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Nabih Sarhan/Joseph Samir: Egyptian poet, Voice of Israel broadcaster

In April Ibrahim Eissa dedicated an episode of his show “Ladayya Aqwal Ukhra” (I Have Something to Add) to the memory of poet Salah Jahin. While discussing Jahin’s role in promoting contemporary colloquial Egyptian poets like Abd al-Rahman al-Abnudi and Sayid Higab, poet and critic Shaaban Yusuf mentioned another “eccentric” poet who Jahin championed, Nabih Sarhan, who wrote a poetry collection titled Madad ya Walad … Madad ya Bint before emigrating to Israel.

The story of a colloquial poet who emigrated to Israel caught my attention, so I started researching this man, who started his literary career in the 1960s in Egypt and whom many authors, including Yusuf Idris, Mahmoud al-Saadany, Khairy Shalaby and Ali Salim, wrote about.

In the late 1960s, Sarhan was a poet and journalist working at Al-Sharq Al-Awsat radio in Cairo, according to the Saudi Arabian newspaper Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. He was famous for his radio show “Taamulat” (Contemplations), on which he recited colloquial verses, mostly penned by himself, and for presenting the radio show “Duaa” (Prayer) during Ramadan. However, the details of Sarhan’s mysterious life mainly come from his first wife, Nabawiya Musa, an Egyptian who, at 15, was half his age when they married.

In 2003, when Palestinian website Duniya al-Watan interviewed Musa, she said that when Sarhan volunteered to fight in the Egyptian Popular Army in the 1967 War, he disappeared for nine months. She had thought he was dead, but when he did eventually return, he told her he had been in Abu Zaabal prison. He had been stationed in Qantara, on the western side of the Suez Canal, when a presenter from Egyptian radio visited (Maariv newspaper mentions that the visitor was Lieutenant General Murtaga, commander of the eastern front). When Sarhan told him: “Tell [radio director] Ahmed Said that we have been defeated and to stop broadcasting false information. What we are hearing on the radio is scandalous,” the camp commandant had sent him to prison.

After his release his poetry collection was published, but the authorities confiscated it. He decided to leave for Libya, but on reaching the Libyan border he was sent back to Cairo because he was on a travel ban list. He went to the office of Shaarawy Gomaa, the interior minister at the time, requesting permission to leave Egypt and threatening, if Gomaa refused, to spend all his money on a banner saying “Down with Shaarawy Gomaa” to hang outside his office. Gomaa refused, saying Nabih wanted to leave Egypt in order to attack it from abroad. Sarhan promised this was not the case, claiming he planned to go to Lebanon where Nizar Qabbani would help him publish his poetry. Gomaa agreed.

Musa recounts that after entering Libya, Sarhan met King Idris al-Senussi, who welcomed him and agreed to let him write for Libyan newspaper Al-Alam as long as he didn’t write about politics, to avoid trouble with Egypt. Sarhan initially complied, but eventually he did write an article attacking the Egyptian government. When Egypt brought up the issue with Senussi, he decided to exile Sarhan and his wife but did not hand them over to the Egyptian authorities.

They were turned away by various European countries, staying overnight in European airports on several occasions, but eventually they were allowed into Greece. Walking through Athens, the couple came across a Cuban diplomat Sarhan had met in Egypt. The diplomat said that no country would take him except for “Egypt’s enemy.”

Without telling his wife, Sarhan went to the Israeli consulate in Athens and asked to meet Eli Dwek, the Israeli consul, knowing that he had Egyptian heritage. “All I want is a microphone,” he is reported to have said, expressing his wish to work for Israeli radio. After several months, Tel Aviv accepted him under one condition: that he and his wife hide their identities in Israel and claim to be Libyan Jews. His wife, pregnant with their first daughter, refused to go at first, but given the choice of going with Sarhan or returning alone to Egypt, she was forced to agree. She stipulated that they must live in Jerusalem, “the pristine spot close to Al-Aqsa Mosque,” and not Tel Aviv.

Sarhan was first asked to create a radio treatment for a story by Naguib Mahfouz. After passing this test, he was interrogated day and night with a polygraph, before a reassurance that he was “fine, not a liar or a saboteur.” So he began working with Voice of Israel in Arabic. Sarhan told Maariv that on his way from Ben Gurion Airport in summer 1968 to their temporary apartment at public cultural center Beit Haam, “I saw Israeli children and people. Are these the ones we wanted to kill? Even Sadat felt that way and expressed it.”

On Israeli airwaves Nabih Sarhan, or rather Joseph Samir as he now chose to be known, broadcast an Arabic-language show titled “Ibn al-Riif” (Son of the Countryside). Addressing Egyptian farmers as Ibn al-Riif, his show opened with a call to “my brothers, the good children of Egypt.” This made him famous among Egyptian farmers, who were able to receive Israeli radio transmissions well intothe late 1960s. A rumor later spread among them, according to Egyptian newspaper Youm7, that Sarhan used to leak high school exam questions and provide model answers for young Egyptian students.

In Israel, Sarhan and Musa (now Layla Musa) even kept their past life from their children, Hayat, Dina and Sami, who grew up as Jewish Israeli citizens, celebrating Jewish holidays, wearing costumes on Purim and eating matzo on Passover, according to the Jerusalem Journalists Association. Their eldest daughter Hayat later became the first Muslim woman to join the Israeli military.

But in 1977 he let their secret out. Israeli journalist Tzibi Roman reports that during the press conference at the time of Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem, Sarhan stood up and addressed Sadat as “my honorable president,” revealing his real identity and asking for more bridges to be built between Egypt and Israel. According to novelist Khairy Shalaby, who writes that the encounter took place in Ben Gurion Airport, Sadat exclaimed: “We thought you were in Libya!”

Musa told Dunya al-Watan that Sarhan took the opportunity to ask Sadat to allow him to visit Egypt, and Sadat agreed. She went to the Egyptian Embassy to request an entry visa, and when it arrived a year and a half later, she traveled alone with the children to Egypt for a two-week holiday.

After Sarhan and Sadat’s meeting, Roman decided to learn more about the couple’s life. She visited them at home and got to know them and their children, nine-year-old Hayat, six-year-old Dina and five-year-old Sami — who she says all became artists who impacted Israel’s cultural scene.

Layla and Hayat

At first, Musa refused to be interviewed, but after a couple of days she called and asked to meet the journalist. Roman says: “We talked for over an hour, bonding as if we were family. We met day after day, and she told me about her childhood in an Egyptian village, the barbarian genital mutilation ritual she had undergone, and how an older man chose her, at the age of 14, to be his wife, after which her life took a totally unexpected turn. [Layla] compiled the events of her life in the autobiography Exiled in Jerusalem (1981), which proves for … I don’t know how many times, that reality surpasses fiction.”

In Israel Sarhan lost his Egyptian passport, Maariv reports, so he was offered the Israeli nationality. He was torn, but eventually found an approach that relieved his conscience: the Israeli nationality would belong solely to his pseudonym.

Also in 1977, Maariv journalist Zvi Lavi interviewed Sarhan. His statements were confusing: “It’s true that in the eyes of Egyptian law I’ve been a traitor since I left, but I don’t feel like a traitor. I am and always will be an Egyptian. I will continue to show my loyalty to Israel and will never deny my allegiance to Egypt. I will keep serving the Egyptian people even through the Israeli radio, by telling them the truth and explaining the truth of Israel.” The message of his radio show, according to Maariv, was: “Before fantasizing about another war, clean your souls, purge Egypt of fear, dictatorship and the Russians. Establish a modern industry, grow better cotton.”

“In my show, I have created publicity for Egypt, not Israel: you can’t suddenly start talking about peace, the people must be prepared for it first … to know what they are fighting for and against whom, only then can they decide if thinking about war is any good. In another episode, I asked Nasser to start learning the ‘bible’ of Israel, and warned him that the Egyptian soldiers who died or would die by his orders would condemn him were he tried in their court,” Sarhan said.

A few days after Nasser died in September 1970, Maariv reports, he cried like a baby. “He loved him and never forgave him for having relied on his advisors and never going into the streets.” He believed that while Sadat carried on Nasser’s legacy, he acted differently. He talked less, worked more, and liked to do his own work without relying on others.

There were moments when Sarhan wanted to leave Israel. He didn’t like the “Jew’s war,” as Maariv calls it. He couldn’t bear the Knesset members insulting each other, or the new immigrants who receive “the goodness” of Israel and slander it after leaving. He despised the “Palestinian saboteurs” and “cowards.” But he couldn’t understand why Arabs’ clothes were searched only in order to humiliate them: “But where would I go?” he wondered. “What would happen to my children, who are learning and speaking Hebrew?”

Nabih Sarhan and four of his children

When Lavi asked him what he would do if peace was accomplished, Sarhan answered: “I wouldn’t leave Jerusalem, but I might have a house in Cairo, too. I would publish my poems here and there in Arabic, and maybe also in Hebrew. What’s more beautiful than having an Egyptian symbol of peace living in Israel? I am an Egyptian, but I will never, in any way, be an Arab.”

After his identity was revealed, Sarhan and Musa had three more children, Maryem, Hajar and Sarah. But the couple split in the late 1990s. Sarhan kept the house in Beit Jala, Jerusalem, and Musa had to find a new place to live. (A documentary film was made about Musa in 2012, called The Lesson.) After nearly three years, he married a Palestinian woman, Inad Rabah, and they had a son called Amir. Most of his children have led artistic lives. His son Sami Samir has acted in several films, most notably Steven Spielberg’s Munich (2005), Ridley Scott’s Body of Lies (2008) and Alejandro Amenábar’s Agora (2009), which tells the story of Hypatia of Alexandria. Hajar and Hayat Samir became musicians, writing songs inspired by oriental music, and occasionally singing lyrics written by their father.

Sarhan died on October 24, 2014 and was buried, at his request, in a Muslim cemetery close to an Israeli checkpoint in Bethlehem in the West Bank.

In his preface for Madad ya Walad … Madad ya Bint, published in spring 1967, Jahin wrote that the collection combined two key elements of Egypt’s colloquial poetry movement: it was “popular,” as manifest in the language that could roll straight off the tongues of farmers in Sharqiya, the poet’s birthplace, and it had “the spirit of a revolutionary intellectual”: “Even in the saddest, bleakest and most depressing poems, if we dig a little below the surface, we find promises of a victorious future, glorifying those seeking it and condemning those who hinder the march.”

While living in Israel Sarhan continued to write Arabic poems that demonstrated his ongoing attachment to Egypt. Shortly before his death, he shared them on Facebook under the name Nabih Sarhan, not Joseph Samir. Here are the opening lines:


I laid my words

in a couple of books.

The line is a flute,

and the letter is … a forest,

the night is hands knocking on a door

covered with fog,

the Nile is eyes … wide open,

the wave, his shoulders, a strain.

My people … are far away.

I cried: my word,

my aliment, my supply,

I stepped over its buckthorns,

traveled countries,

found friends,

who there before me,

writing songs with tears,

full of … love and meaning.

Wahid Ezzat used his lyrics in the song Al-Nakhl Aaly, which opens: “Branches of high palms, a breath of joy for my children, a sparkling green light.”

Sarhan’s last poetry event, held one year before his death, was titled “The Remains of Life.” His daughter Dina Samir helped him translate his poems into Hebrew for the occasion. Sarhan read them after a short speech in Hebrew that denounced Egypt, its people and farmers, with one exception: Sadat.

“To my deepest regret, no one in Egypt will ever sense the peace. The Egyptian farmer will possibly remain the way he was before the Six Day War. But to this small, wonderful country, with its wonderful people, who have supported the Egyptian farmer and peace, I am saying: Please go to Egypt, see if peace can ever take place in that country, between whom? They keep saying that the Egyptian economy is shitty. Do you know who they blame for this? Zionists. They kept saying that the Zionist people are the enemies, fight them, sink your teeth into them. But I came here and saw a wonderful people, a beautiful country. I might not be exaggerating if I say there’s no land like Israel, and there’s no people like the Jewish people. When the late Anwar Sadat was here, he told me: Nabih, you discovered these wonderful people before me!”

Hebrew text was originally translated into Arabic by Nael Eltoukhy. This article was translated from Arabic by Amira Elmasry.

Mohamad Yahia