Barred from Israel by Egypt, Ali Salem Comes to Washington

Across the Arab world, leaders and intellectuals are taking only baby steps when it comes to accepting Israel into the fold. Ali Salem, on the other hand, has been speeding toward that goal — sometimes literally — for over a decade. The Egyptian writer has visited Israel 15 times since his first journey by car in 1994, which became the basis for his memoir, “Ali Salem Drives to Israel.” He was in Washington recently to supervise a theatrical adaptation of the work to be staged at Theater J, which is associated with the Washington Jewish Community Council.

Salem’s rare position as an Arab who accepts Israel makes his work a natural for the theater, said Ari Roth, who is directing the production.

“It’s fascinating for people in the theater to see something from a new perspective,” he said. “Salem sees Israel through a new and different lens.”

Salem first visited Israel in April 1994 following the signing of the Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestine Liberation Organization.

“It was curiosity,” he told JTA. “I wanted to see those who had been fighting us for so long, to feel what people there are like.”

Salem’s stay in Washington earlier this summer followed his most recent attempt to visit Israel in May, to receive an honorary doctorate from Ben Gurion University in Beersheba. Again he drove across the Sinai Desert, but this time he was turned away by Egyptian authorities at the Taba-Eilat border.

He sped the 330 miles back to Cairo to catch a flight instead, but authorities there had also been instructed to turn him away.

Salem said he wasn’t worried: If the government really had it in for him, he suggested, they could have kept him from coming to the United States.

“I could just go to Israel on a plane from Dulles,” one of Washington’s airports, he said with a wry smile.

The Israelis who had hoped to host Salem were not so sanguine. Avishai Braverman, the president of Ben-Gurion University, said he “failed to comprehend” the Egyptians, and the university set up an empty chair at the ceremony to mark Salem’s absence.

With his intuitive understanding of what worries Israel, Salem represents a ray of hope for the Jewish state, which doesn’t draw a lot of succor from its neighbors. Despite a 25-year-old peace treaty, Egyptian authorities have done all they can to keep the peace with Israel as cold as possible, though Egypt has agreed to play a critical role in securing Israel’s withdrawal this month from the Gaza Strip.

When Egypt throws a blanket over a group that Salem co-founded in 1996 — which Al Ahram, the leading Egyptian newspaper, described as an Arab version of “Peace Now” — Israelis despair.

“To prevent a veteran peace activist from leaving the country is a serious blow to others who support peace,” Amos Oz, Israel’s pre-eminent writer and a leading peace activist, told the Israeli daily Yediot Achronot.

Salem brings to his activism a status as an avatar of Egyptian culture. Born in 1936 in a small, ancient town by the mouth of the Nile, he moved to Cairo when he was 23 and produced his first play at 30. He since has authored 24 plays and 15 books.

Salem believes that ordinary Egyptians feel the way he does about Israel — although, he concedes, “there is much vocal and written opposition” to his activities, “mostly from intellectuals.”

The Union of Egyptian Writers expelled Salem in 2001. His crime? 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,” the union said in explaining its action.

Salem’s main sin seemed to be his insistence on considering the Israeli perspective.

When the Palestinian intifada exploded in September 2000, Salem told an Egyptian reporter that he believed there were two sides to the conflict, at a time when the Arab world was excoriating alleged Israeli brutality.

“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.”

When asked if he had seen the photographs of Muhammad al-Durra, a 12-year-old killed in Palestinian-Israeli crossfire, Salem replied, “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?”

Salem insists on remaining optimistic, saying practical considerations make full-fledged peace inevitable.

“The role of businessmen is more important than that of intellectuals,” he said. He says the younger generation has become drawn to his movement.

In Washington, Salem met with members of Congress and Jewish leaders. Addressing the American Jewish Committee, he delivered the speech he intended to use at the doctorate ceremony at Ben Gurion University.

“I’m a person who loves to live in peace with himself, with his people and with his neighbors. I’m one of your neighbors,” he read. “I feel that this doctorate is not bestowed on me as a person but as a private in a battalion. I mean those liberal intellectuals in the Arab world who are battling for freedom, democracy and peace in very gloomy circumstances.”

In person, he sounded less than gloomy.

“I ask people not to be afraid of each other,” Salem says, “because fear contaminates a peaceful relationship.”

Each party must feel that peace is in their interest — but ultimately, he says, there’s no other option.

“It will come,” he says confidently. “It will come. It is only natural.”

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