"I look into the eyes of the people walking in the street here, I look at their faces and the way they walk, and I see a deep sadness. An atmosphere of dejection is cast over them. Now I know that Israel has joined the Middle East."
Sitting in a chair that is too small for him, at a coffee house on Sheinkin Street, the important Egyptian playwright, satirist and political columnist Ali Salem checks out the passersby and seeks to learn from them about Israel.
Salem hasn't visited Israel in nearly seven years. Since his first trip here in 1994, which he described in the book "Journey to Israel," Salem has been persecuted for making the visit. (The book was published in Hebrew by Keter, translated by David Sagiv. It was subsequently translated into English and published as "A Drive to Israel: An Egyptian Meets his Neighbors.")
Salem was expelled from the Egyptian Writers' Union, but was reinstated after an Egyptian court ruled his expulsion was illegal. Two years ago, he decided to leave the association of his own volition. The 23 plays he has written have not been staged in the Egyptian theater, and Egyptian newspapers have not agreed to print his columns. This was the punishment for abrogating the code of behavior according to which there will be no normalization of relations with Israel.
"I'm optimistic now," says Salem, "very optimistic. Businessmen will from now on do business with Israel in broad daylight; Egyptian laborers are seeking en masse to join the free-trade agreement that was signed between Israel, Egypt and the U.S.; the Egyptian people want a comfortable life, they want to live, and apparently can already see the future with their own eyes."
Salem, who came to Israel to take part in the international conference on New Media in the Middle East, held by the Herzog Center for Middle East Studies and Diplomacy at Ben-Gurion University, makes no secret of how he feels about his political adversaries. "Those voices in Egypt that were raised against relations with Israel are no more than a faded whimper. A few days ago, I was sitting in a coffee house in Cairo when somebody from the Nasserist faction walked in and saluted me: `Long live Israel,' he called. `Long live Egypt,' I replied. `I'm sure you're happy now,' he said. `You won.'"
Salem says he did. The people who were against him and were against normalization now belong to a generation on its way out, part of what Salem calls the culture of clever words and slogans. Now it is the time of the workers, of those who want to live their lives, he says.
Salem attributes supreme importance to the free-trade agreement, which in his opinion signals not only a new economic era and a different sort of connection with Egypt, but also a cultural turnaround. "The proof of this may be found in things that I can write in the Egyptian weekly Ruz al-Yusuf that I could not have written three years ago. I can feel the flapping of the wings of history. Not long ago, I wrote a satire about someone who raises phantoms on a farm. He asks if he can give me a little phantom, sort of a pet, for me to raise. He brings me to his home and shows me his phantom. `It grows only from the fear of other people,' he explains. That's how things are with us. Once the press warned us against the phantom called satellite. It cautioned us that the satellite (television stations) would inundate our homes with Western values. After that, it was a phantom that warned us about liberalism. But the strongest phantom was that which spread fear of normalization with Israel. Today, that phantom is fading away with a whimper."
Salem made no effort to conceal his trip to Israel. "I told everyone and no one made a single comment about it." He says he receives letters of support and that people no longer turn their back on him. Instead, they are interested to hear what is happening in Israel.
Nevertheless, he remains alone - at least in the Egyptian show window. After all, no one is willing to join him on the trip to Israel. Salem does not agree with this observation. He again cites the businessmen and the workers, who after the free-trade agreement will be shielded from criticism of their links with Israel. Aside from that, he says, "I represent myself and some of my friends. History is made by the faithful voices looking for a future. Reaching conclusions about public opinion in Israel on the basis of what the press writes is a mistake, and is misleading. Anyone now opposed to peace is essentially opposed to democracy. I now see the numbers of liberal writers in the Arabic press and am astonished. There have never been so many writers asking for democracy, demanding liberalism, and I am talking here about writers from the first rank, in important newspapers like Al-Hayat and Al-Sharq al-Awsat."
But these voices are still hard to find, at least to the degree for which Salem hopes, in the local, Egyptian, Jordanian or Saudi press. "It's true," says Salem, "because we are still beholden to the mentality of the collective, a mentality that does not allow the individual to express a nonconformist opinion independently. But the break in the dam has already been made. Liberals prove that they know what they want. They want a settlement with Israel. Because this is the age of human rights - the right to create, the right to trade and the right to live in peace," he says.
"The radical factions are the color black of the period, and history will be called upon to deal with them." And not only history in the abstract sense. "Both Europe and the U.S. now understand that they, too, are situated in the Middle East, in certain respects." It seems, then, that they are resuming their old function as the fashioners of history.
Salem emphasizes that his struggle for peace is a struggle for Egypt's interests - and Egypt's interests alone. What about the charge that his actions, even if they serve Egyptian interests, also do harm to the unity of the Arab ranks. "I cannot be a good Arab if I am not a good Egyptian, and I cannot be a good Egyptian if I am not a good Arab. Egypt is my home and Arabism is my neighborhood. Therefore, anyone who respects us as Egyptians will respect us as Arabs."
Not entirely accurate, given the criticism occasionally hurled at Egypt for its "too close" relations with Israel. But very much true if you compare the current criticism with that voiced after the signing of the Camp David agreements, or that to which Egypt was subjected throughout the years of the Lebanon War.
On Sheinkin Street, Salem does not find what he is seeking. "I have to get a shwarma. Just to taste it." Instead, he is served a chocolate croissant at the coffee house. A few minutes later, at the Carmel market, he finds what he wants. "Look at the people here - they deserve to smile, them and the Egyptians, too. All of the Arabs. All of us."
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