Yesterday I had the privilege of taking part in a discussion at the Foreign Press Association with Egyptian writer Ali Salem. He was in London to accept the Civil Courage Prize, an award set up by US businessman (and co-founder of the Paris Review) John Train to honour ‘steadfast resistance to evil at great personal risk’.
Salem is best known for his book Journey to Israel (you can read extracts here). After the Oslo Peace Accords, Salem decided he wanted to find out about Israel, and set off in his car for a three-week trip round Egypt’s neighbour. He wrote a book about the experience, and, while the book sold well in Egypt, he found himself criticised and ostracised for ‘normalisation of the Zionist entity’.
Ali Salem is a passionate believer in the exchange of ideas and culture, an outspoken critic of the narrow thinking that has blighted his country (and all countries). ‘Thinking is a risky business,’ he told me yesterday. ‘And sometimes it is easier to shoot someone than to debate.’
But Salem insists we must debate if we are to progress. As he puts it: ‘Let ideas do combat with each other, theory against theory, for the benefit of the nation.’