October 6, 2009 Special Dispatch No. 2555

Egyptian Intellectual and Playwright 'Ali Salem: My Trip to Israel Was an Attempt to Rid Myself of Hatred

October 6, 2009
Egypt | Special Dispatch No. 2555
In an April 2009 interview with the Kuwaiti daily Al-Nahar, Egyptian intellectual and playwright 'Ali Salem spoke at length about his first visit to Israel 15 years ago, and about the book he wrote following this visit. He said that the trip had brought ostracization by Egypt's intellectuals, because they had been forced to face the truth and to embark on a new road of peace for which they were unprepared. Salem added that his desire to visit Israel had been inspired by Egyptian president Anwar Sadat's courageous initiative of conciliation with Israel, and also by a simple desire to get to know the other side and to "rid himself of hatred." He concluded that peace offered many benefits for Egypt and for the region at large.

Following are excerpts from the interview: [1]

"My Generation Cannot Overcome the Hurt of 1967; All the Attacks On Me Were Because I Forced Them to Face the Truth"

Interviewer: "Today, 15 years after your [first] visit to Israel and the publication of your book, A Drive to Israel, [2] what does the date April 7, 1994 [i.e. the date you set out on this trip] mean to you? How do you see this trip now, and what memories do you have of it?

Salem: "I have a lot [of memories], since [at the time,] I courageously put the horse before the cart, because I wanted to be the first to take the initiative and move from wartime to peacetime, in an era in which each of us had to decide for himself what to do.

"My trip posed a serious challenge to the Egyptian intellectuals and the entire Egyptian society. This challenge can be summed up in the [following] question: How are we to treat this small society next to us [i.e. Israeli society]? Reality forced us to embark upon a peace campaign with the society that defeated us ruthlessly in 1967. My generation cannot overcome the hurt of 1967. All the attacks on me were because I forced them to face the truth. I made them take action and start a new way of life, and that was painful for them. I wanted them to take a path that required courage and creativity. But they are lazy.

"The attacks and invective that I incurred were nothing unusual. You will find no one who will openly acknowledge that they are against me; however, there is a general consensus to ruin my good name and malign my character.

"In 1996, they cancelled my membership in the Egyptian Cinema Association, where I was member of three departments: writing, directing, and acting. After they questioned me, I asked them, 'What regulation did I violate that you should expel me? I found that [the Association] had no rule against normalization, but that it had passed a resolution specifically prohibiting artistic cooperation with Israel…

"By the way, my expulsion from the Cinema Association aroused little public interest. However, when I was expelled from the Egyptian Writers Association in 2001, there was an uproar. Especially when I went to court, which reinstated my membership - but later I resigned of my own accord."

Interviewer: "I believe that someone on the other side [i.e. in the West] is helping you."

Salem: "Of course, [I get] moral support. [I also have the support] of several friends in the Arab world and Egypt, but the cost is very high. For 15 years, people have reviled and cursed me on every satellite TV channel, and I haven't [the strength] to defend myself."

Interviewer: "You describe the help you are receiving from the other side as moral support, but I think it's sometimes material support [as well]. Last November, for example, you received a $50,000 prize in the U.S. Isn't that material support?

Salem: "[What I received] was a well-known award for civil courage given by the John Train Foundation. It is granted to ordinary people who 'resist evil at great personal risk.' I had applied for it twice [before], but got it only the third time around..."

I Came to Israel Out of Natural Human Curiosity

Interviewer: "Let us go back a little. Where did this idea come from, and what prompted your decision [to visit Israel]? I read your book A Drive to Israel, and saw that you describe your trip as follows: 'This was no journey of love, but an earnest attempt to rid myself of hatred.' Is that really what happened? That simple and romantic?"

Salem: "There's a 1960s film called The Russians Are Coming. It deals with the Cold War and lampoons politicians on both sides. I think that this movie [ultimately] brought about the end of the Cold War. In the beginning of this movie, a Russian submarine approaches the American coast and gets stuck in the mud. The captain and the sailors look at the shore through a telescope and are astonished. When the deputy commander asks, 'Why are we getting so close to them?' the commander replies, 'I want to see America. It is natural intellectual and human curiosity [to want to get to know the other side].'

"This line had a great impact on me. That kind of curiosity can help you overcome all obstacles."

Interviewer: "Surely that line, which lingered in your conscious or unconscious mind, is not the only factor that triggered your decision to visit [Israel]."

Salem: "Curiosity was the primary reason. That is what I wrote in my book. I wanted to see Israel up close, just like that submarine commander wanted to see America, even though it was openly hostile to his country. [I wanted to see Israel] up close. When the soldier at the border [crossing] asked me, 'Why are you visiting Israel?' I answered, 'To see it and get to know it.'"

Sadat's Peace Initiative Was a Step of Remarkable Human Courage

Interviewer: "I respect your right to try and get to know [the other side], but could you [really] disregard the remains of 50 years - the bones of the martyrs and the rubble of [our] ruined villages, homes, and homeland? How did you shake that off? How did you leave those memories behind? [I heard that] you didn't dare tell your family of your plans. You phoned your daughter from Al-'Arish to tell her."

Salem: "That's right. Had I told them they would have wept and been hurt, and that might have shaken my resolve to make the trip...

"After the 1973 war, there were talks, and the [two sides] signed a disengagement treaty. At that point, we were [already] on our way towards peace. Then came Sadat's initiative, which formed the cornerstone of my idea [to visit Israel].

"That was the turning point. It was a step of [remarkable] human courage and a dramatic moment [created by] Sadat. I witnessed that moment and sympathized with him. I could understand the courage it took.

"The day [Sadat announced his] initiative, I was sitting at the Café Riche [in Cairo]. Amid a storm of raging intellectuals and bombastic words, I expressed my opinion about [Sadat] and my support for what he had done. We must not forget that the 1973 war was over, and that, despite the [Egyptian army's] immense success in crossing the [Suez] canal, the war had ended with the Israeli army inside Sinai, 90 kilometers from Cairo..."

"The Opposition To and Delaying Of Normalization Have Harmed Egypt As Well As the Palestinian Cause"

Interviewer: "So [Sadat's] initiative was the beginning."

Salem: "Yes, and after reading the peace accords, I did not wish to deceive myself. I understood that Sadat had been a giant in initiating and negotiating [the peace treaty]. During that time, I also interviewed Israelis in Cairo. A trip to Israel was not on the agenda [back then], for two reasons. First, the Israelis had not yet withdrawn from the Egyptian territories. Second, there was no hint, especially after Sadat's death, of an imminent solution to the Palestinian problem."

Interviewer: "And to this very day, Israel is avoiding finding a just and comprehensive solution to this problem."

Salem: "True, but what about the Oslo Accords... [in which] each side recognized the other? For me, the Oslo [Accords] were very significant, and I had to draw people's attention to them. Also, [I felt] I had no choice but to realize my wish, and get to know these people [i.e. the Israelis] and see what they were doing."

Interviewer: "So you see the peace agreement as a considerable asset [for Egypt], and the Oslo Accords as a political victory. But others see these 'miracles,' as you describe them, as steps down the ladder of concessions."

Salem: "That's the problem. There is a prevailing view that peace is an [act of] backing down. One fellow, an engineer with a PhD who is an expert on the Arab-Israeli conflict, said to me during the [December 2008 Israeli] invasion of Gaza: 'There is no need to revoke the [Egypt-Israel peace] agreement, [but we can] freeze some of its articles.' How can we do that? That thinking is flagrantly irresponsible.

"Another man said to me: 'Why did we need the peace initiative [in the first place]? After all, we crossed the canal. We could have waited quietly for another five years and then started another war.' How nice! Would Israel have let [us] sit quietly for five years, or even for one day?...

"It boils down to this: [a choice between] war and peace. Any attempt to maneuver between the two is an adventure bound to end in Egypt's defeat. The opposition to and delaying of normalization have harmed Egypt as well as the Palestinian cause..."

We Must Prompt the Palestinians to Unite under One Government, Which Will Negotiate the Establishment of a Palestinian State

Interviewer: "15 years later, do you regret your journey [to Israel]? And how do you assess your role [in promoting peace], which seems to have been a considerable one? Did your intellectual initiative, as you call it, succeed?

Salem: "...I did something good, or something that I considered good, and I do not regret it. Peace is the right idea and will remain the right idea. What Sadat did was a great thing, and all the wretched attempts will never succeed in destroying the idea of peace...

"[We must be] patient, and [know] that there is no other solution. We cannot just close up shop and walk away. We are facing a task that is almost impossible, but which we must carry out - namely, prompting the Palestinians, by every peaceful and friendly means, to unite under one government, which will undertake to conduct negotiations towards [the establishment of] a Palestinian state."

Interviewer: "And what about the other side, which constantly digs in its heels and demands endless concessions?"

Salem: "Over the past 15 years, various elements have joined the peace process. Some joined as part of the political game, holding contacts with Israel without [signing any official] agreements. Who would have thought that Saudi Arabia would ever promote and adopt a peace initiative? Who would have believed 15 years ago that such a proposal would ever be made? But today it is happening. Israel is being stubborn, but the Arabs have no choice but to be patient. It is enough that the idea of war has been abandoned and the military option no longer exists."

Interviewer: "[How can you say that,] when Israel is waging a new kind of war, replacing the wide-scale confrontation with small wars, which we call 'raids,' whenever and however it pleases?"

Salem: "A few days ago I read a nice article by a Palestinian writer. In it, he expressed his opinion, saying: 'The only kind of resistance we can wage today is [a campaign] to persuade Israeli society to accept peace and the [notion of a] Palestinian state. This society will never be persuaded as long as there is a suicide bombing here and a missile [attack] there. This method [only] preserves its fear, and taps its hidden strength [by triggering] its memories of the Holocaust.'"

Interviewer: "To whom do you ascribe the failure, or the paralysis, of the Egyptian-Israeli peace process?"

Salem: "Regarding Egypt, I do not understand how people fail to realize the favor that [Sadat] did [us] and the value of what he did. He restored all of the territories [that had been occupied by Israel].

"It is strange that some people [still] say, 'What good did the peace [agreement] do us?' My answer to them is this: 'You refuse to recognize [the value] of peace, are therefore you are unable to understand what peace has created. You refuse to accept what peace has given you. The [mere] fact that you return to your home safely and are not hit by a sniper's bullet or by a missile falling from the sky, that you do not [have to] darken your windows and fortify your door with sandbags, or check the list of the fallen every morning - all that, or [at least] some if it, is thanks to peace.

"There is no alternative solution; even the most hawkish and arrogant Arab politicians do not have one. They excel at bombastic [speeches], but they are afraid of peace. It is a burden they are unable to bear..."

Israel Will Never Let Iran or the Arabs Possess Nuclear Weapons

Interviewer: "I assess that if Iran develops nuclear abilities, this could help the Arabs on the military level. Why don't we want that?"

Salem: "Israel will never let Iran or the Arabs possess nuclear weapons. [But the real problem is] that we are still living in the 1940s or 1950s. At the very least, we are stuck in 1973. How many years have passed since then?

"It has been 36 years, and we are still thinking along the lines of 1973. The advances that have been made in these 36 years - in science, weapons, aircraft, even submarines - do not enter into our calculations at all. What have we done in these domains, while Israel developed and attained military superiority? Even without its nuclear capabilities, [it is still superior to us]. Unfortunately, our development stopped in 1973..."

Interviewer: "To sum up, after 15 years... would you do it again?

Salem: "I would do it 100 times over. [1] went to make peace, to take part in the rapprochement between the two peoples, and to participate in building a channel for peace between them. My book was [aimed at promoting] greater mutual understanding and cooperation between the two peoples."


[1] Al-Nahar (Kuwait), April 23-24, 2009.

[2] A Drive to Israel - An Egyptian Meets His Neighbors, Dayan Center Publications, 128, 2003.

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