2008 Civil Courage Prize Honoree
Ali Salem of Egypt
Author and journalist, voice for peace and reason in the Middle East.
A devoted advocate for peace between Egypt and Israel, and between Israel and Palestine, Ali Salem has been an isolated voice for tolerance in the region. For this, his works have been banned in Egypt; he has been expelled from his country's Writers Union, and has endured a continuing campaign of threats and vilification. Now in his 70s, he remains fierce in his denunciation of Islamic radicalism.
An Award Ceremony was held on November 19th, 2008 at Winfield House, the US Ambassador's residence in London. This year's Award Ceremony was co-sponsored by The Train Foundation and Chatham House, London.
Year 2008 Award Recipient
Ali Salem was born in 1936 in Damietta during the "Liberal" interlude. A city of trade open onto the world, Damietta stamped Mr. Salem as he has put it "with its worldliness and gentle breeze." He took to the laboring life as a boy and made his own way. He worked many jobs, including collecting bus tickets when he was 14.
He became a distinguished playwright and man of letters; writing 25 plays and 15 books as well as many articles. His first play was produced in 1965 and 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.
In 1994, after the signing of the Oslo accords, Ali Salem hopped into his 14-year old Soviet-made car and drove across the Sinai into Israel. He told no one of his trip, not even his family. As he has said, "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 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 — a runaway bestseller by Egyptian standards.
As a result, he became a target of attacks by Egyptian and Arab intellectuals. The cultured life in Egypt and other Arab lands is highly regimented, subject to the writ of authoritarian rulers and literary unions steeped in conformity and groupthink. The Egyptian writers union expelled him for "activity aimed at normalizing the relation with the Zionists" He fought the ruling in court and was rehabilitated, but having won his court battle he then quit the Union. "I did not want to be a member, he said, "I just wanted to prove they were wrong."
Salem has not had a play produced since 1994, and has been virtually ostracized in the Egyptian and Arab media, though he continues to write for the London-based Arab-language newspaper Al-Hayat. 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 refused entry to Israel to receive an honorary doctorate from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, though he has traveled to the US to speak and participate in conferences on many occasions. Salem has visited Israel at least ten times since his first drive. 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.
Following is an excerpt from Ali Salem's best-selling My Drive to Israel:
What we have here is a mental state of war.
This is a state that envelopes the mind and has no connection to any actual war on the ground. It's different from combat. In combat, generals plan seriously and realistically in order to achieve a victory sufficient to create peace. But in a mental state of war you fight without going into the field, you're transformed into a cannon without ammunition, a smoke bomb, a popgun. All our actions and words are transformed into slogans and battle cries. It's a state of hatred of self and of others; it's the highest degree of lie.
In a mental state of war, you're prepared to give up all your human rights, and this is the worst part of it... You won't ask questions for a simple reason. In a state of war, no one argues... or asks questions... The mental state of war can be comfortable, indeed pleasurable, especially in the absence of critical thinking, because it arises directly from the most basic of instincts: hostility.
Peace is also a mental state. I must drive myself and others to enter such a state. I have great faith that this will be easiest for those who seek freedom.
— Return to top —
Train Foundation Chairman, John Train , 2008 Honoree Ali Salem, US Ambassador to England Robert Tuttle, and Keynote Speaker Lord Hurd
John Train congratulates Ali Salem
John Train addresses the audience at Winfield House
Mrs. Hassan Elnaggar, Ambassador Tuttle and Ali Salem
Ali Salem receives the medal from Train Foundation Advisor, Nina Choa
Civil Courage Prize Medal