Israel issue tough on Egypt artists

Fleishman is a Times staff writer.

It has been a tough peace for Ali Salem. His plays don’t have a stage. Intellectuals shun him; the writers union refuses to pay his pension. He sits in a cafe window, typing on his laptop and defending his choice long ago to cross the border into Israel and make friends.

Egypt and Israel made peace in 1979, but that treaty remains as agitating to Egyptian artists and intellectuals as a sliver of glass beneath the skin. Most of them don’t accept it, and those who do are often vilified, their artistic voices muffled by condemnation.

“Producers are afraid to come near me,” said Salem, who in 1994 drove his car across Israel and wrote what critics considered a sympathetic book about the journey. “I anticipated there would be a strong reaction, but I didn’t expect it would be so mean. It’s hard and this is the wound.”


Salem, a columnist for Al Hayat newspaper and a co-founder of the Cairo Peace Movement, added: “Peace is the right idea. But Egyptian intellectuals are afraid and can’t get rid of their ancient fears. They still think Israel and the U.S. will inflict something bad upon us.”

There are degrees of resistance among intellectuals toward rapprochement. Many oppose improving relations until Palestinians have their own state; others support limited peace but are guarded when discussing the passions around the Arab-Israeli conflict; a few have visited Israel to interact with their Jewish counterparts.

And, occasionally, an artist unwittingly becomes the target of screeds and opinion page vitriol. Filmmaker Nadia Kamel’s recent documentary about her mother’s Jewish roots was attacked as a call to “normalize” relations with Israel. Opera singer Gaber Beltagui had his membership in the musicians union suspended in 2007 when he sang at the 100th anniversary of a Cairo synagogue.

“How can he go sing at a synagogue while they [Israelis] are killing our sons?” Mounir Wasseemy, the head of the Musical Artists’ Syndicate, said, denouncing Beltagui. “What glory was he seeking?”

The Cairo synagogue is “officially recorded as an Egyptian monument,” said Beltagui, who has filed suit against the union. “I did not expect this reaction. I did nothing wrong. I had even asked permission from the state security services before I sang.”

Similar furor has engulfed Mohammed Sayed Tantawi, the grand sheik of Cairo’s Al Azhar Mosque, the leading Sunni institution in the Islamic world. Writers and newspapers have called for Tantawi’s resignation after he was photographed shaking hands with Israeli President Shimon Peres at a recent international conference on religious understanding sponsored by the United Nations.

The sheik said he had not recognized Peres, and has called his detractors “lunatics.”

Gamal Ghitani is one of Egypt’s best novelists. He covered the 1973 war as a correspondent and is curious to see the land of his enemy. That is not likely to happen soon; Ghitani’s refusal to travel to Israel has not wavered in more than three decades.

“Cultural exchange can’t be fruitful unless Israel achieves peace on the ground,” he said. “How can I be at peace with this peace if Israel relies on its military superiority, builds fences and settlements and keeps kicking Palestinians out? Politics can follow the path it wants, but we as intellectuals must follow our conscience.”

A chat with him on a recent morning rolled through history and present-day dangers. Ghitani, a polished man in a blue blazer, equates radical Zionists with Palestinian mujahedin, and he draws a distinction between individual Jews and the actions of a Jewish state. His conversation was laced with nuance and shifting politics; he said he opposed the criticism directed at opera singer Beltagui as “a form of extremism.”

Yet he promised not to budge on making his own peace with Israel.

“This will take time,” said Ghitani, editor of the literary journal Akhbar Al-Adab. “We can’t go to Israel while they are killing Palestinians.”

Salem was as rumpled as Ghitani was meticulous. Sitting in a cafe in a flannel shirt, Salem, a big man with rounded shoulders, leaned forward, his voice rattling like the growl of a loose muffler.

He was an established playwright when Cairo was ostracized by the Arab world after President Anwar Sadat traveled to Washington to sign the Camp David peace accords with Israel’s Menachem Begin.

His open support of that peace, and his befriending of Jewish intellectuals, has cost him. The Egyptian Writers’ Union stopped paying his pension in 2001 and he hasn’t had a play produced here in years. So he has turned his newspaper column into a kind of one-man theatrical show. It’s not the same as a production, but it allows him to vent.

“Peace will not come to you; you have to make it, you have to sculpt it,” he said. “The intellectuals here always pull Israel from the bottom of the drawer and set it on the table. They can’t move beyond it.

“But you know, business deals lead to peace, not ‘enlightenment’ from writers and intellectuals. . . . If you ask any Egyptian businessman, he will tell you there is peace with Israel. There’s real cooperation on security, commerce and politics.”

In November, Salem was awarded the $50,000 Civil Courage Prize from the Train Foundation, a New York-based trust that promotes tolerance and resistance to extremism, which recognized his commitment to peace with Israel and opposition to Islamic radicalism. When Salem discussed the prize, there was a shine in his eyes, the kind a man has when he gets one over on his critics.

He made his 1994 trip to Israel -- his first -- after the Oslo accords. His book about the journey, “My Drive to Israel,” reportedly sold 60,000 copies and angered Egyptian intellectuals, as did his honorary doctorate from Israel’s Ben-Gurion University of the Negev.

“When I went to Israel, I just wanted to see who are these people and what are they doing,” he said. “The writers union still wants me to repent. But they will never forgive me if I retreat. That’s when the real attacks would come, because deep down they know I speak the truth.”


Noha El-Hennawy of The Times’ Cairo Bureau contributed to this report.