The Strange Tale of the First Arab Journalist to Visit Israel After the ’67 War
Among those disembarking the Scandanavian Airlines flight on July 23, 1967 in Tel Aviv was a thin, bearded man in his 30s named Waguih Ghali. Like the other passengers, he walked into Lod airport—and stopped at the passport control counter. “You mean,” the clerk said, double checking that he had heard correctly, “that you are Egyptian?”
“Yes,” Ghali answered, pulling out his travel documents. The clerk took a deep hard look at the visa, then led him into another room where he came face to face with a security agent. To Ghali’s surprise the agent addressed him in fluent Egyptian Arabic, and asked what brought Ghali to Israel only a month and a half after Israel defeated Egypt in the 1967 War and took control of Sinai and Gaza.
“Are you on a holiday?” the agent asked, perhaps alluding to Ghali’s distinctly Christian Copt surname that may have suggested he had come on religious pilgrimage.
“Partly,” Ghali replied. “I’m here on a journalistic mission.”
In his diary, Ghali phrased that mission as “doing the Egyptian interviewing the Israelis gimmick.” His journalistic coup was that he was the first Arab reporter to visit Israel after the war, and he hoped that this accomplishment would make his career.
Ghali was allowed into the country. The next day, his wrote in his diary, “‘Here I am,’ as I told someone yesterday, ‘the first Egyptian to come to Israel in 15 years or so.’” “Yes,” someone responded, “voluntarily,” and they both laughed. (Israel held Egyptian soldiers as captives.)
Prior to this visit, Ghali acknowledged in writing Israel and the suffering of the Jewish people as well as criticized the Arab countries for not making peace with the Jewish State. Ghali believed that this was what had opened the door for him to obtain a journalist’s visa to visit Israel only 43 days after Israel overwhelmed Egypt in the June 1967 War, destroyed its air force and occupied Sinai.
But by the time he was on a plane back to London, six weeks later, Ghali’s image of Israel had taken a sharp turn.
The story of the Israeli-Egyptian social and political relationship in the 1950s and 1960s can be told through the short and tragic life of Ghali—and his sole book, eventually marketed in Tel Aviv as an erotic novel.
It’s unclear if Ghali was born in 1927 or 1929—he liked to keep facts about his past obscure. We do know that he was born in Alexandria and was brought up among the extravagantly wealthy Copt society of the city. He barely knew his father, who died when he was young, and his mother raised him on her own. At some point in his adolescence, Ghali noticed that his mom didn’t have a dinar to her name and that his education, clothing, meals and other luxurious pleasures were paid for by relatives or friends.
After graduating from an English high school, he was admitted to medical schools in Alexandria, Cairo and Paris and succeeded in dropping out of all of them. As a student, he participated in demonstrations against the Egyptian government and roamed the streets, bars and country clubs of cosmopolitan Cairo. In 1957, he left for Europe (in diaries he used the word “fled” but the urgency of his departure was never confirmed) and wandered around Stockholm and Hamburg, moving between manual labor jobs for few years. It was while working in a German factory that his manuscript for a novel started to take shape. In 1964, while Ghali was still in Germany, Beer in the Snooker Club was published in English in London.
The novel narrates the shenanigans of a young upper class hedonistic Copt named Ram—a stand-in for Ghali himself—who lives in a carefree, affluent bubble in 1950s Cairo where speaking English and French is more common than Arabic, and “it is rare in the milieu in which I was born, to know Egyptians.” That is, until he meets Edna—a beautiful “Jewess” a few years his senior and a fellow university student—who introduces him “to the Egyptian people” as well as postcolonial and Marxist literature.
Edna, like Ram, comes from a well-heeled background. Unlike him, she rebels against her parents, who own a supermarket chain. She is a die-hard socialist who identifies with Egypt’s working class, and even marries a faleh, a peasant, for a short period. Following her footsteps, Ram becomes disillusioned with Egyptian President Nasser’s socialist revolution—it’s actions are not on par with its promises—and toys with political activism.
Edna and Ram engage in a rocky romantic affair. As if a match between a Copt and a Jew in 1950s Egypt isn’t enough, what makes their romance doubly difficult is that Ram is too busy chasing other women, gambling and other pleasures to pay Edna the attention she deserves. At the same time, since he is penniless, Edna supports Ram financially and even pays for his trip to Europe.
Then Edna disappears for a whole year. When she returns, Ram discovers that she spent time in an Israeli kibbutz but decided to return to her motherland, Egypt. Her homecoming is bitter, even dreadful: Egyptian nationalists beat her and scar her face, just because she is Jewish.
When Israel comes up in conversations in the novel, Ram shows sympathy toward the suffering of the Jewish people. Ram’s group of friends includes another Jew who defends Israelis. Replying to Font, one of Ram’s closest friends, who argues Israel is a tool used by the European colonial powers, he says, “‘It is a fact, Font,’ he said, ‘that a very large number of people in Israel objected to the Suez aggression. There is a large number of sincere socialists in Israel.'”
When Beer in the Snooker came out, critics in the United States and Britain embraced it. It was described by the renowned Egyptian author Ahdaf Soueif as “one of the best novels about Egypt ever written.” Novelist Gabriel Josipovici said that, “if you want to convey to someone what Egypt was like in the forties and fifties, and why it is impossible for Europeans or Americans to understand, give them this book.” Some described Ghali’s novel as The Catcher in the Rye set in Egypt. Despite the acclaim, the book didn’t sell well.
Somehow, in 1964, Beer in the Snooker Club found itself in the hands of Uri Paz, an Israeli literary macher. Paz was a marginal translator and writer who was involved in odd, even bizarre, projects. A former colleague of Paz told me that “both as a journalist and a historian [Paz] always looked for sensations. He didn’t care so much for facts.”
Paz also didn’t care to buy the rights of Beer in the Snooker Club. He printed it on cheap paper small enough to fit into a jeans back-pocket. The back-cover screamed: “THE BIGGEST SENSATION OF THE YEAR!!! DON’T MISS IT!!!” However the novel sold poorly—so poorly that someone, perhaps Paz, ripped off the original cover and resold the book with a new, sexier, title: Cheap Women and Hard Liquor. It was sold in an imprint that exclusively sold erotic novels, such as Orgies in the Czar’s Court and Adultery at the Boarding School.
Ghali was aware that his book was published in Israel, assuming that was because he acknowledged Israel as a state and recognized Jewish sufferings. He had also depicted the corruption of the new Egyptian military elite. At the time Nasser’s Egypt was a rising regional power carrying the Arab nationalism flag and was considered to be the most intimidating threat to Israel. Paz underlined Ghali’s disillusionment with Nasser’s regime in the short bio he provided in the book, and added that Ghali is an “Egyptian Patriot but is far from being a nationalist.”
When Israel comes up in conversations in the novel, Ram shows sympathy towards the suffering of the Jewish people and blames the Arab leaders for not making peace with the Jewish state. Ghali believed it was his book that granted him—a journalist from an enemy country—the visa. “I made a plea for peace with Israel [in the novel] and tried to remind the Egyptians of the sufferings the Jews had experienced in Germany and in Eastern Europe. I depicted the corruptness of the Egyptian army officer class—our new elite,” Ghali said, in a BBC interview he gave when he returned from Israel.
At the time Ghali lived in London. There he became friendly with Diana Athill, the celebrated literary editor who worked with Philip Roth, John Updike and many other prominent writers. Their friendship grew into an intense rocky romantic relationship, that was somewhat parasitic on Ghali’s part, since he lived in her flat and off her money for about two years. (In 1986, Athill published a memoir based on their relationship, named After A Funeral.) It was Athill who in 1967 used her connections to set up opportunities for Ghali to pitch his idea to pull off his “Egyptian interviewing the Israelis gimmick” to British newspapers. Ghali told her that this trip could help him in establishing himself as a Middle East expert. She arranged for him to have stories in The Guardian and The Times.
Prior to coming to Israel, Ghali held a rather positive idea of the country and its people. However, he told the BBC interviewer, “as a result of this visit, my attitude towards Israel changed drastically. I am still very much in favor of an understanding between the Arabs and Israel. But whereas my pleas for understanding were previously directed towards the Arabs, I now feel that Israel is very much more to blame than the Arabs for the state of belligerency that exists in the Middle East.” Ghali’s impressions, he said, were made, “through friendly and informal conversations with Israelis…The more I spoke to the ‘top’ people, the policy makers, the less I felt that there is a chance for peace between us.”
He also said that he was asked by Israelis, “What should we do to have peace with the Arabs?” and that his answer was “to support the progressive movements in the Middle East. To tell the Arabs: ‘We are not the tools for imperialist designs on the Arab world.’” Ghali pointed to the 1956 Suez war—when Israel joined France and England in taking over the Suez Canal—as a turning point and said that it was “the greatest mistake they made—because it shook many Arabs like myself who were not anti-Israel.” He also said that Israelis “must acknowledge former Palestinians as countrymen with equal rights.
What Ghali seemed to be trying to explain to Israelis is that if they want to be part of the Middle East, they must choose: either to be with their neighboring countries or support the colonialists powers. Ghali, like some Israelis to this very day, pinned his hopes on Mizrahi Jews. He said, “I can see this ‘will for peace’ coming about only when and if the government of Israel is composed of Israelis who feel an affinity with the Arabs, and not with the West. There are many such Israelis, but they are Oriental Jews or Sephardim, and have no political power. After all, most of the political parties are financed by Zionist movements in the West and are therefore pro-Western.”
The Egyptian writer didn’t live to see President Sadat deliver a speech in the Israeli Knesset in 1977, or the signing of the peace agreement in 1978 by Prime Minister Begin or Israel’s evacuation of Sinai in 1982. Upon his return from Israel, he gave a talk at the London School of Economics with Israeli radical left-wing activist Akiva Orr, and British scholar Bill Hiller. Ghali wrote in his notebook that after the doors of the hall closed, “a chap from the back rose and said, ‘Excuse me please…on your posters you advertise Waguih Ghali as an Egyptian. I’m a representative of the Egyptian government. Mr. Ghali isn’t an Egyptian. He defected to Israel.’”
Ghali was furious. He replied that a government cannot erase a person’s identity by taking away a piece of paper. The crowd clapped, and the “chap left.” But later, in his diary, Ghali wrote that this incident “shattered” him. Seven months later, on Boxing Day, December 26 1968, Ghali swallowed a bottle of sleeping pills at Diana Athill’s apartment. He recorded his last moments in the following words:
I am going to kill myself tonight…The time has come. I am, of course, drunk. But then, sober it would have been very very very difficult…But what else could I do, sweethearts? loved ones? Nothing, really. Nothing. And the most dramatic moment of my life—the only authentic one—is a terrible let-down. I have already swallowed my death. I could vomit it out if I wanted to. Honestly and sincerely, I really don’t want to. It is a pleasure. I am doing this not in a sad, unhappy way; but on the contrary, happily and even (a state of being and a word I have always loved) serenely.
Ghali died ten days later at the hospital. Since his death, not much has changed in the way in which Egyptians and Israelis misunderstand each other.
Recently, there has been a surge of interest in Ghali and his work. Forty-two years after it came out in English, Beer in the Snooker Club was translated into Arabic and sold in Egypt the American University in Cairo Press recently published Ghali’s diaries in two volumes. Also, since the 2011 Egyptian uprisings and the 2013 military coup, the novel’s theme has become easy for Egyptians to relate to: how hopes of a revolution turn into the renewed reality of human tragedy.
Natan Odenheimer is a writer from Jerusalem and a Mandel Scholar at Hebrew University completing an MA in Middle Eastern studies. He is a contributor to the JPost Magazine and several Hebrew publications. This piece is dedicated to the Alexandrian Quartet, Eslam, Eslam, Amr and Hemaia.