The world needs men like Ali Salem. He’s one of Egypt’s most distinguished writers, aged 72, with a long list of books and plays behind him. In every way, intellectually and physically, he’s very big. There is tremendous humour in his face. He’s not afraid to say what he thinks, being an outspoken critic of Islamism and an active campaigner for a real peace with Israel. In 1994 he first visited Israel, and the book he wrote about it was a runaway best-seller. Since then, he’s been to Israel many times, and has received an honorary doctorate there. He keeps saying that Arabs have nothing to fear from Jews, that there’s no place for hate, and that peace is better than war. Back home in Cairo, the elite boycott him and his writings, and those on the street can kill anyone who talks and acts as he does.
Yesterday he was awarded the Civil Courage Prize which comes with a handsome check. This is given annually by a foundation set up by John Train of New York, a financier and a genuine all-round intellectual as well. The ceremony took place in the residence of the American ambassador in London, a magnificent house once built by Barbara Hutton and sold by her to the U.S. government for just one dollar.
What an occasion! Ali Salem’s humour came out the moment he started his acceptance speech. He quoted the scene in Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar when a citizen attacks Cinna the poet, shouting, “Tear him for his bad verses.” He also gave a great and apposite example of an Egyptian joke, told about a man going home one evening, only to find himself surrounded by an armed mob who demand “Are you with Us or The Others?” With Us, he replies, whereupon they shoot him dead declaring that they are The Others.
I for one went home thinking that the right man had been recognised, and that hope really does spring eternal.