Hiba Hamdi Abu Sayyaf has become a star in the Israeli media ever since millions of Egyptians first took to the streets in protest. Just about every media outlet in the country has courted her and begged her to interpret, explain, describe, and provide the Israeli public with a firsthand report about what is happening in her homeland. Hiba, who manages customer relations for a computer company in Cairo, is more than happy to comply. Her fluent Hebrew is peppered with contemporary slang, and she speaks so effortlessly that she could be mistaken for someone born and raised in Tel Aviv.
“I studied Hebrew at Cairo University, but I didn’t really like the language for the first two years,” she said in a conversation with Al-Monitor. “I wanted to study Farsi, but my mother, may she rest in peace, insisted that I learn Hebrew. It was hard for me. I failed two courses: Ancient Hebrew, and Spoken Hebrew. It was an absolute disaster. If I failed another class, I’d have to repeat my second year of college. So I went to the professor and asked him to help me. I wanted to talk like an Israeli, to imitate the accent of native Hebrew speakers. My mother bought me a satellite dish, and I kept watching Israeli television: Channel 2, Channel 10, Channel 1. I even watched the Knesset Channel.”
I’ve been hearing you and other Hebrew-speaking Egyptian commentators ever since the protests first broke out in Egypt, and I can’t help wondering whether you agree to be interviewed because you think it’s important to explain the situation to the Israeli public.
“Unfortunately, we are used to the (Israeli) media offering fictional reports about everything that is happening in the Arab world. They make things up, they fabricate stories, and they interpret everything in keeping with Israeli interests.” Hiba pauses for a moment and laughs in embarrassment at all the accusations she is tossing my way. “I admit that we also have people who get carried away, but I want to think outside the box. I don’t like narrow-minded thinking. When I learned about the Yom Kippur War, I didn’t just learn about it from Egyptian historians. They say, ‘We won,’ and you say that you won. So I learn about it from many different angles, and not just the Israeli and Egyptian perspectives, because if you want to get to the truth, you have to make an effort.
“I agreed to speak to the Israeli media because Israeli commentators never lived in Egypt, and their worldview is limited to their own narrow interests, whether national or personal. If I want the people of Israel to internalize how deep the Arab-Israeli conflict really runs, then we have to communicate. I learned that from (late Egyptian President Anwar) Sadat. I have to speak to my enemy. That’s the shortest, most direct way, and that is what will resolve the problem. This is why I believe that if someone was to provide a real picture to the entire Israeli public, and not just to the country’s peace movements, the people of Israel will internalize it and understand exactly what the problem is. If they have a sincere wish for peace, they will apply pressure on their leaders to produce a roadmap to peace, instead of all the nonsense.”
I have a feeling that the vast majority of the Israeli public watched in awe as the Egyptian people struggled for its freedom, with millions of people taking to the street. On the day that former Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak fell, I was asked to summarize everything on my TV broadcast. I said, “Mabruk aliki, ya Misr! Mabruk! (Congratulations, Egypt. Congratulations).”
“Thank you very much, but unfortunately, most people in Israel think that the Arabs are barbarians, who don’t understand anything. They think that they’re stupid, and that they’ve had hatred drilled into their heads ever since they were infants. It simply isn’t true. If the people of Israel keep thinking that its enemy is stupid and doesn’t pay us our due respect, you will never achieve peace. It is time for the Israeli people to start to understand: We have educated people here, who speak six languages or more. We have very intelligent people here. Governments and generals always lie to their people, because they are in the ‘business’ of war. They have to lie to their people to perpetuate this ‘business’ of war.
“And look what happened to us in Egypt. People said, ‘Stop lying! If you keep lying to us, we’ll overthrow you.’ I believe that the same thing will happen with the Israeli public. It’s your turn to reach the same conclusion. And all these years they told you that there is no democracy in the Middle East, except in Israel. Let’s see what that means. How do they understand democracy in Israel?”
Just like they do in any democracy in the world. That’s why I think that the Egyptians felt the Americans’ discomfort with the fact that the army intervened to depose the president. That is a problem.
“Fine. In Israel you think that if you curse out the finance minister and (Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu) Bibi’s wife, that’s democracy, but if I’m left shouting at the wind while the convoy passes by, that’s not democracy. It’s the negative image of democracy. Here in Egypt, the people don’t just talk. They overthrow governments. They overthrow a president who does whatever he wants. Democracy is entering a new era. Egypt is composing a new interpretation of democracy for use around the world. Even during elections in the US ballots were forged, but it’s impossible to forge a demonstration with millions of participants. A military coup is initiated by officers. The people are then swept up by it. That’s what happened in the Free Officers Revolt of 1952. What happened now is that the people called on the army, and the army responded to the call of the people, because that is its job. The army is obligated to defend the people from any threat, external or internal. That’s exactly what it did.”
How does the Egyptian public relate to you, when it sees you talking to the Israeli media?
“What happened was, that I found myself in the same situation that (ousted Egyptian President Mohammed) Morsi is in now. I have my supporters, and I have my detractors. Some people are angry at me and claim that I am promoting normalization, but there are also plenty of people who say, ‘Go for it! Explain it to them. They have to know that we have people in Egypt who speak good Hebrew, and that we have to make real peace as long as it is still possible. Explain what Egypt is really like, because they’re being lied to.'”
Have you ever visited Israel?
“That’s a tough question. No, I never had the chance.”
Hiba, I really hope you come. I’d be happy to see you there, because I can’t go to Egypt. Right now they’re not giving out visas to Israeli journalists, and I don’t have any other passport.
“I’d be happy to go too.”
Shlomi Eldar is a contributing writer for Al-Monitor’s Israel Pulse. For the past two decades, he has covered the Palestinian Authority and especially the Gaza Strip for Israel’s Channels 1 and 10, and has reported on the emergence of Hamas. In 2007, he was awarded the Sokolov Prize, Israel’s most important media award, for this work.
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