Salem's Lot


I attended a conference on democracy and free markets earlier this week in Doha, Qatar. Aside from being exposed to the Gulf?s splendidly amoral equivalent of Venice, the trip gave me a chance to meet Egyptian playwright Ali Salem?smoker, drinker and, as if one needed to say any more, unadulterated Arab liberal.

Salem is best known in the U.S. for having visited Israel a few years ago, and for writing a book on his trip (the translated version of which, by the way, earned him no royalties). The account provoked considerable opprobrium in Egypt, where today Salem finds it very difficult to stage a play, as well as expulsion from the Writers? Union. However, as Salem told me with a grin, his book sold very well indeed, with many readers stopping him to say how much they liked his writing, but disagreed with his ideas.

Salem is a satirist, and he allowed me to read several articles in his room after serving me scotch from a travel flask (Johnny Walker Red Label, ?Because it won?t be said you cannot get a drink here!?). However, it was his performance the day after, before a panel discussing human rights, which revealed his true quality.

After having had enough of hearing panelists argue that the Arab world was culturally specific, so that ?democracy should not be imposed on it from outside,? the bear-like Salem grabbed the mike, literally. He remarked that the world was no longer a global village, but a global apartment, and that if someone (read the undemocratic Arab world) wasn?t prepared to share in the common tasks of the apartment, it was best to take to the road. In indirect reference to 9/11 and the American reaction to it, he noted that when someone had a leak in the apartment above, it was only fitting that he should go up and fix it.

However, it was what he said next that was perhaps the more significant. He argued that one could not always hide behind cultural specificity, since there were such values as passion and freedom that were universal. For example, just as the West had thrown up Romeo and Juliet, the Arabs had their Antar and Abla. Democracy, he said, had moral value, it was not a cultural creation.

Salem told me a joke, which somehow seemed to say a lot about the Arab world that marginalizes people like him: Two men are condemned to death, and the first one is asked what his last request is: ?To see my mother,? he answers. Then the second man is asked his last request: ?That he not see his mother.?