EUME Berliner Seminar
Mi 29 Nov 2023 | 17:00–18:30

‘Affectueusement, Laila’: Being a ‘foreign’ Jewish communist woman in post-colonial Egypt

Rim Naguib (EUME Fellow 2019-23), Chair: Mariz Kelada (EUME Fellow 2023/24)

Forum Transregionale Studien, Wallotstr. 14, 14193 Berlin

© Rim Naguib

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Few people know of Noémie Canel, even among those who are knowledgeable about the history of communism in Egypt and the notable role played in it by her organization, the Democratic Movement for National Liberation (MDLN/HADETO). She as well as many other ‘foreign’ women in the movement have been almost completely left out in the historiography, or have only managed to figure as “the wife of”s. Noémie Canel was deported from Egypt twice, returned to Egypt clandestinely, was tried and sentenced to prison twice, and spent a total of 11 years in various prisons in Cairo. Throughout the period of her activism and lengthy incarceration, she persisted in the "democratic struggle" and in her hope for democracy and social justice in Egypt, as well as in her attempts to prove that she was Egyptian.

Noémie Canel’s experience was shaped by her being a woman and a so-called ‘foreigner’ Jewish communist in post-colonial Egypt. I examine hundreds of letters written by her and about her in the period 1948-59 to reflect on two issues: On the one hand, how was communist activism in mid-century Egypt gendered, and how did her feminized role in the movement entail the complete fusion of her personal and political being and aspirations. On the other hand, how did the position of the communist Jews of Egypt become increasingly precarious in post-colonial Egypt, and how they reacted by embracing post-colonial nationalism and by striving towards their ‘Egyptianization’. In the case of Noémie, these issues converged, making contingent the fate of the movement, and particularly the fate of the increasingly excluded ‘foreign’ Jewish communists of Egypt, to her personal fate and to her self-perception as a woman. Ultimately the defeat of the movement, and the inability of Egypt’s Jewish communists to maintain their place in the movement or in the country, meant her personal defeat. The experience of seeing her deepest aspirations and ideals vanish, while incarcerated, ultimately broke her, both physically and emotionally. In April 1959, she would write in one of her last letters to Henri Curiel, “My dear Jacques, I never imagined I would be broken like this. Everything is falling apart around me. I had better leave you now, but please accept a strong handshake from your former comrade, Laila”. What ensued after her liberation at the end of 1961 was a complete volte-face to her past convictions and aspirations.

Rim Naguib received her PhD in Sociology from Northwestern University (2016) and her MA from Sciences Po Aix-en-Provence (2006). Her PhD dissertation is titled “Intelligentsia Class Formation and Ideologies in Peripheral Societies: Comparing Egypt and Iran, 1922-1952”. She was a post-doctoral fellow with the Arab Council for the Social Sciences. Based in Cairo, she taught in several alternative education initiatives, seeking to popularize the critical social sciences. Her research interests address three different, but not unrelated, fields: the colonial practice of ideological-ethnic deportation of internationalist foreigners and ‘local subjects of foreign extraction’ in the policing of communism in interwar Egypt; the post-colonial securitization of Egyptian nationality legislation and practice and of the management of foreigners’ residence; and the political and cultural history of Egyptian patriarchal nationalism. She is also writing and illustrating a graphic biography of Joseph Rosenthal (1872-1965), and has co-translated several graphic novels into Arabic. In the academic year 2019/20, Rim Naguib was a EUME Fellow and continued her EUME fellowship in 2020-22 through a stipend by the Fritz Thyssen Foundation. Since 2022, she is a EUME Research Associate at the Forum Transregionale Studien.

Mariz Kelada is a current EUME Postdoctoral Fellow, she holds a PhD in Anthropology and an MA in Modern Culture and Media from Brown University. Her interdisciplinary research is invested in the labor and political economies of the cultural and creative sectors in Egypt and the MENA region, political theory, and multimodal ethnographic methods. Since 2010 Kelada has been working in Egypt’s alternative cultural sector in various roles, from project management and research to film production.


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