Gideon Levy: Some enchanted evening [or: “Life as it Could Be”]

This seventh-grader… is half Israeli and half Egyptian, Jewish and Muslim, speaks Hebrew with her mother and Arabic with her father, lives in Ramat Hasharon and spends vacations in Sinai and Cairo, with her father and grandmother.

IOA Editor: Perhaps the most encouraging story, if it weren’t so singular, romantic, completely out of the norm and, for those who know the Sinai coast, completely out of this world.

By Gideon Levy, Haaretz – 6 Nov 2009

It was a surreal evening, as they say. An evening of sweet but fleeting illusion. Almost everyone from the father’s side of the family came from Cairo, and everyone on the mother’s side came from Ramat Hasharon and Kfar Sava. Vered and Hisham Nessim-Leibovich were celebrating their only daughter’s bat mitzvah. Her mother calls her Yasmin; her father calls her Yasmina. This seventh-grader at the Urim anthroposophic school in Kfar Hayarok is half Israeli and half Egyptian, Jewish and Muslim, speaks Hebrew with her mother and Arabic with her father, lives in Ramat Hasharon and spends vacations in Sinai and Cairo, with her father and grandmother.

It was a surreal evening. Grandma Haniya, from the maternal side, a seventh-generation native of Safed, offered congratulations in Arabic that she remembered from her childhood; DJ Ahmed, who came specially from Cairo, played Egyptian music along with hits from the 1960s; and an Egyptian dance troupe put on a spectacular show.

Also in attendance was family friend Michal Pundak-Saguy, whose brother Uri was killed not far away in the Yom Kippur War, on the other side of the Suez Canal, when an Egyptian shell struck his tank. The former commander of an Israeli naval patrol boat, the father of one of Yasmin’s friends who came to the bat mitzvah, said the last time he’d been there the shores had looked dark and threatening. He was very moved to be invited.

There was also the unforgettable family picture taken at the end, as at any such event; the family from Israel seated to the right, the family from Egypt to the left. How good and pleasant it is when brothers sit together. No one could make up something like this. But this evening was real and everyone there was thrilled.

Yasmin came into the world by fire. During Sukkot 12 years ago, we were at Aquasun, her parents’ resort village near Nuweiba, when a cook accidentally started a fire. It spread quickly, and guests and employees formed a bucket brigade to put it out. Dedi Zucker, a guest, rushed into the burning dining room and saved some furniture. Before the fire was out, the phone call came from the hospital in Tel Aviv: Yasmin had been born.

Yasmin grew up on the Sinai beaches. Every year on Sukkot we would celebrate her birthday at Aquasun. Our kids also grew up and spent vacations here, at about the last place where Egyptians and Israelis, Arabs and Jews, still met, the dreamers’ last refuge.

But Aquasun finally succumbed to the fire – not the one back then, but that of the second intifada, the terror attacks in Sinai and the countless automatic alerts issued by security people before every holiday, which have kept away even the most loyal guests. Now Aquasun stands desolate and virtually deserted; only Ghazali, the small and relatively new village that Vered and Hisham built nearby, is still functioning, serving the remaining Israeli stalwarts and Russians that come to do yoga. What remains are the magnificent beaches, the amazing tranquillity and the boundless amiability of the Egyptian workers who have stayed on despite everything.

Two weekends ago, joy returned here, if only momentarily, and Ghazali was filled with guests. Without any production companies or special “concept evenings,” this was a real bat mitzvah in the desert, an unforgettable evening on a beach that is part of our most beautiful memories.

Yasmin is the product of Vered and Hisham’s love. On her way to India years ago, Vered Leibovich from Kfar Sava stopped to spend a few nights at Aquasun, which was then a tiny place. Vered never made it to India: She fell in love with the proprietor from Cairo, and he with her, and the rest is history. History – and politics. Aquasun became their second home, their meeting place and their refuge; it also became a financial success story. You needed to have a very good connection with Vered to snag a room for the holidays. After six years, Yasmin was born. Among the guests at her event were her half-brothers – Hisham’s two sons from his first marriage – who came from Cairo to celebrate with her.

A half-moon hung in the Sinai sky, shining hazily through the clouds. Vered wore sequins, like any excited mother at a bat mitzvah; Hisham wore a white shirt. Most of his business now is focused on organizing “extreme” hiking trips for Israelis and others in the western desert, where he also has a small inn. About two months ago, he visited Israel for the first time in about a decade, after overcoming numerous bureaucratic obstacles to obtain an entry permit.

“Salam alaikum,” said Grandma Haniya, 83. She barely gets around with her cane, but when the Egyptian dancers later invite her to join them, she moves like a young girl. “Inshallah, peace will come and we’ll be able to live together,” Haniya continues, reading her speech in Hebrew and Arabic. Hisham plants a kiss on the cheek of his mother-in-law, now living in Kfar Sava. His own father is Egyptian, his grandfather is Sudanese and his grandmother is German.

The guest of honor was barefoot on her big day, with cheap Bedouin bangles on her ankles. The lights of Saudia Arabia glimmered on the opposite shore. An Egyptian cook, who had once been a POW and was hospitalized in Israel, served grilled chicken and told stories from back then. Meanwhile, DJ Ahmed started playing music: “Riders on the Storm” by The Doors. “There’s a killer on the road.” Chilling.

Grandma Haniya and Grandpa Zvi found DJ Ahmed’s music a bit too loud so they moved away. Ayman, Islam and Matariya, long-time employees who know all our children, set fireworks off into the dark sky. A cardboard cannon shot confetti. Yasmin danced with her mother and father.

After the marvelous dinner featuring the finest Egyptian cuisine, Yasmin’s friends from Ramat Hasharon cut the huge birthday cake that had been brought from Cairo, to the words of “Happy Birthday” sung in English.

The next day, after she’d slept in, I talked with Yasmin in the plaza in front of the dining room, by the mirror-like sea. She says she has a classmate whose mother is Finnish, and another classmate who is half-Japanese, and she herself is half-Israeli, half-Egyptian – which is nothing special. She feels more at home in Cairo than in Israel, she says surprisingly. “I feel like I belong more there. I want to go there maybe for high school. The people there are nicer and warmer. I feel like Egypt is more my home, even though I’m in Israel more, and my favorite place is Aquasun and Farfera (Hisham’s inn in the western desert). My friends who came to my bat mitzvah told me this was the most amazing place they’d ever seen and they’d like to stay here for a million years.

“I like going to my grandmother in Cairo. Especially to the farm where she lives, on the weekends. Then I get to see Zainab and Radiya, who work there. Zainab loves me so much; I go with her to pick oranges. I like going on trips in the desert in Egypt, and I like coming to my dad’s hotel after hours of driving.”

Do you tell your friends about yourself?

“If I see a kid who’s not so nice then I tell him I’m from Ramat Hasharon. But if I see a kid who’s really nice, I tell him I have an Egyptian father and an Israeli mother. And then usually he says that it must be fun for me.”

What are your political views?

“The territories should be given to the Palestinians. They’re theirs. I don’t see anything different between Americans and Arabs. One is darker? I don’t see what’s different between them. I can’t understand what goes through the minds of people who want war. So we’ll have a smaller place. It’s better. The whole thing seems stupid, and annoying.”

According to religious laws, you’re both Jewish and Muslim.

“Not long ago in English class we had to write about religions. I wrote that I’m half and half – that in Israel I’m a Jew and in Egypt I’m a Muslim.”

What do you want to be when you grow up?

“I’ll work with animals and I’ll be a musician or a sculptor as a hobby.”

And where will you live?

“Not in Israel or Egypt. At least not at the beginning. For sure, I won’t live in Israel. When I’m older I’ll move to Egypt.”

The next morning the village emptied out. The sun rose, cargo ships crossed the Red Sea, the scrawny desert dogs scrounged for the last scraps from the party, and the bar was deserted, as was the dining room. Yasmin went back to school in Kfar Hayarok, Hisham returned to Cairo and Vered to Ramat Hasharon. And the magic suddenly went “poof” – and disappeared.

Back to Top

Readers are welcome to discuss IOA content on our Facebook page. To participate, please click HERE.