By Khaled Diab
Yesterday evening, I walked into a shawerma joint, and an accidental 'Aywa' ('Yes' in Egyptian) led the owner to ask me if I spoke Arabic. When I answered in the affirmative, he and his friend sitting by the counter welcomed me warmly. At first, I could not figure out whether these guys were Palestinians or not, until I realised the friend was wearing a kippa or yarmulka.
Murad (Mordechai is his Hebrewised name) is an Iraqi Jew who speaks fluent Arabic with an Iraqi accent and does passable impersonations of the Egyptian and Palestinian dialects. He was born in Baghdad and fled there in 1951 with his parents just before a law was passed to stop others from leaving. He recalls his childhood there with nostalgia.
"Baghdad is my birth place. It has a special place in my heart," he told me theatrically, his hands gesticulating musically. "I miss our house there. I wish I could go back and visit it, if it is still standing."
And it is not just the current occupation and anarchy - which sadden Murad and which he opposes - that are holding him back. He and the Iraqi Jews he hangs out with are also casualties of the conflict as they were not allowed to re-enter the country. But he is determined to visit his beloved Baghdad at the first possible opportunity.
Murad is a musician who plays the Arabic oud and sings old Arabic classics at weddings, birthdays and bar mitzvahs. I was surprised that there was a demand for Arabic songs among Jews, but he reassured me there was. Showing his age, he told me that he had desire to listen to modern singers whose songs had become too shallow and too short, in his opinion. He longed for the days when an Umm Kalthoum concert would last an entire evening and she'd only get through one song!
He recalled with nostalgia the old greats of Arabic music like Umm Kalthoum, Farid el-Atrash, Mohamed Abdel-Wahab, Abdel-Halim Hafez and Egypt's most famous Jewish singing giant, Leila Murad.
Murad has been to Egypt several times and he recounted several long tales of adventure in Cairo and Alexandria. "I love the Egyptian people," he told me. "They're so friendly and funny. When they find out I'm an Israeli, they called me ibn 'ami [cousin] and khawaga [slang for foreigner who speaks broken Arabic]."
One interesting story was when he and a group of Israeli friends went to Egypt in 1987. While they were there, the Palestinian intifada broke out and one of his friends was terrified and did not want to leave his hotel and the others said they would not say they were Israelis. But Murad went out courageously for a walk and joked with the local,s as is his apparent forte. And surprisingly none of the people he came across who asked him his nationality expressed any hostility towards him, except to say it's bad what's happening to the Palestinians.
©Khaled Diab. Text and images.