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(photo credit: Courtesy Photos)
A scholar serving a stint as adviser on Arab affairs to the military government on the West Bank, Col. Menahem Milson was asked to serve as President Sadat's aide-de-camp during the Egyptian leader's groundbreaking trip here. Thirty years later, he's still in awe.
Menahem Milson was having dinner in a Jerusalem restaurant with a visiting American congressman, when the proprietor approached and said, "Col. Milson, you're wanted on the phone by the Prime Minister's Office."
The prime minister's military aide was on the line. "Menahem," he said, "better make sure your class A uniform is pressed."
It was Wednesday, November 16, 1977. The cabinet had met to discuss developments since the dramatic announcement in the Egyptian parliament the week before by president Anwar Sadat that he was willing to go "to the ends of the earth" to achieve peace, even to the Knesset. The aide to prime minister Menachem Begin, Gen. Ephraim Poran, told Milson that it was not yet clear whether Sadat would come, but preparations were being made. Milson, he said, had been chosen to serve as aide-de-camp to the Egyptian leader should he arrive.
A professor of Arabic literature at the Hebrew University, Milson had taken a two-year leave of absence to serve as adviser on Arab affairs to the military government in the West Bank. Extraordinary as Sadat's statement had seemed when he heard it, Milson believed it might be serious.
"He wasn't saying it in English to a foreign audience," he recalled in a recent interview. "He was saying it in Arabic to his own parliament."
The next day, Milson met with the committee coordinating preparations for the visit, including senior officials from the Shin Bet (Israel Security Agency), the police, the Foreign Ministry and the Prime Minister's Office. "No one could tell me what the protocol was for introducing myself to Sadat, so I devised an introduction myself."
Milson was assigned a room at the King David Hotel on the same floor on which the Egyptian delegation would be staying. He met with an Egyptian advance party, whose members were happy to be able to converse with an Israeli official in their own tongue.
On Saturday night, when Sadat's plane landed, Milson was standing alongside president Ephraim Katzir and Begin to receive him when he descended. In the prevailing euphoria, everyone was left to his own thoughts as the airplane taxied to a halt and a staircase was pushed up to its door. Flitting in and out of Milson's mind was the dual nature of his past encounters with Egyptians - on the battlefield and in the tranquility of his study. As a young paratroop officer, he had jumped behind Egyptian lines at the Mitla Pass in the Sinai Campaign 21 years before. But he had spent almost all his adult life studying and teaching modern Egyptian literature.
"I thought of those of us who had fought and fallen, and I thought of those who had studied Arabic language and culture in the hopes that we would be a bridge to understanding."
The tension was visible on Sadat's face when he descended. After shaking the hands of Katzir and Begin, he turned to the officer alongside them wearing a red beret and paratrooper wings with a red background that indicated a combat jump. Milson saluted. "I have the honor to present myself as your aide for the duration of your visit to our country."
Delighted at the fluent Arabic, Sadat threw up his hands and said, "Bravo." Milson then fell in behind Sadat, off one shoulder, while Sadat's Egyptian aide-de-camp took position off the other as the Egyptian leader proceeded to the reception line of dignitaries waiting to greet him.
The next morning, Sadat did not descend for breakfast in the hotel. Milson joined a table containing some of the leading Egyptian journalists and writers Sadat had brought with him. The visitors discovered that the Israeli officer who had accompanied Sadat the night before at the airport not only spoke flawless Arabic, despite his Ashkenazi origins, but that he was a literary scholar intimately familiar with much of their work.
Amina Sa'id, editor of a prominent literary magazine, learned that Milson specialized in the works of the writer she was most closely associated with, Naguib Mahfouz. (Milson would himself write a book about Mahfouz.) She had been part of Mahfouz's small literary circle in Cairo early in his career. Milson surprised the chief of presidential protocol, Fu'ad Bey Taymur, by asking whether he was related to Mahmoud Taymur, a major short story writer. He turned out to be the writer's nephew.
A connection of another kind emerged when one of the Egyptians said that he had been to Haifa in the mid-1940s as a member of Egypt's water polo team and had participated in a contest against a Jewish team at the Bat Galim swimming pool. Milson revealed that he was born in Bat Galim and had witnessed that game as a child. When the Egyptian asked about the Israeli goalie, whose performance stuck in his mind, Milson informed him that he had been killed in the War of Independence. Milson asked about the star of the Egyptian team, an impressively built athlete, and was told that he had died in the same war, at Falluja.
Despite his physical proximity to Sadat during portions of the visit, Milson did not have occasion to exchange more than a few words with him. That was enough, however, for Sadat to invite him to visit Cairo.
An impeccable command of Arabic by an outsider can have a powerful impact on Arabs for whom the rich language is a key part of their identity. This was reflected in a column this year by a Saudi journalist, Sa'ud Kabili, who had seen a tape on the Internet of Milson being interviewed on Israeli Arabic television. In the interview, Milson offered his analysis of a book by a Saudi woman author, Rajee al-Sanie, Girls of Riyadh, in the context of modern Arab literature. Lamenting the absence in Saudi Arabia of similar expertise on Israeli life and culture, Kabili expressed "shock" - and, implicitly, a little alarm - at the scope of Milson's knowledge of Arabic literature and society, his ability to refute Arab critics of the book on abstruse aspects like local dialects and at the fact that he "spoke Arabic with amazing fluency."
In 1979, Sadat returned to Israel to attend a ceremony in Beersheba. Milson, who had meanwhile returned to academia, was in the audience. The head of Sadat's security detail, who knew Milson from Sadat's Jerusalem visit, spotted him. "I must inform the president," he said. "He always mentions you."
Milson was ushered into the presence of Sadat who repeated his invitation.
When Milson visited Cairo shortly afterward - his first visit to Egypt since his jump at the Mitla Pass - he was provided a car and driver and hotel accommodation for a weeklong stay. He had a 45-minute visit with Sadat at his private home near the Nile where the Egyptian leader introduced him to his family. The then vice president and current president, Hosni Mubarak, also was present for part of the visit.
Milson is today chairman of the Washington-based Middle East Media Research Institute (MEMRI).
Sadat, he says, was an emotional and courageous leader. "He broke the taboo, the notion that Israel is a pariah nation. It took tremendous imagination and courage. He was a great man."
The writer is the author of The Yom Kippur War.
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