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Teaching Hebrew in Saudi Arabia

Hebrew studies are now legitimate in the desert kingdom, but demand is low—so far

Elhanan Miller
April 02, 2018
Photo: Twitter
A screenshot from Loay al-Shareef's Twitter video.Photo: Twitter
Photo: Twitter
A screenshot from Loay al-Shareef's Twitter video.Photo: Twitter

A strange post made the rounds on Saudi Arabian social media in recent weeks. It claimed that the Israeli national anthem, “Hatikvah,” included a line lauding Jews for coming to the Land of Israel to intimidate the Canaanites, Babylonians, and Egyptians and chop their heads off.

“Many people turned to me as a Hebrew expert to ask whether the translation was right or wrong,” said Dr. Mohammad Alghbban, a professor at King Saud University in the capital, Riyadh, and one of the kingdom’s few Hebrew speakers. “The translation was completely corrupt and untrue.”

The Saudi professor took the opportunity not only to debunk the myth, but also to provide an accurate translation of the anthem and mention its author, Naftali Herz Imber, and the background of its publication in 1886.

“Engaging in Hebrew and Judaic studies used to be an adventurous endeavor in Saudi Arabia,” Alghbban said in a Skype interview from Riyadh, in a conversation that fluctuated easily between Hebrew, English, and Arabic. “You would very easily be viewed by society as a traitor to your people or your religion.

“But today, thank God, with the new Saudi government, we have more freedom of speech on social media, and things are completely different.”

The first public indication of Israeli-Saudi rapprochement took place in July 2016, with the visit of retired Saudi general Anwar Eshki to Jerusalem. In October 2017, the kingdom denied reports of a secret visit by Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman to Israel. But the following month, IDF Chief of Staff Gadi Eisenkot gave a first-of-its-kind interview to the Saudi news portal Elaph, expressing Israeli willingness to share sensitive intelligence and jointly combat Iran. The icing on the cake, at least as far as Israelis are concerned, was the Saudi decision earlier this year to allow commercial Air India flights to fly over Saudi airspace to and from Israel, cutting costs and travel time to numerous Asian destinations. The first such flight occurred last Thursday.

“I can now speak about Hebrew culture, language, and society both in public and in private, and even in Saudi newspapers,” Alghbban said. “Ten years ago this was taboo.”

Alghbban stumbled into Hebrew accidentally. As a child raised in the Red Sea town of Duba, he would visit the resort of Haql near the Saudi-Jordanian border, from which he could view Eilat in the distance and listen to Israeli Army Radio. Later, he moved to the Saudi capital of Riyadh for college but had no idea what he wanted to study. His brother, an archeology professor at King Saud University, introduced him to an Egyptian colleague who taught ancient Hebrew.

“I sat with him and told him that I listen to Hebrew and speak a few words. I liked the idea and signed up for Hebrew studies.”

In the mid-1990s Hebrew was not taught in Saudi Arabia as an academic degree, so Alghbban completed a three-year diploma and returned to his hometown. When King Saud University launched its first official Hebrew program 20 years ago, Alghbban returned to Riyadh, obtaining his bachelor degree as part of the first cohort of Hebrew students in 2000.

Mohammed Alghbban. (Photo courtesy Mohammed Alghbban)
Mohammed Alghbban. (Photo courtesy Mohammed Alghbban)

Alghbban fell in love with Hebrew, but no advanced courses were available in Saudi Arabia. A scholarship to study in the United States sent him to Indiana University in Bloomington, one of the few American universities with a graduate program in Hebrew and translation. There, Alghbban encountered Jewish and Israeli students for the first time. “I was the only Arab, the only Muslim, the only Saudi in a classroom filled with Israeli and American students who were mostly Jewish,” he recalled. “It was emotionally challenging at first. People looked at me, not knowing whether I’m a friend or a foe, wondering why I chose to study Hebrew. I also came with zero knowledge of English, having only studied Arabic and Hebrew.”

Professor Stephen Katz, now head of the Near Eastern Languages department at Indiana University, helped Alghbban get admitted to the graduate program after completing his English requirements, later supervising his academic work. One day, Katz suggested that Alghbban visit the Hillel House on campus and help beginners practice Hebrew. “Everyone was staring, wondering who this guy is,” Alghbban recalled. “Is he a Yemenite Jew? An Arab? What is he doing here? No one sat with me at the table. It was extremely uncomfortable, and I wanted to leave. Later, with the help of the Hillel director, people got to know me as a friend.”

But it wasn’t just Jewish students who raised their eyebrows at the Saudi. In his general linguistics classes, students would wonder why he had to travel thousands of miles to study Hebrew when Israel was just a couple hours’ drive from his hometown. “What could I answer? It’s not up to me.”

In 2011, Alghbban completed his doctorate, examining Hebrew and English translations of Naguib Mahfouz’s 1947 novel Midaq Alley, and returned to his alma mater in Riyadh to teach Hebrew literature and translation.

“King Saud University is the only institution in the Gulf that teaches Hebrew at the undergraduate level,” he said. The four-year degree begins with two years of intense language skills using Hebrew textbooks, followed by translation studies and Hebrew culture. Students practice translating online news in Hebrew, while Alghbban’s advanced literary translation course features short stories ranging from S.Y. Agnon to Etgar Keret.

“I love Agnon; he’s the leader of modern Hebrew literature,” he said.

Despite rumors of Saudi-Israeli rapprochement, Hebrew remains a neglected field of study in the kingdom, to Alghbban’s chagrin. “Student numbers are really low,” he said. “There is no interest in learning Hebrew since there’s no job market for Hebrew-language graduates.” Graduates typically find jobs as news translators or teaching assistants. Alghbban’s Hebrew program, located within the department of modern languages and translation, includes about 40 students and just four faculty members. Hebrew is one of the easiest departments to get accepted into because there is virtually no demand. “The lowest of the low-ranking students study languages. This is very bad,” he said, noting the high drop-out rate of students searching for more lucrative careers.

Nevertheless, Alghbban believes that negative attitudes in Saudi Arabia toward Hebrew study are gradually changing. Some see it as a necessity dictated by the maxim “know thine enemy,” while others see it as a means for mutual understanding. The latter approach has now become prevalent in the Arab world, he opined.

“A decade ago, Hebrew used to be considered the language of the enemy. Now it’s the language of the other,” said Alghbban, who is obviously an advocate of the peaceful approach. “One cannot be blamed for being Jewish or speaking Hebrew,” he said. “I make a distinction between the policies of the occupying Zionist forces who kill innocents, and Jews as people with religious beliefs. There’s a difference between the two. I don’t like engaging with people who fight Muslims and wage wars, and many Jews don’t like that, either. Many personal acquaintances of mine in Israel oppose war and search for peace in any way possible. I will shake their hands and respect them.”

Alghbban’s Twitter account, @Israeli_Issues, translates Israeli headlines into Arabic and vice versa. Recent tweets included stories on Crown Prince Muhammad bin Salman’s meetings in the U.S. and Ultra-Orthodox demonstrations against the army draft in Jerusalem.

“The purpose of my account is to convey Hebrew media to the Arab reader without distortion or hyperbole,” he said. “Social media has advantages and disadvantages. There are so many Israeli and Arab accounts, both fake and real, managed by people seeking fame rather than truth. They spread fake news about the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia to the Israeli public and vice versa to exacerbate animosity between us.

“My account seeks out only good things, to bring the sides closer together,” he said. “I avoid any political or religious disagreements.”

Yet Alghbban’s lonely stand in favor of dialogue may soon become less lonely. Another Saudi citizen, 35-year-old Loay al-Shareef, dazzled his Twitter audience March 19 with a video reassuring Israelis in fluent Hebrew that his country posed no threat to its neighbors.

“It took me two days to make the video, using a dictionary,” he told me in a Skype interview from Jeddah, peppered with Hebrew. “There’s nowhere to practice Hebrew in Saudi Arabia. I am deeply interested in Jewish heritage.”

Unlike Alghbban, al-Shareef learned Hebrew not on a Saudi campus but in a Paris home. A software engineer who graduated from Pennsylvania State University, he came to the City of Lights in 2010 to study French and was billeted with a Jewish family of Yemeni descent. The family’s daughter, Judith, introduced him to the Hebrew Bible and the Talmud.

“She said, ‘You know, Hebrew is the language of the prophets.’ I responded: ‘No, no, Arabic is the language of the prophets!’ Instead of learning French I learned Hebrew.”

Al-Shareef became enthralled with the Judaeo-Arab writings of Maimonides and Rabbi Sa’adia Gaon. He acquired his Hebrew through online courses and by listening to Israeli speeches on YouTube. Today, al-Shareef maintains the language by memorizing the songs of deceased Israeli singer Ofra Haza.

“I translated her song ‘Jerusalem of Gold’ to Arabic. You cannot imagine my grief over her loss.”

Al-Shareef is aware of the Israeli interest in him but says societal change will have to evolve gradually.

“I’m glad my video reached out and I believe we can build on it,” he said. “But I want Israelis to understand we have to take things one step at a time. Peace has to happen and Palestinians should get their rights because things can’t continue this way. Changing people’s mind-sets is difficult, but the benefits of peace will be overwhelming.”


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Elhanan Miller (@ElhananMiller) is a Jerusalem-based reporter specializing in the Arab world.