Text size

The play "Writer on Honeymoon" by Egyptian author Ali Salem will shortly begin its run at Tzavta in Tel Aviv, but it already made its thunderous premiere in Cairo. "I had hoped that Ali Salem would say that the Israelis did not receive his permission to mount his play and that they were forcing normalization against his will," said Egyptian writer Yusuf Al-Qa'id, who is deeply opposed to normalization with Israel. "How can a play like this be put on in Tel Aviv when the Egyptians are attempting to try the war criminals who killed Egyptian prisoners of war." (A claim that repeats itself in Egypt without any connection to the facts).

Anyone who is encouraged by the vision of normalization offered by the Saudi crown prince and has read the Egyptian commentators who are urging Israel to accept it in order to prove its willingness to establish peace in the region is permitted to ask them what they did up to now on behalf of normalization and exactly what model they want Israel to adopt. That of the Egyptian Writers' Union, which last year expelled Ali Salem for supporting peace and was forced to accept him back in on account of an "administrative flaw" in the expulsion process?

Aren't these the same writers and journalists who were stricken with mortal fear by Israel's "cultural invasion" of the Arab states? Now, when ironically it is Egyptian culture that is "invading" Israel, they suddenly are shaking in fear lest Israel become acquainted with the Egyptian soul through Egyptian literature? Lest Israel use it for intelligence purposes, as some of them believe will happen.

Salem's play, which was written in the 1970s and performed in Egypt in the early 1980s, tells of a police state and the writer's fear that he and his thoughts are being listened in on, and now it turns out that his fears are correct. That's how it is in the play, and that's how it is in his life as well. The curtain will go up together with the stake to which Ali Salem is being tied in Cairo; his fellow writers are accusing him of sullying Egypt's reputation and are once again threatening to drum him out of the Writers' Union.

Salem set off a storm in Egypt when in 1994 he visited Israel and wrote about his experiences. The Egyptian Writers' Union and other associations of "government intellectuals" viewed this visit as a ringing violation of their bylaws, which prohibit normalization with Israel. Any hint of deviation from these bylaws drives these intellectuals crazy. They, the self-appointed guardians of the State Seal, do not take into consideration the peace treaty that was signed between Egypt and Israel. Rather, they have created their own playing field. This serves two ends: it allows them to attack the government that signed the agreement without taking the risk of criticizing the government, and also allows them to prove their Arab nationalism by dictating Arab moral norms.

Ali Salem is not the only one who is unwilling to accept this ideological authority. Other Egyptian journalists and authors have expressed their opinions in favor of the peace process or at least in favor of cultural normalization. They are not "Israel lovers" or intelligence agents, but rather Egyptians who are proud of their work who believe that their cultural creations have universal value in addition to their nationalist character. Some of them are forced to be loyal to the Writers' Union and its regulations because their livelihoods depend on it. Without membership, they lose financial support from the union and their ability to present their plays or to sell their books is negligible.

Salem is receiving unexpected assistance from Arab - not necessarily Egyptian - commentators, who see the threats of the Writers' Union as a threat against Arab intellectual life in general.

"The expulsion of Salem from the union would shake our image in the world. Such a step contradicts freedom of expression," wrote the publicist Daoud Sharian in Al Hayat. "The normalization does hurt the [bargaining] position of the Palestinians, but rejecting it does not have to be at the expense of freedom of expression through sowing ideological terror," Sharian continued. "To expel from the union a writer who lives in a state that signed a peace agreement with Israel is a cowardly step that is a logical and political contradiction and [demonstrates an] inability to recognize reality. Normalization is the most dangerous card in the peace process, and the war against it should not be waged with slogans. And if freedom of expression is the price that we must pay in exchange for opposition to normalization then our downfall is ensured, without or without normalization."