June 23, 2021

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Joe, we can’t go back, they’ve taken it all away

The story of the dispossession of Joseph Smouha, who built Smouha City in Alexandria out of marshland, is a remarkable one. What is perhaps more remarkable, is that this article by Joseph Braude appeared in the Arab magazine Majalla (with thanks: Richard).

Ask a young Egyptian what “Smouha” means and he will likely tell you it is an excellent football team in Alexandria, lately ranking third in Egypt’s premier league. He may also know that the team takes its name from Smouha City, a resplendent Alexandrian suburb.

Sisters’ St, Alexandria, 1941.

So it wasn’t surprising that when Richard Smouha, a Swiss national, recently submitted his passport to a man of Egyptian origin at an airport in Amsterdam, the officer asked him, “Did you know that your family was named after a place in Egypt?”
But Smouha’s reply surprised the officer: “Actually, the place in Egypt was named after my family.”
It may further surprise many Egyptians to know that the builder of Smouha City, Richard’s grandfather Joseph, was an Iraqi Jew, born in Baghdad in 1878. At age 14, he moved with his family to the British city of Manchester, where he gained his education and began a prosperous career as a cotton broker. At age 36, with the outbreak of World War I, he closed his business and offered himself for public service.
 What would lure him away from his government work and back into the private sector was a dream — a vision — which came to him neither in his native Iraq nor in his adopted country of Great Britain but in Egypt. In 1923, while visiting the country on behalf of the British government, he was riding the train from Cairo to Alexandria, along the edge of then-mosquito-infested marshlands adjoining the lakes of the Nile Delta. He observed that the swamps were effectively blocking the expansion of Alexandria — an untenable situation in light of the city’s burgeoning economy and natural demographic growth.
He explored the matter with Alexandrian friends and officials, who welcomed his interest in the problem of the marshlands. They offered him ownership of 700 acres of hazardous territory for free if he would commit to draining the swamps at his own expense. Smouha insisted on paying a commercial price for the area. He proceeded to move his wife and eight children to the ancient city and embark on the project of his lifetime.
At the time, seven percent of the inhabitants of Alexandria — approximately 24,000 people — were Jews. (The Jewish population in all of Egypt totaled 80,000.) The Alexandrian Jewish community was prominent in nearly every field of human activity: Jews ranked among the more sought-after doctors and lawyers, contributed prolifically to the public discussion, and served as teachers to tens of thousands of Egyptian students. Among prominent bankers and financiers, for example, the Menashe family — which also came from Iraq, in 1795 — invested in the human development of Alexandria by establishing schools for poor children.
But Joseph Smouha never imagined his construction project as an enclave for any particular ethnicity or sect. To the contrary, he envisioned an organic extension of cosmopolitan Alexandria that would embody the city’s finest traditions of diversity and coexistence. Smouha invited architects in Egypt and across the European continent to compete for the privilege of helping to design the new area. The plan called for all the features of a town: residential housing, schools, hospitals, an industrial zone, a police station, a post office — as well as a church, a synagogue, and a mosque. It was in essence an Alexandrian appropriation of the concept of a “garden city,” which had begun to appear in Great Britain, whereby an entire urban ecosystem was constructed simultaneously on a discrete piece of land. Smouha proposed to name the project Fouad City, after the country’s then-reigning king. But the monarch insisted it be known as Smouha City instead. It became an upscale residential suburb. The many indigenous elites who took up residence there were joined by former European royalty, including the exiled King of Italy, Victor Emanuel, who lived and died there. Over time, Smouha City also came to include a race course, golf course, and sports club.
Joseph Smouha (R)
Within a few years, a new town had appeared out of nowhere and taken root as a seamless extension of the city to which it was affixed. The man who founded it, however, suffered an altogether different fate: On November 23, 1956, following the Suez War, President Gamal Abdel Nasser issued a proclamation declaring all Jews to be enemies of the state. Jews had already been leaving in significant numbers prior to the declaration: Amid a wave of anti-Jewish fervor following the establishment of the State of Israel and the first Arab-Israeli war, bombings of Jewish areas killed 70 Jews and wounded nearly 200, while riots claimed many more lives. The 1956 proclamation caused 25,000 more Jews to flee for Israel, Europe, the United States, and South America. Their assets were confiscated by the government. Smouha City, too, was sequestrated, nationalized, and confiscated, in a wave of such actions taken against British and French property as well. Joseph Smouha saw his beloved Alexandria for the last time in 1957 — which was also the year Abdel Nasser evicted Armenians, Greeks, and a subset of Egyptian Coptic elites from Alexandria.
By the time Smouha died in Paris in 1961, at the age of 83, his memories and melancholy had intermingled in the blur of old age. His family recalls that in his final years he sometimes called out to his wife, “I must get back to the office. What’s happening? Why aren’t we going to the office?” She would reply, “Joe, don’t you remember we can’t go back. They’ve taken it all away.” “Oh yes,” he said, and began to cry again. Upon his death, an obituary in the British Daily Telegraph noted that King Fouad had remembered him as a “foreigner who brought his own money to Egypt and did good for the country.”
Shortly before his death, the Smouha family filed a claim for compensation for the value of the expropriated property with the British Foreign Claims Commission. The government body had been established to make payments to British nationals from the 27.5 million pounds sterling ($77 million) which Egypt paid Great Britain in settlement of all claims for property in Egypt. The Smouhas believed that the value of the properties — excluding the schools, hospitals, houses of worship, and other facilities which Joseph had donated— was 12.5 million pounds sterling ($35 million), or the equivalent of 260 million pounds ($371 million) today. But the family received only a small fraction of that sum, because the settlement was calculated on the basis of the territory’s value as farmland rather than developed urban property.
* * *
In some ways, the story of Joseph Smouha is a microcosm of the story of close to one million Jews indigenous to the Middle East and North Africa who almost completely vanished from the landscape, largely over 25 years, from 1948 to 1973 — the historical blink of an eye. In Iraq, Yemen, Syria, and elsewhere, their history dated back millennia, almost to the dawn of monotheistic history. In other parts of the region, their history dated back centuries — in North Africa, for example, to the period of the expulsion of Jews as well as Muslims from what had once been called Al-Andalus; or as a result of comparatively recent historical migrations. Their expulsion over the mid-twentieth century stemmed from a complex combination of historical factors. The most obvious, however, was the policy of numerous Arab military republics — supported by substantial elements within the society — to collectively punish all Jews for the establishment of the State of Israel, regardless of whether they happened to support the new country or not. The Arab world effectively disgorged a piece of its soul: one of its oldest communities, a professional class, a force for civil society and progress. Much of what the Arab world lost, Israel gained: hundreds of thousands of talented and resourceful people who, together with their offspring, now make up the majority of the country’s Jewish population.
This pivotal million, in crossing over from one world to another, underwent the trauma of refugees everywhere: they left behind the only way of life they had known in hopes that something better lay ahead. Some lost their lives en route. Nearly all were dispossessed of their property and assets, arriving penniless at their destination. According to a 2007 study by the World Organization of Jews from Arab Countries, total real estate lost to the region’s Jewish property owners exceeded 62,000 square miles — a land mass nearly eight times the size of the State of Israel. Financial losses have been conservatively estimated at the present-day equivalent of $80 billion. A hard-working and resilient community, they sought to integrate into their adopted countries and establish a decent standard of living again from scratch. Part of what makes their exodus bitter is not the losses they incurred by fleeing, but rather the loss Arab societies brought upon themselves by discarding them.
In the present period of metastasizing human suffering in the Middle East, amid new waves of ethnic and sectarian cleansing and the massive displacement of peoples and their loved ones, this sad chapter in the region’s history bears remembering. Doing so is an important part of the introspection our societies need in order to begin the process of reconciliation and redress for peoples of every indigenous religion and faith. Moreover, the remnants of the Arab world’s indigenous Jewish communities, scattered as they are across the globe, are themselves a potential asset as Arab countries begin to turn their eyes toward reconstruction: Despite the bitterness of the latter years of Jewish communal life in the Arab world, many of the refugees and their descendants cherish the happier memories long past, and long for the friends they lost when they were forced to flee. These positive human sentiments, if effectively tapped by extending a hand of friendship, could potentially provide a foundation on which to build — enabling new partnerships to accelerate the pace of renewal across the region.

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