How Hebrew teaches us something about ourselves, Part 1

A personal and not-so-personal account

“It would have been more fitting for us to speak either Arabic or Turkish in this gathering today, especially given the common cultural heritage we share. There should have been someone present today to translate to Turkish. It is a shame really that we have to communicate in English.”

– Orhan Pamuk at the 2007 Cairo International Book Fair.

One day when I was in my second year of college and my relatives had realized that I was enrolled in the Hebrew language section at the Faculty of Arts, my uncle asked: “When can you tell that you have mastered the Hebrew language, so that it is as good as your English?” I was baffled by the question simply because at that stage my Hebrew was far superior to my English, which I somehow found to be only natural. I was never good in English in the first place. I was not Americanized, like my cousins were. I was quite a gloomy nerd; I wrote stories and was well-versed in the Arabic language. In fact, at the time and for years to follow, I had not had a single proper conversation in English with any foreign friend. My Hebrew was no doubt way better than my English, and my Arabic was the best among the three languages.

I stumbled upon the Hebrew language section at university by complete chance (as I mention in this article here). I initially wanted to study English, but my grades were not good enough. The only other sections at Ain Shams University that enabled the study of a single language (rather than a bundle of languages grouped under Eastern languages, European civilizations, etc.) were French and Hebrew. I had zero comprehension of French, in fact I remember I once scored half a point out of 20 in a French language exam. I sucked at learning languages, really.

But somehow, I fell in love with Hebrew. I think I became passionate about the language quite early on. I remember in my first days at college when I held a loaf of bread at the dinner table and told my mom how its shape resembled the Hebrew letter saad or tsadi: צ. The loaf of bread was obviously quite disfigured, and instead of being round it took the shape of the Hebrew letter, whose lower part undulates like a belly dancer. Once I laid my eyes on the loaf, the letter popped in to my head. This anecdote, of course, says something about the quality of bread we consume in Cairo.

As years passed, my obsession with Hebrew grew. I remember reading Hebrew novels in my third year at college, in addition to Hebrew analysis and interpretations of the Old Testament. And then I wanted to expand my knowledge, so I began reading interpretations in English. Upon graduation, I read English books by Israeli writers.

Unlike the majority of people in the Arab world who saw Israel through the English language, I came to know English via Israel.  Anyone who learns that I translate from Hebrew immediately assumes that my English is as good, which was not true for a long time. I have now managed to develop at least my spoken English. I can now assess my language skills as follows: my writing and reading comprehension are better in Hebrew, while my English is better when it comes to listening and speaking. This makes sense in Egypt, but also in the rest of the world, too. English is the global language, while Hebrew is rarely spoken.

We can say that this is the malaise in my relationship with Hebrew; I am simply learning a language that I cannot speak. It seems I am also wading through a culture that no one in my surrounding circles is interested in. I came to realize that I should expect the following reaction when I mention something I read in Hebrew, or speak of an Israeli film I have watched, to someone. They either quietly listen to my spiel till the end without uttering a single word, or give me the “You are a traitor” response, or “Oh, you are awesome!” or mention that they have once read an Israeli novel, which will only sound dumb, and no one wants that. In short, I just do not reveal what I read anymore. I keep it to myself, as my secret.

My experience differs greatly of course from that of my Palestinian friends and colleagues. Hebrew for them is a quotidian language, or more precisely the language of the everyday occupation. It is the speech with the dominating other. It is the demeaning discourse at checkpoints, and it is the nemesis of the Arabic language. I had no such experiences with Hebrew. I was rather pampered in my rapport with the language. In fact, my knowledge of Hebrew was primarily through the gates of the Arabic language.  

The gaze at Israel is inherently complex. This is due to Israel’s own structural contradictions. Israel perceives itself as a Western state situated in the Middle East, which reflects on how Arabs relate to it. On the one hand, Arabs have internalized the perception of Israel as a Western entity. Accordingly, its Arab enemies loathe it in a manner similar to their enmity of Western states, and its Arab supporters admire it like they regard the West. On the other hand, there is a more subtle view of Israel placing it within its Eastern context. Placing Israel in its Middle Eastern context has more to do with Judaism and the Hebrew language, than the state itself. My friends often made fun of Hebrew names in the works I translated to Arabic; they picked up on names like “Izahiya bin Sham‘un bin Hamta’il,” which is an archetypal Eastern name, even more so than Arabic names. We, even the most dogmatic among us, are aware of the fact that the Middle East is the birth place of the Hebrew language, which has either evolved from Arabic, or Arabic has sprung from it, or both were born to the same mother tongue. This lineage does not of course apply to the State of Israel, which was established by Eastern European Zionist immigrants.

Many have mixed up the genesis of Israel with that of Hebrew — ever since the rise of Zionism, that is. Israeli historian Ilan Pappé writes in a Mitaam article how Theodor Herzl wanted German, not Hebrew, to be his new state’s official language. This is because German is the language of progress, while Hebrew is “primitive,” Herzl thought.

It is true that Herzl’s wish did not materialize and Hebrew eventually became Israel’s official language, but a compromise was reached to appease the “non-primitive” European languages. In her book, Poetic Trespass: Writing between Hebrew and Arabic in Israel/Palestine, Lital Levy narrates how the first wave of Jewish immigrants to Palestine in the 19th century were fascinated by Arabic as the land’s original language. They endorsed the study of Arabic to better understand the structure of the Hebrew language. This was in addition to their Orientalist fascination with Bedouin attire and lifestyle. Even the father of Modern Hebrew, Eliezer Ben Yehuda, was not spared from this Orientalism and was against any inclusion of non-Semitic languages in Modern Hebrew. According to Levy, Ben Yehuda’s admiration and jealousy of the Arabs began from the day his ship arrived in Palestine: “Tall, strong men … I sensed that they felt themselves citizens of that land [while] I came to that land as a stranger, a foreigner.”

It was not long before the European anti-Arabic position became dominant, amid a denial of the Arab culture. Consequently, the Hebrew language acquired European characteristics, in terms of its sentence structure, sounds and other attributes. Come the 1950s, European Jews will begin despising those who have arrived from Arab countries — and pronounce the Arabic/Hebrew letters (“ha”) and (“‘ayn’”) — wondering how come they are Jews and not Arabs.


Next year will mark the 20th anniversary of the beginning of my journey to learn Hebrew, which has popped in and out of my life along the years. In other words, there were times when I was immersed in the language, and others when I left it behind. What remained constant throughout the years, however, is my oscillation between two main occupations: writing novels in Arabic and reading and translating Hebrew.

After finishing my last novel, and when the signs of the failure of the revolution became hard to miss, depression began creeping in amid a gradual withdrawal from the streets. It was then that Hebrew came to my mind. I had stacks of unread books in Hebrew, which I began reading one after the other. I must have read more than 20 books when one novel, Tchahle and Hezkel by Almog Behar, captured me. I decided to translate it. The translation took me two years, during which I lived daily with the novel’s fascinating medley of Talmudic-Aramaic and Arabic that make up its Hebrew language.

Hebrew has saved me from the maddening defeat of the revolution. In Hebrew I was able to understand this far away land built by blood and bullets at the hand of the military and its ideology; established by cruel intentions to reshape society, it expelled people and brought others in; constructed a Wall to shield the “civilized” and keep the “riff-raff” out.

Israel has helped me understand Egypt after June 30, 2013.

This is the first article in a five-part series.

Nael El Toukhy 

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