Tuesday, 24 April 2007

Why do Egyptians never come here?

Late on Monday evening, Zipora was hosting two good friends whom she described as "very left wing".

They had a long series of questions about politics and society in Egypt for me - and since not many Egyptian pass this way, I felt obliged to answer them all conscientiously. However, the question that seemed to trouble them the most was ‘Why do Egyptians never come here now that we have peace?’

This reminded me of how, in an earlier conversation, Zipora had told me that her family had lived here for seven generations, and she remembered with nostalgia the time when Jews and Arabs lived together peacefully. And her parents and grandparents, were constantly going to Damascus and Beirut on holiday.

Zipora's radical Kibbutz friend - who was not the type to mince her words and was so avant garde that the cavalry could not see her for the dust - seemed a little sad and disappointed by this dashed hope. She recalled fondly President Anwar Sadat's spectacular visit to Jerusalem and she had thought that, after the peace deal, she would get to meet thousands of Egyptians.

I had to spend some time deconstructing Sadat to temper their enthusiasm for the man, for, although he delivered peace, he became something of a despot at home and Egypt was at its corruptest during his watch.

I can sympathise with how lonely it must be for progressive and liberal Israelis who want better ties with their neighbours but find that their neighbours seem only to want a cold peace. I tried to explain that, for many Egyptians, it's nothing personal and a lot of Egyptians profess to wanting better ties with our 'cousins'. However, many ordinary Egyptians feel that schmoozing with Israelis would be a betrayal of the Palestinian cause and say that they refuse to normalise relations on all levels - economic, political and even personal - until a fair peace deal is reached and the Palestinians gain their rights.

I had used an analogy with Amos earlier which I reapplied here. In the morning, he had explained to me that Israel so its function as a safe haven for all Jews to protect them from persecution wherever it may occur in the world, and he gave me some examples of how seriously the government took this pledge. I pointed out to him, that many Arabs share the same sense of solidarity with their 'Arab' brethren in other countries. "If a country were mistreating or persecuting Jews, would you want Israel to continue to have normal relations with that country?" I asked Amos earlier and our friend now.

She nodded earnestly in understanding. "Then, Egyptians won't be coming for a long time," she said, a little sadly. "Perhaps we won't be around long enough to see that day."

Personally, I believe that Egyptians, diaspora Palestinians and other Arabs need to 'normalise' cultural relations with Israelis, reach out the hand of compassion and begin a heartfelt dialogue. We can hold off from economic and political normalisation until there is peace, but each one of us is responsible for giving that process a friendly shove through communication.


IsrealiMom said...

Hey, finally commenting on your blog ;)

I am not sure I would not be talking to people who live in a country that was hostile towards Jews. A lot would depend on why the persecution, how intensive, what lies behind it etc. Past events are certainly no reason not to talk, although the emotional toll by itself could be enough to prevent it. For example, growing up, I was averse to meeting Germans, the memory of the holocaust was too fresh in my family (my grandma lost her family there). It's not that I "blamed" the Germans, as much as being troubled on a very emotional level even by hearing their language. I have changed since then though. Given the chance, I would partake in a dialogue or a meeting between Germans and Israelis.

It's not an exact parallel, of course, far from it. I am not comparing Israel to Nazi Germany, obviously. More than that, unlike Germans and Israelis today, I think that Arabs and ISraelis NEED to get together and talk. Much like we're doing here during your visit. Talk, talk, talk. It's so important to get each other's point of view, like this, in a friendly atmosphere, discussing things till you OD on politics. It does help change perspectives and views. Looking forward for more ;)

Anonymous said...

Arab countries feeling solidarity with the Palestinians? Arab nations have been using the Palestinians as a weapon in the fight against Israel since 1948. Egypt and other Arab countries could have helped them out long ago. Keeping them destitute, however, keeps the cause alive. And as I gathered when in Cairo, most Egyptians hold the Palestinians in disdain. They are the unfortunates conveniently held in place as a political thorn against Israel.

Anonymous said...

But see, fellow anonymus, you illustrate the problem perfectly. Once the dialogue reaches "state levels" all discussion is blocked. He didn't talk about "Egypt." He talked about an egyptian individual. The whole conflict is strangled and ossified by competing narratvies. It will never go anywhere if this situation persists.