Writer Viviane Bowell: “I am and will always be an Egyptian Jew”

Interview by Vernas Hefzy

Writer Viviane Bowell: "I am and will always be an Egyptian Jew"

The lover always searches, checks, and remembers the details, which is what the Jewish writer of Egyptian descent did, Viviane Bowell.

Viviane did not forget the smell of jasmine in Egypt, and she also did not forget the color of the sea in Alexandria; she still remembers Cafe Riche and Groppi.

She is still caressed by her nostalgia on Thursday nights, and Umm Kulthum’s voice is on the radio as he comes out of the balconies of the houses to fill the heart with love.

She is also still cooking molokhia, koshary, and Umm Ali…

All these memories, and even more, were collected by Vivane in her book “To Egypt with love” to document a particular part of Egyptian history.

Writer Viviane Bowell: "I am and will always be an Egyptian Jew"

First, tell us about yourself?

My name is Viviane Bowell. I was born and brought up in Cairo and left Egypt with my family in 1956 due to the Suez crisis. We came to England as refugees.

Writer Viviane Bowell: "I am and will always be an Egyptian Jew"

Tell us about your memories of Egypt and your family’s memories?

My parents are no longer alive, so I can’t talk about their memories. However, I have many memories of Egypt – the sound of the muezzin calling the faithful to prayer, the busy, noisy streets, radios always blaring, people talking to each other across balconies, the street vendors constantly shouting and praising their wares, all the fruits that were available, such as the black, yellow and red dates, the succulent figs, Ismailia melons and all the varieties of fragrant mangoes.

I also remember the many festivals such as Sham El Nessim, Mouled El Nabi, and halawat El Mouled, and the tradition of Arouset El Mouled, when a wooden doll was symbolically thrown in the Nile. Also, I visit my family every day, the French Lycée school in Bab-el-luk and the khamsin wind when everything was covered in dust.

Writer Viviane Bowell: "I am and will always be an Egyptian Jew"

Are there situations you still remember in Egypt?

I remember the numerous cafes where men sat for hours smoking the shisha and playing tawla, the road to the Pyramids, which was just a desert road at the time, my first glimpse of the blue sea when we went on holiday to Alexandria, the Thursday concerts of Um Kulthum, where everything stopped for a few hours while people listened to her incredible voice coming through the radio.

Tell us about your book ”To Egypt with love,” and why did you choose to write about your memories of Egypt?

I wrote the book for several reasons. I had a happy childhood in Cairo, a wonderfully cosmopolitan city at the time, with many department stores, patisseries, tea rooms, sporting clubs, an opera house, etc. I wanted to share this and make people aware of how modern Cairo was. Also, at the time, there was a thriving Jewish community numbering 80,000 people, when today, there are only a handful of Jews left. I felt it was important to talk about the traditions and customs of my community. Otherwise, it will be forgotten entirely and will sink into oblivion. It is presented on Amazon so that the Egyptians can read it as well.

What is the reason why you left Egypt?

We were expelled in 1956 due to the Suez crisis because my mother had a British passport.

Have you visited Egypt since?

I went back in 1994. Cairo had changed beyond recognition, but after initially adjusting, I began to feel at home there. I even managed to find the street and the block of flats where we lived.

Do you remember places in Egypt?

Groppi tearooms, Cafe Riche, The Mena House hotel with the beautiful scent of the jasmine flowers in the gardens. Alexandria and the white sand and blue sea of Sidi Bischr, Ras-el-Bar where we sometimes went for the summer, the Esbekiah gardens, the Al Azhar mosque, the Nile corniche, the Tewfikieh Sporting Club, the many cinemas showing American and French films, such as the Diana, Metro and Rivoli, the Cicurel department stores, Sednaoui, Orosdi-Back, and many many others.

Do you remember Egyptian foods?

Of course, and I still cook them. Molokekhia, koshari, ta’ameya hot from the stand, ful medammes, Egyptian bread, bamia, basbousa, and my favorite, ma’amoul stuffed with dates.

Who is your favorite Egyptian writer?

Nawal Ed Saadawi. She was never afraid to speak out, and she was very charismatic. I once watched an interview on the BBC, and she made a significant impression on me.

Who is your favorite Egyptian singer?

Warda Al-Jazairia, or simply Warda. I know that she was Algerian Lebanese strictly speaking, but she was well known for her Egyptian Arabic songs. My favorite is batwanis beek.

What do you think of the Egyptian football player Mohamed Sarah?

I admire him and respect him. Not only is he an amazingly talented football player, but he has also helped put Egypt on the map.

Are you looking at Egypt’s political views at the moment?

I don’t get involved in politics at all, whether in Egypt or anywhere else. However, I listen to Egyptian TV series every day, especially the Ramadan musalsalat. My favorite actress is Nelly Karim.

How has leaving Egypt affected you, both emotionally and in general?

Leaving Egypt has definitely affected me, and I had not realized how much until I wrote my book. It has left me feeling uprooted and with a certain loss of identity. I am British, but I spent my formative years in Egypt, which has shaped me and influenced who I am.

If you had your time again, would you prefer to live in Egypt?

Only if we could put the clock back and make Egypt what it was once, which is, of course, impossible. However, I am and always will be an Egyptian Jew in my heart. To the young Egyptians of today, I would like to say look after Egypt and take care of it, it is a beautiful country, despite all the problems and the politics.

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