Sample Reading

Crossing Cairo:
A Jewish Woman's Encounter with Egypt

Ruth Sohn

Chapter 5
Passover Break

“Didn’t we win the Yom Kippur War?” Noam asked when he came home from school, referring to the October 1973 war between Egypt and Israel. It is known as the “Yom Kippur War” to Israelis and most Jews because Egypt and Syria had launched a surprise attack against Israel on Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the year for Jews, a day of fasting and religious services. Noam’s question emerged from a discussion he had at school with his friend, Muhammad, a popular and well-respected senior who was president of the student body.
Muhammad sat next to Noam in their Egyptian history class. Earlier he had told Noam that he knew he was Jewish because he had been one of the student leaders the Head of School had first consulted with about the possibility of two Jewish boys attending AIS. Noam was very happy to discover that he finally had a friend at school with whom he could talk openly. And since Muhammad was an avid reader of history and politics, Noam had been especially looking forward to discussing the Middle East situation with him.
Noam explained to us that, according to Muhammad, the 1973 war between Israel and Egypt had been a victory for Egypt. “He said everyone sees it that way,” Noam continued. “They even have a national holiday—called the ‘October Victory Day.’”
“But if Israel won the Yom Kippur War, how can that be?” asked Amir, clearly puzzled.
Noam repeated Muhammad’s account: the Egyptian army’s attack on Israeli soldiers stationed in the Sinai had caught the Israelis by surprise. Since it was Yom Kippur, only the bare minimum of soldiers had stayed behind with their units in the Sinai instead of returning home to join their families. In the first few days of fighting, Israel had suffered heavy losses.
“I don’t get it. Then how can the Israelis say they won?” Amir asked.
As we settled around the kitchen table for a snack and a longer discussion, Reuven and I affirmed what the boys already knew – that Israel and the West in general viewed the war as a victory for Israel. Reuven explained that after the initial two-pronged surprise attack by Egypt in the Sinai Peninsula and by Syria in the Golan Heights, Israel had regained within a few days all the lost ground on both fronts. In the Sinai, Israeli forces pushed forward, encircling the Egyptian Third Army on the road between Suez and Cairo. With Israeli tanks just twenty miles outside of Damascus and fifty miles from Cairo, the war ended when Israel, Egypt and Syria accepted a U.N. cease-fire under pressure from the United States and the Soviet Union. Had Israel pressed its advantage and moved into the Arab capitals, Egypt and Syria would have suffered the humiliation of total defeat. From this vantage point, the war seemed a clear victory for Israel, despite its initial disadvantage due to the surprise attack.
“But you know, for every event—especially a war—there are different points of view when it comes to explaining what happened, why it happened, and why it was important,” Reuven said. “It is not unusual after a war for the two sides to view what happened differently. But I think this is a more extreme case than usual, with each of two countries presenting themselves as victorious in the same war.”
I suddenly remembered that on the main road between Cairo and the airport we often passed a museum built to commemorate the October War. The taxi drivers would always point it out to us with pride. “We’ve been talking about going to the October War Museum ever since we arrived,” I said, turning to Reuven. “Maybe now would be a good time.” We decided to go the following Friday.

A week and a half later, the taxi dropped us off in front of the October War Panorama museum. The museum was a modern cylinder-shaped building set back from the road. Walking up to it, we pointed out to Noam and Amir that this was a government-run “showcase museum” where visiting foreign dignitaries were usually brought. The museum offered a perfect opportunity to hear the official Egyptian narrative of its relationship to the State of Israel. While it was dedicated to the 1973 war specifically, we expected the war to be presented in the context of a more sweeping narrative of Egypt’s relationship with Israel, and we wanted the boys to be on the lookout for it.
Hoping to avoid large crowds, we had gotten an early start on the day, but already families with young children, and adults of all ages, were lining up. We joined the line and quietly waited our turn to buy tickets. Once inside, we were immediately ushered into an auditorium with comfortable stadium seating. We took seats in the front row. “What language do you speak?” a museum employee asked us politely and upon our reply, he handed us headphones marked “English.” We sat back in the comfortable chairs, waiting for the presentation to begin.

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