Dr. Joseph Salama inside the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in Alexandria, Egypt.
Dr. Joseph Salama inside the Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue in Alexandria, Egypt.

One-time refugee returns to Egypt.

After 56 years, Joe Salama stood in the bedroom of his childhood home, surrounded by his three children and four of his seven grandchildren. He marveled that he, his parents and his three siblings had lived comfortably in the modest apartment at 224 Shatby St., with its three small bedrooms, single bathroom and galley kitchen.

Finally, he was able to share some of the physical aspects of his Egyptian heritage with his family. Salama had not been back in Egypt since he left in 1966 at the age of 19.

1960 restored photo of the Salama family in front of the Sphinx of Giza: Mayer Salama, Gabriel Salama, Edna Ravitz, Joseph Salama, Regina Salama
1960 restored photo of the Salama family in front of the Sphinx of Giza: Mayer Salama, Gabriel Salama, Edna Ravitz, Joseph Salama, Regina Salama

For the October trip, Salama, 75, an orthopedic surgeon at Ascension Providence Hospital, was accompanied by his children, David Salama, M.D., 45, of West Bloomfield, and Evan Salama, 42, and Jill Handman, 37, both of whom live in the Los Angeles area. Rounding out their group of six were David’s two older children, Elliot, 16, and Ari, 13. Joe’s wife, Rita, has Alzheimer’s disease and was unable to make the trip, and his children’s spouses stayed home with their younger children.

David Salama, Ari Salama, Jason Handman, Evan Salama, Melissa Salama, Joseph Salama, Jill Salama Handman and Elliot Salama in front of the Sphinx at Giza
David Salama, Ari Salama, Jason Handman, Evan Salama, Melissa Salama, Joseph Salama, Jill Salama Handman and Elliot Salama in front of the Sphinx at Giza

Joe, of Farmington Hills, recalled an Alexandria of 500,000 residents that was very cosmopolitan; one would hear French, English, Italian and Greek spoken in the streets along with Arabic. The women dressed fashionably and hardly any covered their hair. Muslims, Christians and Jews lived, worked and socialized together. Joe recalled a few years when Muslim neighbors helped his family prepare meals to break the Yom Kippur fast.

Today, says Joe, the essence of the city is still there, but Alexandria now has 7 million residents, and so it is much more crowded, dirty and noisy. Arabic is pretty much the only language used, and almost all the women wear the hijab.

The Eliyahu Hanavi Synagogue — the largest in all of Africa — has been restored, but primarily to attract Jewish tourists. It is open only by appointment; there are no Jews living in Alexandria who would attend regular services. The synagogue’s ark contains 13 Torah scrolls, most of which came from other synagogues, now closed. When the Salamas visited, Joe thought he recognized some of the scrolls from the synagogue his family used to attend.

Outside of the apartment building: David Salama, Elliot Salama, Ari Salama, Joseph Salama, Jason Handman, Jill Handman, Evan Salama, Melissa Salama.
Outside of the apartment building: David Salama, Elliot Salama, Ari Salama, Joseph Salama, Jason Handman, Jill Handman, Evan Salama, Melissa Salama.

David Salama said Egypt is in the process of renovating another synagogue in Alexandria. Several Cairo synagogues have also been restored.

The Eliyahu Hanavi caretaker had erected and decorated a sukkah in the synagogue’s courtyard — the first sukkah built in Alexandria since 2008 — and served the Salama family a festive meal there, including Egyptian guaffa (guava), which Joe hadn’t tasted since he was a teenager. “Taking a bite of this fruit in a sukkah brought tears of happiness to his eyes,” David said.

Revisiting the Past

The group visited the site of Joe’s father’s printing shop and the Lycée Français, the prestigious school Joe attended from seventh through 12th grades.

The Salamas had landed in Cairo after their flight from the U.S. and, on their way to Alexandria, they visited the cemetery at El Alamein, where Nazi troops were stopped by the British during World War II. They noted that if the Germans had won that battle, the Egyptian Jewish communities would likely have been destroyed and their inhabitants exterminated. The Salamas looked for the graves of Jewish soldiers, marking their visit by placing pebbles on the gravestones.

Outside Joseph Salama’s family apartment door in Alexandria: David Salama, Evan Salama, Joseph Salama, Jill Salama Handman.
Outside Joseph Salama’s family apartment door in Alexandria: David Salama, Evan Salama, Joseph Salama, Jill Salama Handman.

After their Alexandria visit, they spent three nights in Cairo. They recreated a trip Joe had made as a child to see the Sphinx, and visited several historic synagogues, including the one where Rav Moshe Ben Maimon (Maimonides) worshipped and practiced medicine.

After 12 days in Egypt, the group took a short flight to Israel. “We recreated a 40-year journey in 40 minutes,” David said. It was “our own Salama version of leaving Egypt for Israel, as powerful a trip as my first time landing in Israel when I was a teenager.”

On Shabbat afternoon, they enjoyed a family reunion in Jaffa with more than 45 cousins, a small sampling of the descendants of the family Joe had known in Alexandria. “He saw some first cousins he had not seen since he was a child — or, in one case, had never met before,” David said.

Joe said he felt very emotional during much of the trip but was grateful for the opportunity to return after 56 years and share some of his early life with his children and grandchildren.

Commemorating Forced Emigration

On Nov. 30, as it has since 2010, Israel will observe Departure and Expulsion Day, which marks the forced emigration of Jews from Arab lands and Iran after the establishment of the Jewish state in 1948.

The day has special significance for Joe, whose family was forced to leave Egypt in 1966.

Arab countries’ relations with their Jewish residents became strained after the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. The situation wasn’t bad in Egypt at first, even though Jews could not obtain passports to travel out of the country. Under King Farouk, there was discrimination against the Jews but no outright persecution. When the monarchy was overthrown in 1952, and Gamal Abdel Nasser became prime minister a few years later, life became increasingly difficult for the Jews of Egypt.

Evan Salama, Jill Salama Handman, Joseph Salama and David Salama on the Nile at sunset.
Evan Salama, Jill Salama Handman, Joseph Salama and David Salama on the Nile at sunset.

Many of Egypt’s Jews left for Israel in the 1950s, but the Salama family tried to remain in Alexandria where their patriarch, Gabriel, operated a successful printing business.

In 1966, when Joe was 19 and his siblings were 17, 15 and 4, the police came to their home in the middle of the night and took Gabriel away, holding him for five days. Gabriel and his wife decided it was time to go. There was another reason for their decision: Joe was about to graduate from the esteemed Lycée Français, but because he was a Jew, he would not be able to attend an Egyptian university.

At the port in Alexandria, Egyptian officials wrote “Sans Retour” on the Salamas’ identification cards. The French words indicated they would not be able to return to their homeland.

Many of their relatives had gone to Israel, but Joe’s family went to Paris and then to the United States, joining some cousins who had moved to Detroit. They were able to protect some funds in Swiss banks, but most of the family’s possessions were left in their apartment.

The Salamas lived in a small house in Oak Park. Joe went to Wayne State University and then Wayne State School of Medicine and did his residency in orthopedic surgery at Sinai Hospital of Detroit. He married Rita Perlstein at Congregation Shaarey Zedek, where the family has been members ever since. The Salamas are also active with Keter Torah Synagogue, the Detroit area’s Sephardic congregation.

Israel estimates that 850,000 Jews were forced to leave Arab countries and Iran between 1948 and 1972. They left behind most of their assets, which today could be worth as much as $6 billion.

Previous articleExpanded Cancer Care
Next articleVolunteer of the Week: The Joy of Giving Back