My grandmother, Sarah Claudine Barki, was born in 1938 and belonged to the Jewish community in Alexandria. I came to writing this piece after discovering letters and personal information kept in family filing cabinets, followed by conversations and correspondence with her younger sister, Viviane.
The declaration of peace in Europe in 1945 was quickly followed by a succession of conflicts across North Africa and the Middle East, producing a series of devastating and messily entangled refugee crises. The establishment of Israel in 1948 displaced roughly 750,000 Palestinian civilians from their lands. As the number of the displaced grew, and Arab-Israeli relations worsened, Jewish communities in the region fled or were expelled. In Egypt, a diverse Jewish population of roughly 80,000 in 1948 had almost completely disappeared by the end of the following decade. Though in recent years the Egyptian government has sought to rebuild ties to its Jewish past through the restoration of sites of cultural significance, official records relating to this history remain largely inaccessible.
Sarah Claudine Barki was a small part of this history. Claudine was born in Alexandria in August 1938, and was quickly followed by her younger sister Viviane. Their father arrived to Egypt from Izmir as a young child and worked as an agent for European import firms. Their mother was born in Manchester to parents from Syria and Lebanon. Unlike the rest of the family, she held a British passport.
Although Claudine recollected regular arguments between her parents about strained finances, the family enjoyed a middle-class life. They lived in a four room flat in Cleopatra by the water and the children attended a nearby French school. The family was able to travel outside the city during their father’s work trips. As was common then, they moved across linguistic worlds. Ladino was spoken with their grandparents, French in school and at home, and Arabic with the outside world.
Details from Claudine’s letters and conversations with Viviane described a happy childhood. Once school was finished and homework completed, afternoons were often spent with cousins and friends on the beach. Claudine particularly enjoyed the sea and had become a strong swimmer after making friends with students aspiring to compete for the famous Egyptian national team. During evenings, Viviane spoke of a promenade lit by streetlights along which vendors emerged offering ice cream, peanuts, grilled corn cobs and jasmine necklaces.
As they grew older, Jewish life in Egypt became increasingly determined by wider geopolitical developments. A few weeks before Claudine’s tenth birthday, Egypt entered into a war with the newly created state of Israel. War abroad meant martial law at home. Hundreds of Jews were kept in detention, expelled, and in many cases had property sequestered following suspicion of engaging in anti-state activity. Although Zionism was a feature of Jewish politics in Egypt at the time, it was by no means dominant amongst the wider community. Claudine herself wrote about being aware of Zionist clubs active in school but, in her words, ‘We kept politics out of our life’.
Claudine completed secondary school in 1955. She performed very well and became one of the first Jewish women to receive admission into Alexandria University to study medicine. Her efforts to separate the personal from the political though were becoming untenable. A year earlier an Israeli plan termed ‘Operation Susannah’ had been uncovered. The plan involved the recruitment of a small group of Egyptian Jews to place bombs in movie theatres and train stations in Alexandria and Cairo. This revelation happened in the context of already rising anti-imperialist nationalist sentiment in the country. The fact that roughly a quarter of Jewish Egyptians possessed foreign passports and many more spoke European languages made them a target, increasingly considered to embody the remnants of European colonialism still hindering postcolonial progress. The conspiracy and nationalist suspicions about Jewish disloyalty affected the family’s daily lives, as they were forced to manage the attentions of the secret police and the need to resort to bribery for continued safety and security.
On 26 July 1956, a few kilometres from the Barki flat, Gamal Abdel Nasser stood in Mohammed Ali Square and declared that ‘Tonight the Suez Canal will be managed by Egyptians!’ Within weeks Egypt was again at war. With the backing of Britain and France, Israel invaded Sinai. The city was rocked by bombs landing in Alexandria. In response, Nasser imposed martial rule, and with this came more detentions, expulsions, sequestered property, and frozen assets. Claudine’s Jewish family, composed of one parent holding a British passport and the other working with European firms, found themselves in a particularly hazardous position.
The family was afforded time to prepare for what now seemed an inevitable expulsion by an act of profound neighbhourly solidarity. Their mother’s best friend, remembered in correspondence as ‘Madame Leila’, lived next door and the children had grown up together. Leila’s husband worked as a high-ranking police officer and searched files for mention of the Barki family. Once found, he gave the family an advance warning and staved off its delivery so they could ready themselves. The rules for expulsion were clear. An individual order meant the whole family was to leave. They could carry one suitcase along with a limit of ten Egyptian pounds. Once they had gathered their things Viviane remembered her father telling his daughters to think about these events as an adventure, a chance to start afresh.
The family landed in a military base in England in late 1956. The total number of refugees from Egypt amounted to roughly 6,000. The Home Office were far from thrilled by their arrival. From the landing of West Indian immigrants aboard the Empire Windrush in 1948, British governments had expressed hostility toward the possibility of large-scale non-white migration from the Commonwealth. Fears were amplified by the press and vocal political groups, culminating in the stringent Commonwealth Immigrants Act of 1962. This legislation drastically reduced non-white immigration to Britain.
The ‘Anglo-Egyptian’ Jewish community were understood squarely through this racially exclusionary lens. From behind closed doors, officials spoke of the problem of ‘coffee-coloured subjects’, or, as one figure described them, ‘gypsies with a British passport’. With the crisis ongoing, the government quickly considered measures to police the entry eligibility of Jewish refugees, including means to dissuade families with husbands possessing foreign citizenship from remaining in Britain. And yet ultimately, for those with British passports, entry had to be granted. Given that the Barki’s possessed only one British passport holder with the rest of the family officially stateless, Britain was their only possible destination.
Their first few nights in Britain were spent in a refugee hostel in Kidderminster. Thereafter, the children were sent to their grandfather in Worcester while the parents headed to London to find work. The children later travelled to London where they would stay in a single hotel room as they looked for more suitable accommodation.
The early years were marked by problems faced by many displaced families; uncertainty over culture and etiquette, struggles with language, and ongoing concerns over finances and employment. Other documents revealed efforts to recoup parts of their old life. By the 1960s, compensation schemes began for expelled British subjects who had lost property in Egypt. As a British citizen, their mother had applied but failed because the assessor found insufficient documentation.
Expulsion interrupted Claudine’s ambitions to become a doctor. Among her papers were copies of school transcripts and letters addressed to medical colleges in London. Here she explained her circumstances and enquired about the possibility of continuing her studies. Responses explained that her transcripts would not be accepted and asked her to consider an alternate career path. Despite these difficulties, over the years the family settled in England and came to enjoy comfortable lives. Claudine trained as a physiotherapist instead. Viviane became a schoolteacher. They both took great satisfaction from these careers, married and raised children.
As their lives developed in Britain, personal ties to Alexandria remained bound to the region’s unstable politics. After initially continuing correspondence with a handful friends, though discreetly, the Six-Day War in 1967 brought this to an end. They feared that their letters would draw unwanted attention on their recipients, some of whom were assumed to have been drafted into the army. And yet in 1990, more than forty years after their expulsion, Claudine and Viviane were able to finally return to Alexandria. They were to find a city which had changed considerably since their childhood. One constant however would be their old neighbour Madame Leila, who still lived in the same flat and held a key for their old family home. In an emotional moment, the two sisters stood in their childhood home as adults.
The politics of nostalgia for what is generally considered to be Alexandria’s cosmopolitan past remains a source of fraught scholarly debate, while the appropriate frame for histories of exile and displacement in educational curriculums are similarly contested. Fragments of Claudine’s own perception of this history, and her ongoing relationship with Alexandria, were dotted across the papers she left behind, and spoke mainly to her highly personal relationship with this time. In one page of scribbled notes from the Rabbi’s eulogy given at her funeral a small reference was made to her unwavering belief that no falafels in the world could stand up to those in Alexandria. More detail was offered in a letter she wrote after she was diagnosed with terminal cancer. Writing with very little time left, there was something strangely reassuring about what she felt was important enough to deserve her ink. The letter focused almost singularly on the banality of everyday life; the affection she remembered between her parents, sisterly arguments about parental favouritism, and a school nickname (‘Tomato’) she disliked. Other characters left behind were remembered; a kind nanny who looked after her as a child, a family dog handed to her neighbours on departure, and Ahmed, her early morning swimming partner who was strong enough to open drinks using only his teeth. At points in the letter references were made to later parts of her life that she promised to explain in greater detail. The pages however ended abruptly in mid flow, either incomplete or lost.
When I discussed these events with Viviane, who lives in London, she spoke with both warmth and circumspection about this chapter of her life. It was only after finishing our conversation that I realized I had forgotten to ask how she continued to relate to her previous life in Alexandria. Before writing again to clarify a few details, I received an email from Viviane with a picture of a painting attached. She explained that she had bought it many years ago, and that it was perhaps an overly romantic depiction of the city she remembered. And yet from the road, behind the sea facing houses and through a series of narrow alleyways, stood her old home. The picture hangs in her house to this day.
Acknowledgment: I would like to thank Viviane Ettingshausen for her help and assistance.
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Alastair McClure is an assistant professor in the History Department in the University of Hong Kong. His research focuses on law and empire, with a particular focus on the histories of criminal law in the context of South Asia.