La Maison du Pacha; Souvenirs d’une Israélienne au Caire (The Pasha’s House – Memories of an Israeli Woman in Cairo), by Michelle Mazel, Jerusalem: Éditions Elkana, 2014, 250 pp.
In the early 1980s, several articles by an unknown writer named Michelle Mazel appeared in The Jerusalem Post. Michelle Mazel is the wife of retired Israeli diplomat Zvi Mazel, who at the time was the counselor at the Israel embassy in Cairo. These articles on her impressions of Egypt were the subject of public attention because of her keen observations and readable style.
Mrs. Mazel has continued writing both fiction and non-fiction. Her recent book, The Pasha’s House, further develops the themes of her earlier articles. The book covers a wide range of issues that the Mazels dealt with during their stay in Cairo when the Israel embassy opened in 1980 until 1983, and later, from 1996-2001, when Zvi Mazel served as Israel Ambassador to Cairo. His assignment ended several days before the mass murders of 9/11. According to the author, they were celebrated in Cairo with “explosions of joy.”
Michelle Mazel notes a particular feature that characterizes life in Egypt. She relates an anecdote in which an Egyptian salesman comes to Madrid and explains the meaning of the Arabic word “bukra” (literally, tomorrow) to his Spanish host. The word may also mean “if God wills it.” The Egyptian continues: “It is a bit like ‘mañana’ in Spanish, but without the urgency of that word.” Just as the word “mañana” may imply “never” in Spanish, one can only imagine what possibly may be less urgent than that.
The house of the Pasha, which gave the book its title, was the residence of the ambassador from the time of Israel’s first ambassador to Egypt, Eliyahu Ben Elissar, until the Mazels left Cairo. A villa built by a former minister in the Cairo suburb of Maadi, its large gardens enabled the Mazels to entertain many other diplomats and members of the local elite, as well as visiting and local Israelis. The small Jewish community also was invited during the Jewish holidays.
Most of the events related in the book took place during the terms of President Muhammad Hosni Mubarak, who succeeded President Muhammad Anwar Sadat, after he was assassinated in 1981. An object of criticism during his tenure, perhaps today, Mubarak’s leadership would be remembered by many Egyptians more positively.
Throughout the book, the author describes the differences between the two periods of their stay in Cairo. In the 1980s, the peace treaty between Israel and Egypt was still fresh and the atmosphere hopeful. To be sure, not all Egyptians were friendly or even polite to Israeli diplomats. Nevertheless, Michelle Mazel was hired as a French teacher at the American School in Maadi, where children from around the world were enrolled, including those from countries extremely hostile toward or even officially at war with Israel.
Many Egyptian friends and other contacts that dated from her first stay in Cairo avoided her when she returned in 1996 as the wife of the ambassador. Apparently, they were afraid that the Egyptian secret service would interrogate them after meeting with her and, certainly, after visiting her at the ambassador’s residence. For example, the author could not find a private tutor to help her improve her Arabic. Those who had agreed to teach her always found an excuse to cancel the session before the first lesson, even after she had agreed to pay their exorbitant fees. Furthermore, when the Mazels accepted invitations to stay with Egyptian friends, their hosts were embarrassed by their neighbors or confronted by the intelligence services.
Mrs. Mazel devotes an entire chapter to the Egyptian press. It could have been entitled the “Egyptian Hate-Israel Press.” The author, however, is an acute observer, not a radical critic. She points out that Egypt’s three major newspapers – Al Ahram, Al Gomhuria and Al Akhbar, are owned by the government, which did not deter them from vicious attacks against Israel, despite the peace treaty.
Rumors prevalent in Egyptian society or mentions of Israel in the press frequently were accompanied by new versions of classic antisemitic tropes that subsequently were spread by the media. The only time a correction appeared was in 199, after a sustained protest by Ambassador Zvi Mazel. Al Ahram had published that Israeli soldiers had injected Palestinian children with the AIDS virus. According to the author, sixty newspapers throughout the Arab world copied these lies and did not refute them, even though Al Ahram did so. She lists similar cases of antisemitism. For example, in 1999, another newspaper stated that Israel sold contaminated blood to Arab countries. The Egyptian Minister of Health subsequently announced that Egypt no longer would buy blood from Israel and that there was no reason for public concern. And, in 2001, a senior columnist in Al Akhbar praised Hitler. Shortly afterward, he received an award from the Egyptian press.
The media, however, not only were engaged in spreading antisemitism but also invented some of the more absurd lies. For instance, an editorial in Al Ahram claimed 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 Gomhuria argued that history shows that Judaism was born after Christianity and Islam. The author also mentions a professor at the University of Suez who contended that the Al-Aqsa Mosque in Jerusalem was built a thousand years before Solomon’s Temple.
The antisemitism in the media and the general atmosphere made it nearly impossible for Egyptians to form independent opinions on Israel. Michelle Mazel’s observations must be understood in this context. For example, she relates that many succulent mangoes grew in the garden of the ambassador’s residence and she wanted to give them to the Egyptian soldiers who guarded the grounds of the villa. Several Egyptians warned her against it because if a soldier would get sick, she would be accused of poisoning him.
The book contains much material on security precautions. In the years after the Mazels’ first tour of duty, a terrorist murdered two official Israeli representatives in Egypt. Therefore, security precautions continuously became stricter. Neither Israeli nor Egyptian authorities wanted to take risks. They rarely allowed the ambassador to go anywhere on foot, although they did not pay much attention to his wife. An exception was Yom Kippur, when Zvi Mazel was permitted to walk to the slightly renovated synagogue in Maadi. After the outburst of the Second Palestinian Intifada in 2000, even that short walk had to be cancelled. The Mazels had celebrated the Bar Mitzvah of their son, Yossi, in that synagogue during their stay in the 1980s. Ambassador Daniel Kurtzer, then posted in Cairo, led part of the service.
The book also includes some facts that are not generally known. For example, the author mentions that there has been intensive agricultural cooperation between the two countries for many years and that Israel has helped Egypt considerably. The book concludes with a few pages about contemporary Egypt by Zvi Mazel, an expert political commentator on Arab affairs.
On the whole, The Pasha’s House is well-written, highly readable and interesting for those who have little knowledge of Egypt as well as for those who are well-acquainted with the country. Michelle Mazel presents many aspects of Egypt which other authors either do not consider important or scrupulously avoid. In conclusion, there appears to be little room for optimism.