AAHA = Amicale Alexandrie Hier et Aujourd'hui www.aaha.ch


Back to Alexandria, October 2009

By Jaques Leventhal

I always had the desire to re-visit Alexandria, especially after my first visit, with my friend Jacques Meyrav. Back in 1983 he convinced me at the time that the signing of the peace treaty, between Egypt and Israel, offers a unique opportunity to plunge back into memory lane, giving us the chance to absorb the smell and enjoy the colors of our beloved Alexandria." it's time we go back and visit our sources", he said, "to the places that shaped our youth".

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 Egypt. We first became acquainted with him at our school "Ecole de Menasce", where he was one of the students and where both Jacques Meyrav and I attended. Although considered as a Jewish school founded by the famous philanthropist Le Baron Jacques Behor de Menasce, Hebrew was not the primary language they taught. French came first, then English and Arabic. Hebrew came last and our Hebrew teacher, Mr. Pontremoli, was more confined to teach the Bible than Hebrew. Gabrallah, with his dark complexion from his Upper Egypt origins, stood up as the only non Jewish (Muslim) student among the rest of us. He was a mild, pleasant and courteous individual who made himself liked by all his class mates, in particular and the other students, in general. Did I mention he was a good student too?

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 "la Banque Belge" a well known financial institution and where one of our friends, Victor Acobas, was also employed. "Toto" ,as he was nicknamed by most of the "Alexandrines", was a popular journalist writing a gossip column in the "La Réforme illustrée", one of the local newspapers in the French language, but had also a part time job at the same bank which brought him close to Gabrallah. We met the Acobas family, after their immigration to Israel and Toto told us about his colleague who kept recalling his good old days at the Menasce School and about his fellow students. During this period, Meyrav was already working as a purser with El Al airlines and was traveling around the globe. He decided to take advantage of this information and wrote to Gabrallah, at the bank. This started a steady correspondence between Gabrallah and Meyrav, who would use his many trips overseas to write and receive letters without compromising any of the two. The address he used was always one of the hotels he was staying with the crew.

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 boy from Upper Egypt ended at the prominent Jewish school.

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 Egypt but it was always Cairo I was heading to, yet always  dreaming to return to Alexandria. Although I learned to like Cairo, despite its heavy traffic, its pollution, the lack of sanitation and general penuries, there was a spicy, oriental, Mediterranean flavor to this vibrant city which made it mystical as well as magnetizing. Nevertheless, it was Alexandria that kept my imagination and was filling my dreams. The occasion to visit it again came as a surprise when Charley, my old time buddy, who had moved to New York, after leaving Egypt, decided to go on a Niles cruise, with his charming wife. He suggested that I join him with my wife and I was quite tempted, but it was a too long and exhausting journey for Danny. Instead, I asked my daughter Mia if she would be interested. I didn't have to ask twice. She jumped at the opportunity, declaring: "this is a once in a life time occasion and I am not going to miss it". Mia was always game for anything exotic, oriental and out of the ordinary. I occasionally took her with me on some of my trips, but her favorite destinations were always Turkey, Jordan and Cyprus.

That is how 60 years after my departure from Alexandria I found myself in October 2009, accompanied by my daughter and my dear friends embarking in an unforgettable "pilgrimage".

Mia and I first landed in Cairo, where we spent the first night at the Sonesta, Heliopolis, recuperating from the late flight. We were so overwhelmed, thought, after only a couple of hours of rest we decided to  drive  to down town Cairo for Mia's first glance at this hive of 20 million people filling the streets day and night almost stepping on each other, denying stop signs, defying speedy cars, policemen and other traffic warnings. We came back to the hotel completely exhausted but entirely fulfilled.

The next day, aware that the Abramoff are on their way back from Luxor, we took the train to Alexandria, which was an experience in itself. All signs were in Arabic, which made it difficult to direct ourselves to the right ticket counter and the right train gate. Despite the hotel's concierge advice that we don't need advance reservation, especially if we travel first class, we found ourselves, together with a dozens of other people, waiting for last minute cancellations to get our seats. We finally made it, in a WWII compartment which saw better days. At least it had air condition and to my surprise it worked.

The scheduled two hours ride turned into three and half hours of endless stops, but we finally reached our destination. Alexandria is a lot different than Cairo, in more ways than one. The first thing that hits you is a nice breeze coming from the sea and which clears the existing pollution. It is definitely very calm and relaxed and people don't seem to be in a hurry.

The architecture is remindful of the times when the Italian community was one of the largest in Egypt, especially in Alexandria: big "piazzas", monumental statues and stylish buildings are scattered all over town, still holding their white stucco painting. In some of the  areas you would think you are in an Italian city. But its real beauty lies in the majestic "Corniche " extending from "Anfouchy", in the West to "Mandara", in the East, offering a breathtaking view of the bay headed by the monumental "Kait Bay" fort, standing there as a reminder of the former royalty. A string of consecutive beaches, each one with its own characteristics and style. Each one populated by a different crowd, according to their socio-demographic level make up this superb Corniche (boardwalk). Some of the tramway stations servicing these beaches still carry their ancient names, such as Mazarita, Camp Cesar, Stanley bay, Cleopatra (where I was born) reminder of the foreign communities' influence. And along them, local names such as Chatby, Ibrahmieh, Mandara, Maamoura and Montaza, ground of the famous king Farouk palace

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 Averoff Street, now called "Shohadaa", I became emotionally affected and soon I found myself holding back my tears. We had booked a room at the "Windsor" Hotel, facing the apartment I lived with my family, after moving from Ibn El Roshd Street. No words could describe this feeling, so many memories flashed in front of my eyes, standing in front of my previous apartment. As a child I used to peep at the hotel from the window of my room, asking myself if I will ever be able to enter this establishment, known at the time as one of the finest hotels in the city. I even described in one of the chapters of my book "White Houses and Red Roofs" how, that during one of the gathering of our youth group of "Hashomer Hatzair", in this same apartment, we heard the police surrounding the area and were convinced that they came to arrest us, because of our political activities, only to find out that a high official was a hotel guest and the police was merely there to protect him.

Charley and his wife booked the famous "Cecile" Hotel, now renamed the Sofitel. The Cecile was the hotel used by the intellectuals, the local elite and the wealthy tourists. During WWII it was mainly used by the high command of the British army. Both hotels were within walking distance, steps from the Corniche, which enabled us to visit each other quite easily.

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 Falaky Street, a few blocks from the hotel.

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 Alexandria with Gabrallah and my good friend Ami. As soon as I entered the shop she pointed at me and said: I remember you, when you came to see us in our house in "Agami" an affluent  suburb, in the outskirts of Alexandria  and where Gabrallah also had a summer house. 

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 Cairo, with my colleague Ami, but we were so eager to see Alexandria that we decided to hire a taxi and make a quick trip to this city. That is how Mahmoud's wife had met me previously.

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 Egypt and my father couldn't sell the property. He gave the keys to Mahmoud together with his blessings, before sailing to Marseille.

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 bought on Falaky Street, steps away from the shop. She also introduced us to a young man, present at the shop, and who turned to be her son, Mohammad.

It was the first time I met him, being born after my departure from Egypt. He told us that he went to study in Paris and came back only after his father's death to assist his mother. Not surprisingly, after having spent many years in France, his French was most fluent and we had an easy time communicating.

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 cousin Georges Moustaki, called Jo at these times, lived on Sesostris Street. A plate on the wall of the building serves as a reminder

We saw our previous apartment, on Ibn el Roshd Street, in downtown Alexandria, where Charley and I lived as neighbors and where our long lasting friendship started. 

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 Nebi Daniel Street which stands as imposing and holy as the years before. This synagogue, with its beautiful architecture and its huge garden, is well guarded by the Egyptian police and is only allowed to be visited at certain hours and by presenting a passport. Not being aware of these arrangements, we were refused entrance and were asked to return the next day properly equipped.

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 Russia, some in Ukraine and some others in Romania, only because my father's brother, uncle Pascal, was indeed born in Romania, but this is a totally different story. A bit later, the clerk came back ,with a piece of paper on which it was written:

"Abraham Leventhal, son of Herman Leventhal and Sarah Goldberg was born, December 21, 1888, in Alexandria"

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 Alexandria's new library, the "Bibliotheca Alexandrina" a major and most modern library and cultural center located on the shore of the Mediterranean Sea. "It is both a commemoration of the ancient library of Alexandria that was lost in antiquity and an attempt to rekindle something of the brilliance that this earlier center of study and erudition represented" (Wikipedia). It is a whole cultural complex attracting visitors from all over the world housing developments in the media, literature, videos endowing the Mediterranean region with a center of cultural and scientific excellence. We enjoyed a wonderful afternoon at its beautiful coffee shop facing the sea before returning at the hotel.

We spent three days in Alexandria where every building, every garden, every stone had a link to our past. We looked with great awe, but also with some sadness for what they had become. We touched them, smiled at them, trying to remember streets' names, movie houses, restaurants and beaches. We were filled with emotion, keeping reminding each other: "This is where we did this or that" or "this is where we lived, went to school, to the movies, ate, prayed "We forced ourselves to relive some of the happy days of our youth and as I thought to myself "Would I be ready to come back, at least for a few weeks every year to relive these moments"?

The visit to Alexandria was coming to an end and the last day, just before taking the train back to Cairo, Charley and I decided to have one more glance at the Corniche. Our taxi driver turned out to be very nice and accepted to drive as slow as possible to give us a chance to let us enjoy every moment, like savoring a cup of good Turkish coffee "mazbout", not too sweet and not too sour. He was surprised to listen to our versions of each section, station and beach, while we drove through them. He was too young to remember our past history and he tried to explain why names were changed and why people shifted from one section to another. Montaza and the royal palace were at the end of the road and it was time to return to the hotel, to pick up our luggage and head for the railway station. 

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 Cairo we faced the same mess, chaos and pollution. Everything that contributes to give this city the look of a huge dump.

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 in Cairo, facing coffee shops where men sat for hours, smoking their water pipes, "shisha" as they are called in Egypt. I was always fascinated and tried to gather enough courage to smoke one of them, but never did.

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 Cairo was not as enjoyable as the one in Alexandria, except for Andree who was born there and felt about it the same way as Charley and I felt in Alexandria. I saw Cairo as a stop on the way home, but still used these few days to get reacquainted with some of the places I had visited during my previous trips.

"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 Alexandria. But I couldn't miss the famous "Groppi", once Cairo's playground for high society, when it was considered the world's ritziest tea room, now reduced to a dull coffee shop where people stop for a "mazbout", the sugar moderate Turkish style coffee. Tourists stop for a soda, or to use the relatively clean toilet where an attendant, at the door, will ask 25 piasters (less than an American quarter) to hand you a paper towel.

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

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 Istanbul, although each of them has some distinguished characteristics. 

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 Alexandria, as a teenager, with a suitcase and a bicycle, I returned with my daughter and my dearest friends to close a chapter so significant in my life.

Will I ever visit Alexandria again? I kept thinking of what the Egyptians always say: "he who drinks the water of the Nile shall return to drink again" and I say : inch'Allah.



Cologny, 14 juillet 2012


AAHA = Amicale Alexandrie Hier et Aujourd'hui www.aaha.ch