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The Amazing Story of PMW’s Egyptian translator

Assaf Gabor  |
From hijab and abuse in Egypt
to freedom in Israel 

 The Amazing Story of PMW's Egyptian Translator
  • PMW's Egyptian Translator Meira grew up in Alexandria not knowing she was a Jew. Only when extremist Muslims tore her family's house apart, screaming "Jews out," did her parents disclose the family secret.
  • Attending a Muslim Brotherhood school, Meira grew up believing that "Jews are the descendants of apes and pigs, and that they have horns, a tail, and a large nose." When she arrived in Israel as a teenager she looked to find where the Jews were hiding the horns and tails.
  • When Meira realized she herself was a Jew and had to flee to Israel, she was plunged into a severe identity crisis, and felt her whole life had been a lie.
"Until recently I was crying over terrorists"

"Maisa was born in Alexandria, Egypt, in 1989.  
A happy and contented girl who lived with her parents
 in a large
and spacious estate in the city's
Al-Maamoura neighborhood. 
She spent most of her days
at the sea. Every evening she would  
walk with her friends
on the 'C orniche' across from her home,  
the famous promenade of the ancient coastal city"

"'We had a private villa with a garden, pool, and horse ranch. It was a very large place where we lived - my family together with my uncle's family and my grandfather and grandmother,' she says, and the pleasant memories bring a smile to her face. 'Our family had a large factory for manufacturing furniture. They built special closets, tables, and dressers for wealthy people. The doors with the wood engravings were a household name. We were a special and united family. My father's brother married my mother's sister; I grew up with my three brothers, and also cousins. My grandfather and grandmother educated us from a young age. It was an open and liberal home. We lived as Muslims, but we did not mingle with the neighbors around us.'
Maisa remembers strange ceremonies that were held in the home whose meaning she did not understand. 'On Friday my grandmother would go to a table in the corner of the room, light two candles, and cover her face. Afterwards we would gather for a large family meal. Sometimes grandfather would say a few words that I did not understand over a special cup, and pass around for everyone to drink. From my perspective it was another one of the family events that we customarily held. At the beginning of the winter there was a meal in which they passed around an apple in honey. It was very tasty. I did not complain and I did not ask unnecessary questions. The family was unified. We children played; we grew up and learned together at the elementary school of the Muslim Brotherhood in Alexandria.'
She tousles her long hair and plays with it a lot during the interview. Perhaps it is an expression of the freedom that she currently enjoys and that was foreign to her in the past. At the school she wore - as did all her friends - a hijab (i.e., religious headscarf) that covered her hair, and listened to lessons on religion and Islam about Egypt's history and the Prophet Muhammad. 'Every day when I returned home, even still on the street, I would take off the hijab and let my hair loose. I hated the school and the lessons on religion. The violence there was a routine thing. For every little thing like a mistake, a word out of place, or just when the teacher felt like it, we would get a beating. They did not explain to us what was allowed and what was forbidden. Instead of teaching us they would hit and pull by the hair and ears, and would even throw chairs at the students. The children learned from the teachers and during recesses they would hit instead of trying to talk to resolve problems. I learned there until the fourth grade. I told my parents about the severe treatment, but there wasn't really a choice. It was the school closest to home, and my parents were busy with the factory.'
Alexandria, which was established in 334 C.E. by Alexander of Macedon (i.e., Alexander the Great), has been a central trade city for thousands of years. In ancient times the city had a magnificent Jewish community, which was also described in the writings of the Jewish sages. Over the years it dwindled, but in the 19th century it grew again. In the 1940s approximately 15,000 Jews lived in Alexandria, but in the years following the establishment of the State [of Israel], most of them immigrated to Israel. In the neighborhood where Maisa's family lived there are almost no Jews left. The only Jews who remained in the city lived alone. In the 1990s, during which Maisa grew up in Alexandria, the famous 'Eliyahu Hanavi' synagogue and the community's school were empty.

In the Muslim school, Maisa learned about the height of evil in the world: Judaism and Zionism. 'We learned that the Jews are the descendants of apes and pigs, and that they have horns, a tail, and a large nose. I really and truly believed this. Even when I grew up and went to study at a Coptic Christian school, which was more open, from my perspective the Jews remained the devil incarnate. I did not know that my parents, my grandfather and grandmother, had connections with the few Jews in Alexandria. They hid that so that we would not tell friends at the school and endanger ourselves.'

A black night
In 2005, Maisa's life changed after her father's younger brother secretly immigrated to Israel, studied in a yeshiva (i.e., religious studies academy), and enlisted in the [Israeli army] paratroopers. She knew nothing about this until the day when fanatic Muslims came to settle accounts with the Jewish family. 'The rumor about my uncle somehow reached the Salafists, an extremist Muslim movement with a significant presence in Egypt. At an early hour of the night, when the whole family was sitting at home, shouts were suddenly heard from outside. I remember it to this day. I peeked from the window and saw them. Thirty people dressed in white, with long beards and large white skullcaps. They held burning torches, shouted "Death to the Jews," and began to approach the house. My grandfather, my father, and his brother ran away through a back door; my brothers and the cousins went up to the attic to hide. We women stayed down below thinking that they would not harm us - members of the weaker sex.
'The riled up Salafists hit the door with sticks, boards, and everything they could, until they broke it down. When they entered the house they destroyed everything. They broke glasses, tables, closets, and chairs, and caused great destruction while shouting "Jews out." We were certain that they would lynch us. My mother tried to talk with them and explain to them that the men were not at home. They hit her on the head until she lost consciousness. I remember seeing her from the upper floor lying on the ground motionless, her head covered with blood. I was certain that she was dead.
'And then they went up to the attic and found my brothers and the cousins. They brought them downstairs while shouting. I had hidden in a room very well, and then I heard shots from a handgun. I was certain that they were dead too. I cried in silence, so that they would not hear and discover me. After a time that seemed to last forever the rioters left the house. I left the hiding place, and then I saw that they were all right. The Salafists had dragged my mother out into the yard and left her lying there. I started to shout for help. The men returned home together with the police. The police officers listened to our complaints, investigated and checked, and of course did not find the guilty ones.
'At the end of that black night my grandfather gathered all of us, the children, inside the tumult and mess that a moment earlier had been our beautiful home, and told us why they had persecuted us. He revealed to us that we were Jews. My world collapsed on me. All of the education that I had received in school, in the society I was in, and in the songs that I heard on the radio and television, was that the Jews are animals and not humans. I remember that during the time of the [second] Intifada (i.e., PA terror campaign 2000-2005), after [Israeli politician] Ariel Sharon went up to the Temple Mount, we participated in demonstrations for the Palestinians. We sang the song that was written for Muhammad Al-Dura from Gaza (a Palestinian boy who was supposedly killed in September 2000 in a staged  televised crossfire in Gaza -Ed.), and cried together with him. And suddenly I am a Jew. I felt my nose to check if it was long. I looked at myself in the mirror and did not believe that this was happening to me. A 15-year-old girl who understands that her entire life is a lie.'

'They called me Pharaoh'
Following the pogrom, Maisa's parents decided that they had to leave Egypt and immigrate to Israel. They did not feel safe staying in a place where people wanted to murder them just for being Jewish. 'We stopped going to school because we were afraid that they would harm us,' she continues with her story. 'My uncle raised the idea to immigrate to Israel, and my grandfather and father supported it. We children, and particularly me and my cousin who is a year younger than me, opposed it. We were angry at them that they did not tell us before this. We wanted to stay at home; we wanted the lives we had before we knew that we were Jews. When they said "Israel" to me, I imagined the worst reality: People walking around in green uniforms with helmets and weapons, or people with peot (i.e., Jewish traditional sidelocks), long noses, and black beards. Jews walking in the street with horns and a tail between their legs. As foolish as it is to think that this could be realistic, the brainwashing that one undergoes there is so strong that you really believe this is how Jews look.'

Leaving was sudden. Because there was no possibility of leaving Egypt with possessions, each family member put several items into their suitcase and got on the plane. The first stop was Turkey. 'We thought that our parents would go back to take the rest of the things, so we packed a few items and got on the plane for Turkey. We were there four months without going out of the house much. One rabbi who was in contact with my uncle and dealt with helping new immigrants guided us.'

From Turkey they came to Jerusalem, the capital of Israel, and here her name was changed to Meira. 'We rented a house in Armon Hanatziv (i.e., a neighborhood in southeast Jerusalem), and from there we moved from place to place in the city. It was very difficult. From a reality in which there was always everything, and from a life in which you ask your parents to buy something and they immediately bring it to you - we lived in a small apartment, in poverty and scarcity. I really wanted to return to Egypt. I swore that when I grew up and was independent I would return to live there. I did not like the people in Israel, and I looked at them strangely. The only normal period was at ulpan (i.e., Hebrew language school), because there were people there who spoke all kinds of languages and I felt that I was abroad. When I heard Hebrew and saw religious people I became anxious and fearful. I remember shortly after we came to Israel I saw an ultra-Orthodox Jew with a shtreimel (i.e., a traditional fur hat) and a long black coat. Out of fear I crossed to the other side of the street. I looked for his horns and tail, and I was certain that he was hiding them under the hat and suit.'

'My parents put me and my cousin in a religious school. It was very difficult for me. I did not speak Hebrew, and the girls would laugh at the two of us all the time. They called us Pharaoh, and I was very offended. My only consolation was that they did not hit at the school in Israel. I remember that on the first day of studies the teacher came in and I immediately stood at attention. The girls looked at me and started to laugh: "Pharaoh, that is not customary here."'

Identity crisis
At the religious high school for girls Meira studied in the Arabic study track. One day, one of the staff at the Palestinian Media Watch research institute came to the school to give a lesson in Arabic. 'He gave us a text to read, and when he reached me and heard me read in Arabic he opened his eyes wide. After the lesson he asked who I was and where I came from. I told him that I was from Egypt, and he immediately offered me work at the institute. I and my cousin began to work almost immediately. Later on she enlisted in the army, and I - being too old to enlist - continued to work at the institute, and I have been there for 11 years.'

The Palestinian Media Watch institute is involved in locating expressions of incitement from official and unofficial Palestinian sources, and incorporating the collected information into reports that are transferred to decision makers in Israel and the world. It is never-ending work, because in order to reach the required material one must rummage through newspapers, official media outlets, social networks, and websites.
'When I began to work here I had a deep identity crisis,' admits Meira. 'It was a continuation of the general identity crisis that I had experienced, but when I was exposed to Palestinian TV programs here that dealt with prisoners - or more accurately terrorists - in the Israeli prison, I would cry. One of these programs is called " In a Fighter's Home." As part of the program they go to the homes of prisoners and interview their family members. The idea is that the prisoners watching TV in prison will see the program and through it receive greetings, love, and strengthening from the family they left behind. When the mother of a prisoner would cry, I would cry with her. When Itamar Marcus, director of the [PMW] institute, would come to my [work] station, I would immediately wipe away the tears and hide my feelings.
'After a period in which I gained confidence, I said this to someone from the institute and he was shocked that I was so close to the Palestinian narrative. He advised me to be more connected to the Israeli media, and that is what I did. At the institute they showed me the crimes that these prisoners did, and I understood why they never say in the Palestinian programs why they are in prison. I saw articles describing how Israel treats wounded from Syria, and that proved to me that everything that I had learned about the cruelty of the Jews was simply incorrect. I understood what the State of Israel is and how it helps those who treated it like an enemy. For the first time in my life I heard the other side, the Jewish and Israeli arguments. I was exposed to the true picture, instead of the lie that the Palestinians sell to the world.'

How do you view your future in Israel?
'Until recently I was in a relationship, and I broke it off. I still have a hard time with the Israeli mentality, with the endless freedom to which I was not accustomed. On the other hand, I also have a hard time with my parents and my 86-year-old grandfather, who even at my age still watch when I go out and when I return. Recently I moved to live with my cousin in a settlement near Jerusalem, and I am still trying to formulate for myself my Jewish and Israeli identity and personality, and to find my way.'

The dream of returning to Egypt has not disappeared, but according to Meira it will not be realized anytime soon. 'I hope to return to Egypt, but I think I will wait to do so until the Arab states stop inciting against Jews and Israel and we will all live in peace together. Unfortunately I see every day at work how this dream is growing ever more distant.'"

[Israeli newspaper Makor Rishon, July 15, 2018]