No Egyptian citizen or visitor to Egypt does not know or has not heard of the iconic Cairo Tower, one of the most important landmarks of the Egyptian capital. Very few people, however, know the man behind this interesting building that was once the tallest building in Africa____ the gifted Egyptian architect Naoum Shebib (Chebib). Even fewer are aware, or willing to acknowledge, that Shabib was, in fact, a Jewish Egyptian. 1
Shebib has left a great historical legacy in Egypt. Besides the Cairo Tower, Shabib designed the beautiful building of the oldest Egyptian newspaper, Al-Ahram, the stunning Church of St. Fatima in Heliopolis, and many other architectural wonders, not just in Cairo, but in the city of Port Said too.
Cairo Tower and other buildings by Shebib
I remembered Shabib when I read about the controversy sparked by the new Ramadan Gulf series “Umm Haroun,” which portrays the historical Jewish presence in the Gulf States in the early twentieth century. And even before the series started broadcasting, accusations of “normalization with Israel” were directed at it. For example, an official from the Palestinian Islamist group Hamas, Basim Naeem, condemned the series even before it aired and told Reuters that portraying Jewish people in a sympathetic light is “cultural aggression and brainwashing.”
The Hamas official’s choice of words is clear – “The Jewish people.” In our region, particularly among the Islamists and the “anti-Israel resistance camp,” the words “Jews” and “Israelis” are synonymous. At best, detractors are willing to acknowledge Judaism as a religion, but most Arabs reject the Jewish identity and link it with the “Zionist entity.” Moreover, the vast majority of Arabs believe Jews of Arab decent have voluntarily left their countries to settle in Israel. With such a widespread myth, Jewish identity is awkward to handle and triggers suspicion, accusations of treason, and normalization with the “Zionist entity.”
Noam Shebib, however, is a striking example that debunks such lazy, shallow claims. Shabib was assigned to build the Cairo Tower during the era of the Egyptian president and anti-Israel leader Gamal Abdel Nasser, and by one of Nasser’s intelligence officers2, according to some Egyptian reports. In 1971, at the age of 56, Shebib left Egypt for Canada, not Israel. However, none of the very few Arabic articles that praised his work mentioned he was Jewish. And none asked the tough questions: Why did a successful architect like Shebib immigrate to a distant country like Canada at a late stage of his life? Why are the vast majority of Egyptians not aware of him?
The story of Naom Shebib is not unique; most Jews from Egypt and the Arab World were forced to leave their native countries, because of direct or indirect persecution via loss of citizenship rights and protection, loss of jobs in the private and public sectors, no prospect of future employment, dispossession of assets, death, and expatriation/expulsion. Some have had their passports stamped “exit, with no return.”
Through a brief search on social media, one can encounter many such “exiles” sharing old photos from their homeland and maintaining what they regard as their proud Arab traditions.
Headline from Ahram newspaper September 1948
(explosion in the Jewish quarter in Cairo)
There is no logical explanation of the current hysteria about a soap opera that happened to portray a Jewish Gulf family. The real “cultural aggression and brainwashing” has been the systematic negative portrayal of Jews of Arab descent in the name of defending Palestinian rights. Kicking the Jews out of Arab countries was not just unjust, but frankly stupid. It deprived the Arab world of the contributions of a flourishing minority, and ironically rewarded Israel with more Jewish occupants for its new state.
Seventy years of systematic obliteration of the history of the Jews did not benefit the Palestinians’ cause, but only served the toxic agendas of the radical left, the Mullahs and the varies Islamists groups. The result has been a slow decline and ugly transformation of our societies from open, multicultural ones to closed regressive and fragile ones, engulfed by suspicion and fear.
Some efforts have been made in Egypt to renew the country’s Jewish heritage. The latest was the renovation of the stunning Eliyahu Hanavi synagogue in Alexandria. But the country is still struggling to handle its Jewish people, individuals such as Naoum Shabib. It is as if remembering any Jew, regardless of the context, is a sin Egyptians are unwilling to commit.
I hope the story of Shebib inspires Gulf societies to embrace TV dramas such as “Umm Haroun,” and reject the hysteria and noise of the Islamists and “resistance” camps, who aim to weaponize this TV series against the growing culture of tolerance and multiculturalism in the Gulf.
An Arabic version of this piece was published in Al-Hurra
- Builders of Egypt book. Page 32. Amr Taher (Arabic), highlighting Naom’s Jewishness https://books.google.co.uk/books?id=n9fIDQAAQBAJ&pg=PT26&hl=es&source=gbs_toc_r&cad=3#v=onepage&q&f=false
- How a coincidence led an intelligence officer to discover Naoum Shebib https://www.shorouknews.com/news/view.aspx?cdate=30092013&id=8797143f-7f0a-43ed-8815-39b913f8b85a
- Naoum Shebib. Wikipedia Arabic