Ali Salem's Long Journey From Israel Back to the Egyptian Consensus

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“When I’m on my own, I still dream of our pushing Israel into the sea,” an Egyptian journalist told author and playwright Ali Salem during an interview for the Al-Ahram newspaper this week. “That’s because you want a crushing solution, in one blow,” replied the 77-year-old, best known in Egypt for visiting Israel in 1994 following the signing of the Oslo Accords.

“Once we ignore the prospect of realizing them, these are romantic ideas. All holders of romantic ideas in history wanted to turn that country into paradise in one stroke. That won’t happen,” Salem declared. “You think that the only solution is to expel them from the land, but that’s not feasible − just as they have no prospect of expelling you from this land. Thus, there is no path other than negotiation. You should come down from the romantic skies and face the hard reality.”

Salem is the author of 15 books and 27 plays, along with hundreds of penetrating articles, all written with sarcastic humor and full of knowledge. He writes about Ovid as though they were friends, and Homer as though they played together in preschool.

Yet this renaissance man and fervent supporter of peace has paid a high price for his “crazes.” Following his visit to Israel and the publication of his book ‏(“My Drive to Israel,” 1995‏) in Hebrew, Salem came to be perceived as a traitor. His plays were no longer performed on Egyptian stages, his articles not published in the regime’s newspapers, and he was even banished from the journalists’ association ‏(he was reinstated after an appeal‏).

After his controversial visit to Israel, Salem had to wait years before an Egyptian newspaper, Nahdet Misr, agreed to print his articles. Nobody would interview him. Journalists from around the world would come to his table at Cairo’s venerable Caroline Crillon Hotel, in order to converse with him and interview him. His views circulated in newspapers in the West and Israel, and major Arabic-language newspapers − such as the pan-Arab Al-Hayat − published his articles. All the while, Egypt’s state newspapers shunned him.

This week’s long interview, though, was published by Al-Ahram, despite the fact that the newspaper’s editor, Abdel Nasser Salama, and the chairman of its executive board, Mamdouh El-Waly, are thought to have close ties with the Muslim Brotherhood, and were appointed to their positions by President Mohammed Morsi.

The interviewer, Al-Bahaa Hussein, prefaced his piece by stating: “I cannot allow myself to express satisfaction with Salem’s visit to Israel. Despite the fact that I am impressed by his talents, I am not persuaded that the devils [Israelis] can be good brothers, that they want peace or that they are willing to pay for its price. Nonetheless, we interviewed him not from the standpoint of a judge, as the dust has already settled; instead, we sought to understand his motives.”

The new normalization

Salem’s name remains associated with a term loathed by Egyptian intellectuals: “normalization.” Sameh Ashour, chairman of the country’s bar association and a secular Nasserite who was imprisoned during Sadat’s term in power due to his vehement criticism of the Camp David agreement, attacked the Muslim Brotherhood this week by charging that it is trying to attain normalization with Israel. Ashour was infuriated by a call issued by Muslim Brotherhood spokesman Essam El Erian, inviting Israelis of Egyptian ancestry to return to their motherland.

In January, an Egyptian writers’ conference at Sharm el-Sheikh produced a resolution stating: “Egypt’s identity should be preserved, along with its diverse, enlightened cultural depth; and the principled, consistent position maintained by all Egyptian intellectuals and writers in favor of rejecting any form of normalization with the Zionist enemy should be upheld.”

Also last month, some journalists filed an appeal in the Supreme Administrative Court, protesting the decision reached by the Shura Council ‏(the upper chamber of the Egyptian parliament‏) in favor of appointing new newspaper editors. Among other claims, the appeal declared that one member of the appointments committee “maintained normalization with the Zionist entity,” whereas a fundamental condition in the appointment of newspaper editors is that no candidate can ever have transgressed the “ban against normalization.” The court is expected to release its decision next month, and the question at the heart of the appeal is how the concept of normalization is to be defined.

Last July, Fathi Shehab El-Din, chairman of the editors’ appointments committee, clarified that “someone who normalizes is a person who comes into contact with the official authorities and institutions of Israel, or with Israeli public figures, or who reaped some sort of dividend from such connections. But someone who visited the occupied territories and received an Israeli visa for this purpose, in order to carry out his journalistic activity, will not be considered a normalizer.”

The revolution in Egypt has yet to change anything in the way most intellectuals in the country relate to Israel. Liberals, secularists, leftists and rightists − mostly figures seen as being hostile to the Muslim Brotherhood and all religious-tempered political ideologies − view opposition to normalization as a fundamental pillar of their Arab identity ‏(Arab, as opposed to Egyptian‏). This identity still views the Israeli-Palestinian dispute, which is sometimes described via slogans that had currency in the 1950s ‏(such as “A cancer in the body of the Arab nation”‏), as a political anchor.

These are “purists” who opposed the peace agreement with Israel, and also the policy upheld by Anwar Sadat and Hosni Mubarak toward Israel. Many of these intellectuals profited from Mubarak’s dictatorial regime, and could find nothing in their souls to say in praise of the revolution up to that regime’s last moments.

“Israel does not want peace, and does not know how to live without having an enemy,” journalist Hussein declared this week, accosting Salem in his interview. “Israel, like any other people, wants peace, but we decided not to extract any utility from it [peace],” Salem replied. “All the agreements that Israel has signed, from Arafat to Mahmoud Abbas, have had no substance,” Hussein responded. “There have been disagreements. Don’t forget that Hamas rebelled against the Palestinian Authority and a schism was created [between Hamas and Fatah] that stalled negotiations, and derailed any prospect of negotiation success,” Salem countered.

“Deep in your heart, do you recognize Israel’s right to exist on stolen land,” asked Hussein, representing the “official line” of normalization opponents. “I am not a legislator, but I know how history proceeds. There are peoples who wrest possession of some land, claiming that they dwelled on it 3,000 years before. The question is where we want to end up. I think that the establishment of an independent Palestinian state which will live in peace with its neighbor represents the only solution to the mutual hatred,” replied Salem.

He added that when he traveled to Israel, it was a “professional trip ... I wanted to answer two questions: who are the Israelis, and what are they doing?”

“So who are they,” pressed Hussein. “The Israeli leadership is European. It thinks in a European fashion, and it promotes its interests in a European way, but in the final analysis they are from the East. The Yemenite market in Tel Aviv resembles an Egyptian fresh produce market 60 years ago. This is a people comprised of many parts, and the connection between them derives from identity,” Salem said, in simplistic fashion.

In his book, Salem dissects the component parts of Israeli society with a sharp surgical knife. Sometimes in anger, other times with highly refined humor, he examines prototypical Israel characters who pass by him, and his analyses expose Israeli readers to things they don’t always like to see. But when he sits next to a representative of the anti-normalization camp, Salem’s explanations regarding Israeli society can only be superficial and simplistic.

Trying to break down the wall of peace-aspiration which Salem has erected in the interview, Hussein asked: “Does Israel preserve peace for itself, and lead bullets for Palestinians?” “No man is democratic; instead, a regime is democratic. And Israel is such a [regime]. The killing is mutual. In the absence of peace, there is killing,” Salem explained.

“Laden within Israel’s mentality, which exploits the tragedy [the Holocaust], isn’t there a predilection for vengeance?” Hussein inquired. “They are a tortured people whose history books are blackened by sorrow. But, in the final analysis, they are people who are not unlike others,” Salem answered.

Hussein was disconsolate. Though he may have wanted to find a shred of contrition in Salem’s outlook, it turned out the author’s faith has in fact strengthened.

Before turning to discuss Salem’s writings, Hussein tried his luck with one last question about Israel: “Is Israel likely to disappear from the face of the Earth,” he queried.

“No,” replied Salem. And it seemed as though you could see him yawn.

Ali Salem in Cairo, 1997. 'Israel, like any other people, wants peace.'Credit: Corbis / Visuals Unlimited

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