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Last update - 02:29 10/07/2005

The most optimistic man in the Middle East

By Nathan Guttman

WASHINGTON - Ali Salem does not like to talk about his most recent border incident, in which his entry to Israel from Egypt was prevented. The story seems overplayed already, a petty matter that should not sully the feeling that the relations between the two countries are warming. "It's a personal matter, it's connected to Israeli-Egyptian relations," says the 69-year-old playwright and satirist regarding the Egyptian border officials' decision not to allow him to cross into Israel to receive an honorary doctorate from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. And as long as it is a personal matter, Salem can live with it. After all, his support for peace with Israel has already demanded a high price - he was kicked out of the Egyptian Writers Association, boycotted by his professional colleagues and shunned by the intellectual community.

On his present trip, Salem wanted to reconstruct his famous trip to Israel in 1994, after the signing of the Oslo Accords. At the time, Salem got into his old car, crossed the desert and entered Israel via the Rafah crossing. He toured the country, sat in cafes and walked around city streets. The visit, which was documented in his successful book "A Drive to Israel: An Egyptian Meets His Neighbors," reinforced his support for peace between the two countries and his opinion that the Arab world must recognize the State of Israel. But it also cost him cultural and social isolation when he returned to Cairo.

During his first visit, it was important to him to enter Israel by land, he says, in order for the transition to be gradual, so that the desert would mediate between the Egyptian experience and what he was about to experience in Israel. This time as well, he chose the a similar route and tried to enter Israel with his car via the Taba crossing, where he encountered the border officials' refusal. "You need a special permit," they told him, although he arrived equipped with a passport, an entry permit and an invitation to a conference at Ben-Gurion University. Salem drove back to Cairo and tried to get on a flight to Israel, but he was again put off with the argument that he had no permit.

Why didn't he obtain the necessary document? Salem says that it did not enter his mind to ask for a permit, because then he would be giving up his freedom. "I am a free man as long as I feel the freedom inside me," he says, explaining that requesting a special permit would violate that same sense of freedom. Salem stayed at home in Cairo, and Ben-Gurion University placed an empty chair at the honorary degree ceremony. Instead of his planned speech, a passage from the book about his trip to Israel was read, a passage in which he wrote about the attitude of his people toward Israel: "There is no limit to the pain people feel when you suddenly lift the curtain of illusions and lies."

An infuriating decision

The authorities allowed him to travel to the United States. He came last week for a visit to Washington, without being asked to present a special permit at the Cairo airport. Salem is not only popular with Israelis, but with American Jews as well. In Washington they held an evening in his honor at the Jewish community center in the capital, in which they dramatized an excerpt from his famous satirical work about the Cairo fire station (the plot summary: A man whose house is on fire calls the fire station and begs for help, but the clerk at the station keeps asking questions, until his services are no longer required), as well as a sketch based on "A Drive."

Salem managed to infect the audience with his optimism regarding Israeli-Egyptian relations. For him, the treaty concerning the U.S.-Israel-Egypt free trade zone is the strongest evidence that the peace is in fact warming up. Salem is a great believer in market forces and in the ability of businessmen to bring about a change in the Middle East. "The movers of civilization are the merchants and the businessmen. People cross borders and countries not only with merchandise, but with ideas as well," he says, emphasizing that the moment the Middle Eastern business community signals that it is ripe for making peace with Israel, the nation will follow. "Everyone admires the role of the intellectuals, but today businessmen are the ones who change reality," says the man who was shunned by the Egyptian intellectual community, which is leading the struggle against peace with Israel, because he dared to voice a different opinion.

Another reason for Salem's optimism is what he considers the important role his country is now playing in mediating between Israel and the Palestinians prior to the disengagement. Israeli policy, on the other hand, makes him angry. What infuriates him most is the Israeli decision to destroy the homes of the Gush Katif settlers after evacuating them.

The solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which is perhaps beginning to appear on the horizon, strengthens Salem's optimism. Although he believes that in order to jump-start Israeli relations with the Arab world, as he puts it, one needs more than one key (the Israeli-Palestinian conflict), and although he blames Israel for "turning its back on its Arab neighbors and looking toward the West," he believes that the process of change is already underway. The problem is only the pace. In the West, he says, they talk about results and about schedules all the time, but life, especially in the Arab world, has a pace of its own, and this pace is very different from the frenzy of the Western world.

Although in Israel he is known mainly thanks to his battle for normalization of relations, in Egypt Salem achieved his fame as a sharp and clever critic of the country's political and bureaucratic establishment. He writes satirical columns for four magazines and continues to be a productive playwright. He says he believes that Egypt is about to become more democratic, and he is beginning to derive some satisfaction from the changes that he sees around him. But even here, he emphasizes, the pace is the main thing, and it will be very different from the pace expected in the West.

During her visit to Cairo last month, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice leveled penetrating criticism at the absence of political freedom in Egypt. Her words aroused anger both in the Egyptian administration and among the members of the opposition, who are deterred by the blatant American intervention in the internal affairs of their country. Salem, as usual, thinks otherwise. "I believe in the sincerity of the Americans when they say that they want to bring freedom and democracy to the Middle East," he says. "In the end they will succeed, because the people in the Middle East want the same thing."

He will return to Israel

Salem suggests that we not be alarmed by the forces of fanatic Islam that are threatening to come to power in the Arab countries if they become democratic. It is clear to Salem that the silent majority in these countries will not allow the extremists to take over the reins of government, and therefore the West must not use this excuse in order to refrain from supporting democratic processes.

Salem appreciates U.S. policy in the Middle East, but doesn't always feel comfortable with America's culture and lifestyle, especially not the total ban on smoking in public places, which makes things very difficult for the chain-smoking playwright. After the 9/11 attacks, Salem said that America's problem was a lack of suspicion. Whereas in the Middle East it would be inconceivable to let foreigners enter the country freely, and to allow them to take flying lessons, in pre-9/11 America everything was free and permitted. "America will have to be more like us, to develop suspicion," he said at the time. At present he sees his prophecy being fulfilled when everywhere there are strict checks and a palpable security presence.

As an artist, what most disturbs him in America is the culture of violence, as reflected in Hollywood films. Although he does not believe that there should be interference from above to block the violent content, just as he would not dream of agreeing to let someone interfere in his plays, he believes that the human morality of the artists should guide them and keep them away from films of that type. "Violent films from Hollywood have a destructive influence on people, even in the Arab world," he says. "These films are full of blood, destruction and murder, and the time has come to rethink that. Art has to promote freedom and love, not violence."

That is perhaps the only issue that causes Salem to feel pessimistic. But when the conversation returns to the future of the Egyptian-Israeli peace, he returns to his optimistic stance. In spite of his most recent border incident, he believes that he will return to Israel yet, and he sees behind him a large wave of Egyptians who daily are becoming more aware that peace is necessary. "I think that I have a part in that, but I don't want to exaggerate its importance," he says. "During the past 12 years, I have managed to convince parts of the population of the importance of peace, and I think that there are many people in the Arab countries who respect my opinions."

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