Nearing dusk on a pleasant spring day, throngs of businessmen fill Times Square and scurry to the subway for their commute home. Show-going tourists scour Broadway for their theaters. Having no luck finding a cab, we moved southward until spotting a yellow cab that heeded our wave. The driver, a heavyset man with a silver-lined beard cropping up from his wearied face, turned his head toward us.
"Where are you from in Israel?" he asked with a discernible foreign accent that did not reveal his country of origin.
We replied that we're from a town, not especially big, that he had certainly never heard of.
"Try me," he insisted. We told him we live not far from Tel Aviv, in a city on the coast called Netanya.
"Netanya, French City, of course I'm familiar with it," the driver said, flashing a winner's smile. "You have many French in Netanya. They love the beach."
My wife, Dorit, begging his pardon if she was intruding into his personal life, then asked the driver if he was Jewish.
"I'm not, but my ex-wife is a vooz-vooz, igen-migen," he said, letting out a laugh. "You know, Ashkenazi-Hungarian."
And how was he so caught up with Israel?
"I was born in Alexandria and I did my military service in the Egyptian navy," he said. "I was on the presidential yacht that brought President Sadat to Haifa in September 1979. Since then, I've taken an interest in everything related to Israel and the peace process in the Middle East."
The next part of the conversation may read like an advertisement, but it is an essential part of this almost-bizarre story. We asked the driver where he got his information on Israel. He told us that every weekend he would take a walk to the local convenience store to pick up the weekly edition of Haaretz in English. Unable to resist, I introduced myself.
The driver slammed the breaks, pulling the cab over near the sidewalk. He turned around and asked to shake my hand.
"I can't believe you're sitting in my taxi," he mumbled with excitement. "I've been reading your articles and some of your colleagues' articles for years. You all give me hope that one day there will be peace between Arabs and Jews."
He asked for my business card and that I promise to send him a letter from Israel. Then, he ripped a receipt from the meter and wrote his details on the back: Abraham Ramban, an address in Brooklyn, and his home phone number. I promised Abe (the Americanized name he adopted) I would give him a ring during my next trip to New York next month so I could hear the rest of his story.
When we reached our destination on East 16th Street, the meter read $7. Abe flatly refused to take our money: How could I even fathom him taking money from Akiva Eldar?
I called Abe six weeks later. Barely concealing his satisfaction, he complained about me not notifying him in advance of my arrival so he could meet me at the airport. I promised to mend my ways on condition that he pledge no more free trips. We set a time for noon the next day to meet, the only day he had free time. We found a side table in a small Chinese restaurant in midtown.
He was born 52 years ago in Alexandria. His military service was spent on ships as a naval technician. The yacht trip with Sadat to Haifa, less than a year after the signing of the peace accord with Israel, was his first-ever contact with Israel. Sadat spoke of the symbolic significance of the visit to a city that was "living proof of coexistence between Arabs and Jews, cousins who lived for centuries in peace and harmony."
Then-president Yitzhak Navon, who officially greeted the president on the dock, invited the sailors ashore and "to feel at home here, just like in Alexandria."
"I was quite shocked," Abe recalled. "I couldn't believe I was in Israel, meeting Israelis." He remembers his trip through the streets of Haifa and his short stay in Herzliya.
A few months later, Abe was discharged from the navy and enlisted in the mercantile marines. In 1986, his boat docked in New York, where he began working in one of the city's shipyards. Eventually, he settled down there with his wife and two children. After the shipyard closed down three years later, Abe found work as a cab driver, a job he planned to hold at least until he could find Arabic translation work.
Unable to adjust to life in the U.S., Abe's wife took the children back to Egypt. During his free time on weekends, Abe would go dancing in one of the neighborhood nightclubs, where on one occasion he would meet R. (he asked that we not print her full name), a religious Jew of Hungarian extraction and a divorced mother of one who lived in the Flatbush section of Brooklyn. They made a connection, and began spending more time together.
A few months later, in 1996, they secretly arranged for a civil marriage ceremony, and Abe began Orthodox conversion proceedings. He met with rabbis, learned the Hebrew prayers and memorized the commandments of the Jewish faith. Some of the religious text was hard to stomach for an Egyptian Muslim. Passover was especially difficult.
Two years after successfully completing his conversion exams, he joined hands with R. underneath the chupa and broke the symbolic glass. Yet, while the Egyptian sailor from Alexandria was received as a full-fledged member of the Jewish community, his past identity was still a sore point for some.
"The Ashkenazim liked me as a convert but hated me as an Arab," he recalled. "The Sephardim liked me as an Arab but hated me as a convert."
"The worst were the Israelis who moved to the U.S.," Abe said. "They're loud show-offs, and it's impossible to have a civilized conversation with them."
The relationship with R. did not last long. She and her friends could not grasp how Abe's love of the Jewish people did not translate into a hatred for Arabs.
"They had no qualms with saying, while I was in the room, that Israel should kill all the Arabs, and I shut my mouth. One day, I told my wife that I didn't understand why Israelis want the Arabs to always be afraid of them. You know what she said to me? That this is the only language Arabs understand."
After five years together, the couple parted ways. Every so often, he inquires after her.
Just like his romance with R., Abe's love affair with the Jewish religion also reached its end. Prior to his conversion, he was by no means a devout Muslim, and, as such, did not develop a belief in Judaism. He endured the conversion process for R., not for God. But his interest in Judaism and Israel has not waned completely. Abe continues to learn and take interest, making sure to buy the Israeli newspaper every Friday. From time to time, he also shares a cup of coffee with his Jewish acquaintances. One Jewish friend has kept a distance from him since the Second Lebanon War.
Abe enjoys their company, but he knows that their friendship is shallow. His real friends, those that he trusts will be by his side in adverse times, are two Egyptians.
He doesn't miss Alexandria one bit. Religious fanaticism and nationalistic fervor drove him away from his country of birth. Abe was happy one of his sons left Egypt to join him in New York. Currently, he's working overtime hours driving his cab to make enough money to put his son through college. Before we said goodbye, Abe cracked a tiny smile.
"My first wife was Muslim, my second was Jewish, and now I have a Christian girlfriend," he says. "What does it matter? The main thing is peace and love." We promised to stay in touch and do so today over e-mail.
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