This story was originally published in March 2019, to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the peace treaty, but has been re-upped to celebrate Shadia's 90th birthday.
There are many poems and songs that evoke Israel’s memories of its peace agreement with Egypt, signed four decades ago this month. One of the Hebrew songs most associated with the event is “Yihiye Tov” (“Things Will Get Better”), composed and sung by David Broza, with lyrics by Yehonatan Gefen, who was inspired by Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in November 1977. The song expressed the longing of many Israelis at the time for a reconciliation with the country’s southern neighbor (with words like, “And we said, ‘Let’s make up and live as brothers’”), but even then noted the Palestinian problem that remained unresolved, clouded bilateral relations and contributed over the years to making the peace a “cold” one (“And then he said, ‘Let’s do it, just get out of the territories”).
The realms of Egyptian poetry and music back then also paid tribute to the historic moment: Between 1977 and 1982, from Sadat’s visit until Israel withdrew from the Sinai Peninsula, Egyptian radio and television stations produced dozens of songs extolling the virtues of peace. Moreover, at the end of 1977 the association of Egyptian poets issued a special collection entitled, “The Most Honest Words About the Peace Journey,” which included 23 “folk poems,” some penned by senior Egyptian officials. The Egyptian national anthem was also adapted to reflect the new atmosphere of peace, with the belligerent 1960 version (“It has been a long time, oh my weapon!”) replaced in 1979 with an anthem centered on the Egyptian homeland, (“My homeland, my homeland, my homeland, you have my love and my heart”).
The purpose of these poems and songs was to assist the Egyptian regime in its efforts to make peace with Israel legitimate in the eyes of the public. Sadat’s initiative constituted a revolution in his country’s policy after decades of conflict and five wars, and it was in need of a wide-ranging public relations campaign based on a variety of means - ranging from the mass media, to essays citing Islamic law, to songs and poetry. The advantage of the songs was their ability to directly stir emotions and help inculcate values and perceptions among mass audiences, some of them illiterate. The weakness of the songs, however, was that many in Egypt perceived them as political propaganda and not authentic artistic works, which undermined their acceptance by the general public.
Safia el-Mohandes, who was president of Egyptian radio from 1975 to 1982 and known as “the mother of Egyptian broadcasters,” said that toward the signing of the peace treaty with Israel in March 1979, she was asked to produce songs that would help prepare the public for it. Leading lyricists, composers and singers of that era enlisted in or were recruited to this national mission. Songs and poems, like other means of public diplomacy, stressed the patriotism embodied in the new policy, praised Sadat’s courage, celebrated the impending return of the Sinai to Egypt, and centered around hopes for Egyptian prosperity in an era of peace. At the same time, they avoided direct expressions of reconciliation, recognition or friendship vis-à-vis the still-controversial peace partner.
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The main challenge in these works was justifying Sadat’s decision to pursue a separate agreement with Israel without other Arab countries, without the Palestinians and in contravention of the Arab League’s position. The Egyptian Information Ministry set three goals: Embedding the concept of peace in the Arab consciousness; explaining how peace serves Arab interests; and rebuffing Arab attacks on the agreement. Indeed, the songs noted Sadat’s commitment to advancing Arab and Palestinian goals.
A poet using the pseudonym al-Atrash wrote a poem called “The Wheel is Always in his Hands,” in which he noted the concern Sadat displayed toward his Arab brethren: “Our leader went with intention to fight aggression / Restoring all rights and breaking the chains / Without forgetting the rights of Syria or Amman / And in every speech he did not stop focusing on Palestine / As well as on Jerusalem, the land of love and the stronghold of religions.”
At the same time, these creative works sullied the reputations of those who opposed the peace. The Arab refusal front, led by Iraq, Libya, Syria and the PLO, was condemned for its ingratitude to Egypt for its sacrifices in the wars with Israel. Folk poet Mohammed Abdul Aziz Malaha, for example, condemned those who were profiting from the conflict while Egypt was choking under it.
A prominent motif in the poems was describing the peace with Israel as a complementary step to the “October victory.” The 1973 war with Israel, what is often referred to as the Yom Kippur War, was regarded by Egypt as an accomplishment that provided an appropriate backdrop to an honorable, diplomatic compromise that did not reflect weakness or defeat but was achieved from a position of strength. Malaha used this narrative to rebuff criticism from Islamic quarters when he defended the making of peace with a defeated aggressor who’d learned his lesson by citing the Koranic verse, “But if they incline to peace, incline thou to it as well.”
Other works flattered Sadat for his leadership abilities and expressed amazement over his heroism. His visit to Jerusalem was described as an expression of his ability to stun the enemy in peace as in war, and as a move that was offensive in its essence, if not in its methods. The secretary general of the association of Egyptian poets, Abd al-Hamid al-Azim, saw Sadat’s speech in the Knesset plenum as “a daring attack on behalf of peace,” which demonstrated his courage and left the Israelis “perplexed and at a loss.”
Poet Ibrahim al-Safi Ibrahim Othman praised Sadat’s courage for standing before Israel’s parliament and giving its members two alternatives, “Either return our lands, or we’ll return to our weapons.” Fayda Kamel, the president’s court singer, compared “our commander” (i.e., Sadat) to God, and in the song “Flowers of Peace” (lyrics: Mohammed al-Dasouqi al-Shahawi), called him “the leader of light and liberty.”
The most popular songs and poems focused on the longed-for fruits of peace: the liberation of Sinai, the rehabilitation and development of Egypt’s economy, and wealth and prosperity. The celebrations that accompanied Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai merged the songs of the 1973 war with new songs, like “Marching to the Land of Fairuz [Sinai]” (sung by Yasmin el-Khiyam and Osama Ra’uf; lyrics: Abdel Salam Amin; music: Mohammed al-Moji). In the clips produced for these songs one sees the Israeli flag being lowered and the Egyptian flag being raised in its place.
While the songs of that era attributed the liberation of Sinai to the achievements of the 1973 war, the promise of development of the Sinai was tied to the rewards of peace. In honor of the signing of the peace agreement on the White House lawn on March 26, 1979, the weekly magazine, October, the mouthpiece of the Sadat regime, published a poem called “The Peace Dove,” which was written by Kamal Mansour. In it he presented a vision that “peace has broken out, and we will make the desert bloom / Gardens and cities will be built there / and we with our struggle and with the sweat of our brow we will quench its thirst.”
Israel’s withdrawal from the Sinai in 1982 led to the composition of perhaps the most famous peace song of that era, one of the few still remembered in Egypt today: “Today’s a holiday in Egypt” (sung by Shadia; lyrics: Mohammed Abdel Wahab; music: Jamal Salama). According to then-Israeli Ambassador to Egypt Moshe Sasson, the song reflected the joy that prevailed in Egypt at the time, as well as the regime’s desire to make the country’s development and prosperity the top national priority.
The songs were filled with yearnings for world peace and harmony, but carefully avoided any mention of Israel. In the song most strongly associated with the Egyptian president’s visit to Jerusalem, “To Your Life, Sadat” (lyrics: Kamal Ammar), Sayed Mekawy sings: “My heart was with you throughout your stay — there,” without citing the actual destination. Other songs, like “Peace for All Human Beings” (vocals by Samira Said; lyrics: Mohammed Kamal Badr; music: Hilmi Amin), focused on abstract, universal conciliatory messages.
Looking back after all these years, the Egyptian peace songs and poems apparently did not leave much of an impression. The general public in the country today is not familiar with most of them. Their exclusion from the canonical repertoire is a consequence of the political situation in which they arose and flourished — and then quickly faded and were forgotten. Under President Hosni Mubarak, who succeeded Sadat following his 1981 assassination, works that praised his predecessor were stricken from the “playlist” in favor of new songs with messages more in tune with the changing agenda. The few peace songs that continued to be promoted by the establishment were about the liberation of Sinai, and then that of Taba, both processes completed under Mubarak’s rule. Since April 1982, Sinai Liberation Day has been celebrated as an Egyptian national holiday, but Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem and the signing of the peace agreement 40 years ago are not commemorated and songs about them are not broadcast. On Sadat’s centenary, which Egypt marked in December 2018 with much fanfare, songs of the 1973 October War were sung.
The peace songs also fell out of favor because they were perceived by listeners, as well as some performers, as “propaganda art.” In a 2007 article in al-Masry al-Youm, Zein Nassar of the Egyptian Academy of Arts differentiated between the peace songs that served as establishment propaganda and the war songs that Egyptian artists produced voluntarily, without being commissioned to do so by the regime. Another article, from March 2009, entitled, “In the age of Sadat, singing for the president and for peace was an order!”, argued that the peace songs were not effective, and noted that the most-played peace song at the time was Umm Kulthum’s “In Peace” (lyrics: Bayram al-Tunisi; music: Mohammed al-Moji), which was written back in 1963 under Gamal Abdel Nasser.
The few Egyptians today who still remember the peace songs are divided into two main groups: There’s a nostalgic approach that sees these creations as part of Egypt’s cultural heritage. Then, there’s a critical approach that views the works that represented the voice of the government as a stain on their country’s history — something that should no longer exist in the wake of the Arab Spring, an era where there should be freedom of artistic expression that is not directed from on high.
Popular art is often a reflection of its society, and, as such, the decline of the Egyptian peace songs can tell us something about the status of the Israel-Egypt relationship in our time, too. The 1979 accord has remained firm, but is seen by many on both sides as reflecting a peace between governments and not between peoples, a peace that still lacks any real cultural heft. It is vital to try to cultivate that aspect in the years to come.
On March 14, the Ben-Zvi Institute will hold a day-long symposium entitled “From Cairo to Jerusalem,” marking the 40th anniversary of the peace agreement. The program includes a special musical performance by the institute’s Piyyut Ensemble.
Ofir Winter is a research fellow at Tel Aviv University’s Institute for National Security Studies and he teaches in the university’s Department of Arabic and Islamic Studies.