To Egypt with Love: Memories of a Bygone World

VIVIANE BOWELL, BS10 | Bristol, United Kingdom | London, United Kingdom

I was born and raised in Cairo, Egypt and left at the age of 14. My mother’s family originally came from Aleppo. Aleppo’s importance diminished greatly with the opening of the Suez Canal in 1869, when it ceased to be the centre of the camel-caravan trade. My grandparents eventually decided to move to Egypt in 1910, as it was considered the new Eldorado. My father’s family originates from Toledo. They were expelled from their ancestral home in 1492 during the time of the Inquisition. They travelled through the Mediterranean and eventually settled in Constantinople. My grandparents left in 1908 when the Ottoman Empire began to crumble and settled in Egypt.

I grew up in a secular Jewish community, surrounded by a close network of family and friends. Ours was a unique culture, with its own diverse customs and traditions. In its apogee, the community numbered 80,000 people. They all left or were expelled between 1948 and 1967. After my generation, any knowledge of a community which was once a vibrant and an integral part of Egypt will probably sink into oblivion. Yet there is no doubt that the Jews contributed greatly to the development of modern Egypt and left behind an important legacy. My story is not unique. It is the story of all the migrants who had to leave the land of their birth and learn to make a new life in another country. In the case of my parents, it is a story of resilience and survival.

Life as we knew it came to a sudden and abrupt end in November 1956, following the Suez crisis. Nasser declared all Jews enemies of the State and, as such, they became subject to expulsion from Egypt, along with British and French citizens. We left on 10 December 1956 on a KLM flight bound for London. The ride to the airport was sad and even the children understood the sheer magnitude of the moment. My parents must have felt overwhelmed or perhaps it was difficult to take in what was happening. There must have been so many mixed emotions – relief that we had left unharmed and were safe, anxiety about the future and sadness at being uprooted. We landed at Heathrow on a cold and grey December morning, bewildered and painfully aware that overnight we had become refugees in a foreign land.

I lived in London as a teenager and only came to Bristol when I got married for the second time, as my husband is Bristolian. I liked Bristol as a city though it was relatively quiet compared to London and I really missed the big city, certainly for the first ten years here! However, Bristol has changed a lot in the last few years and has become very multicultural. I have been volunteering for charities such as Refugee Women of Bristol and a social enterprise called 91 Ways to Build a Global City. This has given me the opportunity to meet some great people and make many friends.

At last, I now feel comfortable and happy in Bristol and connected to the city and I would not live anywhere else.

I've written about this family history in my book, To Egypt with Love: Memories of a Bygone World.

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