Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Egyptian intellectuals curious about Israel shunned

Egyptian playwright Ali Salem

An Egyptian intellectual needn't go to Israel to be ostracised - to sing in a Cairo synagogue could be deemed offensive enough. Jeffrey Fleishman of The Los Angeles Times reports:

Reporting from Cairo -- 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.

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