Book of Life Stories

Jo Bolaffi – Multicultural encounters in Egypt and Australia

R Sugarman

Joseph Bolaffi was interviewed in 1998 by Richard Milosh who was preparing a PhD thesis on the life experiences of Europeans born in Egypt. The interview was taped and then transcribed in the form of this document.

Multicultural Encounters in Egypt and Australia: The cultural experience of “foreigners” who lived in Egypt and migrated to Australia: These recollections cover the history of Modern Egypt from the beginnings of the 19th Century up until the mid 20th Century. For anyone familiar with the history of Egypt at that time, the reading of Bolaffi’s memoirs will strike a strong and vivid feeling of nostalgia for the Egypt we have lost.

I was fortunate to meet Joseph Bolaffi and his wife Yvette, and have these recollections of the Egypt that I remember so well. As Fate would have it, Mr Bolaffi passed away within less than a year after this interview was recorded.

I remember coming to Mr Bolaffi’s home prepared with my questionnaire, only to be swept away by his keenness to launch himself into his memories. All I had to do was listen and guide him into his life experiences of Egypt, which span a period of 32 years.
Richard Milosh, South Australia, 8 September 1998

Jo Bolaffi: I was born in Beni Suef in Southern Egypt in 1924. My father was an employee of the National Bank. He used to roam from one city to another and he happened to be in Beni Suef at the time.

We lived there until 1926 when my father was transferred to Cairo. We moved to Bab el Louk and we stayed there quite some time and from there we went to Heopolis where we lived for a year then went to Bab el Hadid. We lived in a huge building with 21 large apartments; we were in number 18, and we stayed there until 1953. The neighbours were a mixture of everything: Brits, Maltese, Copts, Egyptians, Lebanese, Italians, French, you name it. By that time I had married Yvette, and in 1953 we moved to Soliman Pasha in the heart of the city. We lived in Ia rue Nemr, which was on the corner of Soliman Pasha and the National Hotel, behind the Potini Cinema.

In comparison with the urban setting of the Cairo streets where we could have walked everywhere, the Australian context is completely different. We never needed a car in Egypt. We used to walk a lot because distances were close.

I’ve got a peculiar ancestry because my father comes from Italy and my mother comes from lraq. Each one has its own story. My father was born in Pisa. His father was a banker, and owned two banks in Pisa. He was a very well to do man. He had three sons and three daughters. One day he walks in and tells his wife Giovanina: “I’ve got three sons, one of my sons is going to be a doctor!. He asked the first one, Moshe: – What would you like to be? Can you become a doctor?” Moshe replies: “I am 22 years old, I am working in the stock exchange. There is no question for me going into such studies”. Then there was uncle Benu. He was short, fat and bald, but he was a brainy boy and he was the one who became a doctor. My father was only 15 at that time and he was 6 ft 4!. He thought of himself as a God. You know how they are, because he was tall, they are everything. He used to come home, and every time he made a noise he was told: “Shh, Benu study, Benu study”. One day, he revolted: “Benu study, what about me? Did you ever think about me?” So my grandfather jokingly told him: “We will find you a job at the grocery here, no problem”. My father was very upset.
A week later at school, the headmaster announced that the King of Egypt has asked the King of Italy for young Italians to go to Egypt and learn how to institute the Morse Code. Egypt and Italy were very close because the two kings had studied at the same college and had sworn allegiance to each other. Egypt wanted to install the Morse Code for communication purposes. In 1890, about 50 or 60 Italians went to Egypt. My father was one of them. They reached Alexandria and began first to learn the Arabic language. He worked for the Post Master General for nearly 15 years. He caught malaria like most Europeans coming to this country. The postmaster with whom he was dealing told him: “Mr Elio, you are going to die unless you get quinine. Tomorrow I’ll take you to the market and buy you some”. They went together, he bought the quinine, which was straight from the tree, and he also bought him a Negro slave, a girl of about 14. She remained with my father for 15 years during which time she used to cook and clean for him, until apparently a child was born and she called him Elio like him, and if that boy is still alive now he would be about 100.
In 1905, 15 years later he went to Sohag (a country town in Egypt). The postmaster told him: “Mr Elio, a family just arrived from lraq with plenty of money and they have four daughters to pick yourself one.” He picked my mother without even seeing her. He went down there and said: “Have you got a girl for me?” “Which one?” and that was it. So he married my mother. She was 22 and he was 30. It was a strong Jewish family. Three years later she gave birth to my eldest sister Jeanette who is 15 years older than me. After Jeanette, came Rebecca, then Victor, then Max, then Felix. I am the last one. Two years later we moved from Beni Suef back to Cairo. When we reached Cairo, I was two years old. I think I went to the Italian Kindergarten. I stayed there until I turned five. I went to the College des Fr?s at Bab el Louk, and I stayed there six years. I left after my father came in 1935 and told my mother: “The language of tomorrow is no more French. It is English”. So I was sent to the English Mission College at Faggala and that’s why we moved to Bab eI Hadid, because it was within walking distance.

The teaching at Les Fros was very harsh, very disciplined. We had to learn Arabic, at a high standard and French of course. There was English but I was hopeless. So then I moved to Faggala for one year. The school in the meantime had built new premises in Kubbeh Palace. We used to take the Kubri Lemoun train from the railway station and go eastward to Kubbeh Palace, and the school was there, a modern, first class school, made of bricks with large windows. To my opinion, the English Mission College was the best school the world has ever had. Our headmaster is still alive in England. I went to see him in 1993. I am in contact with at least half a dozen schoolmates who every one of them makes a visit to the headmaster in England.
I matriculated at the English Mission College in 1943. One of the subjects had to be Arabic, and you had to have a credit, otherwise you failed. That’s the pressure the Egyptian Government put on us in the school. I think we were mostly more connected with France and French culture because we spoke French. Even when I used to come home from English school, we used to speak French.
I found work in a firm of chartered accountants in Cairo by the name of Russell and Co. They were accountants, auditors, investigators – you name it. During this time I studied this and that. In 1949, I married Yvette, and we stayed seven years with no children. It was impossible to have children in Egypt. Why? At that time all the Jewish schools were closed because Israel was born and there was no outlet to educate our children anywhere. So we had to quit. By 1953 we started thinking seriously about it.

We had three choices. The first one was Italy, because I had Italian nationality. When my father was alive we spoke nothing but Italian at home. Then the next one would have been to Israel, but of course we heard bad reports on the way of life in Israel; they would have put us in tents or what have you. Then came the question of a sister of my mother-in-law who was in Australia since 1950. She did her utmost that we should come here. My mother-in-law favoured that. So we all came here, my parents-in-law, my sister-in-law, my wife and I, decided to settle in Adelaide.

The rest of my family, my brothers and sisters, stayed in Egypt, except my brother Felix. His wife was French and was chucked out in 1952 because of the Algerian problem. They started making trouble, so the French had had it with the Egyptians, and in 1956 France and England attacked Egypt. In the meantime my other brothers and sisters were in Egypt. They were chucked out too. My eldest sister had her son in Sydney, so she knew where to go. My second sister was married to a British Jew and they finished up in England. My brother Victor found himself in Italy, and he stayed for nearly two years before he immigrated to Venezuela. My brother Max went to France but died soon after.

In Cairo I spoke French with my wife. With my brothers and sisters it was French and Italian. A little bit of Arabic with the servants and what have you, and at work with the chartered accountants we spoke 4 or 5 languages, just to do the accounts of various people in their own languages – Greeks, Italians, French, Arabic. I stayed with Russell and Co. for 13 years and finished up by being Senior in charge. I turned 32 when I decided to leave.

By 1947 the Egyptian Government issued a law stating that all companies must employ Arab speaking Egyptians. In other words if you are Maltese without Egyptian nationality, your Arabic is half cocked, you are not allowed. Suddenly overnight you open the newspaper and you find the edict that all Europeans employed by companies must move within 24 hours. There were 700,000 Europeans in Cairo alone without a job overnight. It was terrible. Of course the whole business, once you take off the cream, what comes after that? The whole economy went pouf within 24 hours. I’ve seen engineers, Italian, Greeks, French whatever, Swedish, Norwegian, Danish engineers being paid 7 pounds a month, which is ridiculous. So they all packed up and went. There was a fantastic emigration out of Egypt between 1947 and 1950, and then the State of Israel was formed so all the Jews left too, hundreds of thousands of Jews.

I arrived here two months before the Suez Canal war on the 1st October 1956, and 14 days later my wife gave birth to Allen. I had to run away for my life, because first of all, education wise I couldn’t send my children to school, and then there was another little problem, there was anti-Semitism. You want to go somewhere, and you had the title of second citizenship. They wouldn’t go out of the way to help you. You went to a shop to buy something and you would be the last one to be served.

Mainly because we didn’t know where we were going, we came to Australia. Where is Australia? We didn’t even have photos of Australia. The only photo I saw of Australia was the back porch of a house in a suburb where a woman was raking the lawn. That’s all we knew about it. We came to Adelaide because Mum’s sister was here. We arrived in Melbourne by ship and the next morning took the plane to Adelaide. When the plane landed we saw the rooftops of the houses and my mother said: “Look what a beautiful view!” We didn’t know anything about Adelaide at all, and when we went to Auntie’s place, we were fascinated, and within two months we bought our own home.

But of course there was an air of sadness when we left Egypt because we were never going to see it again. I had at the back of my mind the Egyptian authorities interrogation of me: “Why are you leaving Egypt?” So I told him: “You ask me, why you’re leaving! I was born here! I went to your schools. My friends were Egyptian Moslems. We had the same girl friends. How can you take this away from me? You think I like to go to another country where I don’t know how the people act?” I lived with them all my life; we spoke the same language, the same thinking as theirs. When an Egyptian comes now to Australia he becomes my best friend. I’ve got many clients who are Egyptian, some of them are Orthodox, some of them are Moslems, there is no question. We speak the same language.

We passed to our children our culture from Egypt to the best of our ability.
Yvette: “We spoke to our children in French, but of course, when they were young, they replied in English. But once they started High school when they started learning French, they enjoyed talking French to us. We continued speaking French at home between ourselves in Australia, unless we fight, then we speak in English”.

Jo: Yes I watch programs about Egypt and I even tape them.
Yvette: “You can’t forget your roots, you can’t forget them”.

Pastimes: We were members of the swimming pool club in Guezireh, Club National de
Sport. Yvette: II y avait le tir aux pigeons.
We use to go to most of the outdoor movie theatres and nightclubs: Vonique, Le Covent Garden, Auberge des Pyramides. We led a very active life. One thing I regret, the city life we left in Egypt. We don’t have the city life here. Here it’s all enclosed, but there it’s open, because the weather is hot. They knew exactly in advance for nine months what the weather was going to be.

In wintertime we use to go to the Opera. Yvette: Nous allions chez Badia. II y avait les khochaf qu’on trouvait sur Ia route des Pyramides (We used to go to Badia and eat khochaf on the way to the pyramids).
With regards to the food we used to eat in Egypt, we haven’t changed. It’s the same food. For example my eldest son, he waits impatiently to come here to eat bamia, and his wife also likes to cook it. His wife is Australian, originally Polish. There was a picture theatre in Ezbekieh, and with the ticket we used to get an ice cream or a khochaf (stewed fruit with sweet sugar syrup). Remember the fitira’ With soft cheese, sugar, honey sometimes and filo pastry. The lokoums (Turkish Delight)? Eish el saraigh, no one makes “Bread of the Palace” except in Egypt or Turkey.

My mother used to buy for the house and she did the cooking, she was an expert. That was her forte. She came from lraq. All the food from Iraq is as we call it today ‘deadly’. All my mother’s family died at fifty. The food is very fatty. My mother went to the market at Bab el Louk to buy chicken, meat or vegetables, and at least five people were at her attention. She was a very tough woman, my mother. She was 4 ft 2in and she used to direct everyone. She died in Egypt in 1937 when I was only 13 years old. My father died 18 months later.

Yvette’s parents found it very unsatisfactory in Australia because they didn’t understand the language fluently. My mother-in-law managed, because on board the ship she got a book on how to speak English and managed to find her way. But my father in law didn’t do that.
Yvette: My father was the manager of Phillips. He was a big shot (in Egypt). When he came here he was nobody and that upset him very much.
But you know what, Richard, no regrets.

Morally, they chucked us out. Not physically, morally.

I see myself as a person with more than one identity. Italian to some extent, but more Egyptian. I think like them. I was brought up with them. 90% of the day I was dealing with Egyptians.
My wife never liked anything in Egypt
Yvette: When there was an Arabic lesson I was always chucked out of the class. My maiden name was Grunberg. “Grunberg! Barra!” (Out!). That was the first word the teacher would tell me in the morning.

Jo: I was at the football field in Hindmarsh some years ago with my children and we went to see a match between Egypt and Australia. The Egyptian forward took the ball and was practically 10 metres from the goal when I stood up and shouted: “Shoot! Yibn il kalb!”. Suddenly two fellows up the front responded spontaneously: Yalla, yalla, yalla! You can imagine the attachment.

Yvette: I was born in Cairo in 1929. I don’t remember the suburb. I lived all my life in Cairo, but during the war we went to Alexandria because my father had a job there. He was working with his nephew with the Forces, transporting the prisoners from Fayed (concentration camp for Italians and Germans). We returned to Cairo in 1940. I remember the war started the 3rd September. I was in the street in Alexandria and people were saying: “the war has started”. I was 10 then. That’s where I met Jo. He was my neighbour. So I’ve known him since 1940. I’ve known him 58 years! In Cairo I went to a Jewish day school, Dole Jabes, and whilst in Alexandria, I also went to a Jewish day school. I finished the Certificat Elontaire. At the Jewish day school the education was mainly in French, a bit of Hebrew, a bit of Arabic and also English a couple of hours per week. We learned all about French history. We also learned Ancient Egyptian history and I enjoyed it very much, I was very good in that, but not in Arabic. Arabic was not compulsory, so really when I finished school I didn’t bother learning about it anymore. Then I sat my exams at the Immaculate Conception School. It was the Oxford Certificate (school-leaving certificate), but I didn’t want to study anymore and I started working. My parents did not want me to but I was a hothead, I didn’t want to go to school anymore. They wanted me to become either a doctor or a dentist, like every Jewish family wants, but I was adamant: “No, I want to work”.

When I got married to Jo in 1949 I was already working. I started working as a secretary in a drinks factory called Carters. I learned English and French shorthand, in those days that was important. After Carters I worked for the Socio Orientale de Publicito here I stayed for a number of years and then went to work for an Egyptian Prince. I was there for a year when he sacked me because I was Jewish. After the Prince, I worked for a Jewish firm called Cadranel, importers of textiles. I left and went to another Jewish firm called E. Dayan. I wanted always to improve my wage, and by changing jobs I was increasing my monthly wage. I worked for Dayan for a number of years as secretary. I started at 9 o’clock till 1. Then from 1 to 4 we would go to the club to swim, play tennis, have lunch, and then go back to the office from 4 o’clock until 7.

Work conditions were good, pay was good and there was a lot of work, so you could afford to leave one office to go to another one with an increase of 5 to 10 pounds per month. After Dayan, I went to a firm that was run by a Jew and a Moslem. The Moslem was Jo’s school friend. It was an import-export firm where I stayed until we left for Australia. I was earning over 60 pounds a month, which in 1956 was a lot of money. Jo never wanted to have children in Egypt. He said we were not secure enough, and finally I convinced him to have a child and unfortunately we had to leave when I was 9 months pregnant.
Dad had a brother in the States who kept writing to us: “Please leave Egypt as soon as you can, things are going to be very bad”. Dad wanted to go to Israel but I didn’t want to go because my cousin had gone in 1948, and they struggled. At the time I wasn’t a Zionist, put it that way. We could have gone to Italy, because Jo is Italian, but then my parents couldn’t have come. Mum had a sister who left in 1948 to come to Australia, and we promised her that one day we would join her, just to keep her happy. Little did we know that she would be the one to sponsor us when in 1956 we arrived in Australia.
I remember I said to Jo one day when he went to work and I just had my son, I was at home, I said to him: “You know what” Today is Monday and the garbage man has come. If I drop dead in an hour, he will come next Monday to pick me up because nobody walks in the bloody streets in Adelaide, nobody walks!?
I was sorry I left Egypt because of the type of life we led. We had a good city life, a great nightlife, and a lot of friends. You were next to Europe; you could travel and go anywhere. In 1955 we traveled to Europe by ship to Naples and from Naples by bus all over Italy, Switzerland, France, the French Riviera, the Italian Riviera, a six weeks tour. It was beautiful and we had promised ourselves the year after we would go somewhere else.
Dad being a manager and having such an easy life in Egypt, he would go to work at 9 o’clock, finish at 12, go to the cafe next door, meet his clients. At night they would go to an open-air cinema, they led a very happy life, independent financially. When we came here, we had to put our money together to buy a house and he didn’t find a job for the first six months. He was very depressed and he was not the type to read a book or to have a hobby. He was an impatient person, so he didn’t really improve his English. Mum had sat aboard the ship with a dictionary and a magazine; she did very well. That transplant from Egypt to Australia was hard for mum and dad. They were in their fifties. For us it was a picnic really because we were young and we were in love, we had our baby. But for mum and dad it was very hard.
In Cairo when we were first married we could not afford a unit. You don’t buy there, you rent, and mum and dad said: “Come and live with us, there is a bedroom here, pay no rent, don’t go to restaurants, eat at home, save money in order to have your own unit”, which we did. We got along with mum and dad fantastically. So when we came to Australia, mum and dad lived with us and it didn’t worry us because we were used to it. Mind you, we were another generation. I don’t think our kids will live with us now. The way we had been brought up was a very strict way with a lot of discipline. We had brought our kids to be independent, a totally different way. Our kids are respectful, are good kids, but they are independent, and that makes a generation gap.
If life had remained as it used to be in Egypt, no one would have left. We were very lucky that we lived together. Mum had all her family. Here my kids are away from me. My twins are in Melbourne and my son is here. Everyday both my sister and I would go and see mum and have a cup of coffee with her. For us Jews in Egypt there was no problem, wherever we went we were surrounded by Jews. Here non-Jews surround us, we are a minority, and because of the bigger minority you get assimilated, and assimilation is now very high.

Yes, we had a life and a half in Egypt. It’s unfortunate it stopped. We were accommodated, we had everything we wanted, and all we had to do was work. We had a very good basis in Egypt, we had the advantage, and we took the advantage.

We have no family or friends left in Egypt. There was once 70,000 Jews in Egypt, now a handful is left, not even enough for a Minyan.

Edited by R Sugarman, September 2003

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