July 1, 2006 Special Dispatch No. 1195

Shunned in His Country for Supporting Normalization With Israel, Egyptian Playwright 'Ali Salem Speaks Out

July 1, 2006
Egypt | Special Dispatch No. 1195

'Ali Salem, [1] Egypt's most prominent playwright, has been banished from his country's cultural circles due to his views favoring normalization with Israel. Salem's views became widely known after he visited Israel in 1994, and set down his favorable impressions of the country in a book titled A Drive to Israel, which sold more than 60,000 copies in Egypt. Since then, he has visited Israel 15 times, and in 2005 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Israel's Ben Gurion University. Since his first trip to Israel, however, he has been unable to find producers for his work in Egypt, and none of his 25 plays have been performed there for many years.

The following are excerpts from an interview with 'Ali Salem in the London Arabic daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat in June 2006. [2]

Interviewer: "Nearly All Intellectuals Boycott 'Ali Salem's Work Because He Supports Normalization With Israel"

[Interviewer] Osama 'Abd Al-Latif: "Nearly all intellectuals boycott 'Ali Salem's work because he supports normalization with Israel, and has made repeated visits to that country since it signed the peace treaty with Egypt. For more than 10 years now, 'Ali Salem has not been able to stage any of his plays because of the siege on him. Eventually, he found no other way to break the siege but to produce an audiotape [of his work], which he was permitted to distribute but was forbidden to sell. The tape is titled 'The Best Laughs.' His intention was to read out his writings in his own voice, and thus to 'take part in raising the cultural [level] of the masses,' as he puts it. The following is a conversation with' Ali Salem, who [always] was and still is provocative, even at the age of 70."

Abd Al-Latif: "How do you spend your time these days?"

'Ali Salem: "I spend my time writing journalistic articles, though I am not happy about it. I am first of all a playwright, and that gives me more pleasure than any other work. I have a number of plays which have not yet been published, including two one-act plays and two full-length plays. Four years ago, I submitted two plays to the National Theater... but I haven't received an answer, even though the [state] theater censor has approved both texts.

"I also continue to publish books despite the fact that some people have tried to isolate me. I published the book The Best Laughs, which includes my old humorous works, and last March I published the book Words of Laughter and Freedom."

'Abd Al-Latif: "Do you regret the political views you have expressed regarding Israel?"

'Ali Salem: "As I've told you, I submitted several works to the National Theatre, and my question is this: Did they reject me out of their own free will, or were they forced to do so? I imagine that there are some who deliberately reject any first-rate creativity. We must also realize that there is real corruption in the field of theater, and those responsible for it should be in jail.

"Under these circumstances, it's impossible for people like me to publish [their work]. Don't you believe [for a moment] that my position on peace [with Israel] has anything to do with what's happening to me. It's all a matter of score-settling between writers, nothing more and nothing less. I am here and so are my works. And when it comes to the point that a bunch of amateurs prevent me from presenting my work, it means that there are certain parties who are deliberately out to get me.

"In spite of this, I do not see myself as a victim. I do not believe that there is any [other] writer of my generation who has achieved the status that I have achieved. Suffice it to say that all copies of my last book were sold within three days. I have nothing to complain about. At the same time, I know that they rejoice at my predicament as a creative writer. I am completely convinced that all my works will find their way onto the stage some day.

"At the moment, I am busy with a project which allows me, as a playwright, to reach the audience directly, without anyone's mediation or assistance - without any actors, set designers, announcements by the producer, etc. I have decided to start my own company, called 'The Voice of Humor,' through which I will record all my humorous works in my own voice on tapes and CDs. I expect that there will be attempts to stop me by those who like to prevent me from pursuing my creative path."

Running Away From Peace Indicates Weakness and Fear

'Abd Al-Latif: "Many maintain that the reason for the boycott you talk about is your support of normalization, and not your writing."

'Ali Salem: "It pains me that, for 12 years now, I [have had to] keep responding to pointless statements. Have you ever heard of any intellectual in any country in the world who has been punished as I have been punished for maintaining normal relations with the Israeli intellectuals and for believing in peace? I want to emphasize that normal relations with Israel is not one of the things that Egyptians worry about. The Egyptian citizen worries about his problems, about his life, about private lessons [for his children], about the tension that surrounds him and about what is happening in Iraq and in Palestine. The Egyptian people is in favor of peace. This was evident in its support for Sadat's decision to make peace [with Israel]. To this day, nobody has ever disputed my [claim] that the Egyptian people believes in peace.

"All I have been exposed to over the years have been just insults and abuse on a personal basis. That amazes me. I have often asked those who attacked me to move from belligerent struggle to peaceful competition [between Egypt and Israel]. Unfortunately, the Egyptian media has continued to publish belligerent pronouncements and gloomy propaganda against Egyptian-Israeli relations. And later we discover that the whole thing was nothing but a means of embezzling state funds. They act as though they are the only ones who are right, while the others are wrong, no matter who they are.

"In my opinion, it's not a matter of right and wrong, but a political and cultural issue. I am an educated writer. After taking part in these wars, and after losing close friends [in them], I discovered the importance of peace and the need to become familiar with these people [i.e. the Israelis], and [to know] how to compete with them peacefully. I imagine that the Egyptian intellectuals necessarily feel jealous because little Israel has superiority in terms of export. I maintain that running away from peace is [a sign of] weakness and fear, and is [therefore] unjustified.

"To this day, not a single one of my plays has been produced in Israel. There was a plan, that was never carried out, to produce my play A Writer on Honeymoon. It was claimed that it attacked the Egyptian regime, but none of those [who made this claim] bothered to [actually] examine my writings. This play was published in Egypt in 1975, and I produced it myself in 1982."

'Abd Al-Latif: "Haven't you ever thought of founding a [theater] group to perform your plays?"

'Ali Salem: "I would need a lot of money, and I would never beg some foreign [donor for the money], for reasons that have nothing to do with nationalism. In the past, I could have established a theatre group with 10,000 Egyptian pounds. But now, this requires millions [of pounds]. There is a problem with theater productions in Egypt. I approached many people, but the very mention of my name scares them away. Some are afraid to come near me, [for fear] of being harassed."

'Abd Al-Latif: "Some intellectuals and writers believe that 'Ali Salem has committed the crime of normalization, and must be punished. How do you comment on this?"

'Ali Salem: "That's hypocrisy. I carried out my role as a responsible intellectual, and I doubt very much that those who boycott the creative work of 'Ali Salem can preserve anything else that is of value. This is narcissism. Whoever has no respect for the creative work of an artist surely has nothing valuable to say. He conceals his own impotence and failure by hindering and obstructing the creative work of others..."

The Peace With Israel has Protected Our Region From Anarchy

'Abd Al-Latif: "Do you feel ostracized and banished?"

'Ali Salem: "'Ostracized' is a strong word. I do pay a price for my beliefs. [But] if people rejected me, they would not have bought my books. I am 70 years old now. It's not self-delusion on my part to believe that I express the dreams and hopes of the Egyptian people. I am also convinced that our peace with Israel has protected our region from anarchy. It is not an exaggeration to say that the development boom in the Gulf would not have occurred without peace between Egypt and Israel. I believe that the criticism against the peace with Israel is [merely] a cover for corruption and for those who oppose any change and development in Egypt, because normal relations with Israel entail the establishment of normal relations among the Egyptians."

'Abd Al-Latif: "Do you believe in the good intentions of the Israelis?"

'Ali Salem: "You are not dealing with a gang. You are dealing with governments. In politics, it's not about intentions, it's about agreements."

'Abd Al-Latif: "But they do not keep their agreements."

'Ali Salem: "That has not happened. Show me one agreement in the Egyptian-Israeli peace accords on which they reneged. What you are saying is exactly what the extremists spread in order to keep us prisoners of fear. We must overlook the list of unfortunate incidents which goes back to the 1930s. My only concern now is that we [manage to] live in this region without [allowing] it to become totally ruined, and that we realize that extremism [threatens] everyone's safety."

'Abd Al-Latif: "Do you feel a lack of confidence because the majority is not with you?"

'Ali Salem: "It not the [support of the] majority that gives confidence to the creative writer. [In fact,] its support often indicates a flaw [in the artist's work] rather than fine quality. Truth is held by an individual. Afterwards, people discover that he was right. Your question reminds me of [the story about] the politician who was giving a speech, and, when people applauded him, asked one of his aides: 'Where did I go wrong?' When the majority [in the Egyptian Writers Union] decided to expel me from the union, I asked: 'Aren't those who buy my books considered a majority?' This is enough for me, and I do not need anything else. I am not demanding a peace treaty - Sadat [already] signed one."

'Abd Al-Latif: "Do you go to the theater these days?"

'Ali Salem: "I can't stand it, because some people think that buffoonery is comedy..."

Osama Bin Laden Distributes His Tapes Without Censorship - But I Must Obtain 18 Permits Before I Publish

'Abd Al-Latif: "How is it going with the first audiotape in your project?"

'Ali Salem: "Well, this is an attempt on my part to bring my work to the Egyptians who follow my writings. We should not forget that there is a market for tapes today, especially among those who do not read. Even Osama bin Laden and Ayman Al-Zawahiri use this medium to advertise their views and thoughts. However, the difference between them and me is that they distribute their tapes as soon as they are recorded, with no censorship, whereas I must first obtain 18 [different] permits..."

[1] For more on 'Ali Salem, see: MEMRI Special Dispatch No. 728, "Satirist Ali Salem to Arab League: There's Light at the End of the Tunnel," June 8, 2004, Satirist Ali Salem to Arab League: There's Light at the End of the Tunnel ; MEMRI TV Clip No. 696, "Egyptian Playwright 'Ali Salem Argues With Egyptian Nationalists Over Visits to Israel," May 29, 2005, ; MEMRI TV Clip No. 296, "Egyptian Playwright 'Ali Salem: The Arab World is Threatened by the Terror Groups, Not by Israel and the U.S.," October 18, 2004, .

[2] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), June 21, 2006.

Share this Report: