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Egyptian Jews


    In Egypt the Karaites had customs which differed from those of the Rabbinates, although some were similar.

    In Cairo, more members of both communities lived in certain neighborhoods, in 'Abbasiyah, Ghamrah, Sakakini and al-Dahir. The well-to-do lived in Hilwan, Ma',adi, or Heliopolis. The wealthy had villas in Garden City or Zamalek. That, of course, does not include many among the poor, the middle class and even a few well-to-do members who preferred to stay in the Karaite neighborhood in Khurunfish where they felt more secure and were very near to Rab Simhah synagogue.

    Because most of the Karaites were of Egyptian origin, they acquired certain Egyptian customs. The men dressed like natives. Until early in the 20th century, most of the goldsmiths used to wear the gibbah and quftin. Lower class men wore the galabiyah with a coat over it, especially in winter.

    Most women wore a two-piece dress, usually black. The bottom part was almost like a skirt, the top a plain piece of material that covered the head and shoulders to the waist. It could also be used to veil the face. This is the same kind of clothing that the middle class Muslim women in Egypt and in Turkey used to wear during the first quarter of the 20th century; it is called habarah. Upper middle class and wealthy women wore European dress. In the period covered, there were no restrictions on the kind of material or the style of clothes, as was the case in earlier centuries.' It was not easy, therefore, to distinguish Jews, Christians, or Muslims by their style of dress. Karaites tended to be more conservative than Rabbinates. While the latter quickly adopted European customs, the Karaites held on longer to the Oriental ways, especially with regard to women's activities. Rabbinate girls occupied many different jobs, while Karaite girls were more interested in getting married.

    Until the early 1930's it was not acceptable for young Karaites of different sex to meet with each other. Karaites in general mingled more freely with non-Jewish Egyptians. They did not have a noticeable accent, as did the Rabbinates. They did, however, use some Arabic words in a manner different from the non-Jews.'

    Some Karaite women, especially the poor, were affected by their Muslim neighbors and wore amulets to keep away the evil eye and evil spirits.

    Until the first quarter of the 20th century, the poor among the Karaites depended a great deal on folk medicine.

    Egyptian men were more attracted to fat women. Karaites were no different. It was not difficult for women to put on more weight. In the neighborhood of al-Azhar there was and still is a market called "Suq al-'Attarin" spice market, where one can find all kinds of spices, herbs and the like. Women used to visit the market and buy what was usually offered as a sure formula to put on more weight. The spice market is a short distance from al-Saghah, where most of the Karaite men carried on their businesses as silver or goldsmiths. It was no trouble to get what their women wanted.

    Karaites were well known for their cleanliness. Even the poor among them kept a clean house and especially a clean kitchen. Until they left Egypt, Karaites used to clean their utensils with soft sand and yellow clay. It was common to see two copper containers next to the kitchen sink, one for the soft sand and the other for the yellow clay (Tafl).

    Social activities among the Karaites were limited to visits among relatives and friends. Sunday was the preferred day for this. Late in the 1930's dance parties were held at homes to encourage young people to get together. Gambling with cards was very common among rich and poor members. Rich people used to get together in their villas, while the poor used to play in the cafes owned by Jews.

    Karaite synagogues did not carry on any social activities, but there were some educational activities such as teaching Hebrew and the faith. From time to time, there were lectures in the synagogue or in the center of any existing association.


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