Thursday, October 1, 2015

On the Death of Ali Salem

I found myself unexpectedly moved the other day to learn of the death of Ali Salem, the Egyptian author, playwright, and columnist. And because he is so little known here, I thought I’d write this week about him and his most remarkable road trip.

I’ve always enjoyed reading Egyptian literature, and particularly the masterworks of giants like Naguib Mahfouz. In fact, reading Mahfouz’s great trilogy, called the “Cairo Trilogy” and consisting of Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street, was one of the truly great experiences of my life as a reader. To know a country, and particularly one whose destiny seems so inextricably linked for better or for worse with Israel’s, not from newspaper articles or from the slogans loudmouths scream in the street, but from truly intelligent, thoughtful, deeply insightful writers capable of seeing the inner workings of a nation through the clever, slow, almost painful dissection of the characters in a novel—that is what it means for literature to have the capacity to serve as a vehicle for reconciliation and for understanding.  And I’ve also read another dozen or more of Mafouz’s novels, all of them (other than the ones set in ancient Egypt, which I couldn’t quite appreciate) windows into a adjacent culture almost totally unknown to those of us to whom the Near East is Israel only, with the occasional side-trip to Jordan to take in the ruins at Petra (but surely not to Amman or Aqaba to encounter any actual Jordanians).

I’ve read others too. Alaa Al-Aswany, a dentist by profession, is another author whose books have taught me about Egyptian culture to me in a remarkably arresting way. His best known book, The Yacoubian Building, is another one of those books that opened up for me a window into an entirely different culture. Clever, moving, and very candid, the book is one I can recommend to anyone eager to know what Egypt feels like to someone on the inside, to someone whose entire ethos is permeated with that nation’s culture. He is, alas, no friend of Israel—and he actually refused permission for The Yacoubian Building to be translated and published in Hebrew. Yet, the way we get to know our neighbors is not by pre-selecting the ones who already like us and getting to know them only; the path to peace lies in learning about people who are hostile to us…and then finding a way to let them to see the humanity in ourselves that we can easily see in them through the books they publish. I just bought Al-Aswany’s latest book, The Automobile Club of Egypt, and am expecting to enjoy it immensely. Perhaps I should send him one of my novels, then invite him to come see me in Jerusalem to talk books and see what happens. Probably nothing will! But who knows…stranger things have happened!

Ali Salem, however, was in his own category. Mahfouz, it is true, was banned in many Arab countries (at least until he won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988) because of his outspoken support for Anwar Sadat and the Camp David Accords of 1978. (He was later the victim of an unsuccessful assassination attempt by Islamic extremists in 1994.) But Ali Salem was brave in a different, more hands-on way. In the wake of the Oslo Accord of 1993, which Salem supported openly and loudly, he decided to do something even more daring for an Egyptian author even to consider, let alone actually to do: he got in his car and drove across the Sinai to Israel to see what was on the other side of the border.  The account of his trip, A Drive to Israel, sold a respectable 60,000 copies in the Arabic original and was eventually translated into English and several European languages, but it still got its author blacklisted in many Egyptian venues…and particularly those in which the notion that the political peace between Egypt and Israel might eventually become an opportunity for the citizens of both countries actually to encounter each other in the flesh and personally to experience each other’s humanity was anathema. Still, he stuck to his guns. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by Ben Gurion University of the Negev in 2005. He won the Train Foundation’s prestigious Civil Courage Prize in 2008. At least one playwright wrote a successful play about him and his trip to Israel. And then he died last week after a long illness. The English translation of his book by Robert Silverman is called A Drive to Israel: An Egyptian Meets His Neighbors and is distributed in the U.S. by Syracuse University Press, partnering in the venture with the Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies at Tel Aviv University, and I recommend it highly to you.

I’ve always liked books about car trips. Up until just lately, my favorite John Steinbeck book was Travels with Charley. From sixteen on, my entire adolescence was filtered one way or another through On the Road. (I still occasionally go back to Kerouac to visit the adolescent me in the only practical way I still can.) I still think of Robert Pirsig’s Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance as one of the most influential books—or at least one of the most influential books not by Abraham Joshua Heschel—I can recall reading during my years at JTS. (And I can remember exactly where I was when I read each part of it, although I read most of those parts many, many times before I finally had had enough.) And then there was, of course, Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, about which I’ve probably already said too much.

And so Ali Salem drove across the Sinai and entered Israel. It was theoretically possible, just untried and undone. The Israelis apparently couldn’t quite figure out why not to issue him a tourist visa now that Egypt and Israel were at peace and had established diplomatic relations. So they did…and over the border he went in one of those moves that feels like it can’t possibly have been that easy and yet which apparently was exactly that simple to manage: he drove up to the border, showed his passport, got his visa…and drove on into Israel. Eventually, he would visit six more times in later years.

The single thing that Salem found the most amazing about Israel was the civility of discourse between people holding wildly opposing political views, an idea that will surely surprise those of us to whom Israelis often seem anything but civil when debating politics. But, as a foreigner, Salem saw things that those of us more familiar with Israel would easily miss entirely. (That’s actually what makes this genre of travel literature—including classics like Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad—so appealing.) In one vignette, for example, he takes note of a boy trying to hand out bumper stickers to drivers stopped at a traffic light in Netanya. 
Although he originally completely misunderstood the point of the slogan they featured—they were opposing any Israeli withdrawal from the Golan Heights, but Salem took the Hebrew to mean exactly the opposite—what struck him was the way dissent was handled when a driver in front of him made it clear that he did not want such a sticker on his car’s bumper:
The most interesting point is that the young boy, in that brief moment after a driver told him he didn’t agree with the slogan, didn’t feel angry or frustrated. Instead he quickly moved on to another car. He didn’t scream: "You creep, why don’t you agree? You must be an agent of the Syrians and the Arabs.” 
Public debates here are not confined to the offices of political parties or newspaper columns. You see them transformed into banners held by groups of young men and women on street corners. Sometimes you find a demonstration of two persons carrying a banner announcing their joint political position. There is a well-known group that stands on a certain street corner in Jerusalem wearing black clothes and holding signs saying: "Leave the West Bank … Leave the Golan … Leave Gaza." You’ll find another group in the middle of Jerusalem raising signs saying: "The West Bank begins here," meaning that if we vacate the West Bank, we’ll wind up withdrawing even from Jerusalem. A single party and single ideology, especially when they are shining and idealistic, conceal sharp contradictions. These contradictions lead in the end to an explosion. They’re transformed into rockets, warplanes, tanks and casualties. People die and kill gratuitously, for no reason or for stupid ideas … ask Iraq, or Kuwait, or the people of Yemen. We must focus on this point in raising our children. It is a person’s right to hold differing views and ideas, as long as he doesn’t espouse violence or aggression. Let ideas do combat with each other, theory against theory, for the benefit of the nation.

The book is short, complete in 138 pages. It’s insanely expensive if you purchase it on-line—the cheapest copy I could find anywhere was more than $50—but it is available in many libraries and that’s how I recommend you read it. (If you are reading this electronically, you can see some interesting excerpts by clicking here.) You’ll like the book, but now that the author is gone from this world perhaps we can consider his legacy not specifically to be the book itself, but the courage, the daring…the personal willingness to undertake what he can’t not have understood would be a step that would infuriate many of towards the establishment of real peace between two nations that in the author’s lifetime had to date only known war. 

Could it be that easy? That is the question that I came back to in the wake of Ali Salem’s death and my recollection of his daring journey to Israel when almost all on both sides of the border would have considered such a journey to be impractical to the point of being impossible. He proved that not to be the case, and he did so definitively. But what lesson shall we who live on in a world so riven by enmity and international strife learn from him? That’s the question I write this week to pose….even without having a clear sense of what the answer could or should be. When I’m in Jerusalem and wouldn’t dream of walking down the road into the adjacent Arab village to buy a Coke or to sit down in a café and have a coffee…am I merely being prudent or am I allowing my own nervousness to deprive me of a chance to see who the people on the other side of the line actually are…and to allow them to see me not as a Zionist or as an American who owns an apartment in Jerusalem, but as a man among men, as a person, as a neighbor, as a potential friend? That’s the question!

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