AAHA = Amicale Alexandrie Hier et Aujourd'hui www.aaha.ch
VOYAGE A ALEXANDRIE
Back to Alexandria, October 2009
By Jaques Leventhal
the desire to re-visit
On this very first visit, our old school mate Mohammad Gabrallah, who was still alive, was the first person we wanted to see and for the occasion he managed to free himself for a few days from his position as the vice president of the bank for commerce and trade, to be with us during our stay.
Gabrallah's unique background was revealed to us many years
after we left
Some years later, after we all left Egypt and many of us
settled in Israel, we were able to renew contact with him, thanks to an unusual
set of circumstances, when found out that after graduation he was hired by "
This arrangement kept going on for a while but for some
mysterious reasons the "correspondence" was suddenly cut off. Each one
suspecting a political intervention. It was only during our first meeting in
1983 when we found out the reason: it was due to a mere technical problem and we
all were relieved. After all these years, we felt as we were never separated .
Gabrallah displayed a phenomenal memory asking about each and every one of his
old school mates, eager to know if the couples formed in school were still going
steady. Who got married and other spicy details? But we also discovered how a
We learned that his father worked as a doorman "bawab" as
they were called in Egypt) a rather low level job, guarding the building and
going on errands for the tenants, while selling ice blocks at times
where refrigerators were almost inexistent to the majority of the
population. The Jewish owner of the building, who hired him, promised to take
care of his children's education. This is how Gabrallah, being the first
born son of the bawab, found himself at the same school with Meyrav,
myself and the rest of the Jewish kids. Over the years, my work in aviation gave
me the chance to travel a number of times to
That is how 60 years after my departure from
Mia and I first landed in
The next day, aware that the Abramoff are on their way
The scheduled two hours ride turned into three and half
hours of endless stops, but we finally reached our destination.
The architecture is remindful of the times when the Italian
community was one of the largest in
Our taxi took us to the hotel, the driver randomly driving
along the bay, as if he sensed that this will be the first sight I
wanted to see and enjoy. As we approached the hotel and entered
Charley and his wife booked the famous
As soon as we dropped the suitcases in the room and
verified if Charley had already checked in, we rushed to see my father's shop, a
stationary store he named : "Paterie Nationale", on
My father had proudly displayed a sign on top of the shop, showing that he is the supplier of his majesty the King (Farouk) court, with the symbol of the monarchy, a title he was proud of and which drew many clients, especially among the big banks on closely Sheriff Street, leading to the prestigious cotton stock market (la Bourse du cotton) on Mohammad Aly square .
As soon as we entered the shop, I saw Mahmoud's widow sitting on the same chair and behind the same desk my father used to sit. Nothing had changed since we left and the spirit of my father and my brother Vic, who worked at the shop ,were still filling the air. I could close my eyes and sense we are in the 50's, when I used to return from school and I would stop to see my father, on my way home.
She recognized me immediately having seen me a few years
back, during my second visit to
At that time, his sister in law, who worked at the
shop, told us that he is at home, in Agami. Gabrallah was surprised to
learn that they were actually neighbors, both living in the same suburb, without
even knowing each other and definitely unaware that both are linked to me, in
some ways. We took the address and went to see him .we were ushered into a
beautiful garden where Mahmoud and his wife were sitting leisurely, watching TV
and sipping their tea. His surprise to see us was as immense as on my first
visit, when I came with Meyrav. He insisted to host us at his villa, instead of
staying at the hotel. I tried to explain to him that I happened to be on a short
business trip in
In Agamy - Alexandria, at the villa of Mahmud, who inherited my father's stationery shop, and with Gabrallah, my schoolmate.
During the first visit with Meyrav, back in 1983, his shock in seeing me was beyond any imagination. After all these years, I entered the shop, stood in front of him and asked, in Arabic, if he recognizes me. He was definitely surprised to see a familiar face but couldn't guess who exactly I was. His spontaneous answer was: you must be Vicky (my brother). As soon as I denied it, he tried to call me : Doudou (my other brother). Again I denied it and he finally decided I must be Jacot, the third brother. Although he did not know me as well as my two other brothers, he must have figured that I am the only one left and as soon as I acknowledged he went on shouting:
"The shop is yours. Take whatever you want. The shop is yours".!!!
What a shock it must have been for him to see a Leventhal
after all these years, suspecting I am here to take back what belongs to the
family. I had a hard time convincing him that I am on a short trip and only came
to meet him and see the shop as well as some of the known places from my youth.
Mahmoud, who worked for my father, inherited the shop when the entire family was
given 48 hours to leave
After my father left, Mahmoud proved to be a sharp knife,
ran successfully the store and managed to buy properties. He even opened a
butter factory and made a small fortune. Meantime, Mahmoud passed away and his
widow replaced him at the shop, more as a way to keep herself busy than to
manage a business. She apparently didn't need the money and she seemed to
be well off. She welcomed us, very warmly, and even offered us to stay at the
villa, in Agamy, being now empty, since she moved to a small apartment, Mahmoud
It was the first time I met him, being born after my
He was as emotional as we were. He was aware of the opportunity my father created after his departure. He admitted that his father's luck came after he was left on his own, with a "business" to take care of. Our presence in the shop was for him a mirror of the many stories he heard from his own father. During this short visit, walking along the streets with us and pointing at the famous landmarks of the past, he was reliving the same history.
For us, names such as "Pastroudis", "Trianon", "Tornazaki"
and "Delices", the famous Greek pastry shops of the time, were part of our
world. As kids we found out that Delices had two doors, so we used to enter
through the main entrance, eat a cake or two and leave through the back door,
without being detected by the waiters. Their "Mille Feuilles" and "Baba au Rhum"
were real delights. Another unforgettable treat was an ice cream
called "Clo-Clo", a cone shaped ice cream, made popular thanks to a Swiss pastry
cook by the name of Flückiger. So much liked was this ice cream that during the
movie intermissions, the line to buy one of those was so long, people preferred
to miss part of the second feature rather than give up on their
clo-clo. Nowadays, only the names prevailed, but the shops were neglected as if
someone wanted to erase them from the face of the city. Yet, we managed to visit
the School de Menasce, turned into an Egyptian vocational school. The apartment
where my brother Doudou lived with his in-laws, after he married Nina and we
even came close to the building where my
We saw our previous apartment, on
Not far from there, the Mohammad Aly square with the statue of this prominent Egyptian leader facing what used to be the cotton stock exchange but was erased to make place to a parking lot.
Undoubtedly, the highlight of this trip was the visit to
the big synagogue "Eliyahu Hanavi", on
I suggested postponing the visit by one day, as I wanted to take Mia to see the former King Farouk Palace, in Montaza, with its beautiful surroundings. I knew the area having stayed with Meyrav, during our first visit, at the Sheraton hotel, located on the same grounds, and I thought that Mia will enjoy the view. She declined the suggestion and insisted that we should return to the synagogue, instead, as if she predicted that something important will happen
This time we were welcomed by the guard and met the man in charge of (what is left) of the Jewish community of Alexandria. Once a prosperous 35,000 members, this community is now reduced to less than 20 people, mostly women. All of them well over 80 and very sadly, all of them knowing what to expect.
We had a very nice conversation with Mr. Gaon, the
caretaker, who told us of his past and his present duties. Mia insisted to look
in the archive and to check where my father was born. I have heard different
versions about his birthplace. Some claimed in
I was more relieved than surprised, as I had my own doubts about his origins.
Then we entered the synagogue itself, but it was sad to find out that there is no rabbi to open the holy books chest, the "Aron Hakodesh" where all the prayer books are kept for the religious ceremonies. Danny had called me the same morning, knowing that we will visit the synagogue and asked me to look for a rabbi to give Mia a blessing. The only one I could address myself to, was the non Jewish Gardner which was out of the question. So we just had to meditate on our own for a few minutes, while Mia sat, separately, and looked as if she was receiving heavenly messages.
When we returned to the office of Mr. Gaon, we were introduced to a nice lady of a certain age, who was interested to know our family names. Leventhal did not say much to her, but when Charley mentioned his last name, "Abramoff", she almost fainted. She turned to be his first cousin whom she hasn't seen for over 50 years.
Did Mia have a vision while meditating? Was this the reason she did not want to postpone the visit to the synagogue and declined the visit to the palace in Montaza? We will never know.
It was October 12, Mia's birthday and we all went for dinner to a superb fish restaurant Mohammad had recommended the "Kadura", on the Corniche. Adele, Charley's cousin, joined us and we celebrated Mia's birthday in an unusual manner, in an unusual place, but with the closest of friends and a new family member. The restaurant staff, tipped by Andree about the special occasion brought out a beautiful birthday cake and we all sang "happy birthday Mia" joined by the other customers. It was indeed a most unreal scene.!
We did not miss visiting
We spent three days in
The visit to
This time the train seemed more modern, quite clean, with
comfortable seats and excellent working air condition. And this time we made
sure to secure our seats in advance. As soon as we reached
Charley and Andree booked their room at the "Talisman", a
charming boutique hotel that had been recommended to them. I booked our rooms,
strangely enough and by pure coincidence, at another "Windsor Hotel". This one
The Windsor Hotel had a man operating the elevator, the old fashion way, to make sure no one gets hurt. The doors would always open a few inches before or after the elevator stopped and according to the owner, it was part of its charm. This hotel used to be a royal residence and the new owner had refused to change anything from its original settings, keeping the previous furniture, elevator and some other features as they had existed originally. Yet it was the good humor and warmth of its staff that enhanced the hotel's value. I found the hotel as a source of peace, friendliness and good will in the middle of this sea of chaos.
The time in
"Tallat Harb" street became my favorite, right from my
first visit. I found in it a variety of shops for all styles and budgets. It is
there that I first met "hasaballah" the fellow with bottle thick glasses,
standing behind his tiny desk, in this narrow alley, repairing pens, lighters,
glasses and many other items, usually considered disposable, but which are never
discarded by their Egyptian owners. Or miss Lamia who owns a nice stationery
shop which reminded me of my father's one in
An interesting souvenir shop is the "Om el Donya" (mother of the world), an elegant place, on the first floor of an old building, close to "Tahrir" square, where a couple of French expatriates opened a souvenir shop, with a unique concept catering primarily to tourists. All items seemed to be handpicked with the greatest care. Each piece is being one of a kind.
We wished we could buy the entire stock, but we resisted the temptation and got only a few souvenirs to bring home.
Jacques Leventhal visiting Tahrir Square in Cairo
Jacques Leventhal visiting Tahrir Square in Cairo
Another must is a visit to the world legendary "Khan
Khalil". This unique bazaar, with its mysterious labyrinth and hundred of
endless tiny shops in tortuous alleys selling their immense variety of
merchandise to tourists. All items being haggled with the owner of the shop
which makes me believe that the art of negotiating was probably initiated at the
khan khalil. It could be only compared to the no less famous "grand bazaar"
(boyuk bazaar) in
As in my previous trips, I did not miss having a meal at the famous "Felfela", a chain of low -priced restaurants, mostly catering to tourists, as well as locals all of them appreciating the authentic Egyptian dishes, such as the "molokheya", the national soup made of jute greens used as vegetable in middle eastern cuisine, but more popular in Egypt. It is a typical shredded soup served with rice and a choice of meat or the ever present "foul medamess", a hashed fava bean dish, served in any daily menu, with a boiled egg or with "falafel", these popular vegetable spicy balls. Among many residents, these dishes are served as breakfast, lunch and dinner.
We couldn't skip the natural juice vendors, at every corner of the streets, pressing out of the fruit while you wait. Sugar cane remains my favorite and on a previous visit I remember drinking three glasses in a row, only to find myself running to the first pharmacy and buy some tablets. Mango is my second best and its juice is so think you can eat it with a spoon. Unfortunately, due to time shortage, we had to save the visit of the pyramids and the sphynx for our next trip.
Maybe the most vivid experience of our stop in Cairo was the visit at the "Sufi" show, where a "dervish" danced, spinning and turning around himself, wearing a few layers of colorful skirts and whirling for more than two hours, at times by himself and at times joined by other dancers, always with a background group of musicians playing special flutes and drums. They did not stop for one minute shifting from one choreography to another driving completely insane the already overexcited crowd. People were screaming, clapping hands and whistling after every move of the lead dancer. The sound was at its highest decibel level and even after almost two weeks I still had this light humming in my ears.
This was for sure the highlight of our visit. Mia who wanted so much to see this show was ready to wait more than one hour at the doors of the theater, because the place was so jammed they did not want to let more people in. It took a lot of convincing, but we finally managed to enter and watch the show. We walked out of it completely fascinated and couldn't stop talking about it for days.
On the flight back I couldn't stop thinking that the trip was beyond any expectation. We saw more than we anticipated and every moment was full of memories, every minute was most enjoyable. We were indeed walking back on memory lane.
More than 60 years after I left
Will I ever visit
Cologny, 14 juillet 2012
AAHA = Amicale Alexandrie Hier et Aujourd'hui www.aaha.ch