An “Ali Salem Seder” at Georgetown Day School High School

This Friday I’ll be participating in the annual Freedom Seder that takes place just before spring break at GDS (my daughter Isabel’s alma mater — and my wife’s too!). In asking me to be the keynote speaker, we stumbled upon the idea of using Ali Salem’s journey to retell the story of the desert crossing from Egypt to Israel.

Ali Salem

We’ve been working on the text for this student presented Seder for the last month. Here are some choice excerpts:

“The Exodus and the journey across the desert forged a disheartened group of slaves into a people with defined responsibilities to each other, to God, and to humanity. The Israelites who escaped Egypt 3,000 years ago did not understand the significance of their journey. How could they? Centuries of slavery had robbed them of faith and hope; they did not know their history, nor did they recognize the strength they demonstrated every day merely by persevering, and the courage they would show during their journey through the desert.

 In 1994, Ali Salem, one of Egypt’s most respected playwrights and screenwriters, announced the unthinkable: He would drive to Israel in order to get to know the enemy. He would endure heat, exhaustion, and isolation in the desert. He would travel from one world to another by car, rather than airplane, because he knew he would need to experience the transformation in his bones. . . For the mere announcement of his intentions, Ali Salem was threatened with expulsion from the Writers Union. His plays were boycotted.When he returned to Egypt from his three-and-a-half week sojourn, Ali was denounced as a traitor, shunned by friends and colleagues. A Drive to Israel: An Egyptian Meets His Neighbors is the book he wrote about his journey. It became a bestseller in his country when it was published. Even so, no one in Egypt has been willing to produce his plays. The most produced comic writer in the Arab-speaking world for two decades now is boycotted on every Arab stage. At age 71, he remains an outspoken critic of extremism and corruption and an ardent advocate for peace and freedom of expression.

In many ways, Ali’s trip parallels the ancient Israelites’ journey. Each crossing was a journey from ignorance to knowledge, from suspicion and mistrust to understanding — important first steps toward freedom. Today we will include material by and about Ali Salem in our re-telling of the Exodus.

The inspiration for this year’s program comes from Ari Roth, our guest speaker. At GDS, we know Ari as the father of Isabel who graduated last year. In addition to this honor, Ari is the artistic director of Theater J…. (bla-bla-bla…) And Ari is also a playwright. He has been working with Ali Salem on a play about Ali’s journey. That journey has become a personal one for Ari; a journey, like the Passover Seder itself, of reliving the original sojourn through the act of story-telling; accompanying Ali Salem on his travels through the magic of theater; through dialogue. Today, interspersed through our Seder, we will see some scenes from that play — a world premiere “Ali Salem Seder” at GDS!”

* * *

And so in the course of presenting elements of the Passover strory, we intersperse 5 scenes from the play as Ali Salem…
– encounters resistance from Arab intellectuals
– drives through the desert- calls his daughter from El Arish
– and then is stopped at the Israeli border by a female soldier.

There he is joined by his Adapter who journey with him from the border crossing into Israel. What follows then, in the Seder, is a block of time for me as keynote speaker. The text for my little keynote follows:


“And on the road we go, up the coastal road…” Ali, and me, his Adapter, as we recreate in the essential present, a trip that took place in the past, some 14 years ago, when the Middle East was a very different region; before Hamas and Hizbollah, before Sharon on the Temple Mount; before the assassination of Rabin, and the death of Arafat, and the 2nd Intifada, and the Demise of Oslo, Camp David, Another Road Map. This trip would have to speak to the present, as Ali Salem’s subsequent trips to Israel over the decade have continued to update and revise his own engagement with the country. But how to recreate, as dramatist, the innocence and the discoveries made on that first automotive voyage? This was my Adapter’s Challenge.What happens on Ali Salem’s journey? The desert crossing is perhaps the most existentially compelling part of the trip. And yet in the memoir that Ali wrote, it took up a mere few pages. Something was under-written; under-documented, I suspected, in the chronicling of that desert crossing and when I made that trip myself, in October of 2003, hiring an Egyptian cab driver to recreate that car ride over the desert sands of the Sinai Peninsula, under the Suez Canal, past check point after check point, my journal became filled with 25 pages of notes. How exhilarating. How terrifying. There really wasn’t a gas station for over 200 kilometers. What if we ran out of fuel? It would be Ahmed and me and three bottles of water and one baguette. Recreating the drama of the journey. This would be critical. And seeing the trip through the eyes of an Arab. How important. And how impossible. How could I possibly? But Ali’s memoir needed dramatizing, and someone would need to enter his psyche. Someone would need to question his psyche. I liked him enormously. I understood his humanity. And his humor. I thought I could give the adaptation a try.

Ali makes choices on that first journey, about what he chooses to see; whom he chooses to see; and what he chooses to avoid; whom he has no interest in hearing from. So? Every trip is a process of selection; seeing some things; skipping others. What did it matter to me that Ali the Egyptian chose to meet with not a single Palestinian; with not a single Jewish Settler? On this 23 day trip, driving through the land of Israel with his black and white Egyptian license plate bolted to the fender of a 1975 Soviet jalopy, Ali would drive from friend to friend; from Tel Aviv, to Uhm El Fahm; from the resort of town Natanya to the childhood hometown of Jesus in Nazareth. And yet Ali didn’t confront the Security Wall – it wasn’t built yet. He didn’t experience the indignity of a road-block; or maybe he did. He didn’t experience the suspicious glares of the Ultra Right Wing Zionist Nationalist; or again, maybe he’d experienced it profoundly for much of his life. It’s what informed his avoidance of them when he got to Israel.

What did Ali Salem mean to most Israelis? What did he mean to this American Jew? Well, he conferred a legitimacy upon us; a recognition; as he writes in his memoir, “I exist, and you exist, and so let us build the future from that reality.” Ali Salem is a modernist. He sees pushing his people into the present, and from there into the future, as the only hope for reclaiming Arab Nationalist Pride. To be left in the dust by the rest of society; to not keep apace of the modern world would be to betray Egypt’s place at pinnacle of Arab achievement; indeed its rightful place at the pinnacle of world achievement. The people of Egypt, under the drive of its rulers, created the greatest glories of majesty on Earth over the past 5000 years. Ali Salem is every inch the Proud Egyptian. A scholar of its language, its cuisine, its song, its humor, its people. And yet he grieves for their ignorance. For their cultural poverty. For their selective fanaticism and fervor and fear and terrible feelings of second class citizenship. Ali Salem would restore Egyptian pride by insisting on their own modernity; that he be viewed, together with countrymen and colleagues, as every inch the intellectual class, every inch the bourgeois consumer culture (albeit with native historical roots), every inch the cultural connoisseur as was the Parisian, the Austrian, the American, the Israeli. Ali Drove to Israel on a nationalist mission.

But Ali also made his journey as a humanist. As a man exhausted from the wages of nationalist separatism; a man who knew the cost of warfare on his country’s economy; on its psyche. Ali knew this cost as a brother, for he had lost his older brother in the 1973 War – The Yom Kippur War as it was known in Israel; the One Day War, the October 6 War, as it was known in Egypt, dwelling as it needed to, on the military victory of that first day’s battle, and not on the subsequent standoff and the ensuing attrition of the next 16 days of warfare. Ali’s brother died in a tank in the desert. Ali would drive through the desert in a car, carrying the Egyptian flag far further into Israel on a peace mission than his brother ever came in the name of war.

On that first trip to Israel in 1994, Ali Salem formed a lot of opinions about Israel. He hated the modern tourist trappings; the seaside vernacular of suburban landscaping taming the municipal beachfront. He felt at home in the Arab architecture of Jaffa; in the company of his Iraqi Jewish host Sasson Sommech, or of African Jewish authors like Sami Michael, or in the Druise villages of the Gallilee. Ali loved the PhD students who taught his plays at Hebrew University in perfect Egypitan dialect and he loved the smell of meats bar-b-que-ing on an open grill in Herzliyah, baked fish at an open air restaurant overlooking the Mediterranean. In short, he loved the Israel that honored his essential Arab-ness. He could see his cousins; Jewish kindred spirits.But in another sense, Ali didn’t travel all that far. He didn’t depart from his comfort zone as much as he might have. He didn’t challenge himself to go where the going was toughest. He wasn’t the model intrepid reporter. He was Ali, taking things as they came to him; going where he felt; hanging out in cafes, talking to strangers in hotels, people who happened to chance by. And in so doing, he got the sense, the flavor, the rhythm, for what life is really like in another country. This was no Christiane Amanpour or Anderson Cooper in Studio 360 doing the sexy confrontation; the report from the frontlines. This was a man most inimitably himself, insisting on staying himself while traveling to a seemingly foreign place, and finding himself every bit as opinionated, as full of life, full of wry observations as he would be while traveling amongst his own.

As an Adapter, I’ve been with this material a long time. Some of my buddies on faculty here could tell you I’ve been with this stuff for TOO LONG a time. I’ve been to Egypt and Israel to walk in Ali’s footsteps, to drive through his tire tracks, to interview the people he stayed with and to visit the town he slept in. I’ve laughed with Ali and I’ve fought with Ali. We’ve argued over money; him wanting more from my theater, and I wanting, what? More from myself. More clarity; more talent; more wisdom, more assurance that I was the right person to be helping to tell this story for him. I couldn’t write this adaptation without recording my own dialogue with Ali. I would have felt the falseness of my own adopting of an Arab mask; an Arab voice. In the search for authentic expression, I’ve needed to show why Ali Salem is important to so many of us.

I think today, we’ve begun to see what a journey like this means. In the context of a Jewish holiday and its seasonal recitation of the story of the Exodus, we return to an Egyptian traveler and find universal meaning in his setting forth. Without the Passover Seder setting, Ali’s journey loses part of its Epic Odyssey resonance. Ali Salem’s journey as an Egyptian requires the Jew to help frame it historically, politically, as a journey with both up-to-the-minute and importantly nostalgic, sentimental meanings.

In the end of my adaptation of ALI SALEM DRIVES TO ISRAEL, I take Ali to a few places he never visited on his original trip. I take him to the Ben Shemen Forest outside Jerusalem, next to the Youth Village where my mother came as an 11 year old German-Jewish refugee in 1945 just after spending the War on the run and then in hiding in the Italian Alps and in a convent in Rome. Ben Shemen restored life to my mother and her older sister and instilled a kind of pure redemptive Zionism into their souls which was passed onto me and my sisters and in turn to my daughters Isabel and her sister Sophie. So Ali walks in the Ben Shemen Forest. And then through the Yad Vashem Holocaust Memorial. And outside that museum, he ventures into the Valley of Lost Villages, memorial stones marking community after community wiped out by Nazis throughout Eastern Europe during the second world war. And that walk through the Valley of Lost Villages reminds Ali of an earlier tour he took in the Northern Galilee, a walk I only imagine him taking actually after I attended the conference on the Right of Return with respect to Palestinian Refugees and we visited just a few of the over 400 Palestinian villages whose names no longer exist, where communities once stood, until the villagers fled, or were expelled, or a combination of both, back in 1948.

We are peoples who’ve experienced parallel journeys. Parallel dispossessions; similar but not identical catastrophes. And this is an awareness I’d like Ali Salem to experience in his bones as he travels in his car, and steps out of it, and into the experience, the traumatic history of The Other. Ali comes to honor the suffering and the aspirations and the legitimate national yearnings of people from whom he’s been estranged.And then Ali is ready to return home. The Exodus, in Ali Salem’s story, is a round-trip journey. He drives through the desert, and he come backs home the same way; with The Sun On His Right as the only map he needs, Ali knows the way home; his combustible Soviet ice box on 4-wheels called the Niva takes him back to Cairo as a changed and chastened man. He will become an ostracized citizen for all the connections he’s made just over the border. More a citizen of the world; more a stranger at home; he will make this journey to Israel over and over in the decade to come. As have we all, century after century, in reciting the Passover story every spring. It is we who have set forth from Egypt to tell the tale of a passage from bondage to freedom. It’s a struggle and a journey and a fight we need to renew every year.

2 thoughts on “An “Ali Salem Seder” at Georgetown Day School High School

  1. Pingback: Jews and Muslims Make Passover History at a Virginia Mosque « The Theater J Blog

  2. My wife and I attended the interfaith Seder at the ADAMS Center and were particularly moved by the discussion on what is justice? Based on my many years advocating for justice for low and moderate income and minority neighborhoods, affordable housing and Middle East peace, I have realized that we instinctively revert to our “tribalism” whenever we feel threatened. Justice is exactly the opposite instinct, which we mostly have to learn by often bad experiences and learning the lessons of history in order to not to repeat them: we must see and respect the “other” as we see and respect ourselves and our “tribe” be it family, religion, ethnicity or nationalism. As the doctor from Gaza who lost three lovely teenage daughters in the recent Gazan war said at the Peace Cafe last Monday: Peace can only be achieved and endure between Israelis and Palestinians when both sides treat each other with mutual respect and equality. This is what we must all strive for as peacemakers in the Holy Land.

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