Juliana Maio was born in Egypt, but expelled from the coun­try with her fam­i­ly dur­ing the Suez Cri­sis. She was raised in France, com­plet­ed her high­er edu­ca­tion in the Unit­ed States, and today, Juliana prac­tices enter­tain­ment law in Los Ange­les. She has spo­ken both domes­ti­cal­ly and abroad about the Arab Spring. Her nov­el, City of the Sun (Green­leaf Book Group Press), is now avail­able. She is blog­ging here today for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

Lit­tle did I know what I was get­ting myself into when one day I decid­ed to delve back into my Jew­ish Egypt­ian roots. I was born in Egypt but expelled with my fam­i­ly dur­ing the 1956 Suez Canal Cri­sis when I was 3 years old. We moved to France but end­ed up immi­grat­ing to the Unit­ed States when I was 17. My life had been too busy and chaot­ic to jour­ney back into the past until one day I was struck by a sort of midlife cri­sis. It was not the pas­sage of time nor the mean­ing of life that kept me awake at night, but rather the nag­ging need to dis­cov­er the truth about my peo­ple’s roots. Who were those Jews liv­ing in Egypt? What were they doing there? And what went wrong? I did not want anec­dotes. I want­ed hard facts. 

Soon I start­ed hit­ting the his­to­ry books, and while I knew that Jews had been liv­ing in Egypt since bib­li­cal times, I learned that the largest wave of immi­gra­tion occurred in the mid-nine­teenth cen­tu­ry when the coun­try under­went a mas­sive mod­ern­iza­tion and the Suez Canal was built. Jews came from all over the Mediter­ranean basin, and that’s when my fam­i­ly came. I was so proud to dis­cov­er the inte­gral part Jews played in the build­ing of the coun­try. They were doc­tors, lawyers, bankers, leg­is­la­tors, ath­letes, and movie stars. They built the great­est depart­ment stores and hos­pi­tals. They helped draft the Egypt­ian Con­sti­tu­tion and were advi­sors to the king. By the advent of World War II Egypt­ian Jews were on top of their game. They were thriving. 

But the Jews were not thriv­ing in a vac­u­um, they co-exist­ed famous­ly with the many oth­er for­eign minori­ties that had also come to set­tle in Egypt — Ital­ians, French, Bel­gians, Arme­ni­ans, Greeks, Syr­i­ans, Turks, and of course the Eng­lish, who had col­o­nized the coun­try. My research grew expo­nen­tial­ly as I became fas­ci­nat­ed by this unique, cos­mopoli­tan Lev­an­tine soci­ety, who built a city that mir­rored Paris in the heart of Cairo with grand boule­vards and exquis­ite gardens. 

My research grew wider when the next nat­ur­al step was to under­stand how the Egypt­ian peo­ple react­ed to that onslaught of for­eign­ers. I was delight­ed to learn how tol­er­ant and accept­ing they had been — that is until World War II, when the Eng­lish held the coun­try with a tight grip for fear of los­ing the vital­ly strate­gic Suez Canal. Fac­tions of all kinds began to seri­ous­ly chal­lenge the Brits, and it was with extra­or­di­nary inter­est that I learned about young, rebel­lious army offi­cers like Sadat and Nass­er, the emerg­ing Mus­lim Broth­er­hood (which also start­ed attack­ing Jews and spread­ing anti-Semi­tism), the young dash­ing King of Egypt, and all the var­i­ous polit­i­cal groups of the day.

Fac­tions are usu­al­ly based on ide­olo­gies and soon I found myself immersed in research­ing huge, top­ics that are as rel­e­vant today as they were then: colo­nial­ism, Arab nation­al­ism, fun­da­men­tal­ism, and Zion­ism. It was all new and fas­ci­nat­ing to me, and I remem­ber when I first read about Theodor Her­zl and the birth of Zion­ism, jump­ing out of my desk chair and pro­claim­ing, I’m a Zion­ist!” And then the next day, tak­ing it back, Maybe not.” But the fol­low­ing day, I wavered again. 

Learn­ing about Egypt dur­ing the war led me to inves­ti­gat­ing what was hap­pen­ing in Pales­tine, in Iraq, in Syr­ia. It was all con­nect­ed, and it was all so pro­found­ly inter­est­ing. I had dis­cov­ered a secret trea­sure that had been buried for decades, and it’s no won­der I decid­ed to write about it. 

After 10 years of research­ing and writ­ing, my midlife cri­sis is over. My hunger for the truth has been sati­at­ed — at least for now. I know there is so much more to learn. Stay tuned!

Read more about Julia Maio and City of the Sun here.

Relat­ed Content

Juliana Maio was born in Egypt but expelled from the coun­try with her fam­i­ly dur­ing the Suez Cri­sis. She was raised in France and com­plet­ed her high­er edu­ca­tion in the Unit­ed States. Today, Juliana prac­tices enter­tain­ment law in Los Ange­les and has rep­re­sent­ed inter­na­tion­al­ly renowned film­mak­ers. She has spo­ken both domes­ti­cal­ly and abroad about the Arab Spring.