- 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
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.
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.
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
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.
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
He will return to Israel
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.
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."
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."