Like all Egyptians, I was raised to hate Israel and Israelis. Egyptians are taught that Israel is an occupying, usurping and colonial state that kills Palestinians and confiscates their lands. For many years, during the regime of former President Hosni Mubarak, the headlines of Egyptian newspapers were regularly dedicated to updates about the Palestinian cause. Perhaps the regime was intent on distracting the Egyptian “street,” engaging the people with issues other than Egypt’s growing internal problems.
The result was that Egyptians like myself adopted the Palestinian cause as our own, as if our own personal destiny depended upon it. The overlap between politics and religion made matters even more complicated. Thus, the word “Israelis“ was replaced with “Jewish.”
When I was 3, I spent a year in a small Cairo synagogue that had been nationalized during the time of Gamal Abdel Nasser and turned into a nursery for children. But I did not know any Jew, Egyptian or non-Egyptian. I knew that Jews existed in Egypt – like singer Laila Mourad, actresses Najwa Salem and Najma Ibrahim, among others – but to me they were Egyptian. I heard about the Jewish neighborhood located in the heart of Cairo, Harat al-Yahud, and I saw its big synagogues from afar. I didn’t know how Jews looked or how they speak.
The intense hostility between the Israelis and Palestinians, the confusion between Jewish and Israeli, coupled with what I heard from the imams during their Friday sermons – all of this made me imagine the Jews as beastly, ghost-like creatures who had nothing in common with human beings from near or far.
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It took me years of maturity, traveling and reading to learn that Israelis or Jews are human beings like us: Some good, some bad, never perfect – i.e., people like all other people. I met many in Sinai and outside of Egypt as well. At first I was reserved, for they were the our “enemy.” Then I started to engage with those I met in sterile discussions about the occupation, colonization and settlement.
Those conversations did not end in a positive way: I was convinced that Israel is an occupying state, and the Israelis believed this was their homeland. The rights of the Palestinians, as human beings, were lost.
The July-August 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah was a defining time in my political growth: The destruction I saw on television made me travel to Lebanon as a volunteer doing relief work. Despite my total despising of religious parties, I had to support the Lebanese resistance represented by Hassan Nasrallah.
After three months of traveling around Lebanon, seeing the destruction of a country that was close to my heart, and listening to the speeches of the Hezbollah leader, I realized something else: This war did not concern me. This was a war between two blocs who, even if they were not equal in strength, were locked in a power struggle to gain the upper hand in the region. The lives of innocent people being lost were of no interest to either side.
The Israeli attacks on Gaza have since repeated again and again, but I have learned the lesson.
All of these wars, as well as the earlier fall of Baghdad, left me mentally exhausted. I decided to stay away from anything related to news about the Middle East – a part of the world that, to me, seemed to be suffering from an epidemic. I started to live a normal life again, focusing on my work as a university professor, writer and translator. I read a lot and traveled abroad whenever possible.
I have never visited Israel and, therefore, do not know it from the inside. And the knowledge I do have from my encounters with the few Israelis I met in Sinai on vacations does not qualify me to talk about Israelis in general. But while working in the United States as a visiting professor at the Claremont Colleges, I was able to read several books by Israeli writers: English translations of the works of Amos Oz, David Grossman, Sayed Kashua and Assaf Gavron. I heard for the first time different voices from within the narrative of the texts, Israeli-Jewish voices, and Arab ones too – voices that recognized the concerns felt by people and the fears we all have, regardless of background. I also learnt about Tel Aviv and the kibbutz communities. I found that we share a lot in common, and that what brings us together is greater than what divides us.
Although there is cooperation between Egypt and Israel on several levels, normalization on the cultural level has a relatively long way to go. I knew I was going to face a media backlash and probably a legal backlash for taking a step in this direction. Nevertheless, I took it – because I believe in the future; because I believe that 50 years from now things will be different; because I believe the coming generations will be different from us and will not think or act the way we do now.
Therefore, and despite the price I knew I was going to pay, I initiated a meeting with Dr. David Govrin, Israel’s ambassador to Egypt, at the end of 2018. I did so to make this future possible, to help create space for literature and culture to undo the damage caused by politics, and to open the door to new possibilities for a better future for all of us.
Dr. Mona Prince is an Egyptian academic and novelist living in Cairo.