PASSOVER INTERVIEW: Dina Ovadia has come a long way from her childhood in an Arab country, with no knowledge of her Jewish heritage. Today, she serves in the IDF. There are Cinderella stories and there’s the Passover Haggadah – but Dina’s story is a bit of both.
This isn’t Cpl. Dina Ovadia’s first Passover in Israel. Slowly, slowly she seems to be moving away from her Egyptian past and becoming further ingrained in her Israeli present. Instead of thinking about her bittersweet childhood in the Egyptian city of Alexandria, Cpl. Ovadia fills her time with her army service and in preparing her home in Rimonim for the Passover holiday. Today it is possible to say that she is far more Dina Ovadia than she is Rolin Abdallah – the name her family gave her as a security measure for a Jew living in an Arab country. But Dina herself grew up totally unaware of her Jewish heritage.
Dina is telling her winding, unbelievable story for the umpteenth time, but her eyes still well up with tears. Ovadia, now 22, left her family home in Alexandria for the last time as a young and curious 15-year-old girl. All she wanted was to fit in. “Everyone always looked at me as though I was something different, the ugly duckling in the class. They asked me why I dressed the way I did, and why I spoke with my parents during the breaks, and why this and why that. I myself didn’t understand where it all came from. But I always had friends,” she says in impeccable Hebrew with a slight Arabic lilt. “I didn’t have a religious background in Christianity or in Islam. I never knew what I truly was. My parents didn’t keep the [Jewish] traditions and I always assumed that we were secular Christians.”
Dina’s childhood detachment from her heritage gives unique meaning to every Shabbat candle she lights now, to every Jewish holiday that she did not know. And Cpl. Ovadia’s story is the Passover story, thousands of years old, expressing itself again in the 21st century.
Rolin in Arabic means gentleness, but Dina was first and foremost a curious and rebellious child. She felt she had a right to belong, but she didn’t know where. “I studied in a Muslim school. I started to grow up and learn the Koran, and then I already started to ask myself: ‘why am I learning this?’ I reached a stage where I got really into it, studying for tests, memorizing passages. At school they asked me to start wearing a veil to my Koran lessons. I didn’t like the idea – as a girl it seemed ugly to me,” she smiles. The disagreement led to her parents enrolling Dina in a private Christian school, where she was more at ease. “It was really fun and I felt freer,” she says.
Dina recalls how she tried to find herself among the troubling mix of religions. “We had a mosque next to the school, and the girls would go there to pray. I told this to my mother, slightly anxiously, and she was very angry. They forbade me from doing it again. I remember that I was hurt, and I started to tell them that because of that they won’t like us, and that I wouldn’t have any friends. It was the anger of a child. During Ramadan I would escape to my friends houses, and I even fasted on one of the days, because I always wanted to belong to something and I didn’t have a clear answer for what I was,” Dina explains. When she told her parents that she had tried praying in a church, that didn’t make them any happier. They distanced her from every religion, without giving an explanation as to why.
The turning point occurred on a day like any other. Dina was studying for a history test, her brother and cousin were playing on the computer upstairs, and her mother, aunt and sister were also at home. Suddenly the sounds of shouting and shattering glass cut through the calm routine. “I really panicked, and immediately I thought that because we were different they had come to our house. I went outside and saw five masked faces – they were Salafists.” Five bearded men in robes, with clubs in their hands and rifles slung over their shoulders, broke through the electric iron gate at the entrance to the grand family home and demanded to know where the men of the house were. Their explanation was as simple as it was incomprehensible: “A’lit el’Yahud” – a Jewish family.
“I thought, ‘what the hell!?’ I didn’t understand why they were saying that we were a Jewish family. Anyone who was different, the stranger, was always called ‘the Jew’. I was certain that they were mistaken. They entered the house. My mother said that the men weren’t there, and they threw her into the corridor, she slammed into the pillars, and she fainted. I started to scream – I was sure that they had killed her. And then I saw two of them going up the stairs. I heard shots. I was sure that they had murdered both my brother and my cousin.”
The Salafists went down the stairs and told the Abdallah family that they had a few days to get out of the country, and that in the meantime they could not leave their home. They threatened that if the children went to school, they would be kidnapped. Only then did they leave.
Luckily, the whole family escaped. The armed men shot at the boys’ heads, missing deliberately in order to scare them. “I think that today they would have just killed us all,” she says. From the moment of that home invasion, Dina’s life became entangled in a complex loop, while the two irreconcilable edges of her life began to unravel. “The Salafists would encircle the house in their vehicles, shooting into the air. That month even the school didn’t call. I slept with my mother – I was terribly afraid. My father told me that they are just thieves despite the fact that they didn’t take anything. ‘Jew’ was really a kind of swear word, he said; but I couldn’t believe him.”
A few days later, her grandfather gathered all of his family together and he revealed the truth. “He explained why he kept us from other religions and told us that we were Jewish, and we that we had little time to leave Egypt. He told us we were going to Israel. I remember the little ones at home were excited about it, but I wasn’t. I started crying and was so disappointed. I told him I did not want to move to that bad country. I rebelled against it.”
Dina knew very little about Jews as a child. “In school they always taught us to hate Jews and Israelis,” she says. “Let’s take Koran class for example. I would be sitting, taking a test, and would read a verse that said you need to kill Jews. I also remember during the Second Intifada all the TV programs I watched that always said that Israelis are bad. I cried over the story of Mohammed al-Dura. My grandfather did his best to explain to us that they’re not bad, that we have to understand that in war, that’s what happens. At home we were always taught that all human beings are equal and you have to respect them for who they are, no matter what their background. In school they taught us that Israel is the enemy. They would say when I grew up that I would understand. During the Intifada I was even at demonstration, waving the Palestinian flag. It never even occurred to me that I was Jewish.”
The Jewish stereotype present in Egypt was similar to what was taught in the darker racial theories of the early 20th Century. “I knew that Jews were scary, were murderers, had big noses, ears and had beards. On television you would always see babies burning in Gaza, things I’ve never seen in Israel, but that’s what we thought.”
Behold, I have set the land before you: go in and possess the land which I gave to your fathers, to Abraham, to Isaac, and to Jacob, to give unto them and to their childen after them.’
– Deuteronomy 1:8
Before this dramatic turn of events, Dina tried to understand where all her friends had disappeared to. They hadn’t even called to say hi throughout the whole month. “I had a really good group of friends,” Dina says. “We lived really close to one another, and we used to sleep over at each other’s houses. I begged my mother to go and see one of them, and in the end she let me go. I knocked on her door. She opened it, made a face and slammed the door on me. What my grandfather told me passed through my head at exactly that moment: we grew up together and just because she heard that I was Jewish she doesn’t accept me anymore? That really hit me. I said: I know that the Jews are bad, but look; I’m not bad. By this time I had totally broken down. Right then I realised that this wasn’t the right place for me. They couldn’t accept me for who I was.”
The day of Dina’s aliyah was tinged with the sadness of leaving her house and turning her back on where she grew up. “The whole situation had made me feel a lot of hatred, and I realized that I had nothing there,” she says. “It turned out that my uncle, who I thought had run away to France, had actually made aliyah to Israel and had enlisted in the IDF. In Egypt there is a mandatory conscription law, and when the authorities began to investigate, they found out the truth, and my family bore the consequences. But this moment was about to come regardless of any connection to my uncle. My parents understood that their children were all growing up, and that they no longer had answers to our questions. We didn’t take anything with us except our clothes. We just left our house exactly as it was. On that same day I saw how my friends were looking at us while we were packing our things, so I just closed the blinds. I finally understood that this wasn’t my home. It was as if Egypt itself was closing the blinds on me.”
After a brief flight to Istanbul and then on to Tel Aviv, Dina suddenly found herself in a land that just a month ago she had felt so far away from, mentally if not physically. “I was scared,” she says. “Who was going to welcome us? What if they didn’t like me? When I got off the plane all I saw was people smiling at us, and that made me so happy. My uncle, his family and the rabbi were waiting for us and smiling. It was weird – I didn’t understand the language, but I felt at peace, and from somewhere my friends’ rejection of me gave me strength – the strength to change myself.”
The family settled in Jerusalem, and Dina and her relatives joined a religious school. “I so badly wanted to fit in, but the first time I read the siddur I was holding it upside down,” she laughs. Dina’s new beginning wasn’t free of difficulties. “One day I was was walking down the corridor at school, and one of the girls said, “hey, Arab girl!” and she and her friends started a fight with my cousin and me. Not a very nice welcome.”
After high school, Dina began her military service as an assistant Army Radio reporter on Arab affairs. She then moved to the military police for a short period, and finally joined the IDF Spokesperson’s Unit, where she helps run new media in Arabic on a variety of platforms, including YouTube, Facebook and Twitter. Her sister Sima is set to join her in the Spokesperson’s Unit, and her brother is currently doing a selective Air Force course.
To some extent, Dina’s job in the Spokesperson’s Unit is about getting the Arab world to truly accept her. “When I got to the Spokesperson’s Unit and realised what the work involved, I was really happy,” she says. “It’s a lot of fun to be able to show the positive side of the IDF, and to tell the world what’s really happening. The best example is Operation Pillar of Defense, where we really had a big impact. When wrote on the various platforms that the IDF doesn’t want to harm civilians, there were people in the Arab world who listened and were convinced. Sometimes they even tell us so in private messages, which is fantastic. We get comments and messages from across the Arab world; from Saudi Arabia, from Egypt, and from further afield.
While the whole Arab world has yet to accept Dina, the most important person has already accepted her – herself. “In truth, I don’t say that I’m from Egypt,” she says. “It’s behind me already. I was angry when the Rabbi changed my name for me, but now I realise how great the name ‘Dina’ is. I have no desire to live in Egypt, and I don’t think I could forgive those people for what they did. But there’s something I’ve never told anyone before,” she smiles. “I want to go back and visit, and to see my house. I want to go and look that friend of mine in the eye and tell her: I am a Jew – and I’m proud and happy. I want to go back to Egypt in uniform, to show them that we’re not murderers, that we’re not actually bad people. I’d like to go back to my school, and to the morning assembly we had at the beginning of every day. I want to explain to them that all we’re doing is defending our country.”