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The Arabic Lesson
by Ruth Sohn

“Here I am, a Jew, a rabbi, and a woman embarking on a 6-month stay in Cairo. How will Egyptians react to me when they learn my true identity? And will we be able to bridge our parallel conflicting narratives of the Israeli-Arab divide?”

The following is adapted from the journal Rabbi Ruth Sohn kept during her family's stay in Cairo, Egypt from January to July 2006. She (a Jewish studies faculty member at Milken Community High School) and her husband Rabbi Reuven Firestone (professor of Medieval Jewish and Islamic Studies at HUC-JIR, Los Angeles), and their two sons, Noam, 17, and Amir, 12, spent Reuven's sabbatical in Cairo with the goal of deepening their understanding of Arab thought and culture.

January 24, 2006 - Cairo Bound
I can hardly believe it--we're actually on the plane to Cairo!

People around us are speaking Arabic and it sounds so rough and grating to my ears. I feel viscerally the wide gulf between us and hope we have made the right decision.

When Reuven had first proposed the idea that our family spend six months in Egypt, I was initially resistant--no, I was negative. What would it be like to live as Jews in Cairo--was it safe? What would it be like for me as a woman? I protested: "I can think of 100 places I would rather live for half a year." But when I realized how important this was to Reuven, and how this might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience, I agreed to go. As the time of our departure drew near, I grew increasingly excited, albeit still apprehensive, about living in a country that is so foreign, so other...even hostile to my world. What would it be like to get inside Egyptian society?

For me, as a Jew and an American, I anticipate that the most difficult challenge will be hearing people saying hateful things about Israel and Jews. Most Egyptians view Israel as an enemy and do not distinguish easily between "Israeli" and "Jew." I will probably hear a narrative that challenges my most deeply held beliefs. What will be my response? If I don't speak up, will I feel like a traitor? Both Jews and non-Jews alike who've spent time in Cairo have advised us not to tell Egyptians that we are Jewish, except those with whom we've become close friends. The issue is not our physical safety, but rather to avoid a hostile attitude that would seriously limit our ability to interact comfortably and get to know people.

January 25 - First Day in Cairo
We took our time this first morning, walking around and exploring Maadi, one of the greener and quieter of Cairo's neighborhoods. For breakfast we decided to go native and ordered falafel (called ta'amiah here) and ful--well-cooked, partially mashed fava beans in pita bread--at a popular local food stand. Then we took a taxi to the American International School, where Noam and Amir will study during our stay. Many new apartment buildings are being built intermittently along the busy "Ring Road" that encircles Cairo--a key element in the city's major expansion efforts to house its residents, now 18 million and rising precipitously. Beyond the isolated clusters of buildings there is only expansive, vacant desert.

January 27
Last night, twice, after we responded "American" to the question "where are you from?" people pressed us: "But where are you really from--what are your roots?" I don't know if it's Reuven's Palestinian-dialect Arabic, the names of our boys, or Reuven's Semitic looks, but some people are not satisfied with the "American" label.

Muhammed, the owner of the Internet Café we have been frequenting, was very nice to the boys this morning. I cannot help but wonder if he would feel the same way about us if he knew we were Jewish. Incidentally, Muhammed is by far the most popular name for Egyptian men. We are already distinguishing between "Stationery Store Muhammed," "Internet Café Muhammed," and "Bakery Muhammed."

It is amazing how warm and friendly people are everywhere. We are not getting harangued to buy buy buy, as we were when we visited Cairo five years ago. While there are a few beggars and women and children who try to sell us small packets of tissues, most people are relaxed and eager to be helpful. And everyone is most encouraging of our efforts to speak Arabic.

February 1
Last night Noam spent about an hour talking with Adham and Hosni, who work at the desk of our hotel. The inevitable question was raised: "So, are you Christian or Muslim?" When they had asked him the question earlier, Noam told them he believed in one God. Last night he said, "I really don't like to talk about religion." They seemed disappointed but dropped the subject. Noam feels very constrained and awkward about not being open about who he is. For all of us, this has been the hardest part of our experience so far.

February 2
A few days into the first week of school, one of Amir's classmates, Ziyad, invited him to a party to celebrate the end of the first semester exams. Ziyad lives out in Heliopolis, a large suburb of Cairo popular with the Egyptian elite. When we came to pick up Amir at 11 PM, Ziyad's Lebanese mother invited us in. We found ourselves in a glittery and lavishly furnished living room overlooking Heliopolis from the thirteenth floor.

Our brief visit turned out to be very interesting. Ziyad's father, Ahmad, is a Palestinian from Jerusalem. He left with his family in 1948, when he was six years old. Some of his extended family still live in Jerusalem--within the "Green Line," Ahmad emphasized, suggesting that his home was in what is now Israel and that as a Palestinian he would never be able to return. Ahmad owns several clothing stores in Cairo, and, judging from the splendid apartment and the fact that Ziyad owns his own horse that he keeps at the fashionable Heliopolis Club, the family is doing well. Still, his wife told us, Ahmad suffers in Egypt because Palestinians are regarded as a destabilizing faction of questionable loyalty--a view fed by the fact that in 1970 Palestinians in Jordan started a revolution that almost overthrew the government; and that in 1974 Palestinians destabilized the delicate balance between the various religious sects in Lebanon, contributing to the outbreak of civil war that lasted fifteen years and left tens of thousands dead. This attitude toward Palestinians runs throughout the Middle East. While Arabs generally support the call for an independent Palestinian state, they often treat Palestinians in their own country as second-class citizens.

How I longed to tell Ahmad that we are Jewish, and to let him know that, while I support the State of Israel, I am deeply troubled by the suffering of the Palestinian people. If only we could have an honest and open conversation about his family's experience. And yet, I knew I could not ask too many questions. Even after the few I asked, I had to make quick retreats. For example, when I asked what part of Jerusalem Ahmad was from, he responded, "Have you been to Israel?" "I have friends who've been there; they tell me Jerusalem is very beautiful," I answered, not lying, but avoiding full disclosure.

February 8
After a week of apartment hunting we found a great place in the neighborhood called "Old Maadi," away from the hubbub of downtown Cairo and only a ten-minute walk to the Nile River. Maadi means "ferry landing." Apparently the ferry landing that still exists on the Nile in Maadi was once the defining feature of the town.

We live just two short blocks from the large, bustling Station Square (Midan al-Ma-hatta). Five times a day we hear the call to prayer from the mosque in the square. The main street, Road Nine, is lined with little markets and shops, many of which stay open until the early hours of the morning. Most shopkeepers speak some English as well as French and German (the area is known for its ex-pat populations). They are very friendly and pleased to hear us make an effort at speaking Arabic. We are only a few blocks away from the Old Maadi synagogue, which, we were told, is not open for weekly services but was in use for the High Holidays in 2005, for the first time in years.

There are no traffic lights or even stop signs in Maadi, and cars move relatively slowly on the smaller streets, by necessity, and honk frequently, warning others of their approach at intersections, or if they want to pass. There is a language of sorts--of shorter and longer honks--though I haven't fully figured it out.

I am studying Arabic privately three times a week with Zayna, who at 23 is young enough to be my daughter! I love speaking Arabic. Mahabba, the woman who cleans for us, is like a second teacher for me. Twice a week when she comes to clean, we sit for forty-five minutes and converse in Arabic over a cup of tea.

February 13
Yesterday Mahabba came in carrying a pot full of food. "You need to taste Egyptian food. I made you mahshi," she said with obvious delight. Mahshi refers to stuffed vegetables of all kinds, an Egyptian favorite. Mahabba had prepared stuffed cabbage--small rolls of cabbage about the size of stuffed grape leaves filled with a mixture of rice, tomato sauce, chopped onions, parsley, dill, and coriander. It was delicious. Mahabba offered to teach me how to cook mahshi and any other local dish I want to learn; I will take her up on the offer.

I am now reading a book called Understanding Arabs by Margaret K. Nydell. It helps put some of the experiences we're having into perspective. For example, in Arab culture, people expect their friends to make an effort to help and do favors for them to the best of their ability. Even if you don't think you have the ability to help in a situation, you are expected to offer to try. While the expectations are lower for strangers, people here make much more of an effort to help one another than is the custom in the States. When I ask directions, people usually walk me to my destination to be sure I find my way. The only downside to this cultural trait is that it is impossible to say no to people. The result is that people promise to help you, but that does not mean they will actually do so.

February 22
I have been thinking about how, on the plane ride to Egypt, I had imagined myself on a street populated with Arab men, women, and children--and I had a negative feeling in my gut. Yet, from the moment of our arrival, my experiences have been so positive that I have, in fact, felt very warmly toward the people I see around me. It is interesting to consider how different the reality is from my earlier imaginings and how personal experience can change one's attitudes about an entire people.

A big part of my feeling so comfortable here is living in a small part of town where I see the same friendly people day after day. Shopkeepers recognize me, often greet me by name, and are always ready to make conversation. Boys wearing galabiyyas (long robes) ride by on bicycles with large platters of pita balanced effortlessly on their heads. A young man carries a tray filled with small glasses of sweet tea he is bringing to some of the nearby shopkeepers. Almost all the women on the street are wearing the hijaab, or higaab as they call it here, the scarf covering their hair and in most cases their necks. While some women are all in black, with only their eyes showing through little slits, most choose higaab colors that complement their clothes.

For the first time I'm having a problem with the phrase yetsiat Mitsrayim (God taking us out of Egypt) in the siddur (Jewish prayer book). Why don't we simply thank God for taking us out of slavery; why do we have to thank God for taking us out of Egypt? Can we Jews fully distinguish between the Mitsrayim of antiquity and Mitsrayim of today? And it's not just once a year; in every service and every time we say Kiddush or the full Shema, we remind ourselves that in our tradition Mitsrayim is synonymous with enslavement. How can this not affect how we view Egyptians? Isn't our liturgy influencing us to see Arabs as oppressors, as a historic enemy?

March 14 - Purim
Last night we all headed downtown to Sha'ar Hashamayim (The Gates of Heaven), Cairo's only synagogue still open on most holidays. We got off the Metro and walked--and knew we'd arrived when we saw a cluster of military police. At the stairs to the main entrance Israeli security guards asked us questions and had us sign in. Inside, we were happily surprised to see about fifty people, a mix of older Egyptian women, Israelis with young children in costume, and American college students studying in Egypt. Reuven ascended the bimah--Carmen, the president of Cairo's Jewish community, had asked him earlier to read the megillah--but he soon descended and told me that one of the Israelis working at the Israeli embassy wanted to lead the public reading.

I suggested that we divide it up. Reuven agreed and returned to the bimah. A few moments later he motioned for me to come up and join him. If the Israeli was not happy to share the reading, he was even more unhappy to hear that I, a woman, had also been asked to read. The Israeli protested that it was against halachah (Jewish law), at which point Reuven and I politely noted that, according to halachah, men and women share the same obligation to hear the megillah and both are permitted to read it publicly. The Israeli then countered that it was customary for only men to read. Custom is not law, we pointed out, adding that the president of the community had asked us to read the megillah for the community. Besides, we asked, whose custom was he referring to? "Fine," he said unhappily, and stepped down.

As Reuven started to read the megillah, I noticed that the Israeli was standing off to the side, reading his megillah aloud to a small group of Israelis gathered around him. I couldn't believe it. Virtually no Jews in Cairo...and still we can't get along!

April 3
I decided to tell Zayna, who knows we are Jewish, of our plans to spend the first few days of Passover in Israel. I will be meeting my cousin, I told her, to confer with him about our family foundation which supports Arab-Jewish coexistence efforts. "So," Zayna asked, "do you think Jews and Arabs can live together in Israel?" "Yes," I answered, "Insha'Allah" (with God's help). I was not sure she agreed with me; we moved on to other subjects.

In class the following day, when I learned the Arabic word for "opinion," it seemed the perfect opportunity to ask Zayna for her opinion about Israel. First she said that she made a distinction between Jews and Israel. The problem was Israeli policies, she explained. She thought Jews and Arabs could live together, but only with equality for all. I agreed with her. Then Zayna posed a question to me: Jews had lived in Egypt very happily until the State of Israel was established; why did we feel the need for a Jewish state? So it wasn't just a question of Israeli policy. The question hurt, but the realization hit me: Zayna had probably never heard anyone make a cogent case for Israel's existence.

I answered that, for one thing, a history of anti-Semitism over the centuries had led Jews to feel the need for a Jewish state where our safety and security would not be dependent on others' good will. She nodded and made a reference to Hitler. I pointed out that the desire and move toward a Jewish state had begun well before Hitler. She seemed surprised and not fully trusting of this notion. I explained that Jews had been forced to leave different countries and had been the victims of violent persecution at numerous points in history. Zayna asked why, and I said that, as a minority, Jews were often a convenient scapegoat; then I tried to explain that concept. I am not sure I was successful. (This is all in a mix of Arabic and English!)

I also said I recognized the problems of reclaiming a land that over the centuries had been inhabited by other peoples and that some serious mistakes had been made by Israel and by all parties involved. I added that for hundreds of years our daily worship has included prayers for our return to the land of Israel, the land of our origins. She seemed surprised by this as well. I offered to show her a couple of examples in our prayer book.

The gap between our world views now stands in sharper relief. I see Israel as my historic homeland, and necessary for Jewish survival in a world that can be hostile to Jews. Zayna sees Israel as a European imperialist-style imposition on the mostly Arab Muslim Middle Eastern landscape, and as an insult to the self-respect and dignity of the Arab peoples.

While I want to hear what people here have to say, I realize it is more difficult than I anticipated. I know that most Egyptians are strongly opposed to Israel's policies--to Israel's very existence even--but it is another thing to hear these views expressed, especially by someone I like and respect. Still, one of the most valuable parts of my being here in Cairo is the opportunity to listen--to hear firsthand how Egyptians see Israel and why, and to see the world through different lenses.

April 20
We have told a few more friends that we are Jewish. Noam took the lead; after his neighborhood friend Muhammed hinted that he knew, Noam confirmed it. They have since had some interesting conversations. In one of them, Muhammed claimed that both President Bush and Condoleezza Rice are Jewish! We all had a good laugh, even though we found this wildly exaggerated perception of Jewish power troubling.

We told Mahabba that we were Jewish before leaving for Israel to celebrate Pesach. We didn't want to lie about where we were going. She didn't blink an eye. She knew that Jews did not eat bread on Passover. Surprised, I asked her if she'd ever worked for a Jewish family. No, she said, she had learned about it from movies and television. In light of the very popular television series based on the Protocols of Zion broadcast the year before, we wondered what information Mahabba had been exposed to.

Talking with Mahabba about our being Jewish was, in a sense, the moment I had been waiting for. Yet I did not feel the relief I'd anticipated. Because Egyptian culture places such a high value on politeness, I wondered if I would really know how people felt about our being Jews. Would Mahabba outwardly act as friendly as before but, down deep, feel differently about us?

After we returned from Israel, Mahabba brought us two large bags full of a special large crispy thin bread called Roqaq or Ro'a' that Muslims eat when celebrating the Hajj. She'd wanted to make our holiday celebration more enjoyable and meaningful by baking us matzah. I was very touched and relieved to see that our friendship was intact.

April 27
During the boys' school spring break we visited the magnificent Pharaonic temples and tombs in Aswan, Abu Simbel, and Luxor. The best part was meeting Muhammed, who operated the motorboat that ferried us to the Temple of Philae. That same night, as we sat at a table in the Mona Lisa, a restaurant on a floating barge along the Nile, he spotted us and came over to say hello. Muhammed is a Nubian, an ethnically distinctive people of northern Sudan and southern Egypt. When Reuven asked where we could find a good tape of Nubian music, Muhammed ran out and bought us one, insisting that it be a gift. It turned out that he and his friends were gathering at the restaurant that evening, as they did periodically, to sing traditional Nubian songs. He asked if we would like to sing with them. Of course we said yes! Soon, he and about eight friends were sitting in a circle alongside our table singing their favorite Nubian folksongs, mostly love songs, accompanied by two traditional hand drums. The melodies sounded African, very spirited and beautiful. Feet tapping, bodies swaying, hands clapping...the rhythms and melodies brought us into their circle of music and warmth. It was one of those magical moments we will never forget.

May 1
Mahabba arrived today with two pots full of all different kinds of mahshi, stuffed eggplant, zucchini, little green peppers, and our favorite, stuffed cabbage. We've now tasted this Egyptian delight in a couple of different restaurants, and none compare to Mahabba's.

Later Mahabba and I sat and talked about the twin problems of Egyptian unemployment and extremely low salaries, even for many who are lucky enough to have jobs. Mahabba told me that the men at the hotel across the street make only about 350 Egyptian pounds a month, roughly equivalent to 70 U.S. dollars. Each of them works a second full-time job to provide for their families. Mahabba's husband, a tailor, could never bring home a regular paycheck; his pay was dependent on the work available in the shop and how many items he made. Five years ago he died of a sudden heart attack at the age of 38, leaving her to feed and care for their three children, then aged 17, 13, and 3.

Mahabba's father had died when she was 10. She had never learned to read because there had been only enough money for two of her brothers to attend school. While education is officially free and universal in Egypt, Mahabba explained that there are hidden costs: parents have to buy books and classroom supplies for their children because the government provisions are insufficient.

Mahabba's daughter Hoda taught her the Arabic letters, but "I cannot read the words," she told me, motioning to the handouts from my Arabic class. "If you know the letters, you can read the words," I said. Together we looked at a word on the page. She named each letter and the sound it made; I helped her blend the sounds to form the word. We went on to another word...and another. She was happily surprised that she could read the words! We decided to read together each time she came to the apartment. And I encouraged her to practice. If you practice an hour a day, I told her, you'll be reading in two or three months.

May 5
Before leaving this morning to visit the old synagogues in what used to be the Jewish quarter, we received an e-mail from a friend with a copy of a Jerusalem Post article describing the experiences of Jews who had left Egypt in the 1950s and later. According to the article, they were singled out, imprisoned, and ultimately "exiled." It was a totally different picture than the one we'd received from Carmen, the Egyptian Jewish community president. According to her, Jews in Egypt were never the victims of systematic anti-Semitism, not even after Nasser came to power.

Walking through the narrow alleyways of the old Jewish Quarter, we saw no signs of mezuzahs having been in doorways. In fact, there were no signs of Jews having once lived in this heavily populated neighborhood, until we reached the Maimonides Synagogue, where a representation of the Tablets of the Ten Commandments appeared above its small door. The synagogue, which dates back to the 12th century, adjoined the yeshivah where Maimonides taught until his death in 1204. For centuries, Jews suffering from one or another illness would come here to pray, and sometimes even sleep, in the hope that Maimonides might appear in their dreams and advise them on how to heal their ailments. The caretaker unlocked the padlock and let us in. It was a shock to step into the crumbling shell of a sanctuary, completely open to the sky, no single wall fully intact. Behind the walls was a new mosque, bright and shining in the sunlight.

The nearby Chaim Kapucci Synagogue bears no distinguishing Jewish symbols. Inside, however, the wooden doors of the aron (ark housing the Torah scrolls) are decorated with carvings of tall palm trees; and the word "Zion" is painted in Hebrew on the women's balcony, indicating the direction of Jerusalem.

While twelve synagogues still stand in Cairo, most are in terrible condition. Carmen spends much of her time advocating for their maintenance and repair. Sha'ar Hashamayim and the beautiful Eliahu Hanavi Synagogue in Alexandria are the only ones open in Egypt for most holidays.

May 11
On Friday, April 28, more than 200 judges marched in front of the Ministry of Justice to demand an independent judiciary and to protest the disciplinary hearings of two colleagues, the pro-reform judges Hisham Bastawisi and Mahmoud Mekki. Hundreds of supporters joined in, despite police efforts to prevent the demonstration by arresting dozens of activists the night before. The police were beating some of the demonstrators, so they disbanded but quickly regrouped a few blocks away. Human Rights Watch maintains that over 100 people have been detained as a result of these demonstrations and is keeping a list of the detained individuals. (Many, but not all, have since been released.)

Today I read an interesting opinion piece in the English edition of the government-owned newspaper Al Ahram, in which Rami G. Khouri suggests that if the judges persist in their efforts they just might be the impetus for change this country needs. There are more than 8,000 judges in Egypt, and as a group they are highly respected by the public. In their call for an independent judiciary and an end to election fraud, the judges are articulating principles that form the basis of the political reforms large numbers of people here want.

Khouri suggests that the judges' efforts could have an impact beyond Egypt. He points out that every important political trend--whether for good or bad--in the modern Arab world started in Egypt and then spread to other countries: anti-colonial resistance, nationalism, pan-Arabism, the Muslim Brotherhood, and modern Islamist politics. If the judges continue to stand up to the government, he writes, they could easily become the rallying point for the nation, much like Poland's independent trade union Solidarity was in 1980; and, in a similar way, send out ripple effects through the entire region.

May 14
At dinner Noam told us of his very frustrating conversation with his friend Magdi. On earlier occasions Magdi had told Noam that he is against Israel and Jews who support the Jewish state because Israelis took land away from the Palestinians and invaded Egypt.

Noam raised certain questions in response to Magdi, but found that whatever he said, Magdi seemed to have an answer. At a certain point Noam realized that his friend was simply not open to the possibility of seeing things differently. I reminded Noam of the original advice we had been given by student leaders: when Israel came up in conversation, he should listen and not argue.

"That's fine for class and in school, with people I don't necessarily know," Noam said. "But with my friends, I'm not willing to stay quiet anymore." He spoke calmly and confidently, and with conviction. "I am listening and really trying to understand their point of view. It's hard, but it's important. My friends may agree or disagree with me--I don't care--but I want to explain my point of view, too. Nothing is going to happen to me--they're my friends--and I may not change their thinking, at least not now. But if they don't hear it from people like me, who will they hear it from? They may never realize there's another way of looking at things."

May 15
Mahabba arrived this morning with a big smile. Even before she removed her outer layers of "public" clothing, she took out a notebook I had given her and proudly read two and a half pages. She then read from a book, sounding out words and putting the sounds together with ease. I couldn't believe it!

She told me she had practiced reading at home every day with her youngest son Muhammed. It is hard to say who is more excited about this--Mahabba or me! I am so proud of her.

May 17
A friend of ours, Fajr--a university student who works with an organization that monitors attacks on free speech around the world--told me that the Ministry of the Interior had issued a warning declaring that anyone who participated in the upcoming demonstration in support of the judges would be subject to arrest. Zayna, my Arabic teacher, wanted to go, but Fajr told her it wasn't a good idea for anyone who didn't already have experience dodging the police--"You have to know when it's time to run."

Fajr's best friend, 'Imad, a blogger for an Egyptian human rights organization, was arrested in one of the first demonstrations. He has not been seen since. While he is officially listed as being in one of the nearby prisons, the guards there deny his presence, thereby keeping 'Imad's lawyer and loved ones from being able to see him. At the same time, 'Imad's parents have been bribing the guards to get him insulin and food (he is diabetic). This is apparently standard procedure here. Fajr also told me that several of the lawyers defending the detainees have left the country to speak out publicly in Europe about the injustice. "Won't embarrassing Mubarak and his government abroad make it worse for them on their return?" I asked. Just the opposite, he explained: the international exposure would give them immunity and protection in Egypt.

May 18
Today the disciplinary panel cleared the pro-reform judge Mekki and reprimanded Bastawisi, who is recovering from a heart attack and surgery. These are relatively mild sentences considering that the judges faced disbarment.

May 19
I decided to pick up on my past conversation with Zayna and brought the siddur to class.

Zayna asked if the Jews' historical link to Israel justified forcing Palestinians who had been living there for generations to leave their land. I told her that I, too, found it troubling that so many Palestinians had been uprooted, but that was not the full story. Arabs had sold their land to Jews in the decades before Israel was a state. Frequently Jews had bought the land from absentee landlords, thereby legally taking possession of the land, but nevertheless causing the displacement of inhabitants who had lived there for generations. Zayna said that an Egyptian would have to be desperate to sell his land. "Selling your land, it's like--" Zayna drew her hand across her throat. I nodded and told her I thought that in some cases people had been very poor, and in other cases they simply wanted the money.

I felt good about my conversation with Zayna. She had listened to and understood my point of view, even agreeing with me at times. We each live in our half of the shared story, not realizing it is only half the story! Just being aware of these "parallel conflicting narratives" is a big step forward.

May 22
Noam came home yesterday very glum about another conversation he'd had with Magdi. "Can you still be friends with someone with whom you totally disagree?" he asked.

Israel had come up again, and when Noam started to explain that because of the Holocaust, Jews had felt an even stronger need to have their own country, Magdi interrupted: "The Israelis are worse than Hitler." Noam told Magdi he clearly didn't know what he was talking about if he could say something like that and walked away.

"That must have been painful for you...and infuriating," I said, trying to comfort him.

"It was," he said quietly. We talked about how students here learn so little about the Holocaust, and that Magdi's comment also reflected a widely held prejudice in a political culture where it is common to compare Israeli and Nazi behavior.

Tonight at dinner Noam gave us a follow-up report. "Guess what?" he began with a smile, "Today Magdi came up to me and apologized. He said, 'I thought about it and decided I don't really hate all Israelis. I just hate the ones who are doing bad things to the Palestinians.'" We all agreed his statement wasn't everything one would hope for, but it was definitely an improvement.

May 24
I felt perfectly confident I could find my way home from the dentist. I had taken a taxi to his office in Maadi; now I had the time and it was such a beautiful day to walk. But after a couple of blocks, I felt lost...so I stopped and asked a middle-aged man just getting out of his car how to get to Road Nine. He directed me to the circle up ahead and then to the left...then he hesitated.

"Let me drive you," he offered.

"That is so nice of you! But no, really, I can walk."

"I really can drive you, it's no problem. I just need to go to the bank for a minute."

"No thank you, that is so kind," I said and started on my way.

When I began recounting this story in a phone call to a friend in the States, she quickly interrupted me. "Oh no, did you go with him?!" she asked anxiously.

"No, I didn't, because I really wanted to walk. But I have to tell you, it didn't even occur to me not to go with him because of any safety issues. In LA, I would never get in the car with a man I didn't know. But here, it would have been perfectly fine. Isn't it ironic that I actually feel safer here than at home?"

June 5
Last week I had coffee with a new friend, Basima, a university-educated, relatively open-minded Egyptian whose grandmother was Jewish. She drove me home and we continued talking in the car in front of my building.

"Since 9/11," Basima commented, "the United States has been at war with the Arab world, the Muslim world."

"Where do you see this?" I asked, taken aback. (Basima's husband works for USAID on water and development projects.)

"You see it everywhere," she answered. "The Americans invading Iraq, the Americans in Afghanistan, in Iran, in Sudan, in Egypt...."

"Egypt?" I asked. "America gives more aid to Egypt than to any other country except Israel."

"Yes, but not everyone thinks this is such a good thing for Egypt. America gives aid in ways that are good for America. We have become dependent on that aid." I agreed that foreign aid has a downside, but assured her that Americans are not hostile to Egyptians.

At that moment we saw Amir getting off the school bus and we realized we both had to go.

"I guess we won't solve all the world's problems today," I said, giving her a goodbye hug.

"Maybe next time!" she laughed, kissing me on my right cheek and then my left.

June 6
Over coffee at Café Greco I asked Zayna why she chooses to wear the hijaab. She replied, "I want people to focus on who I am on the inside, what kind of a person I am, and not how I look--am I beautiful, do I have a nice body. I do not want people to relate to me like that. Islam teaches that men should have respect for women and this is part of it. Also, the hijaab is a little bit like prayer. When I put it on, it reminds me of my connection to God and how I want to act, how I want to be in the world."

July 16
Hezbollah attacked the Israeli military patrol last week, killing eight soldiers and taking two prisoners, and Israel countered with a bombing campaign in Lebanon. At dinner Friday night Fajr told us he's planning to go to Beirut to write about what is happening. He loves Beirut, which he sees as the place holding the most promise of becoming a center for democracy and openness in the Arab Middle East. He believes that Israel's "use of disproportionate force" against Hezbollah was meant in large part to persuade the Lebanese to dismantle the organization's military wing, but instead may destroy Lebanon's nascent democratic government and strengthen Lebanese support for Hezbollah as a military force against Israel.

One of Fajr's comments surprised me. He noted that while Egyptians are generally highly critical of Israel's muscular response to Hezbollah's provocation, they are also envious, wishing that their government cared as much about the life of each of its citizens as Israel cares about its people.

July 17
As we prepare to go home I find our departing especially painful because of the events in Israel and Lebanon. Basima and I talked about it for almost three hours. She feels that the Arab world has been betrayed by America, which is giving Israel carte blanche to do whatever it wants in Gaza, and now Lebanon. Some of her religious friends think this is the beginning of the end of the world. In her comments I heard echoes of Iran's leaders who in apocalyptic terms call for "wiping Israel off the map."

At one point in our conversation Basima accused Israel of genocide against the Palestinians.

"Israel is killing them," she said. "So many....It is a Holocaust, like what Germany did to the Jews."

My heart sank. "How can you say that? Palestinians are certainly suffering--and dying--but is Israel trying to murder all the Palestinians?" Basima looked ready to say yes, but stayed silent.

I had a similar experience the day before in my Arabic class. Zayna talked about the many civilian deaths caused by Israeli bombs, particularly the family of nine killed on the beach in Gaza. "The Arab people will not forget this," she said. When I questioned the role of Hezbollah in Lebanon, she responded: "Most Egyptians really like Hezbollah. They support them because they are fighting for the Palestinians and for the rights and the dignity of all Arabs."

After about half an hour we turned to our lesson and Zayna taught me the command form in Arabic, which is not so different from the command form in Hebrew, reminding me once again that Jews and Arabs really are cousins. I cannot give up hope that one day we will be able to see how connected we really are.

July 18
The Egyptian media is a steady purveyor of conspiracy theories. My friend Debbie told me today that tonight on the Nile TV channel a spokesperson from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs stated that the Israel government had engineered the abduction of the Israeli soldiers near its northern border as an excuse to attack Hezbollah in Lebanon. He also said that Israel is to blame for the gap in Egypt between the Arab "street," which places the blame on Israel, and the government, which blames Hezbollah for starting the war. It seems there is no end to the things for which Israel can be blamed.

July 19
I just came home from my last Arabic class. Zayna and I both got a bit teary at the end. Our discussions about Judaism and Islam, Israelis and Palestinians, have been enriching to both of us. I have always appreciated her willingness to express her views and to listen to mine with an open mind. Ours is a truly special relationship.

July 21
Yesterday I got into two conversations with store owners on Road Nine about the fighting between Israel and Hezbollah. In both cases I was struck by people's anguish at the loss of life and fears of the war spreading throughout the Middle East. I am taking opportunities to defend Israel when I can, bringing up the fact that Israel's attacks are in response to Hezbollah's crossing the border, killing eight Israeli soldiers, and capturing two. But people usually say, "Hezbollah was just reacting to the Israeli violence against the Palestinians in Gaza." They do not see Israel's attacks as being justified in any way. This is a classic case of looking at the same events, the same facts, but interpreting them to fit different ongoing narratives.

I spoke with Israeli Consul General Eli Antebbe earlier today to say goodbye and hear his take on what is happening. He is from Lebanon, so the bombings are deeply upsetting to him on a personal level. He expressed understanding for both the Egyptian "street" and government positions. "The Egyptian government is really trying to play a positive mediating role," he said, "but it is very difficult." He agreed with me that the longer the fighting goes on, the harder it will be for more moderate Arab leaders, and Arab moderates in general, to maintain a position that is at odds with their own people.

July 23 - Home Bound
We are on the plane about to leave Cairo. I close my eyes and listen to the men sitting across from me as they speak Arabic. Without effort I understand some of their phrases and expressions. I love this language that has become part of me. The sounds of people speaking Arabic no longer separate us. Instead I feel connected to the people sitting across from me in a way I could never have imagined at the beginning of my journey to Egypt.

Discussing These Issues

Reform Judaism has created a discussion guide on "The Arabic Lesson" which also includes coverage of the "Beyond War/Toward Peace" Focus in this issue. Access a free copy here.




 


Union for Reform Judaism.