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On the Border Between Two Languages

Ofri Ilani, Ha'aretz, Tel Aviv, Israel, May 4, 2008

"Jerusalem" in Hebrew, Arabic, and English, from a road sign at the southern entrance to the city. (Photo: Awad Awad / AFP-Getty Images)

Ten years ago, when Dr. David Sagiv began preparing the Arabic-Hebrew Hebrew-Arabic dictionary he recently completed, he was more optimistic than he is today. At that time, he and his wife, Marcelle, would go every year to Cairo, where he had established contact with some of the most important intellectuals in Egypt. The shelves of his bookcase in Jerusalem are filled with Arabic books, some of which contain dedications from Egyptian authors. For several years, it seemed as though cultural relations between Israel and Egypt were gradually being woven. But in the last few years, since the Al-Aqsa Intifada broke out, David and Marcelle Sagiv no longer visit Egypt.

"Today we are less in touch with our friends in Egypt," Sagiv says. "There is a serious process of deterioration in ties. Perhaps it is their fault, perhaps it is ours, but it is not a good thing. One needs someone crazy, like me, who will swim against the stream and publish a dictionary with the aim of getting the two cultures closer."

Sagiv, who was born in Iraq, has been compiling dictionaries for decades, as well as teaching Arabic language and translating literary works from Arabic into Hebrew. In 1985, he published a Hebrew-Arabic dictionary in two volumes, which became a must-have object on the bookshelf of any Israeli who deals with the Arabic language. Sagiv's new dictionary, which has more than 1,000 pages, is the most comprehensive dictionary that contains in one volume both an Arabic-Hebrew and a Hebrew-Arabic dictionary. "It weighs a ton," he says, holding the heavy volume in his hand.

Sagiv began collecting words as far back as the 1950's, when he worked as a journalist and director of Israel Radio's Arabic service.

"I started writing down words that I heard because I saw there was no one who knew how to translate a word from Hebrew into Arabic in the field of communications of those days," he says.

In recent years, he has spent a great deal of time watching the Arabic satellite channels and collecting new words that appear there.

In addition, he adds a great many words from modern Arabic literature. "I translated Naguib Mahfouz's writing. I get inspiration from these writings that is both spiritual and linguistic," he says.

According to Sagiv, it is actually the close relationship between Hebrew and Arabic that sometimes poses problems for the translator. "Every language is a world of its own and is a body that develops and has values," he says. "There are words in Arabic that are all-encompassing and cannot be translated exactly into Hebrew. These are languages that have an affinity but because of that, a difficulty is sometimes created. There are words that on the face of it are the same, but in actual fact they are not.

In his prologue to the dictionary, Sagiv wrote: "For many generations, Jews and Arabs lived side by side in all of the Arab countries and the countries of Islam, from Iraq in the east, Syria and Egypt, to Morocco in the west, and the daily life and the cultural life of the members of the two cultures were intertwined with each other, with Arabic serving them as a mutual language of communication. True, there were periods of confrontation but these did not disturb the ongoing dialogue and discussion."

Sagiv himself remembers the good relations with his Muslim neighbors in the city of Basra in Iraq, where he was born in 1928. On holidays, the heads of the tribes would come to congratulate the chief rabbi and the head of the Basra Jewish community. In the Jewish "Alliance" school, where he studied, several Muslim teachers also worked.

Basra has a Shiite majority and Sagiv says that was the main reason why the attitude toward the Jews there was positive. "The Shiites constitute the majority in Iraq, but they are in a minority position," he says. "There is sometimes empathy between the minorities and that is why nothing bad was done to us. In 1941, there was a pogrom against the Jews of Iraq. In Baghdad, they murdered and raped for three weeks. In Basra, there were cases of looting but there were four families of Shiite Muslims that came with their militias to protect the Jews. In that way, they prevented rape and murder."

The change in attitude toward the Jews came in 1933 with the death of King Faisal the First, who had been very open to the Jews. "The change came with King Feisal's death. His son, Razi, was anti-Semitic and was a Nazi supporter."

Sagiv documented the history of the Jewish community in Basra in his book, The Jewish Community of Basra, published by Carmel in 2004. The events now taking place in Iraq cause him grief. "After the fall of Saddam Hussein, we had a great deal of hope. People called me and said, 'take us for a trip to Basra.' But that's a dream. It's good that Saddam has fallen, but to my great sorrow, the Americans knew how to topple him but did not know how to continue. They entered Iraq without knowing the codes of the various communities there."

In 1951, Sagiv came to Israel. Here he met Marcelle, who was born in Egypt and worked as a secretary at the Arabic division of Israel Radio. Later she worked at the radio and the television in Arabic, among other things as a diplomatic reporter. She was well known as the moderator of the "Mifgash" program and also served as the Israeli press attaché in Egypt. They have lived together for decades, on the seam between the two cultures.

"The Egyptians are generally very amiable people, and they love learning, and have a sense of humor," says Sagiv. "There was openness in Egypt—there were times when it was a liberal country of the first degree. But with the influence of the Muslim Brotherhood, the extremist climate there is gaining ground."

Sagiv regrets also the attitude toward Arabic culture in Israel. According to him, the situation with teaching Arabic in Israel is deteriorating. "Every new education minister declares that he will increase Arabic studies, but they merely become less. If there were more teachers who absorbed the language, perhaps they would arouse more identification on the part of the pupils. I hope that this dictionary will contribute something to the openness on both sides."

Ofri Ilani is a Ha'aretz correspondent. This article from Ha'aretz is distributed by the Common Ground News Service.

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