My mother worries about her kids. Despite her commitment to independence, personal choice and individual freedom, she sometimes cannot help herself. Part of the problem is that she’s the proud owner of a fully functioning, top-of-the-range, active imagination (anyone who thinks my solutions to the world’s ills are quirky ain’t met me ol’ mam!).
Then, there’s the Egyptian in her. She may have travelled quite widely and lived in three different countries but, like most Egyptians, the idea of venturing too far away from the beloved embraces of the Nile Valley is seen as an adventure, a grand voyage into the strange.
So, you can image my trepidation about telling her that I, son of one of the most grounded and placid countries on Earth, was trekking off to the volatile land of the dispossessed. Although I’d mentioned, during my last visit to Egypt, a vague desire to go to Israel and Palestine to see for myself the situation on the ground, I was still not entirely sure how she’d react to an actual visit.
With all the other challenges of the trip, I decided it was best not to have a worrying, or worse, potentially disapproving mother to deal with. So, I phoned her before I left on the pretext of some family business but did not mention my trip.
The day I returned, I called her. “Mama, do you know where I’ve been?”
“No, where?” she asked with curiosity.
Then, I dropped the bombshell. “I’ve been doing my bit to try and solve the Middle East conflict,” I began sheepishly. “I was in Palestine and Israel.”
“Weren’t you afraid?” she asked predictably, although her tone was surprisingly light.
When I explained to her the purpose of my visit, she responded proudly: “My son, the peace broker!” Luckily, it sounded more tongue-in-cheek than her normal proud pronouncements about her children and so didn’t wind me up.
“Are Israelis as frightening as we’re led to believe?” she queried.
“No, they’re not. They’re actually a lot like us. May be half of them are originally from Arab countries.”
“That was the biggest mistake the Arab countries made in this conflict: expelling their Jewish populations,” she reflected melancholically. “Do you think any of them want to come back and live here?” she asked in the naïve innocence she sometimes displays.
Some of the older ones might be interested in returning to their former homes and others might want to visit, but a couple of generations have been born there and their home is Israel, I ventured.
She asked me about my impressions of Israelis. “Most ordinary Israelis just want peace and to get on with their lives,” I said.
“That’s one of the troubles with the world: ordinary people get on just fine, but their leaders spoil it,” she reflected.
“The Arabs have been begging the Israelis to sign a peace agreement for years. Why haven’t they then?” she asked more soberly.
We talked about Israel’s fractured, fragmented and factionalised political landscape and other factors holding back peace. To be fair to the Israelis, I also pointed out that the Arabs have missed opportunities to reach peace with Israel over the decades.
“But we were concerned with questions of justice back then. What kind of modern world would we have built had we just approved of a country that was created on the dispossession and displacement of an entire people? We dreamt of a better world than that,” she said, revealing the pan-Arab idealism of her youth.
She had grown up at a time when the charismatic Gamal Abdel-Nasser was the first indigenous Egyptian leader (apart from Mohamed Neguib, who was actually a Nasserite figurehead) in some 2,300 years. The last native Egyptian pharoah was King Nectanebo II, who ruled from 360-343 BC!
Jews talk of the two-millennium long exile. Well, Egyptians had their own version: an internal banishment. For more than two millennia, a continuous string of foreign rulers took over the Egyptian mantle and the natives were deprived of their right to self-determination, second-class citizens in their own country. Sometimes there were periods of great prosperity’ at others, there was persecution; but at all times, Egyptians were not masters of their own destiny.
Nasser had appeared like a saviour and promised to change all that; to return pride to the Egyptian people – a message he later extended to the whole Arab people. My mum had grown up in those optimistic, idealistic times. But the domestic and regional failures kept coming in thick and fast and the Egyptian nationalist and pan-Arab dream gradually faded until it was dealt a killer blow by the comprehensive military humiliation of 1967.
“No modern country should be founded on religion,” my mum remarked. “The answer is a secular society for Jews, Muslims and Christians.”