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Book Review: Al-Bahrawi’s Tale with Israel

An Egyptian’s Tale with Israel is the last book written by the late Ibrahim El-Bahrawi (1944-2020), a Hebrew professor at Ain Shams University, using the free association of ideas

Hesham Taha, Thursday 18 Mar 2021
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Hekayat Misri ma’a Israel (An Egyptian’s Tale with Israel), Ibrahim El-Bahrawi, Dar El-Shorouk Publishing, Cairo, 2020, pp.245

An Egyptian’s Tale with Israel is the last book written by the late Ibrahim El-Bahrawi (1944-2020), a Hebrew professor at Ain Shams University, using the free association of ideas.

He mentioned that the reason behind studying this language was what seemed to him as strange drawings painted using charcoal on the walls of buildings in Port Said, his birthplace, and the murder of his childhood friend Hassan Hammouda, who was 12 years, by a British officer after he threw a stone at a military lorry moving within a convoy.

He was determined to avenge the death of Hammouda as well as the Israeli role when it transpired that the drawings were Hebrew letters. They were written by Arab Jews mingling with Port Said inhabitants and leaving them as a code to identify military targets for the British and French forces during the Tripartite War.

Through divine irony, El-Bahrawi along with his Palestinian wife Randa El-Zogby, went to dinner at a female colleague of his wife’s house in Riyadh, only to meet her British husband who bragged about bombing Port Said with napalm bombs that El-Bahrawi was a firsthand witness to.

When El-Bahrawi asked him about the reason, he replied that there were no strategic objectives except the Suez Canal which they wanted intact, “so we had to bomb civilians in order to control the city”!  

During the 1967 defeat, El-Bahrawi volunteered to work with the Egyptian Military Intelligence and was assigned to interrogate Israeli prisoners of war. Through these interrogations, he realised that there what was called the New Jew, whose role emerged from the Zionist thought, relying on Jewish immigration from Europe to Palestine which produced youth born in Israel (Sabra generation).

Zionism had instilled within members of this generation a tenacity to fight for the usurped land of Palestine and any other seized territories, and to be characterised with arrogance and the initiative to attack and resolve situations through the use of brutal force.

It was totally dissimilar to the stereotype of the European Jew who was subjected to successive waves of oppression and persecution at the hands of European Christians formulating eventually an image of cowardice, obsequiousness, and a tendency to bend in the face of hardships.

El-Bahrawi cites a Jewish thinker, Eliyahu Sabir, who wrote in 1900 “The Arab Muslim people are among the peoples or the only people that are close to us and to our hearts, and during our days together we witnessed beneficence.”

The author chronicled memories about the Arab-Israeli conflict as a student and as a teaching assistant and how he suffered from a blood clot in his feet when he saw the Israeli flag put up on the other side of the Suez Canal and cried loudly. He decided to change his MA thesis from studying the Old Testament to researching the enemy.

Mostafa Zewar, the renowned Psychology professor, raised his attention to the possibility of remotely studying the enemy via literature which was established by the Americans when they studied the Japanese through literature following the Pearl Harbour attack during WWII.  

El-Bahrawi cites the late Israeli Prime minister Golda Meir’s testimony before the Agranat Commission, which was set up to investigate failings in the Israel Defense Forces prior to the October War.

She collapsed and apologised to President Anwar Sadat because she, along with Israeli high military commanders, thought that he was hesitant and always going back on his promises, especially when he mobilised the Egyptian Armed Forces in May 1973. Thus, she didn’t take him seriously as she should.

The author’s Ph.D. thesis was about the short story in the Israeli literature of war and he quoted translated examples from them. Later, he had the opportunity to engage in dialogues with the October War’s Israeli POWs, whom he met in the Military Prison.

Their replies revealed that the performance of Egyptian soldiers changed their outlook completely towards them and how they grasped the modern warfare technology in all the armed forces branches.

However, they insisted that even after Egyptian troops broke the Bar Lev Line, the line was crucially vital to Israel, because if it were absent, the war would have been waged on Israel’s land. They acknowledged that their intelligence services were duped by Egypt’s strategic deceptiveness.

Conducted at the beginning of the war, the dialogue’s most significant point was the Israeli POWs saying that if Egyptians succeeded in totally driving out Israelis from Sinai, then there is no problem for Israel in signing a non-aggression treaty.

However, if Israeli troops remained in a part of Sinai, maybe Israel can sign a peace treaty provided that Sinai becomes entirely demilitarised. He concluded that Arabs’ military capabilities are the sole means to deprive Israel from the best position, according to its security theory that is occupying the Arab lands.

Camp David drove El-Bahrawi into a severe psychological conflict and depression until he reached a decision.

He was to accept it since we, Egyptians, regained our land and tried to build upon such efforts and assert continuously Palestinians’ right to have a state, and expose expansionist Israel through a weekly page he was the editor of that was published in Akbar El-Youm titled “How Israel Thinks?” (1979-1985).

He quoted the full text of a letter he received from the late Yasser Arafat thanking him for his efforts on this page.

He refused a request from Mansour Hassan, the minister of Information, to be the first Media Attaché in the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv because he felt that there was a psychological barrier between him and Israel, and he also refused many invitations to visit the Hebrew state afterwards.

Osama El-Baz, the political advisor to the late President Hosni Mubarak, asked El-Bahrawi to attend a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Benyamin Netanyahu in Cairo but he refused because it would not change any of his expansionist ideas and his denial of the Palestinians’ rights. He added that if he was to attend, he would ask him on his role in Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin’s assassination through which he aimed at torpedoing the peace process.  

Moreover, he shed light on a continuing battle to keep the Genizah (Jewish manuscripts found in the storeroom in a Synagogue in Old Cairo) inside Egypt and confront any attempt to smuggle them or to take them out of the country on the pretext of academic cooperation.

He displays some translated pieces of the Agranat Commission documents and the Israeli war cabinet minutes on the first days of the October War, which were made public. He reveals that the commission’s aim was to condemn and dismiss military officials from service and exonerate political figures, namely Golda Meir and Moshe Dayan.

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