Alec Nacamuli

Interviewed by Julia Pascal.

16 June 2020

I was born in Alexandria, Egypt,in August 1943, exactly nine months after the Battle of El Alamein. You can draw the conclusion you want from that one.I had a brother who was three years younger. My father, George Nacamuli, was born in 1908. His family originally came from Venice and then moved to Corfu. My great-grandfather moved from Corfu to Egypt, probably in the 1860s, and my grandfather was born in Cairo, where he spent all his life. He started the family business importing paper into Egypt, from newsprint rolls right down to toilet paper. He was also at one point president of the Cairo Jewish community. But because of the Corfu connection, we remained Greek nationals.

My mother, Marcelle Bigio, was born in 1916. Her family originally came from Aleppo in Syria, but then moved to Manchester, like a lot of Jews from Aleppo. That city had been a thriving, prosperous city, a trading hub where the caravans from the Indian subcontinent and the caravans from the Far East and China would meet and then transfer over the stuff for the caravans going back to Europe. But when the Suez Canal opened, Aleppo went into a strong decline. My grandmother, her mother and all her brothers and sisters were all born in Southend on Sea or Manchester and then the family moved to Egypt, probably at the end of the First World War. That’s where my parents met and got married in January 1939.

My father was then sent to Alexandria to open the Alexandria branch of the family business. When war broke out and Germany invaded Greece, the Greek Government, Royal Family and Navy withdrew into Alexandria. And my father joined the Greek Navy in exile.

Family languages
I studied Arabic at primary school, so up until the age of 11 or 12, I could read and write it. I’ve forgotten it now. For secondary school, we went to the Lycée Français, so then we spoke French at home – although I had an English nanny, and the other servants only spoke Arabic, so I was brought up pretty multilingual.I’m now pretty fluent in five languages – bilingual with French and English and business fluent in German, Italian and Spanish.

I once attended a panel discussion on “What language do you think in? What is your mother tongue?” To me, the actual test is what language you count in. If I’m doing mental arithmetic, I count in French, so that’s my answer.

Early memories of life in Egypt
We had a very pleasant life in Alexandria. School was in the morning from 8am till 1pm. Then my father would pick us up from school, we’d go home, have lunch, then in the afternoon we’d either see friends or go to the Sporting Club, where there was a swimming pool, tennis, golf, socials, you name it.

My first memory was a visit by an aunt, my father’s eldest sister, who had married a French dentist before the war and moved to Paris. They spent the war in Biarritz during the Occupation. She came with her daughter to Egypt – that would have been 1945-46.

During the Second World War, Egypt was a British protectorate. So, the British Army was there … The King, King Faruk, had Nazi sympathies. In the German archives, they found telegrams he sent to Hitler saying that he and his subjects were praying for a German victory to deliver them from the British yoke. At which point the British High Commissioner moved some tanks into the Royal Palace, which forced him to change his government.

Then, of course, there was the battle of El Alamein, which is less than 100km from Alexandria. My grandfather and uncle lived opposite the British embassy in Cairo and saw them burning papers and ready to evacuate. By then, a lot of Jews had already moved to South Africa or Sudan fearing a German invasion. 

We felt reasonably safe. My father’s brother signed up for the British Army, with Montgomery, and because he spoke fluent Italian, they used him to interrogate Italian prisoners of war. And then he followed Montgomery to Sicily and moving up Italy.

Jewish identities
Our family had a very strong Jewish identity. My father was a regular synagogue-attender. We were members of the main Eliahu Hanavi Alexandria Synagogue, but on Yom Kippur we would go to a smaller synagogue within walking distance, as we would not drive on Yom Kippur. But we did not keep a kosher home… my parents ate shellfish though not pork.

In Alexandria there was an overwhelming Sephardi majority. My grandmother got very upset when one of her sons wanted to marry an Ashkenazi girl, but I think that broke off. There were more Ashkenazim in Cairo – they had their own synagogue there, whilst there was no sort of Ashkenazi temple or oratory in Alexandria.

I’m not even sure I am actually descended from Sephardim who came from Spain… Could we have been Italian Jews who came as Roman slaves? And of course, my mother’s family from Aleppo – they were pure Mizrahim.Mizrach means ‘the East’ in Hebrew… so, generally speaking, Mizrahim refers to Jews who never went to Spain. They scattered after the destruction of the temples but remained in North Africa or Iraq or Persia. Because, strictly speaking, Sephardim are actually the ones who went to Spain.

In Israel, the Mizrahim who had emigrated from Arab countries were not very well treated. They were snubbed by the Ashkenazi elite and were kept in camps. And the classic English Sephardi families might have originally looked down upon the Mizrahim. But now, if you go to Lauderdale Road synagogue, you’ll find the immense majority are Mizrahim from Iraq.

As far as I’m concerned, Judaism is a religion. We’re not a nation. unless you’re an Israeli citizen. We’re not a race. I think any sense of identity is more linked because we’re a minority. Myself, I’m not a great synagogue-goer. We go to the Masorti synagogue, New North London, Rabbi Wittenberg. I like the sense of community there, but I don’t get much out of the prayer or the service. And I’ve tried on a few occasions to go to Talmud classes or whatever and I just can’t get into it. By choice, I would go just four or five time a year, of which three or four would be the Jahrzeits for my parents and brother, because that’s what they believed in, so I would do that for them. (My mother passed away in 1984, my father in 1992, and my brother passed away in 2016. They all stayed in Switzerland and are buried in Lausanne.)

Expelled from Egypt
We left Egypt on 15 December 1956. I was 13. I think my father would have wanted to leave much earlier – say, after ’52, when the King fell. He used to say, “Ce pays n’est plus pour nous. This country’s no longer for us.” But my mother wanted to hang in.

We were expelled.We were given a week to leave, but, I don’t know what my father did – whether he bribed somebody or what – but we managed to get an extension for four weeks. 

I left all my school friends, which was pretty devastating. I also was a very, very keen reader and I had to hand on or leave all my books.They must have become part of Nasser’s library. My father’s business went, as well as quite a lot of real estate that we owned. My father never tried to get any reparations. There’s an Arabic expression, El’e fat, mat: what is passed is dead. My father was very much of the belief that you turn the page and start again.

When we left, my mother cried, the servants cried. At the harbour we had a panic because my father was called up to the salon where the police had an office and only returned about 10 minutes before the boat sailed off.

Journey to Switzerland
We travelled on an Italian boat called the Esperia to Genoa. Then we took a train to Paris. We stayed with the aunt I mentioned earlier for three or four months, whilst my parents decided where to go, and finally, we went to Switzerland. Our family were not Zionists. I don’t think it ever crossed my parents’ minds to go to Israel, though we had some family who went, and when I graduated from university my father’s present was to pay for my brother and myself to go to Israel.

It was a tear to leave Egypt. We settled in Lausanne and I started school, so immediately you’re caught up with getting new friends and learning to ski – which was, of course, new for someone coming from Egypt. We were quite lucky, because a few Jews from Egypt went to Lausanne, so there was a little circle there, and I was reunited with one of my schoolfriends from Egypt. We did school together in Switzerland and then went on and did university together, so we’ve remained very, very close.

I finished my baccalaureate in Lausanne, then I went to the Technische Hochschule in Zürich, the Imperial College of Switzerland, for engineering. After that, I worked for six months in a Swiss firm and then I got a scholarship and came to London, where I studied for a Masters in Computer Science at London University in ’66 to ’67. 

Another move – to England (and Russia)
I always felt an affinity with England. and then, when I came here, I met my wife… When I finished the Masters, I joined a firm called English Electric Computers, which had a strong business selling computers to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. So, for four years I travelled very frequently and we even lived for seven or eight months in Moscow. The company put us through a crash course in Russian … I must say now it’s all forgotten, though I can still read Cyrillic.

I was supposed to go out for three years. But then the British Prime Minister Alexander Douglas-Home expelled 120 Russian so-called diplomats, cultural attaches, commercial attaches, as KGB spies. So, as part of retaliation, our activities were severely curtailed, and I had to come back.

I keep very fond memories of my stay in Russia. In those days, the rouble wasn’t convertible, so you had hard currency and soft currency. And with my hard currencies, I could walk into the Bolshoi for $1, attend all the concerts at the Tchaikovsky Hall. I heard all the Titans of Russian music: the two Oistrakhs, Gilels, Richter, Berman, Rostropovich…

Married and family life
My wife is North London Jewish. Her family was Ashkenazi, from Belgium, Austria and Poland,so you could say I married out. In Egypt, we used to call the Ashkenazim the ‘Schlechts’. It means bad in German, and the Ashkenazi girls were Schlechtayas. But my parents were just relieved I was marrying a Jewish girl! It was no big deal. Our children are Ashkenazi. We now eat rice at Passover, and I eat gefilte fish. So, there we are.

We had two children, a daughter and a younger son. Our daughter died about four years ago, about six months after giving birth to our grandson. When we got back from Moscow, we moved to Belgium for about 20 years. So, the children were born in Belgium and they joined all the Jewish youth movements. Our daughter was very involved in those, and even now, our son’s main core of friends are the kids from the Jewish youth movements in Belgium. 

We left Belgium in 1994 because I was offered a job by IBM in London. When I reached retirement age, they asked me if I wanted to continue and so I’m still working part time for them. I’m also a volunteer guide at the British Museum on Ancient Egypt and the history of money, leading the daily eye-opener tour of the galleries in my area. These tours last about 45 minutes and are done in English, but I’ve done it in French when necessary.

Sephardi Voices UK
A rabbi called Henry Green started the idea of Sephardi Voices in the United States. He came over and I liked the idea, so we started Sephardi Voices UK, which focuses on oral history from Jews from Arab countries – people born in Iraq or Syria or Morocco or Egypt – who have resettled here. It’s about maintaining the culture and their memories. These people are no longer that young, especially the first generation. I’ve interviewed quite a few of them and I’ve learned a lot. I didn’t realise how integrated the Iraqi Jews were, for example. And on two or three occasions, people have said, “I have told you things I haven’t even told my children.”