Manfred Gerstenfeld

THE PACHA’S HOUSE, THE MEMOIRS OF AN ISRAELI WOMAN IN CAIRO : A BOOK REVIEW OF MICHELLE MAZEL BY DR.MANFRED GERSTENFELD…….

A book review by Dr.Manfred Gerstenfeld on a very interesting book by Michelle Mazel, the wife of former Israeli Ambassador to Egypt Zvi Mazel, on her often unpleasant experiences in Egypt.  It was published in the Jewish Political Studies Review. The review is republished here with the author’s permission.

With such media and social climates, the possibilities for Egyptians to form independent opinions on Israel is minimal. In this context, Michèle’s stories become understandable. One sad example recalls that in the garden of the ambassador’s residence garden grew a large number of succulent mangoes. The lady of the house wanted to give them away to the Egyptian soldiers guarding the perimeters of the villa. Egyptians warned her not to do so, because if a soldier were to get sick it would be claimed that she had poisoned them.

Michèle Mazel, La Maison du Pacha; Souvenirs d’une Israélienne au Caire [The Pacha’s House – Memories of an Israeli Woman in Cairo], (Jerusalem, Editions Elkana, 2014) 250 pages.

Manfred Gerstenfeld

Dr.Manfred Gerstenfeld

In the early 1980s, The Jerusalem Post occasionally published articles by a then-unknown writer Michèle Mazel about her impressions of Egypt. Michèle is the wife of the since-retired Israeli diplomat Zvi Mazel, who at the time was the counselor at the Israeli embassy in Cairo. The articles drew public attention because of Michèle’s interesting observations and pleasant writing style.

Michèle went on to publish novels. Her latest book proves that her articles were but a preview of her poignant impressions of Egypt. The Pacha’s House relates a wide range of issues the Mazels dealt with while residing in Cairo. They lived there from 1980, when the embassy first opened, until 1983, and then returned for another five years, from 1996-2001, when Zvi was the Israeli ambassador to Egypt. His assignment ended a few days before the mass murders of 9/11 took place, about which the author writes that they were celebrated in Cairo with “explosions of joy.”

Michèle mentions a particular characteristic which may perhaps best describe life in Egypt. She recounts an anecdote in which an Egyptian salesman comes to Madrid and explains the meaning of the Arabic word “bukra” to his Spanish host, which can be translated as “if God wills it”. The Egyptian continues, “it’s a bit like ‘mañana’ in Spanish, but without the urgency of that word.” As the word “mañana”, to Spanish psyche, means “never”, one can only imagine what can possibly be less urgent than that.

The house of the Pacha, which gave the book its title, was the residence of Israeli ambassadors for many years – from the time of Israel’s first ambassador to Egypt, Eliyahu Ben Elissar, until the Mazels departed. It was a villa built by a former minister in the Cairo suburb of Maadi and had large gardens. This allowed the Mazels to entertain many other diplomats and members of the local elite, as well as visiting and local Israelis. The small Jewish community was also invited during the Jewish holidays.

Most of the stories in the book take place during the political terms of President Muhammad Hosni Mubarak, who succeeded President Muhammad Anwar El Sadat after he was assassinated in 1981. Mubarak’s period of leadership may be one upon which many Egyptians now look back upon with nostalgia.

The differences between the two periods of the Mazels’ stay in Cairo are evident, mentioned throughout the book and described in detail. In the 1980s, the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt was still fresh and there was hope on many fronts. That did not mean, however, that all Egyptians were friendly or even polite to the Israeli diplomats. Yet Michèle was hired to teach French at the American school in Maadi, where children from around the world were enrolled, including those from countries extremely hostile or even at war with Israel.

Many Egyptian friends she had made and other contacts from her first stay avoided her when the author returned as the Israeli ambassador’s wife. In a number of cases this was due to fear that after meeting her — let alone visiting her in the ambassador’s residence – the Egyptian secret services would ask them for explanations. Michèle could not find a private teacher to help her improve her Arabic. Those who initially agreed to tutor her found a futile reason to cancel before the first lesson had even begun. This would occur even after Michèle had agreed to their exorbitant prices. When the Mazels accepted invitations to stay over with Egyptian friends, this led to embarrassment for their hosts in front of their neighbors or with the intelligence services. The Mazels rapidly gave up on these attempts at socializing.

Michèle devotes an entire chapter to the Egyptian press. It could well have been entitled the “Egyptian Hate-Israel Press”, but that is not her style. Michèle is an acute observer, but does not use radical language. She mentions that Egypt’s three largest dailies, Al Ahram, Al Gomhuriya and Al Akbar are owned by the government. This fact, however, did not restrain them from launching extreme attacks on Israel. All other Egyptian papers were subject to government censure as well.

Rumors which spread throughout Egyptian society or mentions of Israel in the press raised new mutations of classic anti-Semitic motifs which were then spread by the media. The only time a correction was ever published in a paper was in 1997 after a vigorous protest by Zvi Mazel. Al Ahram had published that Israeli soldiers had injected AIDS in Palestinian children. Michèle mentions that sixty others papers across the Arab world had recopied these lies and that none of them rectified it after Al Ahram had done so. She lists several other similar examples of anti-Semitism. Two years later, another paper wrote that Israel sold contaminated blood to Arab countries. The Egyptian minister of health subsequently announced that Egypt was not buying blood from Israel, and that the public had no reason to worry. In 2001, a senior writer praised Hitler in Al Akbar and, soon afterward, was given the Egyptian press prize. This is a small collection of a much larger phenomenon.

The media did much more than incite the public and diffuse anti-Semitism. Some editorials also invented absurd items. An editorial in Al Ahram said that “the Israeli attacks against the Arabs seem to intensify during April. Some analysts explain this phenomenon due to the depressive sentiments felt by the diaspora since the Jews were thrown out of Egypt on Easter, which was the 15th of April.” An editorial in Al Gomhurya claimed that from a historical point of view, Judaism was born after Christianity and Islam. Michèle also mentions a professor at the University of Suez who maintained that Jerusalem’s Al-Aqsa mosque was built a thousand years before Solomon’s Temple.

With such media and social climates, the possibilities for Egyptians to form independent opinions on Israel is minimal. In this context, Michèle’s stories become understandable. One sad example recalls that in the garden of the ambassador’s residence garden grew a large number of succulent mangoes. The lady of the house wanted to give them away to the Egyptian soldiers guarding the perimeters of the villa. Egyptians warned her not to do so, because if a soldier were to get sick it would be claimed that she had poisoned them.

Security precautions permeate the entire book. In the years after the Mazels ended their first tour of duty, two official Israeli representatives were murdered in Egypt by terrorists. The security precautions became continuously more severe. Neither the Israeli authorities nor the Egyptian ones wanted to run any risk. They rarely allowed the ambassador to go anywhere by foot, though they did not care much about his wife. One exception was that on Yom Kippur, Zvi was allowed to walk to the slightly refurbished synagogue in Maadi. After the outburst of the second Palestinian intifada in 2000, even that small walk had to be abandoned. It is in that synagogue that the Mazels held the bar mitzvah of their son, Yossi, in the 1980s. Daniel Kurtzer, later the American ambassador in Israel, and who was then stationed in Cairo, led part of the services.

Here and there, throughout the book, one will find an interesting political fact known to few. The author mentions, for example, that for many years, there has been intense agricultural cooperation between the two countries and that Israel has greatly helped Egypt in this domain.

The book concludes with a few pages about contemporary Egypt by Zvi, nowadays a well-known political commentator on Arab affairs. One can conclude that after the failed Arab Spring of 2011 and the Muslim Brotherhood regime, the current situation in Egypt is far more gloomy than during the periods of the Mazels’ stay.

Manfred Gerstenfeld is a former Chairman of The Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs and a former editor of the Jewish Political Studies Review.

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