Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Egypt is poorer for the demise of a wily playwright

Even post-mortem, Ali Salem’s critics could not bring themselves to say something nice about him. The death of the Egyptian playwright last week at 79 was greeted with customary denunciations of a man who, in 1994, published a book about his drive through Israel. Mr Salem, a defender of normalisation with the Israelis, paid a high price for this attitude.

However, those who condemned Mr Salem often left unanswered a fundamental question relating to peace with Israel: if peace was a strategic option of Arab regimes – and in the early 1990s when the playwright decided to visit the country it was – then of what value was peace without normalisation?

Even today an Arab peace offer remains on the table. The Arab Peace Initiative, first proposed by Crown Prince Abdullah of Saudi Arabia and approved at an Arab League summit in Beirut in 2002, has not been withdrawn. Yet Israel never showed any interest in the Arab offer, which could be summarised as “full withdrawal from occupied lands in exchange for full peace”.

Israel’s rejection of the initiative only made Mr Salem’s efforts appear more Quixotic, but it did not clarify what peace should entail. And here the experiences of the playwright showed that, while certain Arab intellectuals are well-endowed with outrage, they have greater trouble proposing practical solutions.

Famously, Mr Salem was expelled from the Writers Union in 2001, a decision that was reversed when he went to court. With a typical sense of provocation, Mr Salem then resigned. I recall him repeating the story to me in a hotel room in Doha. One could sense that, whatever Mr Salem’s critics did, they would not prevail over this indomitable man of oversized personality.

In deciding to turn Mr Salem into an outcast, his critics in Egypt resorted to behaviour that smacked far more of intellectual Stalinism than dedication to principle. His challenge was made in the realm of ideas; their answer was to engage in intimidation. Israel is unresponsive to peace, but that was always the best argument against Mr Salem, not segregation.

Perhaps, also, Mr Salem had greater faith in Egypt than his detractors. As the American journalist Charles Paul Freund recalled in a piece written for the Daily Star in 2005, Mr Salem describes an incident in his book that occurred after the signing of the Oslo Accords. An Egyptian academic described to novelist Naguib Mahfouz his fears that normalisation could mean that Israeli culture would threaten Egypt’s heritage.

Mr Mahfouz responded: “Do you really think that Israel is capable of doing this to us?” When the academic said that he did, Mr Mahfouz’s rejoinder was laconic: “If Israel is capable of annihilating the artistic, literary and cultural heritage of Egypt and the Arab world, then we’d better all die.”

By telling the story, Mr Salem was expressing his own confidence, alongside that of Egypt’s most eminent writer, in what his country stood for. He had shrewdly grasped that there was much more in his detractors than displeasure with his political stance toward Israel; there was a lack of conviction in Egypt itself and its capacity to defend its priorities.

Such doubts, to Mr Salem, were probably associated with an Egypt of the past, in which a sense of insecurity towards Israel was tied in to the many Egyptian defeats at Israel’s hands. In their refusal to address normalisation, his critics showed an inability to define a self-assured vision for Egypt in the region.

My last encounter with Mr Salem took place, perhaps not surprisingly, in the most surreal circumstances. He was visiting Beirut years ago and called me, asking me to pick him up at his hotel. I was happy to oblige and arrived at the Beau Rivage, with some amusement.

At the time the Beau Rivage was near Syrian intelligence headquarters in the capital, and the Lebanese would nervously use the hotel’s name to refer to Syrian intelligence rule. I entered the grim, empty lobby and waited for Mr Salem, wondering how on earth an advocate of normalisation with Israel had ended up in such a place.

The playwright soon arrived and provided an answer, blithely telling me that he had been invited to Lebanon by an Iranian television station for an interview.

This highlighted one of the paradoxes surrounding the man – no less so than the fact that his book on Israel became a bestseller in Egypt. It showed that even as Mr Salem faced censure, there were not a few people, Egyptians and others, interested in hearing what this iconoclast had to say. It’s a shame we won’t be able to do so any more. Egypt is poorer as a consequence.

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