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A journey into the heart of the enemy

Exiled Iraqi writer Najem Wali travelled to Israel to uncover some uncomfortable truths about the Arab leaders

When a child is born in Israel or to us in the Arab world, the history of the Arab-Israeli conflict is flowing in its umbilical cord. Since the declaration of the state of Israel on May 14 1948, Israel has been the official enemy number one for the Arab states.

But even as a child I found the rhetoric didn't add up. How could this somehow "all-powerful" country so successfully "let the Arab nations sink into lethargy", as the official speeches would have us believe? And why, at the same time, were they so confident that the "small state of Zionist gangs" would inevitably "disappear from the map"? I never found a convincing answer. Nor did I ever make the connection between the "Jew question" and the "Palestine question", between the victims of the Holocaust and the victims of Israel's foundation.

Maybe I needed to wait for French philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre to visit Israel before I could discover his key existentialist principle: get to know the other before you form an opinion of him! Did following this path not involve more than honouring the call to recognise Israel? Did it not mean accepting the other and welcoming him as a partner? This would mean acknowledging the fact that Jews and Arabs live side by side in Palestine and both are obliged to find a solution which is acceptable to both peoples, without third-party intervention. There can be no peace without talking directly with the other side and learning about their way of life.

Why do our leaders fear this truth? They are scared that their countrymen would recognise that the only link between the standstill and devastation of Arab societies and the Arab-Israeli conflict is this: peace with Israel would bring an end to the opium high with which Arab leaders keep their nations in a state of inertia. This is the cause of the problems for which Israel is being blamed.

The sustained absence of economic recovery, the drop in education levels, the spread of fundamentalist ideology are all linked with a lack of democracy and the corrupt ruling families, with their pompousness and contempt for their peoples – not with Israel. There are plenty of raw materials and human resources to kickstart the Arab economy. But what are we seeing? A political stranglehold on personal freedom which is eroding the middle classes. Bribery and favouritism force the virtuous and the educated to emigrate. What has Israel got to do with this?

In the meantime Israel, which is embroiled in the same conflict as the Arabs, has built up a modern society of astounding scientific and economic strength. Yes there is militarism in Israel. Its brutal policy of occupation must be addressed. But I will leave this to the Israeli intellectuals. They should fight for peace, just as some Arab intellectuals are starting to do.

When I travelled through Israel in 2007, it dawned on me why the Arab states are so reluctant to let their countrymen cross over into Israel. They fear that the traveller might make comparisons – between the civil rights in Israel and those in their homeland, for example. He might meet the "Arabs of '48", the Palestinians whom Israel's army was unable to drive out. He would see that these Palestinians basically enjoy the same rights as all other citizens. That they are allowed to express their views and live their traditions without fear of imprisonment. He would meet Palestinians who are allowed to vote for their representatives and found their own political parties. When the traveller compares the situation of these people with his own, or with the situation of the Palestinians who live in his country – he might suddenly see the injustice, the betrayal, to which the Arabs in his homeland have had a lifetime's exposure in the name of "occupied Palestine".

Israel has not overturned democracy even under the pressure of war. But the citizens in Arab countries are worth nothing to their leaders.

My "journey into the heart of the enemy" was an attempt to pursue the direction which Egyptian literary Nobel Prize laureate, Naguib Mahfouz, laid out in 1978 in a letter to his Israeli colleague Sasson Somekh: "I dream of the day when, thanks to the collaboration among us, this region will become a home overflowing with the light of learning and science, and blessed by the highest principles of heaven."

He didn't live to see his dream fulfilled. Naguib Mahfouz died in 2006. In 1994 he survived an Islamist assassination attempt. A year later Yitzhak Rabin, the Israeli premier, was murdered by an Israeli extremist for his contribution to the peace process.

I hope people on both sides will continue to defy intimidation, risking their lives in the unrelenting fight for peace. Sixty years after the founding of Israel, I want to believe in Mahfouz's vision.


This article originally appeared in Imke Ahlf-Wien's Arabic-German translation in the Kölner Stadt Anzeiger on May 13, 2008.

Najem Wali was born in Basra in 1956 and fled Saddam Hussein's regime in 1980. Today he lives in Hamburg. His novel "Jussifs Gesichter" (Jussif's faces) was published by Hanser Verlag in February. His "Journey to Tel al-Lahm
" will be published in English in spring 2009 by MacAdamCage, followed by his "Journey into the Heart of the Enemy" in the autumn.

Read our other feature by Najem Wali: "The dictator's orphans"

Translation: lp - let's talk european