprooting everything we planted. ‘Elhai Ya bint (hurry girl)’ she would shout as I chased off those geese waving a big stick, ‘Elhai ya bint’. My Nonna Gamila was a woman who once sipped tea in fine English China and nibbled little cakes in Alexandria’s finest tea rooms, wearing hats with ostrich feathers and Shocking by Schiaparelly. She died suddenly two years after our exile from Egypt. It was a wet and stormy day on a remote outpost in Southern Israel. My father and his brother dug her grave, because it was Shabbat and the undertakers couldn’t make it from Tel Aviv. She is buried in Ben Zacaii Yavne. Her descendants number in the dozens, many of us are here tonight. Most live in Israel, some in Australia. We are doctors, lawyers, engineers, writers, beach bums, painters, and poets. I can see Gamila in many of the great grand children’s faces. She lives on in all of us.
Last year, we went to Ashdod’s magnificent Opera House for a concert of songs by the legendary Egyptian singer Oum Kalthoum. The huge theatre was completely packed. For most of the show, we were standing, singing, and clapping with the same enthusiasm, vitality, and joi de vivre that always defined us through adversity and good times. We remain connected to Egypt, whether by writing a book, painting a picture, or cooking a pot of Molokheyya. We left Egypt, but Egypt did not leave us.
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Camille Fox was born in Alexandria, Egypt. During the expulsion of Jews from Arab lands, she fled with her family to Israel where they lived for several years before moving to Australia. The family settled in Bondi and Camille studied art at The National Art School and oil painting at The Julian Ashton Art School. In 2001, after visiting her son on his kibbutz in the Galilee, she crossed the Sinai border by coach into Egypt with her husband Tony. This was a visit to her country of birth which was to become a turning point in her artistic life. This and other experiences ignited her passion and led to the creation of an ongoing series of oil paintings depicting life in Egypt in the days of her grandparents. Camille has since held numerous solo exhibitions in Sydney, Melbourne, Tuscany, New York, and Jerusalem. These paintings evoke the gentle way of life in the bygone days of cosmopolitan Egypt.