A Native Daughter
The Egyptian-Israeli peace treaty included provisions establishing travel and tourist links between the two countries. Security restrictions and more than the usual degree of bureaucratic red tape deterred all but the most determined nonofficial Egyptians from visiting Israel. Anyone who requested a visa for Israel was subjected to an extensive investigation. By contrast, the Israeli government regarded tourism as an important symbolic and material expression of peace. It encouraged touristic visits to Egypt, and hundreds of thousands of Israelis seized the opportunity to travel to the only contiguous country open to them since the 1948 Arab-Israeli War. The first wave of Israeli tourists included many Egyptian Jews.
Among them was Anda Harel-Dagan (b. Andrée Wahba, 1934), the younger sister of David Harel (Wahba). Like her older brother, Andrée was a member of ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir. To allow David to continue his illegal work in the underground Zionist ‘Aliyah Organization after 1948 and relieve him of concern for the security and welfare of his family, the Zionist authorities arranged for Andrée and her mother to be brought to Israel in early 1949. They came via Marseilles, where an Israeli emissary changed Andrée's name to Anda because he felt she should have a real Israeli name. When I met her in 1993, Harel-Dagan noted sarcastically that Anda is, in fact, a Polish name. She was resentful that the emissary regarded Anda as genuinely Israeli, whereas her French-Egyptian name was unacceptably foreign to him. The entire family relinquished the Arabic name of Wahba, common to Muslims, Christians, and Jews in Egypt, in favor of Harel, the very modern Israeli name of one of the brigades of the Palmah. Young Anda was placed in a Youth ‘Aliyah program in Kibutz Mishmar ha-‘Emek, where she graduated high school. After her army service, she joined Kibutz Nirim. Since 1965, she has made her home in Kibutz Hatzor.
Harel-Dagan published two volumes of poetry in the early 1970s. The only explicit reference to Egypt in these early poems is in “Avi haya” (My father was), the first poem in her second book, Avraham haya (Abraham was), a memorial to her father, who died in Cairo in 1944. The verse describes her father's hand as “wide as a mosque on a holiday” or a cart “on which virgins dance to Allah, the only one.” The poet remembers herself and her siblings walking with their father “in a sea of sugar dolls”—the confection associated with the feast of the Prophet's birthday that Ada Aharoni recalled in her tale of horror. Harel-Dagan strove to speak and write Hebrew like a native Israeli, so she distanced herself from the experiences and images of her childhood in Cairo. But she felt that a volume dedicated to her father, Ibrahim Wahba, a native speaker of Arabic to whom she had spoken Arabic at home, should include some reference to his cultural milieu.
After a thirty-one-year absence, Harel-Dagan returned to Egypt in 1980. Like many others who took the opportunity to revisit the land of their birth, she arranged to leave her organized tour group to search out her family's former home in the ‘Abbasiyya district of Cairo. Egyptian-Israeli peace and physical reconnection to the place of her birth inspired a volume of poetic memories, Po’ema kahirit (A Cairo poem), which features descriptions of Cairo streets, recollections of her grandfather and father, and portraits of a schoolmate, her concierge, and a minibus driver. “Avi haya” reappears in this volume, richly recontextualized by poems and photographs of Cairo. Po’ema kahirit uses a disarmingly simple, even naive, style to establish an unpretentious ambience in which innocent childhood memories can be fondly invoked. But the poems also disrupt the reader's expectations with unanticipated language, images, and associations.
Harel-Dagan discovered that she still spoke colloquial Egyptian Arabic well enough to be considered a native (bint al-balad) by those she spoke with. She proudly embraced this identity in the final lines of “Jum‘a the Minibus Driver” in which Jum‘a gives her three strands of jasmine flowers and “murmurs Allah akbar, inti bint al-balad/ inti bint bladna” (God is great, you are a native daughter/ you are a daughter of our country).
The poet unambiguously asserted her Egyptian identity by inscribing both her names—Anda Harel-Dagan and Andrée Wahba—in Arabic on the verso of the title page of Po’ema kahirit. However, because she did not learn how to read and write Arabic well, as her older brother and sister did, the Arabic calligraphy was done by another member of her kibutz. For Israelis who do not read Arabic, she included her French-Egyptian name in Latin letters on the title page.
The trip to Egypt not only enabled Harel-Dagan to reclaim elements of her former identity; it allowed her to express a new poetic voice that had been repressed during the years of her building a new life in Israel. “I could not publish these poems until there was peace and I could return and verify if things were the way I remembered or not,” she said. In contrast to her earlier poems, in which she strove to emulate a tzabar style, the language of Po’ema kahirit is hybrid, consciously mixing Hebrew and Egyptian elements. Po’ema is, of course, not a purely Hebrew word, but a Hebraization of the English. Its use in the title of the volume (rather than the more usual shir or shirah) suggests a Levantine cultural mélange, which is amplified by the colloquial Arabic expressions that punctuate several of the poems.
“Dahir Street” recalls a street in the heart of the middle-class Jewish neighborhood of Cairo and welcomes the Egyptian-Israeli peace by commingling the words of the messianic vision of the prophet Amos, an Arabic phrase, and an allusion to a popular Israeli song, with its pomegranate tree transposed to a guava tree in Cairo.
Behold, the days are coming
Behold, women with covered faces
Pronounce a blessing
In shah Allah [God willing]
In Dahir street
In the synagogue courtyard
The guava tree gives forth its fragrance—
Two of the poems—“Sa‘id al-bawwab” (Sa‘id the concierge) and “Jihantab ‘Abd Allah”—recall an incident of mob violence against Jews (perhaps during the anti-Zionist demonstrations of November 2, 1945, but the reference is not specific). However, this image, predictable within the Zionist discourse, is complicated because the subjects of both poems are individual Muslim Egyptians with whom the poet has a deep personal and emotional connection. Sa‘id lifted her onto his shoulders to rescue her from the crowd shouting “nitbakh al-yahud” (let's slaughter the Jews) while murmuring the basmallah (in the name of God the merciful, the compassionate). The poem concludes with an unequivocal statement of identification with Cairo and its people. The soothing “Do not fear” (al tira) is conveyed in biblical language, the same words with which God reassured Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.
In Misr-Cairo my city
Do not fear when it is black as night
Sa‘id al-bawwab is my brother.
Similarly, the poet identifies with Jihantab ‘Abd Allah, a Muslim classmate who gave her comfort when Jews were detained and crowds shouted “Zionists out” and “Let's slaughter the Jews.”
Jihantab ‘Abd Allah
No, I haven't forgot her,
Yes, she sat next to me at the Lycée Française du Caire.
Her face is my face and
My laughter is her laughter.
Jihantab ‘Abd Allah
ya ukhti, ya ’albi [My sister, my heart]
Growing up in ha-Shomer ha-Tza‘ir and living on a kibutz affiliated with MAPAM's ha-Kibutz ha-Artzi federation situated Anda Harel-Dagan politically in the camp that enthusiastically welcomed the peace with Egypt. Nonetheless, she felt that her poems on Egypt were not well received in ha-Kibutz ha-Artzi. She was disappointed that the public response to Po’ema kahirit was greater outside her kibutz movement than among those she considered closest to her. MAPAM's publishing house, Sifriat ha-Po‘alim, normally the publisher of choice for members of kibutzim of ha-Kibutz ha-Artzi, was not interested in publishing Po’ema kahirit, even though it had previously published Harel-Dagan's first book. She felt that the problem was not that the book was about Egypt, but that its style was alien to the narrow tzabar sensibility of the kibutz—born generation of writers in the leadership of the writers' organization of ha-Kibutz ha-Artzi. Sifriat ha-Po‘alim did publish the Egyptian memoir of another member of Kibutz Hatzor, Rahel Maccabi's Mitzrayim sheli. So writing about Egypt was clearly not a barrier; the question was how to write about Egypt and be published by a press highly self-conscious of its ideological mission.
Anda Harel-Dagan was pleased to present herself as a native daughter of Cairo and to celebrate that long-suppressed element of her identity through the publication of Po’ema kahirit. The construction of a self-consciously hybrid identity can leave imperfections and gaps because the disparate components do not fit together seamlessly. Hence, some of the Arabic phrases in Po’ema kahirit are not quite right; and the use of the J rather than the G in names like Jum‘a and Jihantab is not Cairene pronunciation. These are not malicious lapses. They suggest that the poet was stretching with exertion across years of Hebrew acculturation to retrieve the Arabic sounds of her childhood. Perhaps she purposely transformed her Cairene Arabic into the Palestinian dialect that would be more recognizable to Israeli readers.