Ali Salem, the Egyptian playwright and humorist, is spending a couple of weeks at The Washington Institute for Near East Policy, as its guest. Salem is famous for his allegorical plays and stories, which cleverly puncture the conventions of Egyptian and Arab politics. He is also a very funny man. Over the weekend, he regaled a policy conference with a theatrical reading from one of his hilarious dialogues (the Cairene and the fire brigade, if you know his oeuvre).
Salem became controversial after Oslo, when he drove to Israel in his own car, and published a best-selling Arabic account of his trip—a book rich in humor and insight. (It has been published in English as A Drive to Israel, and is excerpted in the Middle East Quarterly.) The Union of Egyptian Writers tried to expel him last year, but a court recently ruled the decision illegal. Egypt’s petty scribblers have done everything in their power to silence Salem. But he has stood fast against them, and despite the barbs of Islamist and nationalist “intellectuals,” Salem remains one of the most beloved figures in Egyptian letters.
Courage also has informed his commentary on 9/11. Countless experts have presented the “grievances” of the 9/11 hijackers in rational terms, as resentment against this or that U.S. policy. Listen to Ali Salem contradict them:
It’s very difficult to understand the machinery of hatred, because you wind up resorting to logic, but trying to understand this with logic is like measuring distance in kilograms. These are people who are afraid of America, afraid of life itself. . . . These are people who are envious. To them, life is an unbearable burden. Modernism is the only way out. But modernism is frightening. It means we have to compete. It means we can’t explain everything away with conspiracy theories. Bernard Shaw said it best, you know. In the preface to ‘Saint Joan,’ he said Joan of Arc was burned not for any reason except that she was talented. Talent gives rise to jealousy in the hearts of the untalented.
At the same time, Salem is a zealous defender of the fundamental decency of the common Egyptian, who, Salem is sure, was genuinely appalled by the carnage of 9/11. Yes, America gives rise to intense and contradictory feelings in Egypt—what he calls “a very severe pathological love. In Egypt, we would say, ‘La bahebak wa la akdar ala boedak—I don’t love you and can’t bear being away from you.'” But he is an insistent defender of the Egyptian-American relationship. “The taxpayer in America has not wasted his money,” he has said. “We are an ally. We are going toward liberalism, actually. And you have gained many things; the peace agreement between Israel and Egypt is quite respected.”
Welcome to Washington, Ali Salem. This is an authentic ambassador of Egypt, and people who want to know what Egyptians really think should forget the experts and the diplomats, and give him a call.