We were Jews in Egypt…and Iraq, and…
In my grandmother’s time, making what we Iraqis call silan (see-lan), a syrup, made from dates, was a daylong labor of love. She cooked and stirred and squeezed the dates dry in cheesecloth for hours. I watched how the brown juice turned into thick syrup, silan! Iraqi dates deliver the thickest syrup. The mixture in the pot glistened. “It’s not ready till you see that shine,” she taught me.
When you mix finely ground walnuts with the silan (usually at around a 4:1 ratio of silan to nuts) to thicken the texture into a “mortar,” you have Iraqi haroset.
And now, this once laborious process has been dramatically changed by imported silan, found in any good Arab and Middle Eastern grocery store. An electric blender makes grinding down the walnuts much easier.
I have yet to meet one person who has not fallen in love with the taste and asked what was in it only to be shocked by the simplicity of this “mortar” for the bricks our people laid.
When it was my turn to carry on the tradition and turn the world on to Iraqi haroset, I found a can of silan in a Middle Eastern grocery store in San Francisco. Like, a Passover miracle, I felt like I had waded through the sea when I found silan, all ready, no cheesecloth, no sweating over a hot stove for hours.
Same taste. No kidding, really it had the same home-made taste.
But the following year, Passover was coming and the store stopped carrying silan.
It just so happened that I was going to be in New York before Passover and I had heard about a particularly well-stocked Arab grocery store on Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn.
Ready-made: a miracle!
And there it was! My excitement was palpable. “How do you know about silan?” the shopkeeper asked.
“My mother is from Baghdad, we know silan!” I told him. He smiled, and I lugged my eight big cans of Iraqi date syrup along with a bag filled with mouloukia, an Egyptian staple that looks like dried grass and that I was sure my dad had not seen since leaving Egypt. I was excited, although I had no clue how to cook it.
“You know mouloukia,” Another guy in the store asked incredulously as I scooped what could have been taken as dried parsley or freshly mowed grass into a large paper bag.
“Yes, it’s for my father, he is from Egypt…”
“Egypt? I am also.”
“Do you know Mansoura? My father is from Mansoura…”
“I am from Mansoura!” he almost yelled at me in joy.
He was a new immigrant to the United States. My dad left Egypt before this man, Yacoub, was born.
Your mother is also Egyptian?” he asked me.
“No, she is from Baghdad. We are Jews, mother from Iraq father from Egypt.”
“Your father is also a Jew?”
“Yes…” I felt the anxiety in me, in him…
“Mansoura, I can’t believe it!” He interrupted our pause, attempting perhaps to integrate the unknown Jew as his countryman, who is from his town on top of it!
Mansoura…” he repeats almost to himself now, back for a moment deep in memory, homesick, the way I have seen my father so many times.
I know this space, this dance of going back in time. For my father, every time he “returned” (in his mind) to Egypt, I could expect to hear the inevitable:
We Wahbas were ‘real’ Egyptians [going back two thousand plus years]. There were so many of us, our village in Midhghram was known to the fellahinas as ‘Kfar Wahba,’ the Wahba village. His grandfather was considered a holy man by both Jews and Muslims alike in the village. It is a big deal for a Jew to be revered by Muslims. It didn’t happen often.
As much as my father loved his Egypt, as much he loved being both a Jew and an Egyptian, our conversations typically devolved into the inevitable conversation of how despite all of our history we were kicked out and told to promise never to return. It meant nothing to Gamel Abdel-Nasser then to force us out and it means nothing to Mohammed Morsi today to pretend we were never there. There’s the rub. Its one thing to expel, another to pretend we never existed.
And I will keep reminding anyone I can that we were there, for a very long time. Before Nasser. Before Morsi. Even before the advent of Islam.
An Egyptian friend of mine who was born and raised in Cairo and expelled in 1956 for being a Jew, shared a recent experience: he met a young woman from Cairo at an airport.
She was speaking in Arabic on her phone in Egyptian dialect and he struck up a conversation with her. When she found out he was a Jew, she wanted to know how he came to speak the Egyptian dialect so well. She was stunned when he told her that he was an Egyptian Jew. In her generation there were no Jews in her country. And in her mind there were certainly none with any post Biblical history in Egypt.
And this is why I am compelled to keep talking, repeating our history, the way we repeat the Haggadah.
We are mandated not to forget.
We began in Iraq and Egypt, we are no longer there. My parents’ generation was the last and we are not going back anytime soon.
Every time I have the space to write, I will retell our story.
I won’t forget, be it Kfar Wahba in the land of Moses, Baghdad where we all began, or Atlantic Avenue in Brooklyn, with its shelves of silan and bags of mouloukia.
I have my Iraqi haroset and we have our story that we will tell over and over and over again every Pesach.
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