Dining With An Egyptian Dreamer
by Phyllis Chesler
Tarek Heggy's booming voice, Arab charm, and considerable reputation all preceded him. However, I was not prepared for the quiet soulfulness and seriousness with which he graced my home. Tall, trim, warm, effusive, energetic--but also refreshingly business-like, Tarek reminded me a bit, (but only superficially), of Lucette Lagnado's father, Leon, whom she memorialized in her wonderful book, The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit. My Family's Exodus from Old Cairo to the New World. Like Leon, Tarek is also a sophisticated citizen of the world and a very successful businessman; unlike Lagnado's cherished Leon, Tarek is a voracious and dedicated reader and the author of many books and countless articles.
Of course, Tarek is a Muslim, not a Jew. He was born in Port Said, Egypt and grew up in the 1950s and 1960s when that city was more cosmopolitan than it now is. Tarek told me that he wept the last time he visited his childhood city because "the women are now all wearing sheets, down to the ground and away from their bodies so that no shape shows," and there is "hate, only hate blaring from the loudspeakers of every mosque."
We dined leisurely and alone so that we might talk at length, and undisturbed. We have been waiting to do so for more than a year. Our long-ago appointment had to be re-scheduled due to his mother's illness and then, alas, her death.
His is a voice of sanity and reason and one that both Arabs and Westerners must heed in these very dangerous times. If we fail to do so, we might inherit a nuclear whirlwind. He is, mercifully, pro-Peace with Israel but he is even more pro-humanity, pro-Arab, and pro-Egyptian. He wants his country and all Arab countries to enter the modern era and to evolve beyond Muslim-on-Muslim violence, beyond the perennial Arab and Islamic conflict with the rest of the world. He is a dreamer. No other kind of person has ever changed the world.
Tarek Heggy has taught law and modern management in many universities and on many continents. He is a world-class expert in Natural Gas. After working for Shell International Petroleum Company as an Oil and Gas attorney for nearly a decade, Heggy became the first Middle Eastern person to be appointed as Chairman of Shell Companies in Egypt and thereafter in the MRH (Major Resource Holders) countries (Iran, Iraq, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Qatar & the UAE). He resigned after a near-decade in order to devote himself full-time to his intellectual and cultural pursuits and to manage his own private company "TANA petroleum."
Not only have I dined with Kings, I may now say that I've also dined with the head of a major petroleum company!
But that's not what drew us together. Heggy's reputation is that of a leading liberal Arab thinker. He has written extensively about democracy, modernity, tolerance, and women's rights and has dared to criticize his own country as well as the entire region in which he continues to live. Heggy has published seventeen books in Arabic and five books in English. Hundreds of essays may be found at his website HERE already translated into English, Arabic, French, Russian, Italian, and Hebrew. Heggy was in New York to meet with many people, including his publisher, Cambridge University Press. They are bringing out a new book of his: The Arab Culture Enchained.
We called our mutual dear friend, Nonie Darwish, the author and lecturer, whose new and amazing book Cruel and Usual Punishment. The Terrifying Implications of Sharia Law will be out early in 2009. The three of us had an excited conversation mainly in English but they also spoke in Arabic at my request. And then we sat down to eat. And talk away the night. Every word Heggy said was said urgently and passionately. He is a man who feels and lives his ideas.
Heggy said that "humanity is heading for a war with militant Islam," that "The Islamist's mind does not allow anyone to be different, everyone has to be the same, alike." Therefore, he explained, that he "must be cautious. I talk about Muslims not about Islam. Of course, Islam's interpretation needs a reformation."
Heggy also said that "his prognosis is a dark one." He believes that if America "pulls out of Iraq prematurely or in an immature way" that it will "boost the morale of the Islamist movements" and the Middle East will go up in radical Islamist flames. The Muslim Brotherhood will take over Egypt in the same way that Hamas has taken over Gaza: Via the ballot. ("Did you know" he said, "that Hamas was once known as the Muslim Brotherhood/Gaza Branch"?) He continued. Iran will battle Iraq even more directly, it will be "imperative for the Kurds to declare independence," Iranian-backed "Hezbollah will take over Lebanon" more completely, the "forces of al-Qaeda will move from Afghanistan into Iraq. We will see a ferocious battle between radical Shia and radical Sunni Muslims. Iraq, which is very fragile, will become greatly chaotic."
When I asked him about Kurdistan he had this to say: "When I visited there last year I found it a very different place than Iraq in general. For example, girls were the security guards, and of course their hair was uncovered."
On the subject of Jews and Israel, Heggy became thoughtful. Here's some of what he had to say. He confirmed that the Palestinians, both as an issue and as a people, have been badly used by Arabs and to the detriment of the entire Arab world, including the Palestinian people. "Once upon a time, the issue of Palestine was merely a political issue. Now, it's increasingly become a religious issue. Jerusalem was not important to Muslims but it has increasingly become apparent that Jerusalem is now being treated as a Muslim Holy City."
He said that he "speaks up when Jews are maligned" and tries to remind people that "Jews are the founders of monotheism." Tarek wonders how and why the Jews were able to survive such a long Diaspora and we discussed the Biblical figures of Moses and Joseph, who was also a great dreamer, at great length to our mutual pleasure.
Clearly, the man won my heart. With his permission, I will let him have the last word. He is about to accept Italy's Grinzane Cavour Prize. In the past, the Grinzane Cavour Prize focused the world's attention on writers who would go on to win Nobel Prizes in Literature: Toni Morrison, Wole Soyinka, Nadine Gordimer, Gunter Grass, Jose Saramago, and Doris Lessing. Others who have received this award include Mario Vargas Llosa, Abraham B. Yehoshua, Czeslaw Milosz, and V.S. Naipaul.
Tarek gave me two possible acceptance speeches that he will deliver. I have taken the liberty of joining parts of those two speeches here. Uttering such brave words is a commonplace in the West. Sadly, no one pays the slightest attention. But someone like Tarek can face prison and death for uttering these same words in the Middle East. May these words find favor among his countrymen and women.
Why Do I Write?
I write in order to instill in the minds and souls of all the Arabic speaking people :
- The fact that although the outside world will harbor animosities towards us at times, and will work to further its own interests most of the time, our problems, in their entirety, originate inside our country and can only be solved internally. We alone are responsible for those problems and for the fact that they remain unsolved. The excessive belief in the conspiracy theory is a confession of our impotence and an admission of the supremacy of others in the face of our ineffectiveness.
- The values of liberalism, democracy, general freedoms and human rights as the most noble, sublime and civilized achievements of mankind.
- The value of civil society, as the most effective mechanism for public participation in public life.
- That the negative perception of women in some cultures is disgraceful. Not only do women constitute half the population but, far more important, they are the mothers who rear future generations. As such, they are a valuable societal asset, and a society that does not grant its women full rights in all fields cannot hope to realize its full potential.
- That effective and creative modern management is the only way to achieve progress. The sad reality, though, is that there is a dearth of human resources trained in the techniques of modern management.
- That Anwar Sadat's historic choice to move the Arab/Israeli conflict from the battlefield to the negotiation table was the only way to reach a reasonable settlement of a conflict that has been used for too long as an excuse to delay democracy and development.
- That our educational systems are in need of an overall revolution. As it now stands, the system only produces citizens who are totally incapable of facing the challenges of the age. Repeated claims by some that a process of reforming our educational system is currently underway are grossly exaggerated, as borne out by the quality of graduates produced by the system.
- That the tolerant and peaceful brand of moderate Islam has been subjected to attacks on many fronts. The attacks came from a trinity made up of the Wahabi faith, a doctrinaire approach to religion, and the omnipotence of the petrodollar that has funded an Iinterpretation of slam fundamentally different from the gentle Islam practiced in a number of Arabic speaking societies and which has enabled the sons and daughters of a number of our societies to coexist with others over the years.
- That Egypt's Copts and the region's non-Muslims are not second class citizens, that they are as entitled to full citizenship rights as its Muslim population and that all the problems they are facing can and must be solved.
- That there are shortcomings in Western culture, but it is an essential rung on the ladder of human civilization. To oppose Western culture is to oppose science, development and civilization.
- That we have to curb our tendency to indulge in excessive self-praise and to glorify our past achievements. We have to learn to criticize ourselves and to accept criticism from others. We have to try to break out of our subjective culture into a more objective one.
- That the deification of officials is one of the major sources of our problem-filled reality… and the responsibility here lies with us as individuals.
- That our media institutions need to be radically reformed in line with the requirements of the age. The changes required are not in the formal aspects or the number of television channels operated by our state television, but in the substance of the media message. If education is the reform tool in the long-term, the media is the ideal tool by which awareness can be raised in the short-term.
- That we learn to engage in self-criticism because unless we are willing to do so, we will not discover the roots of the ills we complain of today.
- The defense of the values of knowledge and imaginative thinking, of linking up with the collective human civilizing experience, of accepting the Other and of opening wide the doors that were kept tightly shut throughout the 'fifties and 'sixties.
- That the debilitating disease of self-aggrandizement should not come to afflict us. Its most obvious symptoms, vainglorious posturing and a tendency to regard ourselves as distinct from and superior to everybody else, are manifested constantly in our written and spoken words. This overweening self-satisfaction is not only unhealthy but totally unjustified, based as it is on an inability to distinguish between the glories of our past and the realities of our present. Moreover, it is to be questioned whether it is truly indicative of a sense of superiority or of something altogether different. And what is the role of the Goebbels-style information media in engendering and fostering this negative phenomenon?
- That each Arabic speaking country must concentrate on putting its own house in order by building a strong, successful socially stable and modern educational and cultural infrastructure, instead of continuing to give priority, as it has been doing since the 'fifties, to its external role. For no country can play an effective external role in the absence of a strong and stable internal structure.
- That we must defend freedom of belief, but not in the context of a theocratic culture that places our destinies in the hands of men of religion. No society should allow its affairs to be run by clerics who are, by their nature and regardless of the religion to which they belong, opposed to progress.
- That there is the possibility of a new culture of peace, one in which the countries of the region will learn to live together and Israel and its neighbors can work out settlements along the lines of what the French and Germans succeeded in doing less than fifty years after the end of World War II. In promoting the notion of peace, I point out that it is only when the region moves from a dynamic of conflict to one of peace that real democracy will spread throughout the Middle East.
- That knowledge and culture are universal, the common heritage of all humankind, and that opening the door to both is a prerequisite for reform.
- That we must end the Goebbels-style propaganda machines operating in Egypt and the Arab world and their dangerous manipulation of public opinion.
- That only market economics can bring about the economic takeoff to which we, the Arabic speaking people aspires and that the main players in the world of market economics are huge private corporations based on institutional structures and run according to the latest techniques of modern management, human resource and marketing sciences, not privately held organizations whose familiarity with the tools of business is limited to public relations, specifically, to the cultivation of close relations with decision-making circles.
- That we must instill in the minds of the sons and daughters of our Arabic speaking societies (especially in the minds of the young) that where there is a will there is a way and that, armed with a solid formation and determination, they can achieve anything.
In a word, I write for the sake of a modern, thriving and stable Arabic speaking region, at peace with itself and with the outside world, integrated into the mainstream of science, innovation, humanity and the civilizing process. The future does not exist as such; it is a product of what we create today.
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I recommend this book be put on the reading list of every American school.
--Ayaan Hirsi Ali, Author of Infidel and Nomad
This is a bold book, intimate and rich in detail… Chesler is a voice crying out for women. She will never stop
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