I was a child of the ’60s. No, not those ’60s of peace, drugs, and rock and roll, but rather the period several years prior, when a secret agent named Emma Peel reigned supreme on TV’s The Avengers. [...]
When I caught my first episode in 1965, I assumed it was the black leather that gave Mrs. Peel her courage. At nine years old, I longed for a catsuit of my own. [...] Every week, I watched with a combination of fascination, intrigue, and utter longing, dreaming of growing up to be exactly like her.
It was madness, of course. No child on earth was a more unlikely Mrs. Peel.
At the time, my family was new to America. Even our black and white TV was a recent acquisition – the only vaguely valuable possession in that cramped apartment on 66th street in Bensonhurst, a working-class section of Brooklyn where our neighbors were either Italian Catholics or Jewish like us. But we were Egyptian Jews – Arab and Jewish both. When I was seven, my parents moved me and my three older siblings from Cairo, where we were born. In Egypt, we’d lived in a lovely apartment overlooking a main boulevard and I attended a private French lycée. Several times a week, my father would take me to a Swiss patisserie where we’d sit outdoors enjoying cakes and cold drinks.
But this comfortable way of life was rapidly deteriorating. For decades, Egyptian Jews had been embraced by both Muslims and Christians, managing to flourish in a society that was exceptionally tolerant. But the creation of Israel in 1948 marked the beginning of a Jewish exodus, which intensified after the Egyptian monarchy was overthrown in 1952 by an oppressive military dictatorship. Its leader, Colonel Gamal Abdel Nasser, had decided that Jews were no longer true Egyptians. The security that Jews, foreigners, and other minorities had enjoyed vanished; a Jewish community numbering 80,000 was chased out or pressured to leave.
By 1963, businesses had been confiscated, the once-renowned Jewish hospital had been taken over by the army, and a g general fear — of arrest, of some terrible repercussion for refusing to leave-was pervasive. Most of our friends and relatives had already fled, and my father finally agreed that we too should go.
We were a family of six with only $200 ~ and 26 suitcases. Our papers branded us co as “stateless”-people without a country. Our painful journey led us from Cairo to Paris and ultimately to New York, where we fetched up in a corner of Brooklyn.
Yet Americans had trouble processing us. How could I be both an Arab and a Jew? Had I lived in the Pyramids, they asked, or perhaps in a tent? I learned early on not to tell people I was Egyptian at all.