I entered the cinema and was immediately confronted with the feeling that I had come into a very personal and private space. 

The sense of community was overwhelming, and as a non-Armenian, I stuck out like a sore thumb. 

Conversations were momentarily interrupted as eyes flickered towards the door, as if to check if any other friends had entered. 

The lights dimmed and an air of anticipation descended. I settled into my seat, not knowing what to expect.

Sour Memories

An elderly man cranks the handle of a record player, the music swells and stories of death, despair, broken families, and broken homes are recounted; stories of genocide. 

Local Armenian community members walk us through the events that forced their families to seek refuge in Egypt in the early 1900s, specifically between 1915-1918. 

Hundreds of thousands were brutally murdered by the Ottoman army across what was then the Ottoman Empire. Neither the Turkish nor the Egyptian government have officially recognized or acknowledged the Armenian genocide till this day. 

Armenian genocide, prisoners, ottoman
Armenian civilians marched to a prison, April 1915 Source: Wikipedia

Images of captured Armenians, piles of dead bodies, starving children, and decapitated heads displayed on platters flashed on screen. 

I shifted in my seat, ashamed of myself. How had I known so little about this atrocity? This film had humanized an event that I had only ever read about in books. 

Sweet Nostalgia

Armenak Kutchukian, store, Alexandria
An Armenian appliances store in Alexandria, 1935 Source: Great Egypt

"We Are Egyptian Armenians," directed by Waheed Sobhy, Eva Dadrian and Hanan Ezzat, paints Egypt in the early 20th century as a place of freedom, acceptance, and peace. 

Armenians were welcome with open arms and given the right to practice their religion freely and safely at a time when they were being persecuted.

Not only that, but they were free to integrate fully into Egyptian society by building churches, schools and setting up their own businesses. In short, Armenians were able to maintain their language, culture and traditions in Egypt - a country that celebrated everything they had to add. 

The cosmopolitan cities of Cairo and Alexandria only thrived with the addition of Armenians. The documentary outlined some of the cultural contributions that this community spearheaded and excelled in: education, architecture, watch-making, printing, photography, shoe manufacturing, cigarette production, jewelry making and goldsmithing, entertainment and the visual arts.

Inclusive Egypt

The story of Armenians in the country is a chapter in the long history of an inclusive Egypt, one that we seem to be losing over time. A right-wing nationalistic rhetoric seems to foreshadow the further exclusion of minority groups in nations worldwide. 

A horrific event happened in 1915 that forced many Armenians to flee to Egypt and other countries. Over 100 years later, their descendants consider themselves Egyptian Armenians - not Armenians living in Egypt, but both Egyptian and Armenian at the same time. 

Looking back at early 20th century Egypt, we learn that only by accepting, absorbing and celebrating cultural differences, can we surpass ourselves and benefit as a whole community.