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Ali Salem, Egyptian Author, Journalist and Outspoken Critic of Fundamentalism and Oppression, Wins 2008 Civil Courage Prize
By Aladdin Elaasar — “The value of freedom that has been stolen is that; Man lives in two prisons, the prison of his own soul; and the prison of his government, from cradle to grave. A man who stretches out his hands to ask for freedom is not begging; he is seeking a right that has been stolen from him by human greed. If he obtains it, it will not be as a favor from anyone, and he will not be beholden to anyone.’ Egyptian writer, Mostafa Lotfi Al-Manfaluti
Why, do Arabs have so little freedom? What has led Arab democratic institutions to become stripped of their original purpose to uphold freedom? Some analysts seek answers in the fraught and ambiguous relationship between “East” and “West,” portrayed as a stark split. The ﬁrst pole is usually associated with “despotism” as a supposedly inherent characteristic of “the East” and “Eastern” civilization, while the second is linked to freedom, purportedly a fundamental quality of “Western” civilization.
Some have claimed that Arabs and Muslims are not capable of being democrats, for the very reason of being Arab or Muslims. However, a recent research effort, the World Values Survey (WVS), has exposed the falseness of these claims by demonstrating that there is a rational and understandable thirst among Arabs to be rid of despots and to enjoy democratic governance. Among the nine regions surveyed by the WVS, which included the advanced Western countries, Arab countries topped the list of those agreeing that “democracy is better that any other form of governance” according to the UN’s Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) in 2003.
“Since when have you compelled people to enslavement, when their mothers birthed them free?” Caliph Omar bin al-Khattab said more than fourteen centuries ago. But it seems that his saying has been long forgotten by both the oppressive regimes throughout the Arab and Muslim worlds, and notably in Egypt. Arab journalists affiliated with the state rigorously impose self-censorship in their writings and public speaking to conform with the official policies of their regimes and especially religious authorities setting the tone for the public’s mood and emotions. Political rights, of Arabs and Muslims, the realization of justice and equality, the assurance of public freedoms, the right of the nation to appoint and dismiss rulers, and guarantees of all public and private rights for Non-Muslims and Muslims alike do not exist in the Arab and Muslim worlds. Political forces, in power and in opposition, have selectively appropriated Islam to support and perpetuate their oppressive rule, the UN’s Arab Human Development Report (AHDR) stated.
That statement would partially explain why ‘Ali Salem, Egypt’s most prominent playwright has been shunned and banished from his country’s cultural circles by non but his own colleagues, artists and intellectuals. ‘Ali Salem, (1) Egypt’s most prominent playwright, has been banished from his country’s cultural circles due to his views favoring normalization with Israel. Salem’s views became widely known after he visited Israel in 1994, and set down his favorable impressions of the country in a book titled A Drive to Israel, which sold more than 60,000 copies in Egypt. Since then, he has visited Israel 15 times, and in 2005 he was awarded an honorary doctorate by Israel’s Ben Gurion University. Since his first trip to Israel, however, he has been unable to find producers for his work in Egypt, and none of his 25 plays have been performed there for many years. There has been a semi official boycott of his work by the Egyptian TV that used to broadcast his very popular stage plays.
Ali Salem, the Egyptian playwright, satirist and a voice for peace and reason in the Middle East, will receive the 2008 Civil Courage Prize in London on November 19. The Prize of $50,000 honors people who have demonstrated steadfast resistance to evil at great personal risk.
Ali Salem, 72, is a devoted advocate for peace between Egypt and Israel, and between Israel and Palestine. He has been an isolated voice for tolerance in the region for many years. As a direct result, his works have been banned in Egypt; he has been expelled from his country’s Writers Union; and he has endured a continuing campaign of threats, vilification and censorship. He remains fierce in his denunciation of Islamic radicalism.
In 1994, after the signing of the Oslo accords, Salem drove his 14-year old Soviet-made car across the Sinai into Israel. He spent over three weeks in the country, touring and meeting Israelis from all walks of life. On his return, he published a book, ‘My Drive to Israel’, which sold over 60,000 copies.
The Egyptian writers union expelled him for “activity aimed at normalizing the relation with the Zionists.” He fought the ruling in court and was reinstated, but having won his court battle he then quit the Union.
Due to the censorship of his work Salem has not had a play produced since 1994. He has been ostracized in the Egyptian and Arab media, although he continues to write for the London-based Arab-language newspaper Al-Hayat.
In 1996 he became a co-founder of the Cairo Peace Movement, and he is active in Egyptian and Israeli peace groups. He remains critical of both Israel’s occupation of the Palestinian territories as well as suicide bombings and entreaties for war by Arabs.
He was arrested and detained by the Egyptian police in 2000 after he wrote a short film encouraging Egyptians to cast their ballots in an upcoming parliamentary election.
In 2005 he was awarded an honorary doctorate from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. He has visited Israel at least ten times since his first drive.
Commenting on receiving the Civil Courage Prize, Ali Salem said:
“My first trip to Israel wasn’t a love trip, but a serious attempt to get rid of hate. Hatred prevents us from knowing reality as it is. It divides, and ultimately destroys, people. That is why I have argued, and will continue to argue, for tolerance and understanding between Arabs and Israelis, and a peaceful solution to our conflicts. These arguments must be heard and debated; the cycle of hatred cannot continue. I hope that more people will add their voices to the debate, and that understanding will finally prevail.”
Commenting on Ali Salem’s award, John Train, founder of the Prize, said:
“The Civil Courage Prize exists to recognize heroes of conscience like Ali Salem. He is one of many brave people all around the world who resist intimidation, ostracism and pressure, and risk their lives, to promote freedom and justice. They are not soldiers or politicians, but ordinary people with the courage to do extraordinary things. A healthy society relies on civil courage, and we hope that by recognizing it in people like Ali Salem we can not only support him in his work, but also give others the courage to follow in his footsteps.”
Ali Salem has written 25 plays and 15 books as well as many articles. His first play was produced in 1965. Some of his productions have become classics of the Egyptian theater, including The Phantom of Heliopolis, School of Troublemakers, The Comedy of Oedipus, The Man Who Fooled the Angels, and The Buffet. Salem’s plays are renowned for their allegorical critique of Egyptian politics and their deft combination of satire and humor.
The Civil Courage Prize has been awarded annually since 2000 by The Train Foundation (formerly known as the Northcote Parkinson Fund). The American Ambassador to the United Kingdom, Robert Tuttle, will be host at the prize-giving. Douglas Hurd, a senior British statesman – former Foreign Secretary and Home Secretary — and novelist, will speak.
Aladdin Elaasar is a syndicated columnist and lecturer. Some of his writings are: “Iraq, the State and Terrorism”; where he predicted the downfall of former Dictator Saddam Hussein. Elaasar also wrote: Silent Victims: The plight of Arabs and Muslims in Post 9/11 America. And “The Last Pharaoh: Mubarak and the Uncertain Future of Egypt in the Volatile Mid East”and “Barracuda: The Unauthorized Biography of Sarah Palin: What You Do Not Know and Should Know about America’s Potential Vice President”. Elaasar has been a frequent commentator on Middle Eastern affairs on several local American TV and Radio networks and media and cultural consultant since 1992. Email him at: email@example.com
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Ray Hanania is an award winning political columnist and author. He covered Chicago Politics and Chicago City Hall from 1976 through 1992. Hanania began writing in 1975 when he published The Middle Eastern Voice newspaper in Chicago (1975-1977). He later published “The National Arab American Times” newspaper which was distributed through 12,500 Middle East food stores in 48 American States (2004-2007).
Hanania writes weekly columns on Middle East and American Arab issues for the Arab News in Saudi Arabia at www.ArabNews.com, and at TheArabDailyNews.com, TheDailyHookah.com and at SuburbanChicagoland.com.
Palestinian, American Arab and Christian, Hanania’s parents originate from Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
Hanania is the recipient of four (4) Chicago Headline Club “Peter Lisagor Awards” for Column writing. In November 2006, he was named “Best Ethnic American Columnist” by the New American Media;In 2009, he received the prestigious Sigma Delta Chi Award for Writing from the Society of Professional Journalists. He is the recipient of the MT Mehdi Courage in Journalism Award. Hanania has also received two (2) Chicago Stick-o-Type awards from the Chicago Newspaper Guild, and in 1990 was nominated by the Chicago Sun-Times for a Pulitzer Prize for his four-part series on the Palestinian Intifada.
His wife and son are Jewish and he performs standup comedy lampooning Arab-Jewish relations, advocating for peace based on non-violence, mutual recognition and Two-States.
His Facebook Page is Facebook.com/rghanania
Email him at: RGHanania@gmail.com
Visit this link to read Ray's column archive at the ArabNews,com ArabNews.com/taxonomy/term/10906
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