Gal Gadot, Cleopatra & The Cultural Amnesia about Jews from Arab Lands

Israeli actress Gal Gadot. Photo Credit: AP

By: Dana Avrish

In the early 1980s, in many Israeli homes, Friday afternoons were dedicated to family gatherings around the TV to watch Egyptian movies. I was captivated by the unique, musical Egyptian dialect of Arabic, the dramatic acting and the emotional songs. I was especially intrigued by the Jewish actress Leila Mourad, born 1918. With her carefully etched eyebrows and radiant face, she was known as the “Cinderella of the Egyptian Cinema.” Mourad’s high status is telling of the spirit of those years, which was characterized by pluralism, and of a relative freedom enjoyed by Egyptian Jews. Fast forward to a few days ago when I came across an article about the Israeli actress Gal Gadot being cast as Cleopatra. I was so happy for her. As a former actress myself, I know what it means to receive such a role.

Moreover, after her great role as Wonder Woman, I was sure she would mesmerize us again. However, the escalating backlash about Gadot’s casting that followed the announcement struck me to my core. One tweet, in particular, affected me in its desire to silence Gadot’s exposure. It said “the problem here is letting Israelis be involved in telling stories about Middle Eastern history”.

Sadness mixed with disappointment passed through me. My immediate response was a visceral and deep anger, which quickly translated to a need to act. At once, I was reminded about the importance, and relevancy, of the deep research I did about Jews in Arab and Islam countries during my Master’s in Diplomacy. This groundwork became a journey in time to places where my ancestors once lived (my grandparents were from Lebanon, Syria and Iran), and beyond, as I studied and worked to retell the forgotten stories of Jewish communities in Muslim-dominant lands. In the course of my life, I developed a deep connection to 11 Jewish communities in the Arab world: Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, Yemen and Aden, Iran, Iraq, Syria and Lebanon.

After working in Morocco, as an actress and as an executive producer of Israeli and French movies, for about two years and becoming acquainted with the stories, daily rituals, and wedding ceremonies, I decided to translate my research into a live exhibition. “Leaving, never to return!” debuted at the Eretz Israel Museum in Tel Aviv, 2019. The exhibition title was inspired by the Arabic stamped on the exit certificates and passports of hundreds of thousands of Jews: رجعة بدون رحلة) literal translation “a trip with no return”).

the great Jewish-Tunisian well known singer, Habiba Msika. Photo Credit: Facebook

Theirs are stories worth telling. They were my ancestors’ stories, and Israel’s ancestors’ stories. Descendants of the Jews of Arab and Islam countries make up more than half the current population of the State of Israel. But how did this Arab-Jewish history happen? Does it still exist? And, and why don’t people talk about this interwoven cultural link and connection with our Arab neighbours? Like a lot of unspoken history, I believe that the pain has caused us to forget the good. For over 2,500 years, hundreds of thousands of Jews lived in ancient and prosperous communities in North Africa and the Middle East.

However, notwithstanding their sense of connection to the cultures of the Muslim countries in which they lived, Jews throughout the generations, and especially in the modern age, also suffered hardships. This forced many of them to uproot and become refugees, eventually numbering about 850,000 between the years 1972-1948. A combination of different factors led to the mass exodus of Jews from Arab countries. Some of the Jews lived under threat and persecution, riots and harassment; their property and belongings expropriated or confiscated, their rights breached. Some were forced to sign documents that required them to relinquish their possessions in order to be permitted to leave the country. Essentially all of their property was confiscated and often their wealth was determined by what they could carry in one suitcase.

Unfortunately, throughout my research, I realized how many people lacked this information — I prefer not to call it ignorance. But when I read the ugly social media responses to Gal Gadot’s casting, which mainstream media broadcasted without a second thought, this lack of information seemed to highlight a cultural illiteracy. That critics felt emboldened to claim Israelis have no place to contribute to Arab or Middle Eastern storytelling was a reminder why I created my exhibit in the first place. I had a pressing need to correct the injustice done to Arab Jews by giving them a platform to have their stories heard about their contributions and connections to countries they once called home. That silencing was not going to happen again in my lifetime.

My deep and broad research included in-depth interviews with surviving Arab Jews of varying origin countries; locating original sound, video and hundreds of rare and sacred documents and objects like ceremonial dress, instruments and even a piano that once belonged to the great Jewish-Tunisian well known singer, Habiba Msika.

Examining all of these helped me in deciphering a cultural, social, religious and political cipher of a millennium of Jewish life. What I discovered was that alongside the tragedy, there was a flourishing cultural, economic, social and communal prosperity and even the Islamic environment in which the Jews lived positively influenced their lives and works. Jews integrated well beyond their relative share of the population (both Muslim and European) into the state’s economy: commerce, banking, private business and professions (including doctors, nurses in hospitals and clinics, pharmacists, journalists, lawyers, university professors and teachers). Jews of Egypt — a long, rich history For the #Cleopatra critics, let’s focus on Egypt, where the Jewish people have a long, cultural rich and complicated history.

Our story extends well beyond the biblical and Pharaonic time of Joseph and Moses. Several of the greatest Jewish thinkers – including Rabbi Saadia Gaon and Maimonides – prospered in Egypt. In 1864, the Cairo Genizah was discovered at the Ezra synagogue in Fustat (Old Cairo), shedding light on the lives of the Jews in the 9th to 11th centuries. The golden age of Egyptian Jewry began in the early 19th century, under the Ottoman ruler Muhammad Ali Pasha, and continued until the mid-20th century. During this period, the community grew from 7,000 members (including some 2,000 Karaites) to 80,000 members.

This was a highly heterogeneous community in terms of the origins of its members, the languages they spoke, and their occupations. About a quarter of them were local Jews, and the rest were Sephardic, Ashkenazi, Karaite, Greek, Turkish and Italian Jews. One example of the cultural heterogeneity characteristic of this period is the Yiddish theater that operated in Cairo for over 30 years, catering to the Ashkenazi community that had come from Europe in the 19th century and did not speak Arabic. A Jew, Joseph Katawi, was appointed as King Fuad’s minister of finance. The first banks and sugar refineries in Cairo were established by Jews. The Jews also cultivated the desert land along the Nile, providing agricultural work for hundreds of thousands of peasants.

The Suaretz-Mosseri family built the first network of railroads in Egypt. The stock market and most of the banks were closed on Saturdays and on Jewish holidays, since most of their employees were Jews. The department stores and fashion import business were also owned by Jews. The community founded dozens of schools, which catered to both wealthy and poor students, as well as synagogues in Cairo, Alexandria, and peripheral cities. Jewish athletes represented Egypt at international competitions and won medals. Jacob James Zanuaa founded the first theater in Egypt, and Togo Mizrahi was one of the pioneers of the Egyptian film industry. Jews were among the country’s best actors and singers. This was the golden age of Egyptian Jewry in the modern era – 150 years of cosmopolitan coexistence on the boards of the Nile that ended in the mid-20th century.

Leila Mourad, the legendary screen-star who fascinated me during my childhood, was born to a lineage of rabbis and religious judges. Her father was of Iraqi origin; her mother, Polish. Yes, Ashkenazi Jews lived and thrived in Arab lands. Mourad left behind a musical legacy including over 1,200 songs and films that have become part of modern Arab culture, and her other Jewish peers were also major pillars in the cultural history of Egypt.

So, having Gal Gadot, an Israeli (of Ashkanazi descent who is married to an Israeli of Turkish descent), play Cleopatra, is only a direct continuation of the glorious history of Jews living and contributing to the complex and cultural rich in Egypt for thousands of years. If there’s anything I learned from Leila Mourad, it was the intermingling of cultures and identities that happens in the arts and culture. Leila may have been Jewish, but her listeners were Jewish, Muslim and Christian, and she needed her diverse audience to become a star. It’s in that space of mutual interdependence that gives us hope. There was not only cultural contribution, but an understanding of a shared humanity. Now, if only I could make that message go viral in the world’s media.

Dana Avrish is a multi-disciplinary artist, creator, curator, lecturer, designer, researcher & mother of two beautiful children. A third generation Israeli to grandparents from Iran, Lebanon and Syria. Works worldwide. Based in Tel Aviv.