Ali Salem: Egyptian Writer Shunned for His Views on Israel

Originally reported by THE ASSOCIATED PRESS, November 9, 2002

Ali Salem was once one of Egypt's most prominent playwrights, but his curiosity about Israel has brought him expulsion from his country's cultural circles. Since visiting Israel in 1994 Mr. Salem has not found a producer for his works. He has two plays and a movie script gathering dust and, he said, nobody talks with him anymore about theater, only about politics. "I'm a playwright by nature, and a writer by coercion," Mr. Salem, who still writes newspaper columns, said in an interview. "I have become similar to Kafka's heroes — I don't know what exactly is demanded of me." A loud man known for his satiric wit, Mr. Salem had thought about visiting Israel since the President Anwar el-Sadat went to the Jewish state in 1977. Sadat's visit led to Egypt's becoming the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel, in 1979. Sadat was assassinated in 1981 by Egyptian Islamic Jihad, a militant group, and many Egyptians are still outspokenly anti-Israel — particularly the leftist intellectuals who once made up Mr. Salem's social set. Mr. Salem, a 66-year-old retired Ministry of Culture bureaucrat, has written about 25 plays and 15 books. He is known for "School of the Troublemakers," a 1971 comedy about a class of riotous teenagers reformed by a kind female teacher. Shortly after Israel and the Palestinians signed the 1993 Oslo peace agreements, Mr. Salem announced plans to visit Israel "to know who are these people, and what are they doing." But when he finally went the next year, he told no one, not even his wife and three daughters. He drove his car across the border to Israel and stayed for more than three weeks. "It wasn't a love trip, but a serious attempt to get rid of hate," he said. "Hatred prevents us from knowing reality as it is." He wrote a series of stories about his trip for an Egyptian weekly and later a book, "Journey to Israel," published in September 1994. Fellow writers labeled Mr. Salem a sellout, but he replied in print that those who accused him of working for Israel really understood he was "working for Egypt and Egyptians' sake." "I'm sorry for the pain I caused them by my trip — I forced them into independent and responsible thinking," Mr. Salem wrote. Intellectuals stopped shaking hands or talking with him. Still not exactly welcomed in the Egyptian press, Mr. Salem contributes columns to the respected Arab-language newspaper Al Hayat, in London. After a series of warnings, Mr. Salem was expelled last year from the Writers Syndicate for "his normalization activities with the Zionist entity," as many Arabs call Israel. He recently persuaded a court to overturn the union's action, then resigned, saying he went to court just to prove a point. Despite the reaction of his fellow intellectuals, Mr. Salem's Israel book was a success. His account of his feelings about visiting places whose names he had known since childhood and meeting Israelis — both Arabs and Jews — sold more than 60,000 copies. That made it a best seller by Egyptian standards and perhaps revealed the hidden curiosity of Egyptians and other Arabs about Israel. "Journey to Israel" has been translated into Hebrew, and an English translation titled "A Drive to Israel" appeared this year. Mr. Salem criticizes Israel's occupation of Palestinian territories — as well as suicide bombings and entreaties for war by Arabs. "I glorify life, not death," he said. Since his trip, he has been active in Egyptian and Israeli peace groups and has returned to Israel more than 10 times. He has lectured at Israeli universities and given interviews to Israeli news media. He does not shy from sitting in public with Israelis who come to Cairo. Mr. Salem uses humor when addressing serious issues, especially lack of freedom and its effect on creativity, a recurrent theme in his work. He delights in skewering officialdom, a habit that can bring almost as much trouble as a drive to Israel. In a documentary commissioned by Saad Eddin Ibrahim, an Egyptian-American political rights activist, to encourage Egyptians to vote, Mr. Salem included scenes of people dressed as masked robbers stuffing a ballot box while a soldier and an election observer slept nearby. Mr. Ibrahim has been convicted and jailed for tarnishing Egypt's image, an action widely protested by human rights groups. Mr. Salem was not charged over the piece, although he was interrogated for five hours about the script. "I discovered that one of the most difficult things is to try to explain a joke," Mr. Salem said. Mr. Salem, speaking in a Cairo hotel coffee shop he has made his office — "I like to sit and write among people I don't know, in order not to feel isolated" — said he had no regrets about his drive to Israel. "I didn't lose anything," he said. "I gained self respect. I don't do what I can't defend. I'm ready to apologize when I commit a mistake, but I'm not ready to deny reality as I see it."