I had read dozens of articles about Cairo, yet to describe this city properly, newsprint would have to become hunched, wrinkled, odoriferous, screeching, perspiring and able to envelop you in a mist of sweat and smoke. Cairo empties you instantly, leaving only eyes and ears and nose. Before I came to Cairo I had never understood what a crowd is, or how many cars you could see at once, stuck to each other, then suddenly breaking free and charging off wildly, each car grazing the one in front of it, people jumping out from under wheels at the last possible second, clusters of people hanging on to the outside of ancient buses, and all the time, during the day and at night, horns blaring warnings and winks and curses and apologies and, Look out, friend, here I come from the far left-hand lane, I’m taking a right angle over three lanes, I’m swerving around a woman who has put down her year-old baby in the middle of the road and bent down to put his even smaller brother on her shoulders, and excuse me air-conditioned Mercedes with your tight-lipped Kuwaiti driver staring in front at three humble donkeys harnessed to a wagon overflowing with garbage on top of which five-year-old children are sleeping peacefully.
It becomes clear that the only way to get out of the zahama, the traffic jam, is to do what my driver does and cross the solid line when there’s a red light, and then drive the wrong way, past thousands of stuck cars to a policeman at a crossroads, his uniform gleaming white from a distance on a morning as good as the skin on your milk, and warmly shake the policeman’s hand while at the same time pressing half an Egyptian lira into his palm, and suddenly you’ve broken free and escaped the jam, you’re driving rampant against the traffic and no one tries to block you, no one interferes, they assume that if a person drives that way, he has a reason. Anyway, by then you’re already approaching the next junction, and the next banknote is ready in your palm: one of those creased, sweat-soaked Egyptian bills that are exchanged hundreds of times each day, until their texture becomes like that of a labourer’s hands.
I am astonished. How can it be that tens of thousands and millions of antiquated cars screech through this city, without signs, without signalling, without cursing, with no help but the complex code of horns, and there are almost no accidents? When a car did crash into us, I felt almost relieved. A strange spell had been broken. It turned out that the driver was Israeli. Oh well, let’s look the other way and quickly tell about the myriad policemen and soldiers dressed in torn uniforms and thongs, uselessly guarding every square and intersection. The sternness their position requires is alien to their whole selves: they aim their rifles aimlessly, getting through another watch and as the time passes, thoughts like amber prayer beads slowly roll through their heads. The mosques call out Allah and the people say Allah, over and over, at every moment, from every direction, Allahu akbar, elemarallah, inshallah, like an incessant drip, or the clopping of the surprisingly soft feet of camels on the asphalt.
But stop. Step aside from the crowd a minute and look: because, after all, these are the same people who, twenty-three years ago, gulped down the bloody speeches of Gamel Abd el-Nasser and marched through these very streets, crazed with hatred for my country. And what is the most astonishing thing about them? Their serenity, the way in which they avoid any gesture of violence or vulgarity.
‘Take the Holocaust, for instance,’ says Salwah Gamgum, a well-known Egyptian journalist. ‘I was in Israel and visited that horrible place, Yad Vashem. Why must you return to the Holocaust all the time?’
I am asked about the Holocaust in almost every conversation I have in Egypt. Attorney Abd el-Jaffer Rizkanah, and Hassan Ali, a Voice of Cairo newscaster, and Yehieh Sa’ad and Nur Mahmad and Tarek el-Marshawi, students of the Hebrew language at Cairo University, ask: ‘Why do all the books you write dredge up that horrible event? After all, your history has good, pleasant periods in it, too. For instance when you were in the Arab countries and were protected by Islam. Why don’t you write about that?’
I count to ten. I hold myself back. I came here to listen.
‘The Holocaust makes you think that everyone hates you. It makes you hard, bitter.’ The three Hebrew-speaking students are trying to help me understand. Their faces are sincere, concerned; they are explaining something that is manifestly clear to them: ‘Here, we had wars with you, and now we’ve made peace – everything is already forgotten. We’ve forgotten. Why dig into your soul and be tortured?’
I look for some hint in their faces of their real, hidden, hostile intention. They can’t really believe that a nation should – or can – uproot itself from its past and erase its scars?
‘We in Egypt have no consciousness of the Holocaust,’ says Tahsin Rashir, formerly President Mubarak’s personal ambassador, a dark-faced man with an ancient gaze. ‘At most we see it as the way in which you justify your treatment of Arabs, and then, clearly, we have little patience for it. We have no knowledge of what is being written in Hebrew – especially about the Holocaust. There is no translation of Anne Frank into Arabic. How can we understand you? The Egyptians are not trying, God forbid, to minimize the importance of the Holocaust or its horror.’
I listen to him. I refrain from making arguments about the sympathy many Egyptians, including Sadat, had for the Nazis. I came here to listen.
‘You do not know how to love,’ says A.H., a public official relieved of his job because, he says, of his overly favourable attitude to Israel (this is why he asks to remain anonymous). ‘You do not know how to be good friends. You are even afraid to love a woman with all your heart, in case she betrays you.’
I look at him: ‘We don’t know what friendship is? We don’t?’
‘You are people full of fear and anger and violence. Your past made you that way. Now you just fight all the time – in business, in your scientific research and in your relations with other people.’
‘And you? What can you tell me about the Egyptians?’
‘With us it is different. We live at an entirely different pace. Very slow. We can devote time to friendship. We are people who know how to live in one place. You are fighters. We know how to love.’ A chuckle sends his mouth askew. ‘Perhaps because of that you will always win. You won the wars. You have also won the peace.’
‘We won the peace? The peace is our victory? You didn’t get anything from it?’
‘We’re losers. Look: you won peace with a very large and strong enemy. You received oil at ridiculous prices. In exchange, you gave us the Sinai. We already had plenty of desert.’
I gaze at him in astonishment, thinking about all the Israelis who feel the magnitude of the sacrifice we made when we gave up the security of the Sinai. What is there between the Egyptian and the Israeli people? Why do we insist on flaunting our own wounds, but do not dare feel each other’s pain? How did our strength fail us a few steps before the peak, after such huge efforts were invested?
In an alley we come face to face with a car coming in the wrong direction. We exchange a few honks, and wait. My driver – a muscular man with a stern expression – shrugs. The man facing us honks again. Three, four, ten minutes pass, and cars pile up behind both of us. At this point, in Israel, the drivers would be at each other’s throats, rolling in the dirt of the pavement. Here, no one moves. The drivers don’t even look at each other. Slowly passers-by and idlers gather to watch what is happening. But no one seems to want a fight. On the contrary there seems to be apprehension and unease that there will be a confrontation. The two drivers sit motionless in their cars. Both of them seem perplexed and distressed – their shoulders hang low – as if they have been tricked by fate into this predicament. For heaven’s sake, I think, when, finally, a sort of compromise is found, and one of them moves back a little, the other drives forward, and they pass – Are these the people, as we believed for decades, in whom violence and cruelty are inbred and with whom there is no possibility of living in peace? What will we feel ten years from now when, let us hope, we walk through the streets of Damascus after making peace, and see the everyday faces of the people there, the Syrian eating with us in a restaurant, struggling mightily with the diet his wife has imposed on him, or when we read shy dedications inscribed in the books in a used book store, like the one I dug through in Cairo?
‘We are not like the other Arabs,’ the journalist Salwah Gamgum tells me. She is tall (‘I am a large Pharaonic woman’). ‘In particular, we are not like the Palestinians. We drink the waters of the Nile and learn peace and tolerance from them. The Nile flows softly in upper Egypt. It has no rapids and no currents.’
‘You, the Israelis, are more like the Palestinians.’ This is the opinion of Mahmad ‘Ayn, twenty-six, with whom I drank potent, scorched tea by the pyramids. ‘You are jumpy, excitable. One minute you feel like great heroes, and the next minute you are the most pathetic creatures in the world. Someone is always trying to cheat you. You are envious and materialist. We are not like that. We won’t lift a finger for anything. That’s why we look the way we do.’ He laughed and waved his hand at the desert shimmering in the heat.
‘We really are very different from you,’ says Munir, a fluent speaker of Hebrew, who has visited Israel eleven times. ‘There is no belligerence in us. There just isn’t. We were ruined by the centuries of Ottoman rule. We have no energy. To this day – with the exception of a short period under Sadat – we live like we are still occupied by the Turks.’
‘So what should you do in order to change?’ I ask.
‘Let the intellectuals plan our development, send – like the great Mohammed Ali did in his time – groups of students to Europe, to America. We need to become part of the modern world. Sadat was a man who knew how to give. Mubarak knows only how to receive. All the Arab leaders are like that. Nasser reinfected them all with that ancient disease, pan-Arabism, that gives us an excuse not to do anything except be led on by slogans. To passivity.’
‘This moderation of the masses, that sometimes looks like apathy –’
‘It is apathy. We don’t have the internal strength you have. We only want life to go on without problems.’
‘But it is very easy to exploit that apathy. We’ve seen how these same masses were carried away by Nasser’s slogans.’
‘I think,’ he says cautiously, ‘that today the situation is different. The multi-party system that Sadat introduced is continually getting stronger. Today Egyptian newspapers criticize Mubarak and survive. We have, even among the extremists who oppose Israel, a new feeling: we are different from the other Arabs in the region. That feeling will be hard to eradicate.’
He speaks loudly, enthusiastically. With his flashing eyes he looks like an Egyptian revolutionary from the beginning of the century, out to fight imperialism. We are in the large and magnificent mosque built by Mohammed Ali, and every voice is broken into six kinds of echo. Munir’s Hebrew words bounce in every direction, but no one there is disconcerted.
Al-Fustat is where Cairo was born. Here, 1,350 years ago, Amar ibn el-‘Ayin raised his tent, and here Egypt’s first Muslim town was established. Today it is Cairo’s rubbish dump. Trucks unload Cairo’s trash here, and a brigade of children falls on each new pile. Every child picks out his speciality: some look for metal, others for glass, or wood and paper, or broken pottery. They take their finds home, to little clay-and-brick houses built on the mountains of refuse.
Curious three-year-olds with sores around their mouths surround me. They know the short cuts and tunnels among the hills of trash and gladly lead me to their houses that are little sheds made of cardboard and crates. In the winter, they say, the rain comes in, but there isn’t much rain here, only cold, and here the madame sleeps, and here the donkey, and on this mat all of us, we’re ten, and this one, the little one, was once very, very lucky, a group of Americans came and saw him and decided to give him a scholarship, so that he can study, they even wrote down his name and sent it away, but probably some city official took the scholarship for himself.
Outside, in a few little pools, men stamp through brown water. They are separating the Nile clay from the oils in it, to prepare pottery. In the piercing sun they stand and churn the water. Tiny, skinny children scamper between them and pour out fresh water into the pools (‘I am eleven, and old,’ one water carrier said to me). Inside a dusky lean-to, a huge man with lifeless eyes is stamping barefooted on a large block of clay. As he stamps he presses his knees with his hands and heavy sighs escape from his chest. His entire body and face are coated with clay from the block which coils around his calf muscles, so that muscles seem to swell out of the clay itself.
From there, quickly, back to the city, and the Khan el-Halili market where you can find everything: wooden clothes pegs, sugar-cane juice, a special herb which allows you to clean your teeth in accordance with Koranic law, mummified hedgehogs and stuffed lizards to hang by your door for good luck. There are juicy miniature lemons, special tents in which mourners gather, a store for repairing shoe heels, and another one for soles, sparks fly out from under the knife sharpener’s wheel, cars emerge from both directions in the market alleys, and every second building is a mosque. In a puddle of blood and muck a slaughtered chicken convulses, its bulging eye seeing, upside down, the layers of fine wood, the mashrabiat, that cover the windows of the houses, through which modest women may look out, without being seen. Geese honk in reed cages, and a barefoot woman, treading through blood and raw sewage, waves another chicken, pinning its wings back and tying them together, to make it easier to weigh in the tin scale. A well-dressed man steps out of a restaurant, walks down the black street, every second or two sniffing on the tips of his fingers the rose water that was served him to wash his hands, and others have their meal around a ful wagon, wiping up beans and hummus with pitta bread, using a parked car as a table, and a yam hawker slices a huge, hot, red, honey-sweet potato on a newspaper with a caricature of a thick-lipped Arafat stealing into a Zurich bank with bags of gold over his shoulders. You can’t stand the Palestinians, I think at every meeting with Egyptians, so why do you fight so hard for them?
‘We do not support the Palestinians out of love,’ Tahsin Bashir tells me, ‘but because of the issue itself. Because of the injustice itself, which could be righted and is not. Look – I visited Israel and I was prepared to go again, but the last time I was there, my heart was broken by the suffering, and it is hard for me to go back to that.’
‘The behaviour of the Palestinian leadership is mistaken,’ says Karima Kirolus, a reporter at Al-Khabar, ‘but guilt lies only with the leadership. Had they a country, or hope for a country, they would not be swept away by every nationalist slogan.’
‘We understand that it is hard for you to make peace with the Palestinians all at once.’ This from Abd el-Satar Tawilah. ‘But at least try to stop oppressing them so heavily. Try to treat them like the British treated you, and us. Let them demonstrate. Write. Protest. Strike. Try to understand their thinking and despair. Make little gestures. What will happen to you? After all, you are good at inventions and stratagems.’
‘What do you care about negotiating with the Palestinians?’ a friend of mine in Cairo heard from a well-known Egyptian statesman. ‘Negotiations can go on for years. Sit down. Talk. Argue. Break it up. Meet again. What can happen? What are you scared of? During the autonomy talks you proved that you know how to drag on negotiations, and no one punished you for it.’
‘My advice to the Palestinian people,’ wrote the editor of Al-Khabar, Ibrahim Sa’adah, in a long, caustic article in which he railed against the prerogatives and ‘free lunches’ the Palestinians in Egypt still receive, ‘is to ask all the governments that have hosted you, and brought your pain home to many, to hold conferences and congresses from which not one Palestinian will absent himself, and there announce your rejection of Arafat’s position, and declare your lack of confidence in your whole gang of leaders, first and foremost that greatest acrobat of them all, Arafat. That is my faithful advice to you, and I am sure – may I be proven wrong – that you will refuse to take it.’
‘But even when they refuse to take it, I will support them,’ says Karima Kirolus, who speaks of principles in a fine and poetic Hebrew.
I stare suspiciously at these people, with an Israeli anger rising in me at the way Egyptians have exploited Palestinian suffering over the years to preserve the hatred against us. It is hard for me to believe that it’s really just the good of the Palestinians that concerns them. It is hard for me to accept that they are not interested, more than anything else, in weakening Israel. But perhaps it is something ugly within me – within me only? – a sort of racism, the product of an Israeli Jewish education, that makes it difficult for me to believe that here, in the heart of filth and poverty, in the heart of the forbidding Arab world, humanitarian words about the need to find a solution to suffering and reduce injustice are being voiced sincerely.
‘If the Palestinian problem were solved,’ thinks Tarek el-Marshadi, an Egyptian student, ‘your situation, in Israel, would be very different here. Everything is in your hands. You can decide today how the Arab world and Egypt will relate to you. And you are not doing anything. Nothing.’
Again and again the same voices: were the Palestinian problem solved, Israel would be tolerated as a partner in the Middle East. Abstention from a solution shores up the impression among the Egyptians that the Israelis ‘have not changed their ways’, that they are still interested in conquest and expansion. It is difficult to estimate to what extent this suspicion is rooted among them, and to what extent it is tied up with preconceptions about Jewish materialism, about the disloyalty and dishonesty that flows in Jewish blood.
The gulf between the psychologies of the two peoples is greatest, in my opinion, in the matter of the Six Day War. The Egyptians call that war ‘the Israeli aggression’. I did not meet a single Egyptian who did not believe Israel was responsible for that war, and that had Israel not launched its pre-emptive attack, the war could have been prevented.
‘Nasser never intended to go to war.’ This is stated with utmost certainty by Abd el-Satar Tawila, author of the book Israelis in Egyptian Eyes. When he then told me, ‘Nasser never imagined how tense Israel was,’ I recalled the two drivers in the alley in Cairo, face to face. They waited. Let the time go by. When one mediator failed – they waited for another one who was smarter and more patient than the first. Could it be that this was how the Egyptians saw the situation at the end of May 1967?
But how could the constricted Israel of June 1967, besieged, entirely mobilized, have been patient? And what about the October War, which the Egyptians started in 1973 – the war that almost everyone here sees as a great victory?
After a few days in Egypt, I am prepared at least to try to see the reality of 1967 through their eyes, and to wonder whether the Six Day War might have been prevented. (A shattering sound spreads through my brain at those words.) The Six Day War – prevented? That most just of wars?
Could it be that more percipient leaders, more sober management of the waiting period that led up to the war, and, especially, our being more wisely and deeply attuned to the Egyptian character would have saved us all that blood? And all of what fell upon us after that war: the war of attrition, the occupation, the increasing isolation, the Yom Kippur War, the division of Israeli society?
‘We’ll make up with the Iraqis in the end,’ A.H. said to me at the end of our conversation. ‘Even though they betrayed us, we will be reconciled. That’s the way it is in a family. You aren’t part of our family. We’ll accept you because you are here. We will do business with you, but you will not enter our hearts. You will remain outside.’
Whoever searches for love between us and the Arabs will be disappointed. He may despair. Whoever searches for a tolerable life and a conjunction of interests would do best to understand that things cannot be changed for the moment, and stop using them as eternal proof of hopelessness. He will do everything he can to strengthen the contacts, increase understanding, expose his protected world to a foreign way of thinking, so that his world will not again be surprised. So that it will not suddenly fall into the trap of war. And also, so that it will not miss a single new sapling of peace.
That is what I see from Cairo. These words are being written while I sit at the Israeli Academic Centre in Cairo. Little Israel on the Nile. Israelis and Egyptians work together here, under the intelligent management of Professor Yosef Ginat. A Coptic priest has just come in to order Bialik’s and Ravnitzki’s collection of rabbinic homilies and stories, Sefer Ha-Agada. We must not allow ourselves to forget such things, and we should never take them lightly.
‘Perhaps you would indeed prefer that Israel not be here in the region at all? That the Middle East be entirely Arab?’ I asked Munir at the modest farewell dinner, at the end of a taxing day of touring and talking.
He was taken by surprise. Something in him stirred, he blushed, and then he looked at me and said: ‘Absolutely not. Without Israel we would be lost. Without Israel we would not have reason to liberate ourselves from our Arab disease. We Egyptians would remain like the Iraqis and the Iranians and the Syrians. Sometimes an accident or disaster changes your life. My father died when I was nine, and because of that disaster I was forced to enter the real world early, and I became something. Israel was a disaster for us, that is the truth. But it changed us. Israel showed us initiative, diligence and ambition. Everything we lack. Israel became our teacher and our competitor. Your country stopped being a misfortune and became a challenge.’
Photograph © Asim Bharwani