Hebrew on the Nile, bridging Egypt-Israel divide

Sun Apr 5, 2009 4:42am EDT
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By Dan Williams

CAIRO (Reuters) - When speaking Arabic, Gabriel Rosenbaum is assiduous about observing the Egyptian variations of the language so alien to many of his fellow Israelis.

Three decades into a peace accord that has not much deepened understanding, he considers such immersion key to running the Israeli Academic Center in Cairo, where Egyptians can similarly grow intimate with the Hebrew language and culture.

"I think the problem is that neither side knows the other," says Rosenbaum, a professor on leave from the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and also affiliated with Cambridge University.

"When you get to know a place, when you get to know the people, when you get to know the culture, you see that there is nothing to be afraid of. And that's what we do here at the academic center."

Scholarly interest in Hebrew is nothing new for Egypt, a nexus of antiquity. The Jewish state's founding in a 1948 war lent the language a tactical utility for Egyptian intelligence, as well as for the broadcasters who, in often comically unidiomatic Hebrew, would air messages urging Israelis to surrender.

Talk of historical conflict, or the more recent bilateral tensions over Israel's Gaza offensive and hawkish new government, is largely avoided in the Academic Center. It's an airy apartment on the Nile waterfront converted to house three reading rooms, shelves lined with literature and criticism.

According to Rosenbaum, several universities in Cairo and beyond offer Hebrew classes, which are taken by 5,000 to 6,000 students a year.

One graduate was Eman Gamal El Din, a guide who tends to the trickle of Israeli tourists, and whose conservative Islamic headscarf contrasts with her comfort and fluency in Hebrew.   Continued...