The Hebrew Class – The teacher and the mates! – An Arab in Diaspora- Part 3.
How can you feel the beauty of the sea if you do not understand the language of the waves? How can you unravel the mysteries of the sky if you cannot read the signs of the stars? I snatched those two thoughts from the imaginary life that I created for myself to escape to whenever I feel lonely and I returned to the ruthless land of ours where the sky is never clear and where the sea is always distant. What would happen if I decide to apply the rules of my imaginary world here at home? Maybe there is wisdom in imagination that could help me survive the strident reality around me. Breaking the boundaries of prudence was never one of my traits but my imagination fueled the last attempt to cross the stringently controlled boundary.
How can I understand the reality of my diaspora if I do not speak all the languages needed to find my way? How can I solve a problem if I do not grasp its logarithms?
I will learn Hebrew….
The Jewish Cultural Center
“Ah!… You are with Vaghdit!”… said the receptionist after looking for my last name among dozens of lists that were laid haphazardly on her desk. She was in her mid forties with wrinkles starting to dig their way through her face. Her reddish brown hair reminded me of the old women I used to see walking outside my school in Korba back in Cairo; and it gave me an idea as to how they looked twenty years before I started attending my school. My classroom was down in the basement, and right before I descended the stairs I passed by a white broad table where plenty of flyers and brochures were displayed. I grabbed one of the brochures and a flyer as I wanted to know more about the center activities, I put them in my copybook and I started looking for class “LG3”. The classroom door was opened; there were few table put together in the form of a rectangle around a desk that stood in front of a white board that was not properly cleaned. Around the tables there were around nine students, I noticed a man in his fifties with a nineties style pair of glasses, a young skinny blond girl, a brunette with long curly hair, a young European with a light beard and a Jewish scull cap (Kippah) covering the upper tip of his head, and a young guy who looked Greek or Arab. I sat at one of the corners of the rectangle with all the ones that I have noticed directly in front of me and I did not really care who was sitting next to me.
As soon as I settled in my place I decided not to look at the others and I heard them starting to have silent conversations about the assignment they had to do and the teacher who they obviously liked (I had missed two classes as I was traveling so I was attending starting the third session after the beginning of the course). While waiting for the teacher I tried to make myself busy with the brochure and the flyer that I grabbed few minutes earlier. The brochure contained the different activities and courses offered by the center, there was a whole department about the holocaust, some music classes, Jewish history, Yiddish (Eastern European Hebrew), and some current affairs courses. At the end of the brochure there were biographies of the teachers and I looked for the biography of my teacher Vaghdit; it read “Vaghdit Goldman, was born in Israel and has completed an MA in American Studies. She also taught Hebrew at Andrews College”. The flyer was even more interesting, it read…
Hidden Gentile (Christian), Hidden Jew
Thursday Mornings, 10:30 am starting Thursday 19th November
Lecturer: Jonathan Lich
There was only one constant negative amidst all these scrambled golden eggs. There was a veritable Jewish battalion working in every off-screen capacity at every studio, but what to do with the Jews, both real and imagined in front of the camera? The Jewish studio heads did not want to upset their Christian meal tickets by showing either characters or actors who looked and/or sounded too Jewish. Nobody wanted Cossacks stampeding through Beverley Hills. Then as now, their answer to their problems, whenever possible, to have Gentiles play Jews (Charlton Heston as Judah Ben-Hur, Alan Bates as Yakov Bok in ‘The Fixer’ Jessica Tandy as (Driving) Miss Daisy, etc…) and to have Jews play Gentiles (Leslie Howard as Ashley Wilkes, Edxward G. Robinson as Rico ‘Little Caesar’. Kirk Douglas as Spartacus, etc...). Has Hollywood succeeded in masking its Jewish predicament?
By discussing the frenzied machinations and viewing the results, HIDDEN GENTILE HIDDEN JEW, provides an answer.
8 weeks: ₤88
I did not really get a chance to think about what I read in the brochure or in the flyer, as my thoughts were interrupted by Vaghdit’s entrance. She was a very tall well built woman in her thirty’s with long wavy dark hair. Her footsteps were loud enough because of the effect of the finely pointed heels of her boots on the wooden floor. An air of initial seriousness suddenly prevailed through the room before she greeted us with a stretched smile that eased the prevalent tension. She turned her head towards me and looked me directly in the eyes saying “who’s the new face?.... will you introduce yourself?”, she said it with an obvious eastern accent. As soon as I mentioned my name and profession I noticed signs of interest on her face which prompted me to the nature of the forthcoming question, it was what I expected… “where are you from?” she said. “Egypt” was my reply, to my surprise the effect of the word did not just appear on her face but on the faces of the two sitting beside me, I had not noticed them before but I could not avoid them after they completely starred at me with a very welcoming smile (I wonder why?) one of them (sitting right next to me) was a woman who looked in her late forty’s with dark hair and semi closed brown eyes, the other a very young girl with light brown hair and wide brown eyes (unlike with the woman sitting between her and myself). Why would they suddenly be interested in me as soon as I referred to Egypt? What connection or relation do they think they have with me? I decided to leave the question unanswered believing that I would find out very soon. My attention shifted back to Vaghdit who bombarded the next logical question in the series of I am impressed mode that she suddenly acquired “and why do you want to study Hebrew?”…. I had rehearsed million of times the answer for that question and many other questions that I had anticipated to make sure I do not look tense or worried when crossing the barrier of prudence. My answer came out in a very dull, traditional, and monotonous tone “learning more languages makes you more capable of understanding others, besides, living in my part of the world you become more exposed to the current conflict, thus, learning Hebrew would give me access to more resources.” Vaghdit’s reply was very dull and traditional as well, but for some reason it annoyed and disgusted me “I hope we had more people like myself and Ahmed in this world” she said (you do not even know who I am? I do not even know who you are to wish for my name to be grabbed with you in one bucket. I thought she was being very hypocritical and abused the fact that I am Egyptian.).
Vaghdit explained to me that I would be slightly disadvantaged because of the fact that I missed the previous two classes and thus I needed to take a private lesson with her to make up for those two classes. She was talking in front of the whole class which gave me the impression that this was part of the center policy with students who missed classes. I noticed a strange move at the exterior corner of her eyes as she was telling me about the private lesson as if she was giving me a hidden message, this contributed to my initial discomfort towards her. She started the lesson by reviewing what they did last session, so we started by asking each other where we are from. “Meh eifoh atah?” (?התא הפיא מ)“Ani meh Angleya?” (הילגנאמ ינא) (where are you from? I am from England), these two sentences kept on wandering around the table from one tongue to the other with each one of us putting the name of his country until I realized we had a good combination from Slovakia, Cyprus, England, Scotland, and Sweden. We kept trying to refer to the alphabets and the text to make sure we are up to speed with the reading. It was very interesting to “unlock” a new dimension that I never experienced before. It was my very first time to read Egypt in Hebrew and to listen to it being said (Metsraym : םירצמ), why did it create such a feeling of cold nudity to read or listen to the word Egypt in Hebrew? What kind of experiences, thoughts, perceptions steering within me that created this feeling the resembled the making of the cold breeze on a sweating body? I trembled while scripting the Hebrew letters that spelled Egypt in my notebook and I suddenly realized I might be on the right step towards unraveling the mystery of my diaspora.
While reading Vaghdit stopped at one word and asked if we knew how to read it, her body movements were always sudden and violent when she got excited and that was the attitude with this word which made me wonder what kind of a word it was. She said explicitly actually that this was her favorite word in the whole language, our failure to decode the word and her lack of patience pushed her to say loudly with enthusiasm “Israel!” (לארשי). I did not have the textbook yet so I had to share with someone, the brown eyed woman on my right offered to share her book with me (she still sustained the very intimate warm smile on her face which further provoked my curiosity to what she thought we had in common or what she liked about me). The girl sitting on her right intervened every now and then with few words or with pointing her finger at the words we could not read nor find in the textbook. I felt both of them had decided to take some sort of responsibility towards me and I was wondering if it had to do with the brown color that had flooded our six irises.
We went for a break at the center’s café, Vaghdit had insisted that we all go to the café so we would have the chance to spend some time together talking. On our way to the café I was approached by one of the class mates. Bill decided to learn Hebrew because his son was married to an Israeli and he wanted to get closer to his grandchildren. I assumed from what he said that his son had migrated to Israel and I decided to ask him more about his son, however, we were interrupted by the young brown eyed girl who started talking to me ignoring Bill who was telling me about the previous two classes. “My father loves Egyptian movies” she said, “he used to explain them to me as I do not understand Arabic”… so I found myself asking “are you an Arab?” and she went “my father is originally Yemeni and his mother is Iraqi, they migrated to India when he was young then to Israel, he lived there for a while before migrating to the UK and marrying my mother who is English, so you can say I am half Yemeni, half Iraqi, and half English”. I was impressed with the combinations but kept thinking of the reasons behind all of the moves in Rachel Hafaz’s father, and what were the intentions, plans, and hopes behind each move. I always viewed Israel as the final destination for the Arab Jewish migration but obviously there were some other routes that I did not know about. Rachel then told me about her trips to Egypt, the food she liked and the cities she enjoyed most, she carried on about her plans to visit Yemen to see where her family originally comes from. She was studying medicine and the reason she is learning Hebrew is that she was preparing for her year abroad in Israel. Bill had already left us and started a conversation with Vaghdit who loved gathering more and more people around her to listen to her stories that she told with a very loud voice, I felt guilty for getting carried away with Rachel’s explanations and ignoring Bill’s presence. While I was talking with Rachel the woman who was sitting next to me approached us and Rachel smiled at her, they obviously had already known each other. Serena Goodman was an Iraqi Jew who was kicked out form Iraq in the early seventies, her family moved to the UK and settled there, some of her relatives however migrated to Israel and that is why she is learning Hebrew, she wanted to be more capable of communicating with the second generation that was born in Israel as she frequently visited Israel to visit the other branch of the family. While looking at Serena’s face I noticed that her lips, eyes, and head movement showed a systematic tension reflected in a sudden mild contraction that occurred while she was talking (I wonder what kind of experiences had had left its scar over her nerves?). Serena told me her family (including herself) was imprisoned in Iraq before being expelled, she said it was a very tough experience, however, she still has lots of good memories in Iraq. She told me that her family was very off and very well educated so they did not have to migrate during the fifties nor the sixties, it was only the poor Jewish Iraqis who migrated because they had limited options and saw it as a chance for a better life. Her family however did not want to leave the country until they were forced to migrate after the six day war. She still had traces of Arabic on her tongue and she told me about the scenes she remembered from Egyptian movies. The break was over and the three of us went back to the class together and I realized they had put me with them in the “Arabic Clan” of the classroom, I felt they had decided that our brown colored eyes and the Arabic blood that ran through our veins was an enough reason to put us together in one category in front of the others, I felt it made them more secured as if they were looking for somewhere to belong and they finally somehow found refuge in me. The initial friendliness was explained but I needed to know more about the motives that were rooted at a deeper level than the color of the eyes or the origin of the blood.
The Sephardim among us….
Vaghdit started the class by asserting the difficulty of the phonetics of the Hebrew language…. “there is one exception to us here in the class and there is one person who is going to be capable of pronouncing the letters tha way they were intended to be pronounced, it’s Ahmed…” I knew I would have an advantage in learning the language due to the resemblance between the Arabic and Hebrew letters, however, what Vagjdit said afterwards struck me in the face…. “the reason why Ahmed has an advantage over us in pronouncing the letters is because he is a Sephardi”, (I was in complete shock to what I heard, what the hell was she saying? I am not even a Jew? Why on earth would she apply their own internal classifications on me?), she then continued “we the Ashkenazi people have a difficulty in pronouncing the ‘h’ in Ahmed’s name because we did not have it in our Yiddish nor Polish nor the other European languages we spoke before we moved back to our land.” (at the point I realized I might have discovered a potential reason why Rachel and Serena might have connected to me, we are all Sephardim after all, wait a second, I am not a Sephardim! Am I?). Vaghdit (noticing my surprise) then told the whole class “Ahmed looks like a typical Jew anyways… whether you like or not he looks like a typical Jew from Tel Aviv!” (what? A typical Jew? What does a typical Jew look like in the first place? If I am not mistaken Jews were as diverse as any other religion on earth, the Moroccan Jew did not look at all like the Polish Jew, it is true they all came from Beni-Israel but there diaspora introduced so many other races into their blood. I felt I was being kidnapped from my own skin! Now I am not just Sephardi but I looked like a typical Jew as well). Later that day Serena told me how the first waves of the Sephardim migrations to Israel were put into camps to isolate them from the Ashkenazi population. They were less educated, cultured, and exposed, Serena added that they were even given regular showers as they were perceived as less clean that the Ashkenazi. The image of the Sephardim did not improve except after the later waves of migration during the fifties and sixties which included the more educated of the eastern Jews. The Ashkenazi (Western Jews) did not however teach their children how to pronounce the letters correctly and the easy Western pronunciation remained generation after the other as a difference between both clans.
At the very end of the class I found myself classified as a Sephardi who has this special talent of pronouncing funny letters due to his eastern origins. This Sephardi formed with two others of his type the Arabic clan of the class. The inner feeling inside me was totally in compassion with the Sephardim as if I was really one of them and not just falsely put into the same category with them. It was my very first time to be directly categorized based on my stock. Categorization stood very firmly in my mind against what Sayed Darwish had taught me, I then realized that he had given the Sephardim (would it be wrong if I say ‘us’?) more rights than what was given in Israel, the words he sang in the name of three anchors of our society (Moslems, Christians, and Jews) strived to stand in front of the categorization that swept through my mind.
The Private lesson….
Vagjdit had indicated during the class that she needs to sit with me for two to three hours to cover what I had missed during the first two sessions. I was very hesitant as to whether I should go for the private lesson or not, I had a discussion with Alia and I told her honestly that I was not comfortable about meeting up with Vaghdit, after telling her about what happened during class she wondered why I never expressed my disagreement with Vaghdit regarding the categorization she imposed on me, I told her that this is not my battlefield and I am not willing to go to any side arguments, I was there only to learn and I should be very clear about that with myself or else I would not get the benefit I wanted from the course, my battlefield was somewhere else after I grasp the language. After thinking of what I really wanted from the course I decided I would go for the private lesson, I called Vaghdit and we agreed to meet in a café beside her house. The café was very crowded and we were sitting on a very small table, it was the very first time in my life that I sit that close to an Israeli, actually, to be more precise, it was my very first time to sit with an Israeli on the same table, I had contradictory feelings of pride & guilt, I was proud of my effort to understand but I felt guilty for the fear of not being qualified to handle such a situation properly. She excused me to get a cup hot chocolate and asked me if I wanted anything to drink, I explained that I was fasting that day so she apologized for having to drink the hot chocolate in front of me. She started by explaining the Hebrew alphabets and how to write and pronounce them, in my mind I was relating every letter and every word with its equivalent in Arabic, I was very fascinated by the resemblance and for the very first time I felt I was getting stronger and stronger with every new letter I was learning. I had intended to keep the two hours session only to Hebrew but Vaghdit insistence on opening up discussions led to some political and social discussions. I tried to be vague as much as I can with what I think and what I really believe, I was reminding myself all the time that this was not my battlefield; I was only there to learn. Vaghdit was the kind of a person who loved giving speeches and I think she noticed I was very reserved when it came to discussing political and social matters so she decided to take it upon herself to tell me all about herself and her political thoughts, she told me about her experience with the army and how it is a very important contributor to building characters, and about the constant tension she was experiencing in Israel due to the usual unrest before she moved to the UK six years ago. When it came to politics I had commented of how I though negatively of Sharon so she explained that he was a father of the nation and a very strong political leader who was capable of pulling Israel out of its tough times. She was a witty woman, I had the feeling that she sensed my resentment of her pride so she uttered a sentence that was very out of the context of what she was talking about, I think she was trying to give a warning…. “we are there to stay!” she said …. “and we will remain there!” …. I wanted to answer back saying “but you left!” but I reminded myself that this was not my battlefield and I just looked at her and smiled. I wonder what made her make it a point to make this statement, what feeling did I convey that made her feel the need to assert her stances?”
After some classes Vaghdit became known among us for her military attitude with us, she acted as if we were soldiers and she was our commander. Her repetitive stories about how she loves to eat meat contributed to how she was perceived among a class that had high inclinations towards vegetarianism. I personally liked meat but I was very much offended every time she referred to her eating and it contributed to how I perceived her. I could not put into perspective however how she became to be perceived as the commander until I saw a documentary by Eyal Sivan called ‘Izkor: Slaves of Memory’ (Izkor is the Hebrew word for remember). The documentary talks about the Israeli educational system and how it promotes victimization as a part of the children’s awareness of their existence. It reminds them of their slavery in Egypt and how they escaped it, it reminds them of the holocaust in Europe and how they escaped it until they became free men and women. Songs with children raising their heads from the floor upwards while chanting how they fought for their freedom until they attained it from their enemies were shown. The main theme of the documentary was the fact that this victimization they planted within children had become later the ‘excuse’ they used to slaughter others, it was the excuse the whole society used to justify the injustice done to the Palestinians, the documentary challenged the idea of the Jew as an eternal victim. During the documentary the director tried to challenge the teachers about the concepts they were conveying and that’s when I noticed the resemblance between the way I perceived those teachers and the way I perceived Vaghdit, the same unchallenged self confidence, the same adherence to untested ideas, the same refusal to discuss, the same strictness, the same strive for domination, and finally the same loud voice with the sharp tone.
At the end of level one of the course Vaghdit decided that we should have a gathering and she proposed a well known Jewish restaurant. I was very adamant about getting involved with any kind of social relationships with Vaghdit nor with any of the classmates as I was not sure about the value added from socialization. It was very easy to come up with an excuse for not going, Vaghdit however refused to hear the word ‘no’ and she added my name to the list without my consent, I made it very clear that I would not be going but to my surprise she told me that I would come. I was very annoyed with the attitude and it further asserted my perception of the commander in charge who would not take no as an answer.
The Book & The Food… stripping me naked!
When I finally bought the textbook I was very excited about exploring it, I wanted to get a strong hold of each and every word in the book. Perfecting the language for me became like the art of sculpture, I wanted to mold the clay in my hand in whichever way I desired, it was the key to the castle.
The prologue to unit one of the book had a map, the map was titled Israel and it showed a complete undivided land extending from the Golan heights in the north to Elate in the south and from the river of Jordan in the east to Rafah in the west. I was furious! it was a public robbery! According to which law or according to which concept was all that space engulfed? I checked the back of the book to see who published that book and it read as follows “ Academon, The Hebrew University Students’ Printing and Publishing House. Jerusalem 2000”. I felt I was stripped naked of my clothes., how could it be so easy to draw maps? How could it be so easy to draw lines that would reflect your domination over others? How could it be so easy to alter reality? It is true I felt helpless, but it gave me a stronger reason to learn the language. The same feeling occurred again during class when Vaghdit spoke of the Israeli Shawarma, the Israeli Hommous, and the Israeli Falafel. It was a killer however when she asked us to follow her to the café yelling “yalla”.
For the very first time in a long time I felt I was moving in the right direction; it seemed the diaspora is manageable, but I knew what I was doing was not enough, I had the key but I did not know where the castle to be opened is.
Next time I will tell you about the castles I found… but will I find an end to my diaspora in any of those castles?