Foreign communities in Cairo and Alexandria in particular have helped shape the architecture, neighborhoods and communities that live there today. Before the 1950's many foreign communities lived in these cities and were encouraged to open businesses, bring expertise and live in Egypt as their home. After Gamal Abdel Nasser nationalized the Suez canal, many members of the foreign communities were asked, encouraged and in some cases, forced to leave. Today some, few, remain but their influence on Egyptian culture in 2012 is ever-present. Whether architecturally, in the local business names or in the colloquial Arabic spoken in the streets, these communities have left their mark in Egypt and the people who remain have taken Egypt as their home. In the days to come we take a look at foreign communities that have a history in Egypt. WIth the Armenian community in our June 21st print issue, we will continue to publish the Jewish, Levantine and Italian community profiles over the next three days.
The air is damp, it is sunny but a light breath lingers carrying the smell of the sea; that distinct smell of Alexandria fills my lungs again, a smell that I had known and loved since I was a child.
He stands in front of his drapery showroom in Manshiya lurking for any potential buyers; his foreign features and different posture makes him stand out. “I was born in Alexandria,” says Samy Ahmed Ibrahim, a half-Greek citizen. According to the 25-year-old, more than 4,000 Greeks lives in Alexandria nowadays. They meet regularly, usually at the Greek Clubs in Anfushi or Raml Station. “I rarely participate in events as the Greek community here is very exclusive,” states the young man in his broken Arabic. According to Ibrahim, such gatherings are important for networking, “The consulate does a great deal to help its community here.”
Ibrahim says the Greeks of Egypt feel at home but they have a responsibility towards their mother country. “As a Greek citizen I am expected to marry and have children to increase my country’s population,” concludes the young man.
George Vallas, the head of the Greek Community in Cairo, says the Greeks started settling in Egypt almost three centuries ago. At one point, they numbered 250,000, living in the cities and in the provinces. Johnny Emanuel Meros, the General Manager of the Greek Club, also had family outside the cities. “My grandfather established a scutcher in Dayrout and my other grandfather owned a bakery in Abu Hommos,” he explains. Meros thinks the country’s downfall started in July 1952. “Any country who dethrones its king is going to be robbed and stripped of its resources,” adds the middle aged man.
“The Greek Orthodox Church in Manshiya was built in 1847-1857 during the reign of Mohammed Ali, the first ruler to encourage the Greek migration to Egypt,” says Attia, a cleaner working at the church. “This church was built by the same guy who built Big Ben,” says Attia, who adds that around 250-300 Greek families still live in Alexandria and gather every year in that church to celebrate Greek National Day.
Azzareeta is a quiet yet colorful neighborhood. Both the Greek Consulate and the Greek are located there, in addition to the Greek Club and the consul’s residence. Most buildings in that relatively classy district are owned by Misr Insurance. Magdy al-Ramly, a shop owner on Eskandar el-Akbar Road, explains that the buildings once belonged to the foreign community before the nationalizations under Nasser.
Back in the 50s, life was different. Ramly belonged to the middle Egyptian class, and his father owned Ramly Publishing, allowing his Alexandrian family to mix with the wealthy foreign communities. “The Greeks lived in Azzareeta, Ibrahimiya, Camp Chizar, Attareen and Raml Station,” explains the business man.
Ramly and his Greek friends bar hopped from the Tamtam to Estoria on Saturdays to wine, dine and dance. “Mimi Abu Alfa, Demis Roussos’s [the musician] best friend, still lives here until today,” says Ramly proudly. Greeks took over several industries in Egypt; mainly the food industry, the entertainment in addition to the car and the marine industry. After World War II, Europe was witnessing a downfall while Egypt was the main attraction of the region.
“Egypt then was a delicious plate of seafood,” adds Ramly. Restaurants like Calicia and Zaferion were known for their amazing sea food.
According to George Zarmartan, a Greek born in Alexandria, the Greeks were behind the rise of several industries in Egypt. “My family established a steel factory here in Alexandria 70 years ago,” he says. They built cinemas and bars, and were the founders of Bolanachi and Gianaclis, the main alcohol producers in Egypt, and to Spiro Spathis, the king of soda in the forties and fifties.
“I don’t have a Greek passport,” says Nicola George Bel, a Greek born in Egypt proudly. Bel is a surveyor in Marine Technical Services; he spends his free time at the Italian Club affiliated with Saint Kathrine’s Church. He is the father of two, Despina and Michael, a student at Don Bosco institute. “After my son finishes school, the church will help in sending him abroad for a better education and a better life,” says Bel. According to the Greek-Egyptian father, more Greeks left the country after the 25 January revolution. “I already started the immigration process to Australia,” says Bel. Greeks in Egypt receive a monthly pension of US$150 per month even if they have a job.
No more than 2,000 Greeks live in Alexandria today. “Most Greeks living in Alex today are the elderly who got abandoned by their families and live in the Greek or the Italian [retirement] home in Azareeta,” says Ramly.