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A Plea for the Politics of Peace

by Ali Salem Saturday, Jun. 12, 2004 at 4:13 PM

In advance of the May 22-23 Arab League summit held in Tunis, the London Arabic-language daily Al-Hayat published an open letter by renowned Egyptian playwright and satirist Ali Salem to the participants. The following are excerpts from his letter, translated and reprinted courtesy of

I am writing to you as the representative of tens of millions of weary residents of the Arab region, those simple people who want to live in peace. I admit that, due to technical difficulties, they have not chosen me as their spokesman, so I chose ... to speak in their name....

In the past 30 years, the train of history has stopped twice at the station of peace in the Arab region. The first time was at Camp David [in 1979]. As a result, the Egyptian-Israeli peace agreement [was signed], following which [Egyptian president Anwar] Al-Sadat, and also Egypt, was harshly punished because of his so-called separate solution....

As a result of the "comprehensive, full and just" hostility toward Egypt and toward peace, the Egyptian-Israeli peace accord became a mere ceasefire agreement, and the aim of the peace — that is, removing the bitterness in the region — was lost.

In late 1993, the train of history stopped again in our region, to declare that it was on its way to the station of peace. [This was] the Oslo accords — the first time in history that both sides, Israeli and Palestinian, recognized each other. It was also the first time in history that the Palestinians had a government. Some, myself among them, thought that the agreement was a political miracle and a strong foundation upon which it would be possible to build.

[But] this agreement was received with "comprehensive, full, and just" hostility. Thus, whenever any agreement or any peace was reached with the sponsorship of Europe or America with the agreement or cooperation of the Arab elements, explosives and bombs made sure to destroy the opportunity for peace — so that reciprocal fear and more blood and killed would replace [peace]. We were very preoccupied with the extent of the land we were to get, and did not address the depth of the peace that we would actualize, and its direct influence on the daily lives of the people.

Permit me to explain myself: Day-to-day reality is a most crucial factor in people’s lives. If I were a Palestinian citizen and could get a certain percentage of my land, [I would do it] and immediately would move from it to other, more extensive territory [by means] of rights [due to] proximity — among them [the right] to work. I would have the right to work anywhere in Israel and in Palestine. Who in the world would refuse the Palestinian’s becoming a partner to the Israeli in industry, agriculture and commerce?

Whether we want it or not, [the proximity between Israel and the Palestinians] is an eternal proximity. After we kill as many as we have and will kill from among them, and they kill as many as they have and will kill from among us, the essential fact, that cannot be denied or ignored, will remain, and it is: The Hebrew state will remain the neighbor of the Palestinian state for eternity.

Even if we set out from the starting point — which is in my view correct — that we hate them and they hate us, we must ask [ourselves] how both of us will be able to hate the other in a civilized framework that will enable us to live, keep the horror of destruction distant from us, and halt the region’s fall into the quagmire of terrorism, poverty, ignorance, extremism, and loss.

You certainly will say, "He is equating Israelis with Palestinians, the hangman with the victim. He has deviated from the accepted norms in the Arab [world], and has not cursed Sharon or Bush." Yes, I admit that I have done just that, because I don’t think that the mountains of curses against America and Israel on which we have wasted our time have brought us a single inch closer to peace.

I do not want to think, and I don’t want you to think, in despair, anger or bitterness, that it is impossible to do anything to stop this deterioration, to prevent additional bloodshed, and to [prevent] the destruction of people’s lives, homes, and livelihoods.... There is always something to be done, if you thoroughly understand the problem.

Right now there are no Palestinian leaders ruling and acting in a political framework. The revolutionary leaders have not managed to turn into politicians. [Then] other idealistic leaders emerged, who turned the political problem into a religious war. Religious wars usually continue until the strong side manages to vanquish the weak side and impose its conditions for peace, that most surely oppress the defeated side.... The nature of religious wars is that they recognize no borders, act according to no practice or law and are not based upon an idea that can be argued with logically, [because this idea] is a sweeping current of blazing emotions that are the result of an amalgamation of ignorance, pain, loss and misery....

The Palestinian people now need political leaders — ordinary men and women who yearn for life more than they yearn for death. Political leaders who do not send a child to blow himself up for the sake of Allah, but send him — for the sake of life, the life of their people — to school, in hope that in another few years he will become a person who is useful to his family and his people. The time has come to live, not die, for the sake of our land and our family.

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