Middle East Quarterly
My Drive to Israel
On May 24, 2001, the Union of Egyptian Writers expelled from its ranks the renowned Egyptian playwright Ali Salem. According to the union’s statement, Salem had "visited Israel several times and published a book on those visits, in addition to several articles supporting normalization, which contradicts the general bent of union members and the resolutions of the general assembly in several sessions."1 Salem had committed the sin of "normalization" —and had done so repeatedly.
Ali Salem is the author of twenty-five plays and fifteen books. His first play was produced in 1965, and some of his productions have become classics of the Egyptian theater: The Phantom of Heliopolis, School of Troublemakers, The Comedy of Oedipus, The Man Who Fooled the Angels, The Buffet. Salem’s plays are renowned for their allegorical critique of Egyptian politics and their deft combination of satire and humor.
In 1994, after the signing of the Oslo accords, Ali Salem did the unthinkable. He hopped in his 14-year-old Soviet-made car and drove across the Sinai into Israel. He spent over three weeks in the country, touring and meeting Israelis from all walks of life. On his return, he published a book, A Drive to Israel,2 which sold over 60,000 copies—a runaway bestseller by Egyptian standards. The book answered a deep-seated Egyptian curiosity about life in Israel. Over the next two years, Salem visited Israel another six times, and in 1996, he became a co-founder of the Cairo Peace Movement.
He also became a target of attacks by Egyptian and Arab intellectuals who, even at the high points in the "peace process," continued to impose a virtual boycott on Israel. As a result, Salem has not had a play produced in years, and he has been the subject of vituperate attacks in the Egyptian and Arab media. One source of constant support for Salem has been the novelist Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s Nobel laureate for literature.
In 2000, Salem wrote the screenplay for a short film, at the instance of the Ibn Khaldoun Center for Development Studies in Cairo. The film encouraged Egyptians to do more than gripe, and to cast their ballots in upcoming parliamentary elections. Shortly afterwards, the police arrested Center director Saad Eddin Ibrahim and detained Ali Salem.3 Salem was released; Ibrahim was charged, tried, and sentenced by the Supreme State Security Court to seven years in prison.
When the intifada erupted in September 2000, Salem stood steadfast in his support of peace. "All parties are responsible for what has happened and is still happening," he said. "It is futile to describe Israel as the only one who is wrong." Had he not seen the images of Muhammad ad-Durra, the Palestinian child killed by Israeli fire? "Of course, but I also saw the picture of the Israeli soldiers who were butchered, and their corpses burnt. I also saw the kidnapping of Israeli soldiers in Lebanon. Why do you ignore this?" When a journalist pressed him to recant, Salem refused. "You expected that Ali Salem would announce, through you, his repentance of his peace-guilt. However, I still insist that nobody has the right to inflame a war, because after our peoples are exiled and our infrastructure is destroyed, we will sit to cry and talk peace."4
More recently, Ali Salem has called upon the Palestinians to end the intifada. "The Egyptian-Jordanian initiative, the Mitchell report, and all American and European efforts call for a halt to the intifada and a return to the negotiating table," he has said. "The Union of Egyptian Writers, which calls for the continuation of the intifada at any cost, may not be aware that the cost could well be the Palestinian people themselves." In the meantime, he has taken legal action against his expulsion from the Writers’ Union—an expulsion, he says, that is invalid. "My name no longer appears in the papers unless I am being interrogated or expelled," he laments. "But I work in the open, and I cooperate with anybody working to promote peace."5
The following are excerpts from his travelogue to Israel, in Robert Silverman’s translation from the Arabic (with minor stylistic changes). They include the core of his rebuttal to his critics. The translated travelogue will appear this winter in its entirety, under the title A Drive to Israel: An Egyptian Meets His Neighbors. It is distributed by Syracuse University Press, for the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University.—The Editors
Out of Egypt
The road to al-‘Arish was long and desolate, the car radio wasn’t working. My only companions were my anxiety and the irksome grinding of the car engine. I was alone for long stretches of road, no one passed me in either direction. The landscape was desiccated, no one to save me if the car broke down, no hope even of meeting up with a highway robber.
I was exhausted, having run around since the morning to complete final errands, change the motor oil, check the tire pressure. Downtown Cairo had been crowded. I had parked the car with my bags packed, in front of the garage across from the Cairo Atelier and went to buy a suit. I also needed some car parts. Oh, skip it, I told myself, I won’t use them if the car breaks down. Should I at least buy a red triangle to put near the car to warn others? Forget it, my heart told me, the car won’t break down, it must know of my extreme circumstances. I trusted in chief mechanic Osman, godfather to my green Niva, which I consider the most durable legacy of the Soviet Union. Osman had undertaken a complete overhaul of the engine. I had asked him to change any part that gave rise to doubt.
"Osman … I want you to prepare this car for a long trip."
"Where’re you going?"
Now I was crossing the border, Egypt was behind me, for a long time I wouldn’t use the Egyptian dialect that I love. I set out on the road to Tel Aviv, in my car with its Cairo license plates: white Arabic numbers on a black background. I admit it: when they left me the Egyptian plates, I felt happy. And I began to exploit the chance to proclaim my nationality … With Egyptian plates and a high-pitched jeep engine I was shouting, without opening my mouth: Hey, folks! … Egypt is your neighbor! … I am an Egyptian coming forth from Egypt.
With the Golan
That evening, as I drove to Netanya, I noticed a young boy standing at a traffic light. He was darting quickly behind cars and affixing stickers to rear bumpers. He’s going to put a sticker on my car, I thought, and there’s a slogan written on it. The situation would be terribly ironic were if turned out to read, "Get rid of the Arabs," or something like that. I also noticed that the boy was exchanging a few quick words with the drivers and deduced that he was asking: "Do you support this?" or "Do you agree?"
Some drivers indicated that they didn’t agree, and the boy moved quickly to the next car. Praise God, I won’t be exposed to this ordeal, I thought when the light changed, and I moved forward. But at the next light, there was another boy passing out the same stickers. He said something to me in Hebrew, and I answered in English: "What does this sticker say?"
"The people in the Golan."
"What about them?"
It looked like his English wasn’t up to this, so I repeated the question: "Do you want them back here …"
Praise the Lord, so he wants an Israeli withdrawal from the Golan.
"Okay, put it on."
So I contributed to political work before I’d placed my foot on Israeli soil. Later I discovered later that the sticker read, "The people are with the Golan," a vague formulation that had the opposite meaning of what I had assumed. He was "with the Golan" in the sense that he didn’t want to withdraw from it. And I, as an Arab, am "with the Golan" in the sense that I’d like him to withdraw. So as not to produce extraneous political complications in the region, I removed the sticker.
The most interesting point is that the young boy, in that brief moment after a driver told him he didn’t agree with the slogan, didn’t feel angry or frustrated. Instead he quickly moved on to another car. He didn’t scream: "You creep, why don’t you agree? … You must be an agent of the Syrians and the Arabs."
We must focus on this point in raising our children. It is a person’s right to hold differing views and ideas, as long as he doesn’t espouse violence or aggression. Let ideas do combat with each other, theory against theory, for the benefit of the nation.
Public debates here are not confined to the offices of political parties or newspaper columns. You see them transformed into banners held by groups of young men and women on street corners. Sometimes you find a demonstration of two persons carrying a banner announcing their joint political position. There is a well-known group that stands on a certain street corner in Jerusalem wearing black clothes and holding signs saying: "Leave the West Bank … Leave the Golan … Leave Gaza."
You’ll find another group in the middle of Jerusalem raising signs saying: "The West Bank begins here," meaning that if we vacate the West Bank, we’ll wind up withdrawing even from Jerusalem.
A single party and single ideology, especially when they are shining and idealistic, conceal sharp contradictions. These contradictions lead in the end to an explosion. They’re transformed into rockets, warplanes, tanks and casualties. People die and kill gratuitously, for no reason or for stupid ideas … ask Iraq, or Kuwait, or the people of Yemen.
The drive from Tel Aviv to Beer Sheva takes less than two hours. A little before Beer Sheva, the driver told me: "Now we’re approaching Faluja. I’ll show you the place where Nasser was surrounded."
The car stopped near a field.
I went back in time. This place has affected my life and the lives of millions of human beings. Here in 1949 Nasser was surrounded, together with thousands of Egyptian troops. Field negotiations took place here in a tent between him and his group of Egyptian colleagues and Israeli officers. This is natural, it often occurs on the field of battle. There is an important sentence in the memoirs of one of the Israeli officers, Yigael Yadin: "In these meetings, these young men realized that their battle was not here." Indeed, in his book Philosophy of the Revolution, Nasser wrote: "There we realized that our real battle was in Cairo."
And so it was. After the tanks returned from Faluja to their barracks in the fields of the ‘Abbasiyya district of Cairo, they rested some time from the fatigue of the road. Then they went into the streets of Cairo to undertake their real battle. Since then, all the inhabitants of the region have lived in a state of mental war.
A number of military officers in other Arab capitals made the same astonishing discovery—that their real battle was in their capitals. So they also went forth in their tanks to the streets and eliminated the civilian version of government that was blocking their path to the liberation of Jerusalem. Quickly or gradually, they eliminated human rights in their countries. But we would slight them if we didn’t also admit that they succeeded in adding several hundred thousands to the number of refugees, just as they added hundreds of thousands to the list of fatalities, the wounded and maimed. They naturally didn’t forget to enrich the ranks of widows, bereaved parents, and orphans. We should also concede that these military rulers succeeded in relieving the Arab nation of the burden of governing a great deal of real estate.
Later, some thought that the road to Jerusalem lay through Amman. It took the slaughter of several thousand Palestinians on a black day in September to prove that this idea was mistaken.
Others supposed that the road to Jerusalem passed through Kuwait. All the Arab road and bridge experts failed to convince them that this notion was mistaken. The West had to come, with all its means of persuasion, to prove that Jerusalem was actually very far from Kuwait. Our losses were trivial, several hundred thousand casualties and several hundred billion dollars. An entire people lives behind the walls of a republic of fear in conditions that not even hell itself is able to match.
"All this is a mistake," you say. "Jerusalem will be liberated when we march towards it directly on the highway, in an armored vehicle named Arab unity … When the Arab countries are united, we will advance on and reclaim Jerusalem … or rather all of Palestine." But it turns out that the enemies of Arab unity, as defined by the authorities, are human beings … public utilities … buildings … homes … water pumping stations … oil refineries … The true enemy of unity is life … Life must be destroyed to save unity!
What we have here is a mental state of war.
This is a state that envelops the mind and has no connection to any actual war on the ground. It’s different from combat. In combat, generals plan seriously and realistically in order to achieve a victory sufficient to create peace. But in a mental state of war you fight without going into the field, you’re transformed into a cannon without ammunition, a smoke bomb, a popgun. All your actions and words are transformed into slogans and battle cries. It’s a state of hatred of self and of others; it’s the highest degree of lie.
In a mental state of war, you’re prepared to give up all your human rights, and this is the worst part of it. In order to convince you that it is an actual war, others will put you in a narrow trench and turn off the lights, leaving you in pitch darkness. Then they play a tape of sound effects on giant loudspeakers. All the sounds of war are recorded on the tape. You actually feel the shells raining down on the trench, and so you try not to budge, lest you get hit. After some time passes—including your present and future—you’ll consider yourself lucky because you haven’t yet died.
Even when they stop the tape to replace it with another, and there are a few moments of silence, they say to you: "These are the most dangerous moments of the battle! The enemy is silent because he is planning … Don’t think you are safe! … These are the moments when the enemy is conniving with international imperialism and planning to put an end to you … Be on guard … Be on guard against getting out of the trench …because they are scheming to transform you from an Arab into a Middle Easterner."
At this, you cower inside the trench, you’re overcome with terror at the prospect of being turned into…a Middle Easterner.
Of course, you don’t ask: What’s the meaning of the Middle Eastern market? Is it like the Friday market? What are its advantages for me? What are its disadvantages? What does it mean that Israel will have hegemony over this market? How can I prevent this hegemony? The word "hegemony" itself … what does it mean?
You won’t ask questions for a simple reason. In a state of war, no one argues … or asks questions. "Is this the right time, man? … Get back to the trench immediately!"
The mental state of war can be comfortable, indeed pleasurable, especially in the absence of critical thinking, because it arises directly from the most basic of instincts: hostility.
Question: Is it possible to transform the mental state of war into actual war?
The answer: Yes … when people overdose on it, in the hope of reaching a higher level of ecstasy, resulting from the absence of consciousness. Put a large quantity of weapons and ammunition in a bag, add a dash of lies and illusions, throw in a number of irresponsible men, seal the bag and leave it in an open place among people. It’ll definitely blow up in their midst after several months or years.
Before traveling to Israel, I spoke with many friends who opposed my trip. I listened carefully to everything they said. I feared I was missing some angle or key element that would lead to my harming the interests of the Egyptian people. But all I heard were excuses, arising from a mental state of war, from hatred. The only difference between them and me is that I want to get rid of this hatred. I decided to participate in the creation of peace.
Peace is also a mental state. I must drive myself and others to enter such a state. I have great faith that this will be easiest for those who seek freedom.
"Dear driver, I’ve seen enough of Faluja. Let’s continue on the way to Beer Sheva … We’ve tarried here too long."
On the road to the beach, the taxi driver was playing a song on his car cassette player. A young man was singing, the melody was sad and beautiful, with a sweet, consoling refrain. The song is in Hebrew but the tune is familiar. Haven’t I heard it before? Where?
Should I ask the driver for the name of the song and singer? No need, I’ll remember the tune by singing it in my mind. I’ll go to a cassette shop and sing the refrain to the salesman. We got out of the taxi and walked a bit while I hummed the refrain. We crossed the street, sat down in a cafe, and the tune disappeared from my mind. I should have asked the driver! Suddenly the tune returned again but in another form, in different garb. Yes … I know that tune! It’s "I Missed You" by the Lebanese singer Raghib ‘Allama. Yes, sure it’s the same tune, but in a new and beautiful delivery.
I’d known that there are Arabic tunes sung in Hebrew, but it’s one thing to hear of something and quite another to experience it.
My mind turned to the topic of the Israeli cultural invasion of Egypt. It’s a hot issue among Egyptian intellectuals. But who is invading whom? And with what weapons? Where are the casualties, the prisoners, and the ceasefire in this cultural invasion?
In the past, the cries of alarm against a cultural invasion were generally directed against the West. Now the cries of alarm more narrowly warn of an Israeli cultural invasion, which will happen while the Arabs are "hurrying towards peace."6
The use of metaphors and symbols in speaking of reality conceals reality itself. We falsely depict life and treat this fabricated depiction as if it were life itself. When the depiction is full of phantoms, then we waste our lives building fortresses and citadels to defend ourselves against them.
"Now that Israel has failed to invade us militarily, prepare to confront the cultural invasion."
"What is the plan of attack?"
"In all likelihood, Israel will launch Hebrew banners into the skies over Arab capitals and scald us by pouring ashes from them. They’ll mount Hebrew novels on rockets so as to penetrate our minds and hearts and souls, from which they’ll expel the works of not only Naguib Mahfouz, Taha Husayn and Ahmad Baha’ ad-Din, but also al-Mutanabbi and al-Jahiz and even the complaints of the Eloquent Peasant.7 As for Hebrew melodies, Ariel Sharon himself will lead them in a swift pincer movement to encircle our hearts, destroying the melodies of as-Sunbati, al-Qassabgi, ‘Abd al-Wahhab, and Baligh Hamdi.8 Israel will launch its short history inside a nuclear eraser, capable of wiping out your own history of creativity and wisdom."
"Oh, what a wretched, helpless victim am I! How can I protect myself from this invasion? What should I do to confront these lethal weapons?"
"Don’t speak with them, listen to them, or read them. Convince yourself that they don’t exist. Imagine that Israel is the temptress of the folk tales, the voice of seduction luring you to desire and destruction, the siren of Greek mythology and of the Thousand and One Nights. She sings a captivating song, she possesses an enchanting voice that will lure you away and drag you to the bottom of the Nile. Plug your ears and become deaf. While you’re at it, blind your eyes too, since a nuclear film or something like it could invade you … "
"Okay, I’ll plug my ears and blind my eyes to protect me from the cultural invasion."
"But this isn’t enough, my friend! They’ll attack with advanced new weapons capable of penetrating your mind without passing through your ears or eyes."
"Oh, what a lost soul am I! How can I possibly protect my mind?"
"Shut it, shut down your mind. That’s the solution."
"Okay, I’ve closed it."
"Now your ears are plugged, your eyes are closed and your mind is shut. Praise the Lord! You’re saved—from the Israeli cultural invasion. Now you are safe and secure in your own heritage, in your national and ethnic culture."
Several weeks before my trip to Israel, Dr. Galal Amin, a professor of political science at the American University in Cairo, came to the weekly evening soirée of Naguib Mahfouz. Amin is an intellectual who will differ with you in a civilized way, without thinking of slaughtering you or beseeching God to strike you dead. He spoke at length about the dangers of the imminent Israeli cultural invasion that threatens Egypt’s heritage and culture. Naguib Mahfouz listened to him and waited for him to finish. Then Mahfouz asked: "Do you actually think Israel is capable of doing this to us?"
"Yes, that’s why I came to ask you what we should do?"
"Die. If Israel is capable of annihilating the artistic, literary, and cultural heritage of Egypt and the Arab world, then we’d better all die."
The talk of an Israeli cultural invasion of Egypt is nonsense; it insults Egyptian culture and Egyptian intellectuals. It’s an illusory phantom born of a feeling of inadequacy and an ignorance of Egyptian and Israeli cultures. It’s a stupid slogan chanted for demagogic purposes, remote from any consideration of Egyptian interest. It creates an atmosphere of tumult and blackmail among intellectuals, and sows fear without justification among the young generation. They are still in search of the truth and of themselves, at the beginning of their literary and artistic paths. This atmosphere consigns them to misery and despair, affects their production, and strips them of the power and creativity that depend on an accurate take on reality.
So the slogan of cultural invasion has become the white flag raised by those who can’t defeat the peace movement by their old rhetoric. Their defeat becomes victory and victory defeat. Cowards are brave and weakness is strength.
I left Haifa in the afternoon on my way south to the Egyptian border. I hate driving in cities, but I love long drives since the features around me change at every moment, as though I am making the changes. It allows my thoughts to flow freely. I have no illusions as to what awaits me in Cairo, I know what I’ll confront. There is no end to the pain felt by most people when you suddenly raise their curtain of illusions and lies.
After the storm subsides, however, younger generations may consider my trip calmly and discover what I want them to discover—that the condition of mental war is defective and obscures the sun of freedom and development. Between Israel and us there are no minefields, only the paved roads that I traveled.
My trip was extremely short, it didn’t allow me to describe the Israelis any better than could a passenger traveling in a fast car past groups of people. Two nights in Netanya, one in Umm al-Fahm, three in Nazareth, seven in Tel Aviv, two in Beer Sheva, six in Jerusalem, and two in Haifa, twenty-three nights in total. Now I must divest myself of the proceeds of my thoughts.
On my way south to the Egyptian border, I didn’t rely on maps, I just made sure to keep the sun on my right.
I started the motor and took off toward the border fence. I turned right, driving on an unpaved road, the barbed wire of the border on my left. Over the border, two Egyptian soldiers were standing in a watchtower. I pressed on the gas pedal and honked the horn. The two soldiers saw the Egyptian license plate and began shouting and cheering. I didn’t stop, I waved to them and rushed towards the border crossing at top speed, honking the horn. I didn’t use it during the entire trip, why now? And why did the two soldiers cheer? Why did I shed a tear?
I don’t know.
I finished the Israeli customs and passport procedures and calmly approached the Egyptian border gate. A police lieutenant and two corporals stood up and looked at me and my car in amazement. The lieutenant took my passport, threw me a glance, then said: "Yes, mister?"
A moment of terror passed over me. My confidence in the Egyptian bureaucracy is non-existent. Is it possible that in my absence they issued a decree not allowing Egyptians to return from abroad? I said to him, attempting to sound natural: "What is it, my son? This is an Egyptian car … and I’m an Egyptian returning to Egypt."
Moments passed as if they were a lifetime. He called his chief who gave permission for me to enter. Was I really returning to Egypt?
By God, I never left her and she will never leave me for one moment.
1 "The Writers’ Union Expels a Normalizer," Cairo Times, May 31–June 6, 2001.
2 Rihla ila Isra’il (Cairo: Akhbar al-Yawm, 1994).
3 "Writer Joins Growing Ranks of Egypt’s Accused," The New York Times, Aug. 4, 2000.
4 Al-Ahram Al-Arabi, Oct. 21, 2000, quoted in Middle East Media and Research Institute Special Dispatch No. 145, Egypt, www.memri.org/sd/SP14500.html.
5 "Spot the Dinosaur," Al-Ahram Weekly, May 31–June 6, 2001.
6 The reference here is to Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani’s 1995 poem "The Hurried Ones" (al-Muharwilun), an attack on normalization. For the context and excerpts, see Fouad Ajami, The Dream Palace of the Arabs: A Generation’s Odyssey (New York: Pantheon, 1998), pp. 255-61—Eds.
7 Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt’s Nobel prize laureate for literature; the late Taha Husayn famed Egyptian novelist and critic; Ahmad Baha’ ad-Din, one of Egypt’s leading journalists and commentators; al-Mutanabbi, tenth-century poet from Iraq; al-Jahiz, ninth-century prose writer from Iraq; and the "Eloquent Peasant," the hero in a narrative preserved in hieroglyphs that has survived from Egyptian antiquity—Eds.
8 Riyadh as-Sunbati, Muhammad al-Qassabgi, Muhammad ‘Abd al-Wahhab, and Baligh Hamdi: all modern Egyptian composers, all deceased—Eds.