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- April 23, 1979
- Vol. 11
- No. 16
Abba Eban's Wife, Suzy, Makes a Bittersweet Pilgrimage Home to a Transformed Cairo
Now with her husband on Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin's first state visit to Cairo, memories flooded back—of the color-splashed Nile island of Gezira where the family lived, of the two huge bridges that connected them to downtown Cairo, of a spirited and affluent Jewish community in the unclouded days before there was a Holocaust, when Israel was only a distant dream. In the intervening years she had traveled the world at her husband's side while he rose to prominence as the eloquent voice of Israel, and she had raised their two children, Eli, 29, and Gila, 24, far from her native home. Throughout, she could revisit the scenes of her childhood only in memory. "Unlike Proust, I would not class myself as in search of lost times," she said as her sentimental journey to Cairo began. "My time has not been lost." Yet before it was over she would see that much indeed had vanished of the Cairo she left as a young woman of 21.
The imposing, whitewashed villa of her youth was empty, its windows shuttered and the doors locked. The gate was secured with a heavy chain, and Egyptian soldiers stood guard with bayonets fixed. It is the Saudi Arabian embassy now, and the Saudi ambassador had left Cairo the night before to protest the signing of the Israeli-Egyptian peace treaty.
The city itself was vastly changed. The population of two million had increased fivefold since Suzy Eban last saw it. She had known Cairo as a sunny, subtropical international crossroads, dominated by the British under young King Farouk; now it was the overcrowded, dusty capital of the independent republic of Egypt. Inevitably, the change had spread to Gezira. When Suzy was a girl, it had been the province of upper-class Europeans and Jewish merchant princes—a place of villas and palaces, of lush gardens and flame trees that colored the whole area bright red. Now the surrounding landscape was a pallid series of neglected, gray apartments. The house across the street from hers, the old Dutch embassy, was in disrepair, and the ground floors of neighboring mansions were filled with jars of nuts, seeds, fruits and vegetables. "They never allowed shops when we lived here," Mrs. Eban said quietly. "All commodities were delivered to the house, or the cook would go out for them with the driver." At Suzy's home a majestic magnolia tree still guarded the entrance, but the jasmine and honeysuckle were gone.
"The garden surrounding the house was dominated by rosebushes," she recalled, as if to resurrect them. "That's where we got married. I remember coming down those steps at the side of the house, through those French windows, with my father waiting at the bottom to take me to the chuppa [bridal canopy] on a small stage in the garden." Groppi's, the renowned Cairo pastry shop and cafe, had prepared a three-tiered wedding cake. "It was so huge we ate from it for over a month. Aubrey [the British version of Abba] was always crazy about sweets. I courted him with Groppi's cakes."
Eban was a dashing young major in the British army during World War II, whose duties as liaison officer between Allied Headquarters and Palestine brought him regularly to Cairo. Suzy was the eldest of three daughters of Simcha Ambache, a wealthy, Palestine-born consulting engineer for the Suez Canal Company. As an officer, Eban had to apply for permission to marry, and the rumor spread through regimental headquarters that he was engaged to a peasant woman draped from head to foot in black. An emissary was dispatched to the Ambache residence to determine whether the bride-to-be could read and write. He discovered that not only could the girl, then studying social sciences at the American University in Cairo, read and write four languages, she was a reigning beauty in Cairene society and an acquaintance of the royal family. On her recent visit Suzy showed off a 20-piastre gold coin on her charm bracelet. "Look," she exclaimed. "King Farouk threw a handful of these coins across the drawing room like confetti when his sister Fawzia married the Crown Prince of Iran [now the Shah]. I picked one up and kept it as a souvenir."
Turning to the gate outside the house, Suzy found a familiar artifact. "It's the same heavy chain! It's unbelievable—32 years and still the same chain! Aubrey used to say that chain made our house look like a nunnery. But, after all, we were three sisters living here." Then, pointing to the shuttered windows, she tried to picture the rooms and the people who once inhabited them. "That was my father's study. I can just see him sitting there in the book-lined room wearing a white linen suit. We had a special laundryman, and my father changed suits three or four times a week. There was Amir, the first servant, who served the food, and Mohammed, the second servant, who cleaned the house, and the femme de chambre, who combed us and embroidered the homemade lingerie. There, behind those shutters, was the blue salon, with my Steinway piano. And the pinkish salon was on this side here." The house actually contained three pianos, one for each daughter. Nachman, the only son, played the violin. The children disliked the rich water-buffalo milk normally delivered to homes, so Mrs. Ambache arranged for them to get cow's milk. "But for hygienic reasons," Suzy recalled, "she wanted the cow milked on the family premises. Every morning at dawn an Arab walked his cow to the front gate, milked it, then got back across the bridge before it was closed to livestock."
Touring the rest of the city, Suzy found it all but unrecognizable, and at one vestigial monument of Judaism, the downtown synagogue, she burst into tears. "I was never especially religious," she said, "but suddenly I had a vision as clear as today of the members of our community in the synagogue. And looking at that gloomy leftover, I couldn't control myself." Like her own parents, many of the city's affluent Jews were dispossessed and went into exile even before the outbreak of the Arab-Israeli war in 1948. Thousands more were expelled by Nasser in the 1950s. Now no more than 150 Jews remain in all of Egypt.
That evening Mrs. Eban met President Anwar Sadat at the state dinner. "I thought you and your husband would come here much earlier than this," he said to her. "I have invited Mr. Eban repeatedly."
"I know," she replied. "Aubrey and I had discussed it, but we waited until the peace was signed." It should have been a joyous occasion: She was back home amid the best hopes for peace between her two homelands in decades. But her father's shuttered house and its hostile new tenants made it hard to feel that peace was quite at hand—or that a mere treaty could reconcile so much.
November 23, 2015
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