Gaber Asfour, the Egyptian Cultural Frenemy of Israel 1944-2021

The late Egyptian culture minister fought a lonely battle for cultural ties with the Jewish state

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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Gaber Asfour, sitting left. He was called 'the great fighter for enlightenment.'
Gaber Asfour, sitting, third from left. He was called 'the great fighter for enlightenment.' Credit: Nan deko
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

Intellectual ostracism is incongruent with cultural openness, believed the late author, publicist and former Egyptian culture minister Gaber Asfour.

As he explained it in 2009, “Normalization means taking action, following which a person doing so benefits from financial or spiritual benefits.” Asfour was forced to resort to such verbal contortions to justify his support of a Hebrew translation of a book by Egyptian poet Iman Mersal.

The book, “Alternative Geography” raised a huge public furore in Egypt, since giving permission to translate it into Hebrew (translated into Hebrew by Sasson Somekh and published by Hakibbutz Hameuchad) violated the principle embraced by Egyptian intellectuals and writers that relations with Israel should not be normalized, even decades after the two countries signed a peace agreement.

Asfour, who was at the time in charge of a national translation project established at the behest of President Hosni Mubarak to bring the Egyptian public closer to world literature also decided to translate books from Hebrew to Arabic. Asked in an interview with the important literary periodical Akhbar al-Adab whether he didn’t see a contradiction between his opposition to political normalization and the translation of Hebrew books, he replied: “I’ve signed no agreement with any Israeli publisher, so no Egyptian public money is going to Israel.”

Asfour emphasized that the translations from Hebrew would be done by foreign companies that translated first from Hebrew into English or French and then into Arabic. And what about translating Egyptian literature into Hebrew? “My preference is that translations into Hebrew not be done with the assent of the authors. If they rob our literature, that’s a different matter.” And why translate into Hebrew at all? “We have to know our enemy, understand his sources of power and weakness. That’s how I’ll be able to understand what he thinks and what he’s plotting against us.”

Asfour died last week at the age of 77, leaving behind a legacy of dozens of books, articles, analyses and commentaries, many of which won awards, most of them dealing with the issue of enlightenment. In eulogies by top intellectuals from Egypt and other Arab countries he was called “the great fighter for enlightenment,” “the pioneer of Egyptian enlightenment” and the “emblem of enlightenment,” who combated conservatism, religious radicalism and what he termed cultural stagnation. Asfour had no qualms about assailing the leaders of al-Azhar, the most important orthodox institution in the Islamic world, centered in Cairo.

When President Abdel Fattah al-Sissi appointed Asfour, a left-leaning secular man, as culture minister in 2014, it stoked hopes that Sissi wanted a reconciliation with liberal intellectuals who had suffered a great blow with the election of his predecessor Mohammed Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood. Those hopes were quickly dashed, but in the meantime, Asfour saw his appointment as an opportunity to embark on a cultural revolution, Western-oriented and liberal, one in which al-Azhar had no place.

His big dispute with al-Azhar erupted in 2014, when the religious institution prohibited the screening of the movie “Noah” on the grounds that the title character, who is regarded as a prophet in Islam, was depicted in violation religious edicts.

“Al-Azhar doesn’t control us, we’re subordinate to the constitution,” responded Asfour. “There is no edict in religious law that prohibits an illustration of the image of a prophet, and the sages of al-Azhar don’t know what they’re talking about.”

That year, he wrote an article in the daily al-Ahram in which he stated that “religious discourse is not religion, and it’s texts are not sacred. Such discourse is a translation that allows a person to understand holy scriptures.” Responding to the scathing criticism by al-Azhar leaders, he said: “I see in the articles written by some of the sages at al-Azhar proof of their excellence in narrow-mindedness.”

Efforts to reconcile Asfour and al-Azhar were to no avail. Asfour was forced to resign and returned to writing articles and publishing research, where he continued to lash out at al-Azhar, calling it “an institution creating radical terrorists.” In an interview to the literary magazine al-Jadid, he said that “the evolution of religious discourse into a discourse of terror is a hallmark of a backward culture. Such a culture doesn’t strive for debate and doesn’t tolerate differences of opinion. Anyone adhering to it believes that he owns the truth while others are in error, which is why he believes that the other must be annihilated.”

Asfour’s liberal views and the cultural boycott of Israel by Egypt’s intellectual elite posed a dilemma for him, since he believed that intellectual boycotts were incongruent with cultural openness. But this dilemma was only superficial. Asfour crossed the lines several times, meeting Israelis in Egypt and elsewhere. When David Grossman won the Man Booker Prize in 2017 for his book “A Horse Walks into a Bar,” Asfour said in an interview with the Egyptian daily Al Youm al-Sabea that “Grossman’s win is natural, since Israel has an important international presence and is part of international society. Israel won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1966 before Naguib Mahfouz did, and we must say with honesty that Israeli literature is worthy of international prizes …. We are occupied with industry and commerce, in contrast to Israel which is also occupied with these, but first paying attention to culture, literature and scientific research.”

Such statements often led to trouble with his friends – they saw him as a “state intellectual,” a servant of the president, finding it difficult to embrace his intellectual integrity.

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