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The Hobbit and the Prisoner

Following the Six Day War the Arab States were not happy about the new situation. Gamal Abdel Nasser believed that only through a military initiative could Egypt regain the Sinai. To this end, the Egyptians started with limited artillery barrages. Israel responded to these attacks with artillery barrages that turned very often into a sort of artillery duel. This slowly escalated into aerial bombing back and forth and occasional commando raids. This reciprocal shelling and bombing back and forth is known as the War of Attrition. It took place from 1967- 1970 and hundreds (there is some dispute as to the exact number but it is between 600-700) of Israeli soldiers were killed. In 1970 Nasser died of a heart attack and his successor Anwar Sadat ended the war and pursued a different policy.

Over the course of this war, in addition to the hundreds of soldiers killed and thousands wounded, a number of Israeli soldiers were captured and taken into captivity by the Egyptians. One of them was a pilot, Rami Harpaz. After being held in solitary confinement and tortured for six months, Harpaz was finally allowed to be in a cell with nine other captured Israeli soldiers. One day, one of his fellow prisoners got a package from his family via the Red Cross. Included in the package was the book The Hobbit by JRR Tolkien. For Harpaz and the other prisoners in the cell this book was a refuge. The fantasy world described in the book took them away from their small cell into far away worlds. The prisoners all devoured the book but not all of the soldiers were able to read the book in English. They decided to translate the book into Hebrew. Over the next three years four Israeli prisoners would work on translating of The Hobbit into Hebrew. They worked in two teams of two. One team would read the book out loud in English and then translate the sentence orally word by word and write it down in a notebook. This notebook was then passed to the other team who would take the rough translation of the words and turn it into a coherent Hebrew sentence. In the evenings they would go over everything together and decide on the final version. These nightly sessions as described by Harpaz involved much passionate arguing. Issues such as the proper translation for "troll" or what the plural of Hobbit should be helped pass many hours in captivity. Harpaz says "Doing the translation was fun and to be able to have fun in an Egyptian jail cell is quite an accomplishment."

In 1973 the Yom Kippur war broke out and this led to a prisoner exchange in November that finally brought Harpaz home. He came back to Israel with a pile of notebooks filled with the translation of The Hobbit. When he finally came home he met for the first time his 3 year old twin girls who were born while he was held captive. He went back to his army career until his discharge in 1980. He continued flying in the reserves until 1993.

The translation was published without the names of the translators and is known as "The Pilots Edition".

Bilbo, in a riddling dual for his life asks Gollum the following riddle:

This thing all things devours; Birds, beasts, trees, flowers; Gnaws iron, bites steel; Grinds hard stones to meal; Slays king, ruins town, And beats mountain down.

The answer for Bilbo and Harpaz is time.

Rami Harpaz

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Photo credit: Daniel Kaszovitz

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Rosh Hanikra