Joe Pessah was born in Cairo, Egypt to a large Karaite family of seven children. Together they lived on a street that was named Farouk, but later changed to al-Jaish or “The Army Street.” Joe’s family had lived in Egypt for generations, tracing his lineage possibly from Russia, Istanbul and Israel.
Joe has vivid memories of his grandparents who were to him “like saints,” full of wisdom. Though they had little money, Joe says that they were rich with humility. As a poor schoolgirl, Joe’s mother watched the other children with new clothes while she wore tattered shoes even during the winters.
There were many pleasant aspects of life in Egypt for Joe. He would visit his synagogue every evening, where many of his favorite memories took place. He remembers spending summers on the Egyptian shore and dancing at night. Joe says that he owes the fond aspects of Jewish life to his ancestors who built a legacy contributing to Egyptian art, film, health and economy. This legacy kept the momentum going even though the departure of the Jews was relatively abrupt.
Joe was also raised with pride for his Karaite heritage. Shabbat for the Karaites, or Karaim in Hebrew, is very strict, which helped them to feel the holiness of Shabbat. Joe’s family would walk to the synagogue and his mother would tell stories from the Torah and prepare traditional Karaite food that did not need heating, as Karaite tradition forbids lighting a flame before shabat to be used throughout the day. Foods included stuffed chicken and tagarine, a noodle resembling angel hair, and bamya or okra and rice. Joe’s fondest memories of Egypt include smelling the aroma of za’atar, a Middle Eastern spice.
Although the Karaites are an insular sect of the Jewish community, Joe says that whether the Karaites and the other Jews intermingled depends on the point in history. During his own childhood in Egypt he had many friends who were Rabbinic, non-Karaite Jews. While Rabbinic and Karaite Jews were allowed to be friends, marriage was forbidden between the two in order to preserve their traditions. Thus, while assimilation was not a threat, the real threat was that Karaites might lose their ancient traditions. Karaite Bar Mitzvahs were unique in that the boys did not have large celebrations like other Jewish boys and Karaite music was different.
Joe remains dazzled by the story of how his parents became married. Due to the Egyptian custom of the women paying a dowry before marriage, Joe’s mother had little chance of marrying a well-established man. Still, she accompanied a friend to visit Joe’s father, an affluent dentist. During the visit, Joe’s father fell in love with his mother and vowed to marry her regardless of her wealth. After that, Joe’s father established an organization to benefit impoverished women who hoped to get married.
Joe’s mother cared for the family, encouraged her children to perform well in school and she protected the children from intensifying anti-Semitism in the country. Joe recalls an incident as a twelve-year-old when his father asked him to buy groceries in the Jewish Quarter. Along the way, a Muslim boy blocked his path and harassed him. Traumatized by the experience, Joe was fearful that a similar incident would happen again.
Throughout his childhood, anti-Jewish sentiment continued to take a toll on Joe’s life and his psyche. He remembers waking at the break of dawn to watch Jewish families flee to the train station in order to leave Egypt. Joe became afraid of making friends for fear that they would leave like the others. Joe felt discrimination at school. As a boy studying Arabic, Joe was determined to become first in his class. Joe’s teacher, however, continuously made Joe second, for he did not believe Joe was a true Egyptian and he did not believe Arabic was his true language. Joe remembers bowing down his head helplessly and crying, “What can I do!”
In 1952, what had been anti-British colonial riots became anti-Jewish riots in Cairo. Joe watched as a mob forced its way into his school, across the street from his home. He witnessed soldiers barricade the school’s gates and a mob destroying all shops displaying signs in English.
The year before the Suez Canal Crisis of 1956, Joe remembers the situation for Jews in Egypt declining rapidly. The Egyptians attacked what they called a spy ring for Israel, whose leaders were a Karaite, Dr. Moshe Marzouk in Cairo and Eliezar in Alexandria. Their public hanging was one of the most tragic milestones of Joe’s life. He became very upset after the Egyptian media reported how long Dr. Marzouk’s pulse ran before he died.
In 1967, the Six-Day War between Egypt and other Arab States and Israel was felt on Cairo’s streets. Students were trained to use guns and all of Egypt was mobilized for the destruction of Israel. Joe listened as the radio disseminated lies about the War, as Egypt had a history of lying about warfare between the Israeli and Egyptian armies. Still, Joe chose not to abandon his life in Egypt for the hope that things would get better.
One morning, Joe was awoken by his mother crying that al mabahith amn al-dawla, the Egyptian national secret police had taken his father. Joe’s family was told that his father would only be in custody for brief questioning. What was supposed to be three minutes of questioning became three years behind bars. Joe feared that he and his brother, who were both students at the University of Cairo, would be taken by the authorities as well. For one month Joe and his brother hid within their home for fear of being attacked. One day Joe received a knock at the door of his family’s home. A mob gathered Joe, his brother and his cousin, who had been taking cover in Joe’s home as well. The young men were taken to police headquarters for interrogation with just two boxes of university supplies to prove that they were only students, not Israeli spies.
Joe and his brother were interrogated for over 6 hours but were not charged with any crime. Still, Joe, his brother and his cousin were sent to a concentration camp for Egyptian Jewish men, known as Tora.
The conditions at Tora were torturous. Upon entering the camp, every man’s head was shaved. All prisoners slept on the floor with just a sheet as a mattress, one set of clothes and one utensil to eat with. Joe and his fellow prisoners kept sane by challenging each other to trivia and other mind games.
Additionally, the guarded camp held its prisoners in collective cells, although Jews and Muslims were separated. During his recesses, Joe befriended imprisoned members of the Muslim Brotherhood. Joe was inspired by how the Muslim Brotherhood conducted itself and supported each other. Though Joe admits that the relationship between the Jews and the Muslim Brotherhood has since changed, he claims that he was able to maintain a relationship with them insofar as he understood that Jews at the time were not their primary enemy. During that era, the Muslim Brotherhood’s priority was to establish a system of Islamic religious law in place of Egypt’s secularist government in order to set a standard for the rest of the world to follow. This meant that, for now, the Jews and the Muslim Brotherhood could live within Tora in harmony.
Joe spent most nights dreaming of freedom. Older prisoners tried to boost the morale of their younger peers with talk of their impending release. Joe still had hope that he would one day be freed. The Jews were granted benefits from the guards by aiding them with their skills and talents. Joe says that this made him feel free. Together, Joe and the other prisoners learned to sing the Israeli national anthem, Hatikva.
The highlight of each month was when Joe’s fiancé, Remy, would come to visit. At just 19, Remy remained loyal to Joe and advocated for his release with regular visits to the police and the Red Cross. Remy, determined to marry Joe, surprised him one day with two wedding rings and a Rabbi. Separated by prison bars, the two got married.
Joe was the first to discover that the Jews would be liberated. Joe had friends who worked within the civil prison. One such worker cleaned the commander’s room, and promised to alert Joe when the officers began discussing the Jews’ release. With pride, Joe announced to his Jewish friends that their release was near. Soon after, they were freed.
With only the equivalent of $5 in their pockets, the liberated Jewish men were not allowed to stay in Egypt. They were immediately transported to the airport for deportation. Joe recalls with amazement how he could have slept on a prison floor hours before airplane stewardesses served him hot chocolate and other treats he had not had in years. After Joe landed in France, Remy joined him several days later. The Jewish community in France learned about Joe’s story and offered to organize a second wedding celebration for the couple. As Joe was the oldest son, Joe’s mother was upset that she was not able to attend his wedding. She then organized yet another wedding for Joe and Remy once they arrived in the United States. Joe laughs about the situation today as he recalls that he and Remy have been married three times.
Joe''s story of imprisonment in Tora was one story among the stories of close to 500 Egyptian Jewish male internees who were forced into the Abu Zaabal and Tora prison camps during the immediate aftermath of the Six-Day war. The only crime commited by the men imprisoned by the Egyptian government was that they were Jews.
Today, Joe likens the injustices he experienced as an Egyptian Jew to those of the biblical Israelites inflicted by Pharaoh. The lives of Egyptian Jews were made bitter; their belongings were confiscated, their heritage erased and their generations of contributions to Egypt were deemed meaningless. But Joe says it is a part of Judaism to not live in the past, but to live within the present.
Joe says he is both happy and sad to be out of Egypt. It saddens him that people continue to die in Egypt for political reasons. Hatred is still taught in Egyptian schools and depicted in the media—a different ‘weapon of mass destruction.’ He cherishes his dear memories and he knows deep in his heart that Egyptians are kind people. Until the killings among brothers come to an end, Joe will dream of the day Egypt and Israel lives side by side in peace.
JIMENA’s Oral History and Digital Experience Website Project was created in 2010 to record and preserve the testimonies and narratives of Jews displaced from the Middle East and North Africa. This project enables former Mizrahi and Sephardic refugees an opportunity to assert their history and document their stories of human rights abuse, denationalization, displacement, fractured identities, material losses, resettlement and integration in new societies. The project also provides an opportunity for participants to preserve their positive memories and document their rich traditions as practiced in the countries their ancestors lived for over 2,500 years. For many participants, this is the first time they have talked openly about their experiences as Jewish refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. All of JIMENA’s Oral History testimonies and associated materials are transcribed and digitally preserved for the benefit of researchers and to provide the public with access to information on Jews from the Middle East and North Africa.