Al-Ahram Weekly   Al-Ahram Weekly
13 - 19 April 2000
Issue No. 477
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BOOKS: a monthly supplement of Al-Ahram Weekly

Of words and echoes

By Amina Elbendary

Kholi book  For much of the twentieth century, Arab intellectuals were concerned by what they saw as the negative image of the Arabs and of Islam in the West, the issue becoming crucial when they felt that such an image was responsible for Western bias. It seems that this preoccupation will continue into the twenty-first. As a result, one major preoccupation has been to try to win the Western intelligentsia over to Arab causes, though all too often cross-cultural encounters between the West and the Arab-Islamic East have turned into exercises in cross-cultural misunderstanding, only widening the gap between the two.

A case in point seems to have been the visit of the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre and of his companion Simone de Beauvoir to Egypt at the invitation of Al-Ahram in 1967. The visit had been arranged by Egyptian intellectuals for whom Sartre was known and admired for his stand against French colonialism in Algeria and against American intervention in Vietnam. If he came to Cairo, and we explained things to him in person, the logic seems to have been, then Sartre would be won over to the Arab point of view more generally. Sartre was a major western intellectual, whose pronouncements gained respectful attention worldwide. Who better to enlist in the Arab cause? Sartre's visit to Cairo was presented in this way in the Egyptian media of the time, and such an idea appears to have been behind the many attempts to secure the visit from the early 1960s on.

Thus, upon their arrival in Cairo in February 1967, Sartre, de Beauvoir and their friend Claude Lanzmann, then the managing director of Les temps modernes, the review Sartre had founded 20 years before, were given red carpet treatment. They stayed for two weeks and met with President Gamal Abdel-Nasser, leading intellectuals of the time and university students. They met workers in factories and witnessed the industrial development of the country; they were taken to meet peasant farmers in the village of Kamshish, where they were given a galabiyya and taqiyya as symbolic presents; they met day labourers at Mudiriyat Al-Tahrir, where they were served "bread and salt" in a symbolic gesture of friendship. Later, the three visited Palestinian refugee camps in Gaza, a visit intended to show them the misery of Palestinians forced into exile by Israeli confiscation of their land. There they discussed the Arab-Israeli struggle with community leaders. They came; they saw; they talked. They must have understood the Arab point of view. Or didn't they?

Sartre was rather vague about his views at a meeting with the faculty and students of Cairo University. Commenting on his visit to Gaza, he said that he had "felt deeply for the misery of those Palestinian refugees living under miserable and often unbearable circumstances on the borders of a country that used to be their own. I consider the Palestinians' right of return to the country of their birth as indisputable." However, he went on, "I will not say more today, since someone might ask how they are to return to their country, and what kind of relationship should exist between them and those people in Israel today." Someone might ask, in other words, what solution the philosopher saw to the conflict. Someone might ask Sartre to put his cards on the table. And this he was not inclined to do.

Sartre argued that he did not want to announce his views because he had decided to dedicate a whole issue, that of June 1967, of Les temps modernes to the Arab-Israeli struggle. He had allocated space, he explained, to both Arab and Israeli intellectuals in order that both might explain and promote their points of view. As editors, they [he alone? Or de Beauvoir, Lanzmann and himself?] had decided "not to be neutral, but to be absent and unrepresented in the volume...This is why I will not say more."

After leaving Egypt, the trio visited Israel. And the issue of Les temps modernes appeared just as war broke out in June 1967. The timing could not have been worse. Many Arab intellectuals were shocked; others were disappointed in their new friend. Sartre had not been quick to condemn Israeli aggression. Furthermore, in May he signed a declaration in support of Israel and condemned the Arab regimes as "fascists."

In June 1967, Lutfi El-Kholi, then editor of Al-Tali`a, a monthly review published by Al-Ahram in Cairo and one of Sartre's hosts during his Egyptian tour, was in Paris, rallying support for the Arab cause among European intellectuals. In several famous interviews he met with many of them, Jean-Paul Sartre included, and published the results in Al-Ahram in July 1967. The Sartre interview, along with another conducted in England in 1965 with Bertrand Russell also dealing with the Arab-Israeli struggle, appeared in a book form in 1968. In this book, El-Kholi gives the background to his second encounter in Paris with Sartre in June 1967, just a few days after the five-day war had ended.

El-Kholi explains that his disappointment with Sartre's position on the war had made him refrain from contacting him, it was Sartre who had called El-Kholi in Paris. Sartre had read an article by El-Kholi in the French newspaper Le Monde, and now he was inviting El-Kholi to his home to explain his position to Arab public opinion. Sartre explained that he had "taken an anti-war position, a position against war in principle. I have never changed my position supporting the struggle of the Arab peoples for liberation and progress," he said, "including that of the Palestinian people. What I am against is war."

El-Kholi pointed out that Sartre had issued a statement before the beginning of military operations and had then remained silent when the war proper began. Sartre insisted that "the main reason behind the statement ... was to prevent war. In my opinion, wars are not the proper solution, humanly or otherwise, for any problem. Unfortunately, we are now further away than ever from reaching a solution. The purpose of my statement was not to digress from the neutral standpoint I wished to take...."

El-Kholi then commented on the general tendency among the French, as much as the Europeans as a whole, to consider the Arab-Israeli struggle as one between Jews and Arabs and to define the Arabs as Muslims alone. This tendency ignored the true nature of the conflict, ignoring too those Arabs who were not Muslim. Sartre said he was aware of such European distortions, adding that he was aware that the Arab-Israeli struggle was not primarily a religious one. "There may be a tendency in France," he said, "to look at the problem from the religious angle, but things are changing. Many people of goodwill felt that the war would start by Arab aggression and end with the rapid destruction of Israel and the genocide of the Jews. Naturally, French public opinion in two quarters was greatly concerned. One section supported Israel because it was against the Arabs; another, however, genuinely sympathised with both the Arabs and the Israelis.... I can now see that we have to open a dialogue with the Arabs to understand their point of view on a number of very important issues, such as the expansionist policy of Israel. This is not the policy of all Israelis, but it is certainly that of a number of influential people, such as Dayan. We also have to call for a solution to the Palestinian question."

"And there is another question that the Arabs may not be conscious of," Sartre went on, "because of their misunderstanding of our position, which has injured their feelings. French public opinion, even that of the right wing, is now calling for a discussion of the root cause of the problem. This is a positive development, for the Palestinian problem and the national rights of the Palestinian people are now being discussed. Previously, this was something the majority of French people were totally ignorant of."

Sartre admitted that the French government and press were responsible for this ignorance, especially against the background of the anti-Arab feelings that had been widespread in the country as a result of the Algerian war. Many French people's perspectives, he argued, had been tinted by the thought that Egypt had helped the Algerians, and they thus viewed the Arab-Israeli struggle from this perspective, ignoring the Palestinian refugees.

El-Kholi argued that anti-Semitism had never been current among the Arabs --the Arabs themselves were a Semitic people-- and that international Zionism's attempts to represent Arab feelings in this way was false and reprehensible. Zionism represented Israel as the "answer" to anti-Semitism in Europe, but ignored the fact that the State of Israel had been founded on the expulsion of a whole people from their homeland in Palestine. In reply, Sartre differentiated between two Zionist trends. One, he said, considered Israel to be the nation of those who had emigrated to it; the second considered it the nation of all Jews. It was the second type, he said, what he called positive, activist Zionism, that represented the threat. This type of Zionism, "which aims at bringing the maximum number of Jews to Israel and concentrating a huge number of people on a tiny geographical space, is the expansionist one."

El-Kholi asked Sartre what he thought a solution to these problems might be. What were his views of Zionist Israel after his recent visit? "I understand the sympathy that a number of my Jewish friends have towards Israel," Sartre responded. "However, the very fact that 12.5 million Jews remain outside Israel, while only 2.5 million live there, demonstrates that Israel is not in itself the solution to the Jewish question. In my opinion, this is a Judaeo-Christian question, which I have always believed can only be solved within the Judaeo-Christian world. Israel is not the solution to anti-Semitism. Anti-Semitism has to be solved where there are Jews."

El-Kholi pointed out in reply that Israel had been created and promoted by force of arms, essentially as a solution to the Jewish problem and not simply as a safe haven for a certain number of Jews fleeing persecution. It had always been "positive, activist" in Sartre's terminology, and this had created a human tragedy for the Arabs. To this, Sartre responded that his position regarding the impact of the creation of the State of Israel on the Arabs was well known. "However, Zionism, as it was envisaged by Herzl at the end of the nineteenth century, i.e., the establishment of a Jewish state with its capital in Jerusalem, was not a crime by the standards of that age. Why? Because it was a colonialist solution, like most other solutions at the time. No one thought about the fate of the colonised peoples, or about those countries under colonial mandate. Palestine at the end of the nineteenth century was under Turkish rule. Those who came up with this solution [Zionism] did so by reflecting the givens of their age. The catastrophe lies in the fact that this solution came into being in another age, an age when the colonised peoples had begun to gain awareness and colonialism was ending."

In sum, Sartre told El-Kholi, "I would like to assure my Arab friends that what has happened because of the statement I made before the war was based on a misunderstanding... I have said this before both in Egypt and in Israel... I am against the annihilation of the Israelis, but I recognise the complete right of return for all Palestinians."

From Sartre's statements it is clear that to him, as to most European intellectuals, Israel was sacrosanct. Israel was the prime consideration, whatever the justice of the case. Even though Sartre had been vehemently against French rule in Algeria, a similarly colonialist situation, he nevertheless explained the Zionist colonial presence in Palestine as being the result of "ideas of the time" (the later nineteenth century!), as if this somehow absolved the Israeli state of the moral and political responsibility of displacing an entire nation. Perhaps, in retrospect, it was always naïve of the Arab intellectuals of the 1960s to expect this philosopher to understand and sympathise with their cause. Sartre's support for the Algerian and Vietnamese national liberation movements had caused him to stand up against Western colonialist policies, but apparently the creation of Israel on Arab land was not perceived by him as an issue of colonisation the same way Algeria and Vietnam were.

For Sartre, what was up for discussion, and what constituted Arab room for manoeuvre, was therefore only how far Palestinian and Arab rights could be included in any solution that took as its priority the guarantee of the security of the State of Israel. The most the Arabs could hope for from Western intellectuals was thus a lukewarm support for the right of return of some Palestinian Arabs, not necessarily their right to an independent state, and certainly not a right to a state that displaced or impinged on the State of Israel.

Arab intellectuals continued to feel betrayed and dismayed at Sartre. Inherent in their position had been the idea that Sartre, as a supporter of anti-colonialist movements worldwide, could not be true to himself and still support the State of Israel. It was just a question of bringing the true facts of the matter to his attention, as indeed it was a matter of bringing these to the attention of all westerners of goodwill. However, Sartre had disappointed these expectations, and in response the governments of both Algeria and Iraq for a time banned his books. Though Sartre had made conciliatory gestures to Lutfi El-Kholi for publication in Al-Ahram, he made no attempt to qualify his earlier pronouncements to the French or international public.

In Egypt, reaction was swift. Fathi Khalil, writing in the Cairo weekly Rose El-Youssef, argued that Sartre had had no excuse for signing his pro-Israeli declaration, and he had no excuse for not subsequently clarifying his stance. Sartre had only recently visited Egypt, witnessing at first hand the effects of the tragedy in the Palestinian refugee camps.

Anis Mansour, in the weekly Akhr Sa'a, ridiculed Arab intellectuals for expecting Sartre to change his support for Israel simply as a result of a visit to the Arab world. The famous philosopher "hadn't let any one down," Mansour wrote. On the contrary, "we volunteered to let ourselves down."

Similarly, Salah Hafez, arguing that Sartre's views on the conflict were in any case largely irrelevant, wrote in Rose El-Youssef that "Sartre is only an intellectual...yet, the francophone arm-chair revolutionaries in our country have represented him as the incarnation of Truth, and when they invited him to Cairo they made us feel we were being examined by History itself." Hafez ridiculed those who had hoped that by causing a major western intellectual to understand the Arab point of view, things could change. Sartre was not a schoolboy, he reminded them; if European intellectuals wanted to know the truth of the conflict they could. The fact is they did not.

More than three decades on, the June 1967 War and the various positions taken at the time are receding into history. The Arab-Israeli conflict has taken different turns since then, and Sartre later supported President Sadat's peace initiative. However, this moment -- the visit of a leading European intellectual to Cairo, the hopes among Arab intellectuals that the Europeans might at last be ready to listen to their point of view, Sartre's subsequent almost instinctive and unquestioning support for Israel in the war -- still stands out in the history of European-Arab cultural encounter. It testifies to underlying patterns of thought and behaviour that, unfortunately, still remain intact.


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