Nimet Habachy, siren of late-night radio, recounts spending an intimate Christmas Eve singing carols in Leonard Bernstein’s Manhattan apartment.
The great man played his piano -- a Bosendorfer -- while lyricist and playwright Adolph Green belted out an improvised version of “Jingle Bells,” in Yiddish.
Then, shortly before midnight, Habachy pedaled off on her bike from Bernstein’s Central Park West home in the Dakota to the mid-town radio studio just in time to do her live yuletide broadcast.
A host of WQXR, New York’s 24-hour classical-music station, Egyptian-born, British school-educated Habachy and I spoke at Bloomberg world headquarters about her work on radio and her career.
Billy: You have one of the most distinctive and identifiable voices in New York. Any memorable encounters with fans?
Habachy: Yes, taxi drivers! It’s rather amazing to be recognized in New York City, in the middle of the night, sitting in the back seat of a yellow cab. That could only happen here.
Billy: How did you get this dream job of playing classical music on the radio -- you’ve been doing it now for almost 30 years.
Flight From Egypt
Habachy: I almost didn’t. Before my family immigrated to America, as a young girl I went to British schools in Cairo. In our household we all spoke English with a smattering of Arabic. At my first WQXR audition I was told I sounded “too English.”
So I went to “announcers training school,” and I came out with what was called a “patrician, Eastern-seaboard accent,” got a second radio test, was hired and wept buckets of joy.
Billy: Your father, Sir Saba Habachy, was a progressive lawyer and judge who brought your family from Egypt to the U.S. in 1953. How did that come about?
Habachy: During World War II my father was pro-Allies, provided supplies to Montgomery and was most likely on Rommel’s hit list. After the war, as a government minister, he wanted to bring in the West and help industrialize Egypt.
When Farouk was deposed in the revolution, my father was remembered by the new government as being pro-West.
As luck would have it, Columbia University, where he later taught, was awarding him an honorary doctorate. My family and I left Cairo for New York with him, our clothes packed for a two-week visit. We didn’t return to Egypt for 18 years.
Billy: Now with frequent trips to Cairo, you remain actively committed to the plight of a minority segment of the Egyptian population, people who are referred to as “the garbage dwellers.” What is their origin?
Habachy: The people, called the Zabbaleen, began coming from southern Egypt in the 1960s to Cairo hoping for jobs. Well, there are none. They went into one of the very few trades open to uneducated Egyptian Christians -- the rearing of pigs, considered unclean to Muslims.
And to raise pigs you need to feed them, so they began collecting and sorting garbage. Vast trash communities sprang up in the Moquattam area, with tens of thousands people there, mostly Copts, eating from it, living in it.
Billy: You and your sister, Suzan, began a grass-roots project in New York to help the Zabbaleen, especially on behalf of the younger women. How has this developed and grown over the last 20 years?
Habachy: A number of programs in Cairo were already in place. We focused on one that was teaching girls the basics of hygiene, along with literacy and math skills, through weaving, an indigenous craft to Egyptians. Clean fabric, materials and instruction were provided, schools with looms were established, and beautiful, hand-woven rugs began to emerge.
Through a nonprofit called Hands Along the Nile, we have been selling their products -- rugs, tote bags, quilts -- here in the United States. A new generation of Zabbaleen are growing up with improved conditions, especially in health care, though still existing in their very marginalized communities. But the poverty is still profound.
Billy: And the good news for the future?
Habachy: Because these programs have become such a success, the breeding of pigs has become secondary to the business of recycling metals, plastics and discarded electronics.
Billy: I was distressed to learn that the swine flu last year provoked this crazy slaughter of pigs even though there was no connection.
Nimet: The Egyptian government took unfair advantage of the fear of the flu epidemic as justification to nearly eradicate the pig population.
Some residents of the Moquattam, in desperation, hid pigs under their beds, protecting and saving piglets beneath blankets. This is a living story of how humans survive. The Zabbaleen now represent one the best examples of recycling anywhere in the world because, out of necessity, they reuse everything.
For a video about the Zabbaleen narrated by Nimet Habachy and produced by Bloomberg News, click here.
The annual holiday sale of hand-made Zabbaleen rugs is Dec. 1 through Dec. 4, at Calvary-St. George’s Church, 61 Gramercy Park North, at 21st Street, in Manhattan.
Hands Along the Nile is a nonprofit organization that administers support to the Association for the Protection of the Environment, a literacy and job-skills training center for women in Cairo. Information: http://www.handsalongthenile.org
(Daniel Billy is an editor with Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are his own. This article was adapted from a longer interview.)