Hebrew Has Never Been So Popular in Egypt, Israelis Themselves Are Not

Yoav Stern
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Yoav Stern

I once took a taxi in Cairo with an Egyptian colleague. As soon as we got in my friend, who had been talking to me in Hebrew until then, switched to Arabic and insisted I do the same. Recently he told me that he didn't want the driver to charge us the foreign tourist fare but the much lower local fare.

Many young people in Egypt study and speak Hebrew. Every year around 2,000 Egyptian students enroll in Hebrew courses. Some 500 Hebrew students graduate annually. All the universities in Cairo, including the Muslim Al-Azhar University, and a number in other parts of the country, totaling eight universities, teach Hebrew.

Hebrew-speakers in Egypt can serve in military intelligence (Egypt has one year of compulsory military service). They can also find jobs in one of several civilian institutions such as the broadcasting authority - which has Hebrew-language television broadcasts and a radio station - newspapers, strategic research institutes and translation centers.

In the past Egyptians would study Hebrew to "know your enemy." Munir Mahmoud, 47, a well-known Hebrew teacher, says that after President Anwar Sadat's visit to Israel the attitude toward studying Hebrew changed. High school graduates began thinking of a career associated with Hebrew, not only of military or security service.

Mahmoud, who is also a tour guide, helped set up the Hebrew department at Xceed, an Egyptian company providing services to Microsoft, located in a high-tech area near Cairo. The smart village was founded by the communications minister at the time, Prime Minister Ahmed Nazif.

Xceed operates a registration center for Microsoft products. Israelis phoning to register Microsoft programs they bought are directed here, where Hebrew-speaking Egyptian telephone operators pick up their calls. "We were afraid university graduates wouldn't be up to the challenge because they are not familiar with everyday Hebrew. None of them has Jewish parents or visited Israel. But they gained experience quickly," says Mahmoud.

Like many others, Mahmoud is keenly interested in what's going on in Israel. But the political situation and atmosphere in Egypt, as well as the desire for solidarity with the Palestinians, prohibit Egyptians from satisfying their curiosity and visiting Israel or maintaining ties with Israelis.

Although he could gain much from Israeli tourism, Mahmoud believes that as long as there is no peace between Israel and the Palestinians it would not be appropriate to strengthen Israeli-Egyptian ties.

"It's a question of balance. Egypt, like the rest of the Arab world, must have bargaining chips when it deals with Israel," he says.

When an Israeli friend plans to visit Egypt, the Hebrew-speaking Egyptians ask for certain books. Although the Israeli Academic Center in Cairo or the Israeli embassy would be glad to help, they prefer that a private Israeli citizen bring the books rather than an official.

A friend of mine who makes a living from Israeli tourism always starts our conversations with "Hey, bro, wassup?" Sometimes he resorts to literary Hebrew after that.

Egyptian Hebrew students rarely visit the Israeli Academic Center, founded in the 1980s as part of the efforts to forge academic and cultural ties between the two countries. Egypt had undertaken to open a similar center in Israel, but did not do so. Every few weeks an Israeli writer, poet or researcher visits the center. Egyptian students use the library and staff for their papers. When I visited the center I met students who were writing papers on Hannah Szenes and Yitzhak Laor.

"It's worth their while to come here. We have the best Hebrew library in Egypt," says center director Dr. Gabi Rosenbaum, a scholar of Egyptian culture and translator from Arabic.

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