How a poor Jew from Egypt made his own luck

Book Review by Lyn Julius
Sixty years ago this year, following the November 1956 Suez crisis, the Egyptian president, Gamal Abdel Nasser unleashed a campaign of persecution against his country's Jewish citizens. Within a year, 25,000 Jews - almost half the remaining community - had left Egypt. Jacques Sardas was among them.

Now in his eighties and living in the American south after a successful career at Goodyear, the tyre maker, he was persuaded by his grandchildren to set down his compelling stories in book form.

Many Jews from Egypt - the best known include Andre Aciman and Lucette Lagnado - have published their memoirs in recent years, but 'Without Return' is an autobiography with a difference. The Egyptian Jewish community is renowned for its bourgeois affluence and sophistication.  But Jacques Sardas's family of Greek-speaking Jews stands out for being poor. As a child, he remembers the rudimentary conditions in which his family lived in Alexandria: the four children sharing a room, the washing facilities a drain in the corner of the kitchen. His father, an itinerant fabric salesman,  has no regular  income. Often the children do not have enough to eat.  His long-suffering mother sews long into the night to repair her family 's clothing. The children attend schools founded by the rich for the benefit of the Jewish poor.

Jacques' mercurial father is less well-educated than his wife but in cosmopolitan Egypt still manages to speak 10 languages. He is prone to Levantine fits of temper, cursing his wife's family for their financial woes. He is also comically superstitious, planting cloves of garlic under the children's mattresses and spitting on priests' cassocks in the street because their contact with the dying is thought to bring bad luck. Nevertheless, the pre-WW2 atmosphere is carefree and the neighbourhood's children have fun together.

When Jacques is barely 10, tragedy strikes - his mother dies suddenly. His father re-marries and the family move to Cairo.

In Egypt's ethnic salad of Greeks, Jews, Armenians, Maltese, Italians, Syrians and Arabs, the antisemitism comes mainly from Christians - at one stage, the family are harassed by malevolent Syrian orthodox neighbours - but the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood impacts on them too.  Jews are beaten up in the streets by Muslim Brotherhood gangs as Zionists. They must use their streetwise guile to survive, and Jacques has it in spades.

Jacques 's spirit and energy come over in the book but he modesty attributes his ability to survive tricky situations to a 'lucky' birthmark which he rubs like Aladdin's lamp. A keen sportsman, he leads a pupils' strike at his Cairo school until the staff agree to setting up a schools basketball team. He punches his way out of a Muslim Brotherhood ambush. (So impressive is he that he earns the respect of the gang leader.) He dreams of becoming a doctor: "I wanted to break the mould and be the first in the family to get to a higher caste. ' But money worries force him to go out to work as a clerk in Jewish-owned retail businesses and, haunted by memories of deprivation, he almost breaks up with his girlfriend Etty.

When Jews withdraw large sums of money in readiness for their post-Suez exodus, gangs lie in wait to rob them. But Jacques manages to outfox them. He and Etty, bound for a new life in  Brazil, must bid goodbye to Egypt. Even though he has a Greek passport, his exit visa bears the words 'No return' - testimony to the Nasser regime's flagrant antisemitism. It rankles with Jacques that he will never be allowed back to the country of his birth.

Compellingly and charmingly written, Without Return is a testament to Jacques' resourcefulness and determination to survive against all odds. And not just survive, but make the best of life.
'Without Return: Memoirs of an Egyptian Jew 1930 - 1957' by Jacques Sardas (Thebes Press 2017, paperback $17.95)