Jewish and bourgeois in the Levant

A peek at the life of Egyptian Jews in the first half of the 20th century.

RLETTE SIDES with her daughter in Ras el-Bar, Egypt, in 1953 (photo credit: DR. LIAT SIDES'S PRIVATE FAMILY ALBUMS)
RLETTE SIDES with her daughter in Ras el-Bar, Egypt, in 1953
‘I was surprised by how emotional I became during my research about the immigration of Egyptian Jews to Israel. I understand my late mother so much better now,” reveals Dr. Liat Sides.
“My mother died of cancer, but the entire time she was sick, she insisted that she was healthy. She completely disregarded all the tests that showed that the cancer had spread throughout her body: ‘I’m not sick. This is the way I choose to live.’ I think this is a result of her outlook having grown up in the Levant.”
Sides, a researcher of visual culture who lectures at various academic institutions, recently presented a lecture titled, “PhotoLevant – Bourgeois Egyptian Jewry from the first half of the 20th century: A look at family albums.” The lecture summarized research Sides carried out on photo albums that affluent Jewish families brought with them when they made aliya from Egypt. One of Sides’s main motivations for delving into this subject was the death of her mother, Arlette Sides, who died recently at the age of 89.
“At first, I thought that Levantism was a negative ideology that was focused purely on superficial forms, such as mannerisms, language and food – that it described something primitive.”
The research study began when Arlette mistakenly thought a photograph in a book was a picture of herself. During her research, Sides looked at hundreds of photographs of Jewish families who came to Israel from Cairo.
“My family, which was part of the bourgeois Jewish community in Cairo, became the focus of my research. I read lots of literature on the subject, such as works by the wonderful writer Ronit Matalon, whose family was from Egypt, and Yitzhak Gormezano Goren, who writes about Alexandria.
I also studied works by American authors Lucette Lagnado, Orly Castel-Bloom and Rachel Maccabi.”
Where did you find all these photographs?
“I met with many people whose parents hailed from Egypt, and I especially focused on the Cairo community, where my family is from, too. This is where all the wealthy Jewish families lived. Jews arrived in Cairo from all around the Ottoman Empire at the end of the 19th century, and they all left for Israel when the State of Israel was created in 1948.
“Many of the photographs were taken at the beach, or with the sea in the background,” Sides explains. “What I discovered is that the wealthy Jews would vacation in Alexandria for three months every summer. They would just leave the city and their house, just like the French would go to the French Riviera. The beach was a symbol of culture, and showed that they were wealthy enough to spend time idly at the seaside.
“There were also photos of families posing in front of the pyramids or the Sphinx in Giza. All of these photographs were completely orchestrated. I never found any spontaneous pictures or images with random people appearing in them.
“For Jewish bourgeois families, these photographs were extremely important. They were a way to portray themselves to others as people who could afford to take lavish vacations, pay Muslim Arabs to let them sit on their donkeys, and stage photographs showing off their status. I also found individual portraits that were taken in a professional photography studio, which was a common practice among the bourgeois Jews of Cairo, who were adamant about showing others how modern and worldly they were.”
Sides gave her first lecture on the subject in her hometown of Beersheba.
“This is also the city where my father, Albert Sides, died when I was just four-and-a-half years old,” Sides notes. “He died in a work accident at the Makhteshim factory. He was filling in for a friend on a night shift. The focus of the lecture will be to explain the special visual and aesthetic sides of the Egyptian Jewish community. By using photographs, I’d like to try to focus on the visible as well as the hidden.”
What surprised Sides the most as she examined hundreds of photographs was “mainly the idea that there was a connection between the term ‘Levantine,’ which can be used to describe the Egyptian Jewish community, and the phenomenon of modern photography. What I am attempting to prove is that the photographing of ‘Levantinization’ was not only a tool for the documenting of a culture, but of the preservation, strengthening and generating of culture.
“I’m still investigating this topic, and also considering the term Levantine in a theoretical and even political context. If at one point I considered Levantine a derogatory term, today I understand that it’s a deep concept with great potential for action.”
“When the Egyptian Jews arrived in Israel, they were lumped together with all the other ‘Eastern’ Jewish communities that originated in a variety of countries around the Middle East,” explains Sides. “This in effect erased all of the Egyptian Jewish community’s unique characteristics. I also think that the Egyptians were the least stereotypical. There are plenty of jokes about Moroccans, but you never hear jokes about the Egyptian Jews.”
How did you feel as you combed through your family’s photo albums?
“First of all, I was very moved when I saw the stunning pictures of my beautiful mother. These photos could have been published in Vogue magazine. I guess my family has very quality DNA,” Sides says with a wink.
“I was also able to see through these photographs how much love and sensitivity existed within my family and how my aesthetic grandfather was the dominant figure in the family. I also loved observing the fashion trends. It was a true history lesson.”
Translated by Hannah Hochner.