There were two cups of tea on the tiny table at which I sat with my friend Mohamed Al-Hawary in a white-tiled coffee shop in Cairo. Mohamed’s hookah was bubbling and his eyes were twinkling; through a cloud of apple-scented smoke, he asked me how I liked smoking the shisha (that’s the Egyptian word for hookah). I was actually hyperventilating from the effort of breathing through the long, flexible tube in hope of getting the coal to glow, the water to bubble, and the sweet tobacco smoke to pour from my mouth, as it was from the mouths of the half-dozen other men in the shop. Mohamed was, as always, dressed immaculately in a dark European suit, and I was in my usual American academic tweed jacket and corduroys, but all the other men in the café—dimly lit by bare bulbs hanging from the immensely high ceiling by long, filthy cords, and infested by flies—wore turbans and other exotic garb. It was an odd moment in the career of a Hebraist.

I was the only American in the café, but not the only Hebraist, for Mohamed is a professor of Hebrew at Ein Shams University. I had met him eight years previously, at a conference in Oxford, and we have been in regular contact ever since. He has an interest in genizah manuscripts, and spent a semester a few years ago as a Fulbright fellow at JTS in order to make use of the collection in our incomparable library. Mohamed had been among the very first Egyptians to go to Israel after the Begin-Sadat agreement in 1978, but he had begun studying Hebrew long before, first at Cairo, then at Ein Shams University. Now one of four or five senior Hebraists in Egypt, he had long been urging me to visit his university, promising me a warm reception and an attentive audience.

Partly because of my conversations with Mohamed, I was already aware that Hebrew is a fairly popular subject in Egyptian universities, but even so it was a thrill when, the next day, the chairman of the department of Hebrew of Ein Shams University introduced me in Hebrew to an audience of about fifty students. During my ten-day visit to Cairo, I would give four lectures in Hebrew at Ein Shams University and one at Cairo University. All my lectures had to do with medieval Hebrew literature and its relationship with Arabic literature, which is my own research specialty. How much did the students understand? I have, of course, no way of knowing; but many of them appeared to be taking notes, and some of them did ask questions, so I have to assume that, as in any such situation, the more advanced students understood and the less advanced students had the learning experience of straining to understand. At Cairo University, where the audience was large, the students submitted their questions in writing; I was charmed by their written Hebrew, and have saved the slips containing their questions as the most precious souvenirs of my visit.

I had a better opportunity to assess the achievement of the faculty members, for each lecture was proceeded and followed, in true Near Eastern style, by a lengthy reception. I would sit, as instructed, in an armchair in the chairman’s office, in front of a cup of tea and a mound of cookies. One by one, the Egyptian colleagues and the older students (carefully selected for this purpose, I assume) would approach, sit by my side, and chat for a few minutes, then vacate the seat to someone else. (The procedure reminded me of the descriptions of receptions of dignitaries in medieval historical works, and of Jewish shiva practice.) Nearly all my conversations on these occasions were held in Hebrew, and so I can attest that in the heart of Cairo, there is at least one room in which the Hebrew language can be used as a vehicle of international communication.

I had had the thrill of using Hebrew in this way when teaching at the Seminario Rabinico Latinoamericano in Buenos Aires in 1991, but that was JTS’s own sister institution, a culturally and politically friendly environment. By contrast, my colleagues in Cairo were not only not Jewish, but on the other side of one of the most important projects in modern Jewish history—the establishment of a Jewish state in the Land of Israel. The distinction between Judaism and Zionism, so hard for engaged American Jews like me to grasp, comes perfectly naturally to the Egyptian Hebraists, who seem—to the extent I was able to discuss these matters—just as unable to understand why American Jews should support Israel at all. Their resentment of Israel does not diminish their enthusiasm for the study of Jewish history and religion or their pride in their ability to communicate in modern spoken Hebrew. Mohamed himself has written several books in Arabic on Jewish religious practices (and has donated copies of these books to the JTS library), one about the Sabbath, and another about circumcision. These books are perfectly respectful treatments of Jewish beliefs and practices in the light of the parallel beliefs and practices of Islam.

The most touching example of this kind was presented to me by Professor Layla Abu Logood, who wears the head covering of the pious Muslim woman, yet who specializes in rabbinic literature. Apologetically, timidly, but justly proud of her accomplishment, Professor Abu Logood presented me with a copy of her recent book, a translation of the Mishnah tractate Ketubot into Arabic with a commentary that she had composed. I was dumbfounded to encounter such a work. Here is a person who has learned all her Hebrew in a place where there is no access to traditional Jewish scholarship, yet who has grappled singlehandedly with a classical text of considerable difficulty, and produced what may very well be the first translation of the Mishnah into Arabic since the Middle Ages. I found her commentary to be a reliable summary of traditional interpretations.

Most of the Hebrew faculty of Cairo and Ein Shams Universities have learned their Hebrew entirely in Cairo. Besides Mohamed, only a few had visited Israel for longer or shorter periods. There is a professor who specializes in modern Hebrew literature and who has spent considerable time in Israel, where he has become acquainted with a number of contemporary Hebrew writers. He translates Hebrew fiction into Arabic and has written studies of the image of Arabs in Hebrew literature. A particularly impressive case was that of a young man, recently graduated from Ein Shams University, who is now a professional tour guide. On the Friday of my visit, he led a bus tour for students of the department to to sites of Jewish interest—the Rabbanite synagogue, the Karaite synagogue, the Ben Ezra synagogue in Old Cairo—delivering his explanations in Arabic for the students, and repeating them in perfectly fluent Israeli Hebrew for my sake. I was happy to contribute a bit of my own to this tour; in the Rabbanite synagogue, I chanted some of the Sabbath prayers and a couple of verses of the week’s Torah reading, for none of those present—faculty members, students, or tour guide—had ever actually witnessed a synagogue service.

Why do so many Egyptian students choose to major in Hebrew? From the students themselves, I never succeeded in getting other than vague answers like, “Because I love it.” Faculty members told me that Hebrew is popular because students foresee growing business contacts between Egypt and Israel, and therefore employment advantages for Hebrew-speakers. Some students may aspire to become tour guides catering to Israeli visitors. Others may hope for government positions, given the necessity of following developments within Israel, and—let’s face it—the need for Hebrew-speaking intelligence workers. Whatever their motives, their achievement is impressive.

In the course of my stay in Cairo, I met Mohamad many afternoons in coffee shops to smoke shisha and talk with with friends and former students of his whom he invited to meet me. I can’t say that every one of these conversations went smoothly, for there are real differences in perspective that cannot be smoothed over. But Mohamed’s deft moderating and the sweet savor of the shisha kept our conversations amicable.