Man of Letters: Egyptian Playwright Ali Salem
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ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ali Salem has written 25 plays and 15 books, and is a columnist for the London-based Arabic daily Al Hayat.
He is perhaps best known for his 1995 book, A Drive into Israel, which was controversial because of his opened-minded approach to a country many Egyptians consider an enemy. His views on Israel have brought criticism in the media and elsewhere, and his pro-democracy sentiments have angered the government, which called them “threatening to national security.” I spoke to Ali Salem last week in Cairo.
Thanks for being with us.
ALI SALEM: Thank you very much.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It’s good to see you.
ALI SALEM: Thank you.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How have the events of September 11 and everything that happened after affected Egypt?
ALI SALEM: It attacked me repeatedly as a nightmare. All the time, I can’t get rid of the picture itself, the two towers and the two planes. And I try as a writer to find words describing what happened, but honestly, I discovered that dictionaries of all languages have no words describing what happened. So this is the accident that divided history into two parts: Before and after– before the destruction of the two towers, and after the destruction of the two towers. In this big collision between East and West, I started thinking that you will gain some of our qualities and we will gain some of your qualities. That you’ll be more suspicious, less just, more afraid; and I think we will be more progress.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You will have more progress?
ALI SALEM: Yes, we’ll have more progress because you will take share in our troubles. There is no first world, there is no second or third world; there is a village called this planet. And if somebody is dangerous in a village close to Cairo, this person, the same person, will be very, very dangerous in Hamburg, in London, in Paris, in New York. He will represent the same danger everywhere. Thousands, thousands of the Americans died in order to have a better life for both of us. Yes. You know, it was our battle against these extremists. In Egypt, we lost more than 1,000 officers and policemen, and about 1,000 from the civilians, in battles against them. They killed writers. Tried to kill writers, tried to assassinate Naguib Mahfouz.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The great novelist.
ALI SALEM: The great novelist.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Nobel prize- winning.
ALI SALEM: And all the time we think that it’s our battle. No, it’s the world’s battle.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I think it’s hard sometimes for Americans to understand Egypt. Some people in America say there’s not real freedom here; it’s not democratic; that there’s not real freedom for writers; that either the radicals, the terrorists will kill you, or the government will put you in prison.
ALI SALEM: You know, something? It’s a skirmish between the Egyptian media and the American media. It’s a skirmish between these two tribes of men of letters, print carriers, really. But I think that the relation between the Egyptian government and the American government is very strong, very strong. And they understand each other. So don’t be deceived by those men of letters and journalists who are expressing their ancient views clouded by hatred emanating from other, from other stages of history. These people who hate America are not representatives of the Egyptian people. People in Egypt were horrified when they saw the destruction of the two towers– were horrified, were very sad, very gloomy. So we are talking about human beings, and we are human beings. We know very well that we, before you, were the victims of this terrorism.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: The Taliban were seen by some as sort of the ultimate in the Islamic state. They said that the things they did were following the Koran. What do you think their fall or their apparently rapid fall indicates?
ALI SALEM: That history sometimes may make some mistakes. I’m obliged – I’m forced to tell you that the American governments before in the ’70s took part in this when they exploit religion in order to win their political battles. And the Soviet Union thought that the American government, with the help of some other government in our Middle East, told people, “These people, the Russians, the Soviets, are infidels. They are against God. So come to fight for God.” And after that, they left them. So they are still going, fighting for God. But suppose they told them before, or they had told them, “Come and fight for freedom. These people are against freedom. Come to fight to enjoy freedom.” They didn’t say anything about freedom. They were talking all the time about God. Even Reagan raised the holy book to talk about it.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: President Reagan?
ALI SALEM: Yes. So it’s a phase in history. I don’t like to talk about it. It’s a mistake. It was a mistake.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: As you know, some of the experts here who write about these things put a lot of blame on Israel and say that if only the Palestinian-Israeli situation were solved, if there were peace, there wouldn’t be this terrorism. Do you think that that’s true?
ALI SALEM: Part of the answer, but not the whole answer, because you may solve this problem, we all may all solve this problem, and in the shade of the same culture, we’ll have more extremists. But it’s a part of the answer itself. Of course it’s politics. Politicians try to make games in this occasion. Come and solve this problem in order not to have terrorists again.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: But do you really believe that when some of the groups, including bin Laden, say they’re doing this to help the their Palestinian brothers…
ALI SALEM: He’s a liar. He knows that he is a liar. Everybody knows that he is a liar. And he didn’t mention Palestine before. And all people know that the man is against the royal family in Saudi Arabia, that’s all. The man wants to be something great. That’s all.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: I want to ask you just a little bit about what it’s like to be a writer here in Egypt. I know you’ve had some trouble.
ALI SALEM: I think thinking in itself is a risky job, even in the first world. You have to prepare yourself when you say, “Okay, ah, I discovered something– there is a mistake, there is a fault.” And this sort of thinking– I would like to tell my people that they are mistaken– it starts. At this moment, you will pay the price. So writing is the only way for somebody to assure themselves, to be themselves. I can’t imagine myself while I’m not writing. I can’t. I’m nothing. I’m nothing. I am myself only when I write. And I try to write what I feel all the time, and I know that the honor of a writer is to declare what he is thinking of.
ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Ali Salem, thanks for being with us.
ALI SALEM: Thank you very much.