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Egypt in Unsettled Times: For Georges Moustaki

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Ron Levi

Georges Moustaki, Jewish émigré from Alexandria and famed French singer, died May 23 in France at age 79.

To the contemporaries of his youth, Moustaki reflected the cosmopolitan and polyglot Jewish community that made its home in Egypt until the political after-shocks of the 1952 Egyptian Revolution.

For a community marked by interruption and displacement, to listen to Georges Moustaki, born Joseph (Giuseppe) Mustacchi, was to be transported to the loves, lives, and sensory experiences of a world of Egyptian Jewish life.

If not always about Alexandria, Moustaki's songs were of Alexandria. Though he spoke of being buried in Alexandria, Moustaki is now interred in the Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris, among the most prominent artists in the history of France.

Moustaki left Egypt in his late teens, at a time when much of the Jewish commu-nity was leaving the country (whether voluntarily or coerced).

His death coincides with fresh losses for those Jewish Egyptians – between 20 and 40 in all – who remain in the country.

Last month, Carmen Weinstein, leader of the community who tenaciously ensured that its cultural heritage remains in Alexandria and Cairo, died at the age of 82. Reports suggest that her successor, Magda Haroun – the daughter of lawyer and communist activist Chehata Haroun – has learned that she may have to do without the budget of $14,000 that the cash-strapped Egyptian Ministry of Social Affairs had been providing to this elderly community of Jewish women.

Moustaki’s life and career in France were bracketed by the two most signifi-cant political events in modern Egypt. Having left Egypt in the months leading up to the 1952 revolution, Moustaki’s death has come in the aftermath of its 2011 Revolution.

The aspirational April 6 movement that occupied Tahrir Square two short years ago – and that originally supported Mohamed Morsi’s party – is now planning a protest by the presidential palace, over the failures of the Morsi government to realize their democratic ambitions one year after his inauguration.

Amnesty International and U.S. State Department reports find that minorities, notably Coptic Christians, face exclusion and discrimination, and are at risk of sec-tarian violence.

Young Egyptians live with staggering unemployment figures of over 40 per cent for the youngest adults, and tourism is at rock bottom, with few if any projected sources of revenue or economic growth.

Tahrir Square, the site of the 2011 revolution that included many young women, is now a place where young women risk their safety on a daily basis. The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights has lamented the Egyptian gov-ernment’s moves to constrain civil socie-ty organizations and the judiciary, and warns of the “truly tragic development” that could occur in Egypt’s future. Just last week, this potential became vividly apparent, with an Egyptian court convict-ing dozens of NGO workers and requiring the closure and asset seizure of five for-eign civil society groups working in the country.

Sociologist Ann Swidler finds that dur-ing unsettled times, there is an explosion of creative energy and cultural innovation, and norm entrepreneurs develop competing ideas for how we might build institutions and imagine our lives. In the unsettled moment of today's Egypt, avant-garde voices within the country are drawing on elements of Egypt’s past to offer an alternative repertoire for its future.

As is so often the case, this innovation is happening in the cultural industries. If émigrés held on to memories in their mind's eye and sought sensory experiences of foods and faraway flora, for young Egyptians, the collective memory of local Jews is constrained to what Pierre Nora calls lieux de memoire: places of memory such as harat al yahud (the Jewish alley) now a run-down commercial area in Cairo, the neglected Bassatine cemetery, or the re-stored synagogues of Cairo. Visible to a new generation of artists – inheritors of Moustaki one might say – these are providing the cultural materials to re-shape symbolic and social boundaries within the country.

Take Ana Albi Dalili (My heart is my guide), a soap opera that chronicles the life of the Jewish-born Egyptian superstar actress and singer Laila Murad, which debuted over Ramadan in 2009.

In her time Murad, who was often cast in Egyptian film as an undiscovered girl from the middle class – captured the hearts and dreams of Egyptian moviegoers of the 1940s. Murad later found herself under suspicion of divided loyalties in relation to Egypt and Israel, and despite denying these went on to live most of her adult life far from the public eye.

Through Ana Albi Dalili, the character of Laila Murad has gained a new and wide audience, with this Egyptian production captivating watchers on domestic screens and beyond. While questions have been raised about the show’s portrayal of her life and origins, the star whose song rang for the 1952 revolution was here returned to a wide reception, in the time preceding the 2011 revolution.

And now, on the big screen, an Egyp-tian filmmaker, Amir Ramses, has taken up the story of the Jewish community as a lens into understanding a cosmopolitan world that was Egypt in the early 20th century. With the documentary film having survived a battle with the Egyptian censorship board, filmgoers in Alexandria and Cairo have seen the Jews of Egypt in first-run theatres, including at the Re-naissance Theatres by the Nile River.

Here too, questions have been raised about the film’s nationalist emphasis on Jews who left for Europe rather than Isra-el. But based on accounts of filmgoers, in daring to revive the memory of Egyptian Jews, the film still invokes the story of an otherwise unspoken community, and with it a possible alternative account of an Egyptian future.

As Joseph Fahim concludes in his review for Variety Arabia, Ramses’ film “represents a relic of a past that seems more distant than it actually is.”

In Les Mères Juives (Jewish Mothers) Georges Moustaki sang to us about his mother’s vigilance in watching over him, decade after decade, and the overwhelm-ing absence of her voice in his old age. In Moustaki’s own disappearance perhaps there is an opportunity to hear him in the present day work of young Egyptian cul-tural innovators: to hear how the vibrancy of an earlier time, then embattled in the changing politics of decolonization and nationalism, may provide the cultural materials for a new conversation within today’s post-Revolutionary, and unsettled, Egypt.

Ron Levi is a professor at the Munk School of Global Affairs at the University of Toronto, where he holds the George Ignatieff Chair of peace and conflict studies. His parents both left Egypt during the same years as Georges Moustaki.

 

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