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MIDDLE EAST

Peace Happens

The current violence is an extremist's fantasy.

June 09, 2002|DINA KHAYAT | Dina Khayat is managing director of Lazard Asset Management Egypt and a member of the executive board of the Cairo Peace Movement.

CAIRO — When I was a child in Cairo during the 1960s, we were taught geography that showed maps of "Palestine" but made no mention of Israel except as an aggressor and a ravager of Palestinian and, therefore, Arab rights. As a puzzled 6-year-old I had to rely on imagination alone to conjure up the image of an "enemy" talked about everywhere, but one that I could not find anywhere on a map.

We were hemmed in--not literally, but in a more enduring sense, intellectually and culturally. That intellectual wall produced a generation that grew up beside a faceless neighbor they profoundly distrusted. And just like any introverted society, we failed to develop, to learn from new ideas, instead just repeating over and over our anachronistic mantras of anti-colonialism, anti-capitalism, anti-imperialism. The result was an intellectual, economic, cultural and spiritual void.

It had not always been so. I come from a country that long thrived as an open society. There have been Christians in Egypt since St. Mark first came in AD 43; before Gamal Abdel Nasser took power in a bloodless coup in 1952, there were Jews, Syro-Lebanese, Greeks and Italians, all of whom contributed to a culturally rich and diverse Egypt. When they were gone, Egypt was the poorer for their absence.

Then came President Anwar Sadat. When he took that fateful trip to Jerusalem in 1977, our collective anticipation, emotion and wonder were as great as if his plane were landing on Mars. Suddenly our prospects were brighter; the world was a potentially friendlier place as he was asked (now famously) upon his arrival what took him so long.

In seemingly quick succession, there followed the Camp David accords and the return of the Sinai, and with it, an influx of Israeli tourists to Egypt. I remember a camping trip in Sharm el Sheik in the late '80s when we saw as many cars with Israeli plates as we did Egyptian cars. The Bedouins serving breakfast at the camp were as fluent in Hebrew as they were in Arabic--and as comfortable with one as with the other. This is how it should be, I thought.

These are the images that colored my upbringing, my passing from a gray childhood to a young adulthood full of promise. In 1993, the Oslo accords promised more progress and hope. In 1995, I finally made my own trip to Israel. I traveled from Washington, where I had held a rewarding job but yearned for the Middle East in general and my Egypt in particular. Eyes wide, I took in the sights of Mediterranean Tel Aviv, the familiar whiff of sea, fish and falafel. I made friends with whom I stay in regular touch today--friends I called immediately from the U.S. to express grief and condolences after Israeli Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin's assassination in 1995.

My friends said Rabin's death was a devastating loss--but that the extremists would never win. For a while it seemed they were right. We were all on the right track, with increasing openness pointing toward the articulation of a hitherto undreamed-of vision of regional integration, peace and economic cooperation.

Whatever happened to these dreams? What has the Middle East come to?

My own lofty ideas for participating in the "New Middle East" have been put on hold by circumstances. The current violence is an extremist's fantasy--and a horrible vindication for their destructive impulses. After so many years of hope, it is shameful--and sad--that the only ones in a position to say "I told you so" are the extremists on both sides.

I am not alone here: I know there are many of you out there, many who watch with horror every day this seemingly unstoppable war, the now daily verbal assault of extremism. We all cringe at the physical and intellectual devastation that this tragic conflict will leave behind.

We have all lost in past decades. Lost the opportunity to get to know each other, lost the chance to work together--to contribute to each other's prosperity and sense of security.

Yet even in these bleak moments, all it would take is for us to recognize that we share a common future. Let us work together to reach a true resolution that will end the conflict permanently. Let us think beyond the current crisis and imagine the future we want. That's the only way we'll get it.

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