Can art break barriers and build bridges between Israel and Egypt? It’s a long shot but some Israeli writers and musicians hold out a glimmer of hope.
Like a lot of other Israelis, and Jews, around the world, I watched the unfolding people’s revolution in Egypt earlier this year with a combination of admiration and trepidation.
There were dueling thoughts inside my brain. My inner New Yorker couldn’t help humming “Could be … who knows…,” the shout of hopeful anticipation from West Side Story; but it was soon drowned out by my outer Jerusalemite paranoia, which kept asking, “But is it good for the Jews?” “Is it good for Israel?”
I posed these questions to some fellow Israelis, who admitted to wondering the same thing. Some felt a little sheepish for putting Israel into the equation, except in the context of security.
“Egypt is a huge country with a lot of problems,” the brilliant young Tel Aviv writer and filmmaker Etgar Keret told me. “In a country where you have millions of homeless people struggling to stay alive, having a dialogue with an Israeli poet is not at the top of their priority list.”
Which isn’t to say that Israelis don’t have a stake in Egypt’s policies.
Egypt’s decision last week to open the Rafah border crossing between itself and Gaza, potentially nullifying Israel’s (and Egypt’s) blockade of the Hamas-ruled strip, has justifiably unnerved many Israelis. Just about everyone agrees that a big victory by the Islamic Brotherhood, Hamas’ parent company, in Egypt’s national elections this fall, will most definitely not be good for Israel. Or the Jews.
Whether Israeli artists, writers and intellectuals will benefit from the Arab Spring likewise depends on Egypt’s internal politics. What would happen if a democracy movement actually solidified in Egypt? Would there be artistic exchanges, a more free-flowing cross-cultural atmosphere? Would Israel finally begin the process of integration into the Middle East?
For starters, Israelis dream of the day when they won’t be snubbed by their Arab colleagues at international conferences and competitions. They yearn for the time when the Arab world will stop blaming Israelis — and Jews — for everything that’s wrong in their own societies. They’re tired of American and European artists backing out of scheduled Israeli appearances after Palestinian sympathizers splash their names all over Facebook.
From where we’re sitting, the transition from “Israel the apartheid state” to “Israel, a cool source of culture” seems like a mighty stretch.
Yet while no one here expects the Egyptians or anyone else in the Middle East to suddenly go on a shopping spree for Israeli books or CDs, some hope the door will open a crack sometime in the future.
Idan Raichal, a highly successful Israel singer whose world music approach has given him a large international following, said his music is available to every Arab interested in hearing it.
“I know from the comments people have made on Facebook and YouTube that not only people in Egypt, but also in Iran and Sudan, are listening to our music,” Raichal said.
Raichal, who has collaborated with singers from many diverse backgrounds, believes the revolution will ultimately bring “a new movement, a new stream of cultural expression” within Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world.
“I think a lot of them will start wondering what would happen if they collaborated with other artists in the U.S or France or even Israel.”
Eetta Prince Gibson, editor-in-chief of the Jerusalem Report magazine, also believes this is possible, but only in the long-term.
“When Israelis and Palestinians get together out of the region, we find how much we can enjoy each other,” Gibson, a long-time coexistence activist, said. She noted that Israelis and others in the Middle East have many things in common, ranging from their quirky, rather fatalistic sense of humor to their love of the desert.
At the same time, Gibson acknowledged that “you can’t avoid the political that overlays the cultural.”
Most ordinary Egyptians viewed ousted President Hosni Mubarak as an Israeli collaborator, Gibson said. He sold Egyptian gas to Israel while blocking goods, people and weapons from crossing into Gaza.
“Egyptians won’t suddenly turn around and say they will share culture with us,” Gibson warned.
Achinoam Nini, the Israeli-American singer-songwriter who has collaborated with the Israeli-Arab singer Mira Awad, among others, admitted it has been “difficult to do anything culturally in Egypt.” She has tried on several occasions, she said.
Even so, Nini said, some Egyptians have an interest in reaching out to Israelis.
Nini related how, about a year ago, then-President Mubarak sent Ahmed el Sadati, the grandson of the slain Egyptian leader Anwar Sadat, to Israel “to create ties with the Israeli public. He created a lot of good ties of friendship.”
Nini is convinced that culture can break barriers and build bridges.
When Nini and Awad performed a duet at the ultra-popular Eurovision Song Contest three years ago, “we realized we’d made a strong impact,” Nini told me. “We received an incredible amount of reaction from the Arab world.”
Though most of it was favorable, there were also some detractors. In Europe, some people demonstrated against the Israelis’ performances, “and the fact that there was a Palestinian artist didn’t help,” Nini said.
Etgar Keret, one of the few Jewish Israeli writers whose work has been translated into Arabic, is less optimistic than Nini, at least in the short-term.
“If anything, recent changes in the region could worsen things. A lot of Egyptians identify with the Palestinians, and Mubarak contained these feelings, ” Keret said.
Even without the anger, Keret thinks the cultural traditions of the two countries are so different that it will be difficult to bridge the gap.
“I don’t expect to see any Israeli blockbusters playing in Egypt any time soon,” Keret said.
Despite the barriers, the novelist-filmmaker said he’s gratified whenever an Arab comments on his work.
“They say they now have a different perspective of Israel and Israelis. That seeing Israelis being uncertain, sometimes afraid of Palestinians and Arabs, is very humanizing.”
Of course, there was the time when Keret asked his Palestinian publisher how “The Bus Driver Who Wanted to Be God” (which was published in Arabic), was selling.
“He told me that many copies were being bought, but he didn’t know how many sales were from Hamas or others burning them,” Keret said. ”