chapter  1
In a bizarre country: the Jews of Egypt and the Alliance Israélite Universelle Neither Eastern, nor Western: turn- of-the- century Egyptian Jews
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As the investigations were rather slow and in the meantime the local authorities were doing nothing to protect the Jews, Moise Solomon and the Rabbi Moise Seroussi decided to ask for the help of two Jewish notables: Jacques Menasce Cattaoui of Cairo and Ibrahim Piha of Alexandria.3 Despite their promises to follow the affair, neither of them did anything, ‘because everyone only thinks of his own interests and not of the common one’. At this point, Solomon and Seroussi decided it was time to appeal to the AIU – a French Jewish institution known for its educational and philanthropic activities all over the Middle East and North Africa. The two called for the help of the Alliance, ‘since the local authorities never stop questioning us [. . .] about these issues and we cannot stand such barbaric acts anymore in Egypt, that nowadays can be considered to be part of Europe’.4 Despite a number of grammar and spelling mistakes, Solomon and Seroussi managed to write in French to authoritative coreligionists living in a country, France, where they thought such barbaric acts did not happen. They also explained how Egypt, at the time ruled by Khedive Isma’il and formally still part of the Ottoman Empire, was for them almost part of Europe. But what did that

mean? Did the two refer to the increased Egyptian involvement in global commerce and exchange that followed the opening of the Suez Canal? Was theirs just a rhetorical statement meant to impress the AIU in Paris? Be that as it may, this letter subtly introduces one of the recurring traits of the description that AIU teachers would soon start to give of Egyptian Jews and that, in turn, the latter would often give of themselves: neither stereotypical Orientaux nor proper Europeans, but a community in the middle of multiple worlds and legacies. Although until now the Egyptian experience of the AIU has been viewed as scarcely relevant – first, because of the briefness of its presence in Egypt – in this chapter I will argue that it is, on the contrary, an interesting point of departure for better understanding the history of the Egyptian Jews and the processes of social and cultural change that they underwent. By looking at the Egyptian schools of the AIU and the activities that surrounded them, I will uncover important aspects of Jewish communal and cultural life in early twentieth-century Egypt. Moreover, I will also demonstrate how it was through, and against, this institution and its schools that the Jews gradually started to negotiate for themselves a multifaceted imaginary that tried to keep together European modernity and local traditions, Judaism and bourgeois ideals, a long-lasting tradition of Mediterranean transcommunalism and twentieth-century nationalisms.