Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Less Borders, More Exchanges

The Beirut39 contest that honors 39 of the best Arab authors under 39 have announced their nominees. But as the Arabist points out, there's a problem. Two of the winners are Arab Israelis and therefore unable to travel to Beirut to participate in the event. The Arabist laments the predicament of "culturally cut-off Arab Israeli writers, whose publishers and audiences may reside in countries they can't visit."

Arab Israeli musicians face similar difficulties. The hip hop trio DAM, the self-proclaimed first Arabic rap group, are from the Israeli city of Lod. While they enjoy popularity throughout the Middle East, they're forced to only tour in Israel, Europe and the United States because of their Israeli passports. Given that the majority of their songs focus on Palestinian rights, it is especially ironic that most Arab countries treat them no differently than Israelis.

But the Arabist fails to point out the larger and obvious fact: it's not only Arab Israelis who cannot visit Beirut or other Arab countries. All Israelis are barred entry (e.g. tennis players). Nor can most Arabs visit Israel (even Arab Americans sometimes have difficulty). And everyone is worse off for it.

But even if laws were changed to allow for travel, there would still be political, cultural and religious barriers between Israel and the Arab countries. In one telling example, Egypt barred the Israeli film "The Band's Visit" from entering the Cairo International Film Festival last year. The Egyptian Culture Minister Farouk Hosni (the failed candidate for UNESCO chief) privately viewed the film, calling it "excellent," but objected to its public screening out of his purported fear of riots in the streets over Zionist infiltration. Eventually Egypt caved and allowed a screening of the film in Cairo.

Oh, and by the way, the film tells the heartwarming story of an Egyptian police band who lose their way while traveling through Israel, and in the process, discover the warm hospitality of an Israeli town.

Episodes such as these exemplify how Egypt, despite formal relations with Israel, still exercises a cultural boycott of all things Israeli - except, of course, for the lucrative business of ripping off Israeli tourists. But more importantly, it shows that if everyone stopped worrying so much about where people and things come from, and instead consider what benefit they may bring, the entire Middle East would be better off.

As I've argued before, so long as Arabs and Israelis only interact within the context of conflict, we will never see peace in the Middle East.

Note: The Time article about DAM confuses the meaning of their name. DAM is Arabic for "eternity" and Hebrew for "blood," not the other way around.

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