Rebirth, reberth

Rebirth, reberth
By Danny Rubinstein

29 Oct. 2004

Writing in Arabic, the late Israeli journalist and commentator Victor
Nachmias tells of his childhood in Egypt, his immigration to Israel,
and the tension between his native land and the country of his rebirth

“Alrajul aladi wulida marten” (“The Man Who Was Born Twice: The Story
of an Egyptian Jew Who Immigrated to Israel”) by Victor Nachmias,
Al-Ma’aref, 192 pages

Victor Nachmias, a well-known Israeli TV and radio commentator on Arab
affairs, chose to write his autobiography in Arabic in order to bring
his personal story to as many Arab readers as possible, in Israel and
outside it.

But there was another reason. In writing in Arabic (the language of the
enemy, as many Israelis will say), he was proving to the world – and to
himself – that the tension between Egypt, his beloved homeland, and the
State of Israel, to which he immigrated in 1957, was the pivot of his

Arriving in Israel at the age of 23, he felt he had been reborn. There
was nothing very new in this sentiment. One could call it “old-school
Zionism” of the type that was abundant in the early waves of
immigration to this country, a hundred years ago and more. Among
today’s new immigrants there are also quite a few who might describe
their move to Israel as a “rebirth.” Indeed, people who take the
dramatic step of adopting a new homeland, a new language, and very
often a new lifestyle and profession, have a tendency to change their
names, too – a kind of public declaration of their new identity. They
are not the same people they were before. They have been born twice, to
quote the title of Nachmias’ book. But Victor Nachmias had another
reason for saying that he was reborn in the State of Israel: He arrived
at his new home in the Castel ma’abara (immigrant transit camp) on May
18, 1957 – which was also his birthday.

Nachmias is not the only Israeli Jew to write in Arabic. Perhaps one of
the earliest and most intriguing was Yitzhak Shemi, born in Hebron in
1888. Shemi worked as a teacher in Palestine, Damascus and Bulgaria,
and died in 1949. His book, “Revenge of the Fathers,” is considered a
literary masterpiece by Jews and Arabs alike. The Iraqi-born Jewish
authors recently profiled in this paper by Prof. Sasson Somekh are
probably more familiar to the general public. Somekh writes, for
example, about Yitzhak Bar-Moshe, born in Baghdad, who worked as a
senior employee in Israel Radio’s Arabic department and served as a
press and cultural attache at the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. Upon his
return, in 1994, he wrote “Cairo in My Heart,” about his experiences

Since nearly all the Jewish communities in Arab countries have
disappeared and very few Jews are left who can claim that Arabic is
their mother tongue, presumably it won’t be long before there are no
more Jews writing or publishing books in Arabic. Nachmias’ book is thus
one of the last links in the chain.

Nachmias writes about his childhood in Cairo, about the Jews of Egypt,
about immigrating to Israel, about working for Israel Radio in Arabic
and Israel TV in Hebrew. He describes the great turning point in his
life in the wake of Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem (1977) – an event that
made it possible for him to return to Cairo and meet with top-tier
Egyptian officials. He writes about his coverage of Arab Israelis and

The more personal he gets, the more interesting the book. Many parts of
it are genuinely moving. “Who are you, Victor Nachmias?” asks the
Egyptian journalist Anis Manzour, editor of the weekly magazine
October, after they meet and become close friends.

“I am a victim of the Israeli-Arab conflict,” Nachmias replies. “I was
forced to leave Egypt before completing my pharmacology degree at Qasr
al-Eini (Cairo’s famous medical school). I left with one 20-kilo
suitcase of clothes and personal belongings, a total of $20 (the
maximum allowance) and a certificate stamped with the words `exit, no
return,’ revoking the Egyptian citizenship held by my father.”

Years later, when Nachmias accompanied President Yitzhak Navon to Egypt
as part of the press corps, he was asked why, upon leaving Egypt, he
had chosen to go to Israel. The question was accusing in tone, and
Nachmias’ answer was that since Egypt had no right to expel him, they
also had no right to ask what made him choose Israel.

`Little Vicky boy’

Nachmias’ account of his childhood is quite sparing, which is a pity.
The book hardly mentions his father, who died in 1955, or the schools
he went to. He says little about his early family experiences and about
the social, cultural and political milieu in which he grew up. On the
other hand, he writes at length about the contribution of Egyptian
Jewry to the social, economic, cultural and political life of the

The Jewish community in Egypt was indeed unique. It was an amalgam of
Jews from North Africa, Damascus, Russia, Iraq and Yemen. They
integrated well into the Levantine urban elite of Cairo and Alexandria,
which was composed of foreigners – Greeks, Italians and Armenians – in
addition to the French and British expatriates about whom so much has
been written.

A third or more of the Jewish community left Egypt after the Israeli
War of Independence, and another third after the Sinai Campaign in 1956
(the “triple” Israeli-Anglo-French attack, as it is known in Egypt).
The rest packed their bags after the Six-Day War. The Nachmias family
left – or was ordered to leave – in 1957.

They lived on the second floor. The landlord wanted to move the ground
floor tenant, Haj Saber, into their apartment so he could turn the
bottom floor into a shop. As the Nachmias family deliberated on what to
take with them, the neighbors came snooping to see what furniture they
were leaving behind.

Twenty years later, Victor Nachmias, the Israeli journalist, went back
to visit his childhood home at 1 Tur-Sina Street. The doorman, Uncle
Ibrahim, who was still there after all those years, recognized Nachmias
and greeted him excitedly. “It’s my little Vicky boy!” he exclaimed. A
little cluster of neighbors who remembered his late father, Mr.
Suleiman Nachmias, his mother, “Umm Vicky,” and his brothers and
sisters, congregated at the entrance. He went upstairs and there, to
his surprise, found a large porcelain vase that had belonged to his
family. His mother, afraid that it might break on the way, had decided
to leave it behind. For Nachmias, it was an epitaph to his mother, who
had died the year before.

The Cairo of Nachmias’ childhood – a Paris in miniature – was gone, and
in its place was a third-world metropolis. His reunion with Cairo in
1977 was like meeting an old flame, once young and beautiful, now a
wrinkled old woman. Nachmias’ writing here takes off, as it does in his
account of other personal landmarks – his first day in the ma’abara, a
visit to Jerusalem, his early days with Israel Radio. Nachmias was
involved in the Arabic news programs, which were a kind of flagship
project at the time. All over the Arab world, they were listened to and
believed – the very opposite of the situation today.

The book in its current format is geared to the Arab reader. Victor
Nachmias did not live to see its publication in Hebrew. A month ago, he
suffered a stroke, and passed away this week.