Interest in Hebrew growing in Egypt

Sunday 17/07/2016
Mounir Mahmoud, (in black), founder of Afaaq International Academy, during discussion with students

CAIRO - When she enrolled in classes at the He­brew language de­partment at Cairo University, Eman Mohamed said she was swimming against the tide.

“Everybody was astonished that I particularly picked this language to study,” Mohamed said. “My speci­ality raised some eyebrows because some people couldn’t differenti­ate between Israel, a country with which Egypt has some issues, and its language and its culture, things that we need to understand and master.”

Mahmoud is part of a new drive as more Egyptians elect to study Hebrew, the language of a coun­try with which Egypt has fought four wars. There are many reasons for the trend, including the “know your enemy” theory.

Studying Hebrew is a popular option for thousands of Egyptian university students. Mastering the language is an important job-find­ing asset, especially when it comes to some state institutions and the military.

Nine of Egypt’s 23 state-run uni­versities have Hebrew language departments. About 2,000 students enroll in their classes each year and the number is rising. Some other institutions, including military academies, offer Hebrew language courses. Every year, army recruit­ers look for graduates who have studied Hebrew.

Numerous private language schools offering Hebrew lessons have sprouted up and their owners said they have noticed a growing interest in the language.

“I have seen interest in this lan­guage growing over the years,” said Mounir Mahmoud, the founder and head of Afaaq International Acad­emy, which specialises in teaching Hebrew.

“Studying this language will help us understand Israel more.”

Since he founded his academy in Cairo in 2001, Mahmoud said he has seen all types of Egyptians demon­strating interest in the language and for all types of reasons. Some people, he said, study Hebrew to do business with Israel; others to secure a job at one of Egypt’s secu­rity agencies. A third group plans to emigrate to Israel. About 40,000 Egyptians live in Israel, according to national estimates.

This interest marks a consider­able shift in attitude towards the Jewish state. Three years ago a law­yer was accused of espionage for Israel for chatting in Hebrew with an online friend at an internet café. A few months ago, a legislator was kicked out of parliament for meet­ing the Israeli ambassador in Cairo.

Egypt in 1979 became the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel but interest in the He­brew language dates to the early 1930s. Interest increased after the 1967 war with Israel, in which the Egyptian army sustained a humili­ating defeat.

Over all those years, Egypt’s pub­lic sentiment towards Israel was generally negative because of the wars and Israeli practices in the oc­cupied Palestinian territories.

“This hatred was — sorry to say — coupled with neglect of Israeli culture for the vast majority of the people,” said Mona Nazem, a Hebrew language professor at the state-run Ain Shams University. “This is very dangerous.”

There is no reliable estimate of the number of Hebrew books translated into Arabic but Nazem said the number is very small. She added that, in 2015, there were 300 Egyptian books translated into He­brew.

Mahmoud tells people that, if they want to hate Israel, they need to do that based on knowledge.

A new generation of Egyptians, however, seems to be beyond the emotional issue and views Hebrew in a more pragmatic manner.

Mohamed defied her family members, friends and neighbours in studying Hebrew because she knows, she said, that she will have a good chance in the labour market by mastering the language.

She says after graduation she will pursue further language studies and then seek a diplomatic career by applying for a Foreign Ministry job.

“It is very important to study this language for all sorts of rea­sons,” Mohamed said. “At the very least, we cannot protect ourselves against a country without knowing its language.”