Interviewed by Jess Hatton & Carey Armstrong
27 November 2019
My full name is Guy Marco Sasson. Not Sassoon. Sasson is the original word in Hebrew: it means joy. Hebrew is like Arabic or Indian dialects. If you move the dot from one vowel to another, it changes the word. In Sasson, the dot is above the letter making it an ‘oh’ sound, but it’s been moved to the middle, making it Sassoon. Sassoon probably comes more from Damascus. My family comes from Aleppo, Syria, through my grandmother’s side.
My grandmother, Olga Lisbona, was born in Aleppo and her father, I understand, was financial advisor to the King of Syria. He was extremely wealthy to the point that he had a synagogue in his house. There are stories that, at Passover, he’d have all the rice collected and he’d get servers to go through it to remove the grit. He’d throw some grains of corn in until they were all found. And when it was clean, the whole village would queue outside with their bowls for rice for Passover. Jews aren’t supposed to eat rice, but you’ll find Sephardi and Spanish-Portuguese Jews will eat it on Passover.
Anyway, Nona Olga was the daughter of his second marriage. They say he remarried at 70 and at 90. And she didn’t realise he was her father: she called him Grandfather. When he died, her brothers kicked her and her sister out. They moved to Beirut. I don’t know how, but they went from Beirut to Alexandria, where she met my dad’s father, who was Marco Sasson, and they married.
My grandfather on my mum’s side was born in Istanbul. He didn’t want to serve in the army, so he stowed away but he was found on the ship when it got to Alexandria. His name was Marco Cohen and he met my mum’s mum, Victoria. I think her surname was Zetoun. That family is from Salonika, where Prince Philip was from.
So, my parents were born in Egypt. But, despite this fact, they were stateless because they were Jewish. Dad served in the army at the same time as Nasser. A story he told me: because they were Jewish, their guns had no bullets.
Life in Egypt
I hate being called an Arab. I’m an Egyptian Jew. We had a good life there. I would say we were comfortable. We had servants; I had a nanny, my mum had her own seamstress. Where we lived was very well-off, probably something like Mayfair. My parents were married at one of the most beautiful synagogues in the world, the Eliyahu Hanavi. It is still there: it’s protected by Egyptian soldiers and the people who look after it are Christians. But where there were tens of thousands of Jews in Alexandria and all over the Middle East, allegedly there’s just a dozen Jews left.
My mum’s name was Regina. Dad put her on a pedestal: she was the Queen. She liked the good life. She liked chocolate and, to her dying day. I’d spoil her silly with chocolate desserts. When they were courting and they were chaperoned by her elder sister, he’d buy a huge bar of chocolate. I was quite shocked, to hear that she had to be chaperoned in the 1950s. But then [my wife] Rachel’s father was very strict. When we used to go out, I had to have her back by 10.30! And this was in 1974…
Some people go back to Egypt… I’d like to do that, but I don’t know if my wife would get in, because she was born in Israel. My parents went in 1983, to visit their parents’ graves. They were really tearful about how the area had declined. Imagine: it was like, say, Mayfair, and it had become like Deptford. They were so upset.
Expulsion of the Jews
The French, the Greeks and the Jews: I’m told they were alright in Alexandria. Then Nasser came along and he went for the Jews. They actually went into concentration camps, but not like the German ones. Some were beaten up, some managed to get out. If you had some sort of lineage, like French or English, you could go to that country. My father married a fellow Egyptian who had no such lineage, so things got worse for us.
Dad worked in import/exports out there but they were given notice to quit. When that happened, any money he made then went straight to the Egyptian Government. So, Dad: let’s say he did a deal with somebody and it was for 5,000 Egyptian pounds. The guy said, ‘I’ll give you a cheque for 5,000 or I’ll give you cash 1,000.’ Dad would take the cash because that way he’d get all the money. Later, when I tried to get compensation for what we lost, I was speaking to a solicitor in Cairo, but I needed my parents’ permission to go further. But when I said what I needed off him, Dad said a great big: ‘Non!’ I believe he was worried in case he got caught for tax. But he wasn’t the only one.
When we left Egypt, we had loads of suitcases which Dad had hidden all our money in. We got to the docks, and every case was searched and all the money that was found was taken away. So, in the end, we literally came here with nothing.
Coming to England
Mum’s father and her sister – who had married an English soldier – had come to the UK, so we landed up here. That was in September/October of ’58. I was nearly four, and my sister was 2 or 3 months old.
We stayed with our aunt in Kilburn. It wasn’t the greatest time. Four of us lived in one room. When we got here, some Jewish charities – B’nai Brith amongst others –helped us. We were supported by some very generous wealthy Jews; I’ll never forget that. Sometimes Dad would not eat for us to be able to eat. He would buy one can of Coke and divide it amongst the four of us. So, we became aware of these things. It made us better people.
We’d go to Marks and Spencer in Marble Arch and Dad would show a special letter. We’d get what we needed, then have to go out of the shop by the back exit with everything in brown paper bags that we brought with us.
We spoke French as a family. But when we came here, my parents insisted on speaking English, and, one of the biggest mistakes I ever made, was that in later years, Mum would speak to me in French and I’d reply in English.
My parents also spoke Arabic, so I understand a bit of that. My mum’s family spoke Ladino, which is like Spanish. So, through that I can understand a bit of Spanish.
We had a Sephardi wedding, even though my in-laws are Ashkenazi. The Ashkenazi do what’s called ‘bedeking’. Because of Jacob, he got conned by his father-in-law and ended up marrying the one he didn’t want. So now Ashkenazi bridegrooms open the veil to make sure. Also, Ashkenazis walk round the brides seven times. We don’t do that. What we do have – though Rachel denies it – but my mum said to me, ‘After you break the glass, put your foot on her foot to show who’s boss.’
Eventually we moved to Maida Vale, and the synagogue was a 10-minute walk away. That’s a beautiful synagogue, in Lauderdale Road. I was part of the choir – even though I can’t sing well! – and I used to go every Shabbat. I still go to Bevis Marks, too, for a fix, because I like the Sephardi tunes.
I’m very stubborn in that, even though I belong to an Ashkenazi synagogue, I will not pronounce their words. They say MINyan. No, it’s minyan. Shabbos? No, it’s Shabbat. Our son Adam, he’s 33 now, but when he got Bar Mitzvah’d, we introduced a tradition from our Masorti synagogue: the rabbi or lay leader takes the Sefer [scrolls] out of the Ark and passes it to the grandfather, who passes it now to the grandmother, who then passes it to the father. He passes it to the mother who passes it to the Bar Mitzvah, handing down the scrolls through the generations. It’s quite emotional.
I call the Bar Mitzvah day the ‘leaving day’ – cos it’s after that when a lot of Jewish kids lose their religion. So, in our synagogue, our son was on his Bar Mitzvah and he did a special Spanish-Portuguese prayer by heart. And he’s the only person to this day to do the whole Parshah – most only do the last three lines. But after that he lost interest because basically his deal was, if there’s a G-d, why are people poor, why are evil people winning? The one festival he likes is Chanukah. He knows all the prayers and the songs, Ma Nishtana too, all five verses by heart. To this day, he gets a present every night. He also celebrates Christmas, so it’s Christmasnukah in his house!
Passover traditions and foods
I want to keep the Sephardi. On Pesach, certain things we do… The Ashkenazim, it’s basically apple with honey. We have another service and another Seder where we have various foods representing different things. We’ve had Ashkenazi friends come along and they love it.
You’ve also got the round challah with 12 bumps, for the 12 tribes of Israel. You’ve got spinach, leek and I do courgettes, though it’s supposed to be pumpkin. You’ve got pomegranate. And you’ve got bananas, because there’s blessing over bananas. Dates: we have two kinds of dates, because there’s two prayers. So those are actually Egyptian dates, which are really tart. But if they become brown, they get sweet.
There’s a new fruit every year It’s different now. In the old days, my parents would walk up to 45 minutes to get a new food and people would say: ‘What’s this? A pomegranate? What’s this? A mango?!’ Now it’s all common.
And there was another thing… Rosh Hashanah means ‘head of the year’, head being rosh. My parents would have sheep’s brain at the Rosh Hashanah meal. I hate it, but I have relatives who think: ‘Wow! Delicacy of the year!’ Some people have a salmon head, instead of a sheep’s… I couldn’t eat it, but my dad, being a businessman in Egypt, always finished his plate. He would be offered something like the sheep’s eye, which was a delicacy and it meant you were very revered. He had a lot of non-kosher food, but never at home. He never had pork, though.
We have an oneg (a family get-together) every month. I lead the service and then we eat as Jews. A famous Jewish saying goes: ‘We fought, we won. Let’s eat.’ There’s a dish that Rachel makes, Fasulye, runner beans and rice. And it’s one of the first dishes that go… Rachel was born in Israel, so our food is basically Mediterranean. The Ashkenazi got salt beef and latkes – and beigels. But 90 per cent of our food is Sephardi. And vegetarian.
Rachel makes a kofta (meatballs and sauce) from Bombay. Her parents come from India and Israel. And she makes a wicked stuffed chicken for the festivals. With rice and liver, et cetera. So, we do eat meat.
I was only three, but I do remember the falafel in Egypt. Nona Olga was a kitchen wizard. I remember her Kobeba [also known as Kibbeh]: this is bulgur wheat made into the shape of an oval, filled with fried meat and then closed and deep-fried. I can’t do it. The dexterity! And Nona used to make it so thin…
I used to watch her. They say Egyptian men make the best husbands: I understand that. I’m going to be very immodest now: I’m a good cook. It’s not nouvelle cuisine – it’s ‘slap it on’. It’s not spicy, because that’s not what we do – but there’s always onions, tomatoes and garlic. That’s my holy trinity. I do overdo the garlic: where it says one, I put 10. You know the dish called Shakshuka? I don’t put peppers in it, just loads of tomatoes and garlic. The lady down the road, she loves it. Every time I make it, she says: ‘Don’t forget me!’
If you want to get an insight on Sephardi stuff, you should read Claudia Roden’s Book of Jewish Food, it’s my Bible. In the foreword she explains how Sephardi life revolves around food. If you went to some Sephardi person and within 10 minutes, you weren’t offered food, leave – they don’t like you! My grandmother, same thing- as soon as you get there, it’s food.
Love of music
When we got married, one song I wanted was Essa Enai. It’s such a beautiful melody. I just think Sephardic tunes are more melodic. On Yom Kippur, many years ago, I suggested El Nora Lila, which is again a beautiful song, for when you’re closing the Gates… It’s a Sephardi thing we have introduced into our Ashkenazi service.
[If you want to hear some Sephardi songs] Google Daniel Halfon: we grew up together. He has the most beautiful tenor voice, there’ll be some beautiful songs on there, Ladino songs. Daniel’s now a rabbi in Jerusalem.