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November 13, 2002

Playwright blacklisted after his trip to Israel

"Freedom's just another word for...."
CAIRO — Ali Salem was once one of Egypt's most prominent playwrights, but his curiosity about Israel has brought him expulsion from his country's cultural circles.

Since visiting Israel in 1994, Mr. Salem hasn't found a producer for his works. He has two plays and a movie script gathering dust and, he says, nobody talks with him anymore about theater, only about politics.
"I'm a playwright by nature, and a writer by coercion," Mr. Salem, 66, who still writes newspaper columns, said in an interview. "I have become similar to [Franz] Kafka's heroes — I don't know what exactly is demanded of me."
A big, loud man known for his satiric wit, he had thought about visiting Israel since President Anwar Sadat went to the Jewish state in 1977. Mr. Sadat's visit led to Egypt becoming the first Arab state to sign a peace treaty with Israel, in 1979, but many Egyptians are still outspokenly anti-Israel — including the leftist intellectuals who once made up Mr. Salem's social set.
Mr. Salem, a retired Ministry of Culture bureaucrat, has written about 25 plays and 15 books. Among his most famous plays is "School of the Troublemakers," a 1971 comedy about a class of riotous teenagers reformed by a kind female teacher.
Shortly after Israel and the Palestinians signed the 1993 Oslo peace agreements, Mr. Salem announced plans to visit Israel "to know who are these people, and what are they doing."
But when he finally went the following year, he told no one, not even his wife and three daughters. He drove his car across the border to Israel and stayed for more than three weeks.
"It wasn't a love trip, but a serious attempt to get rid of hate. Hatred prevents us from knowing reality as it is," he said.
He wrote a series of stories about his trip for an Egyptian weekly and later a book, "Journey to Israel," published in September 1994.
Fellow writers labeled Mr. Salem a sellout, but he replied in print that those who accused him of working for Israel really understood he was "working for Egypt and Egyptians' sake."
"I'm sorry for the pain I caused them by my trip — I forced them into independent and responsible thinking," Mr. Salem wrote.
Intellectuals stopped shaking hands or talking with him. Still not exactly welcomed in the Egyptian press, Mr. Salem contributes columns to the respected London-based Arab-language newspaper Al-Hayat.
After a series of warnings, Mr. Salem was expelled last year from the Writers Syndicate for "his normalization activities with the Zionist entity," as many Arabs call Israel. He recently persuaded a court to overturn the union's action, then resigned, saying he went to court to prove a point.