An Egyptian journalist stirred controversy in the wake of his announcement that he visited Israel 25 times, thus defying Journalist Union’s ban on normalization and re-opening the ever sensitive topic of cultural relations with the Hebrew state.
Hussein Serag, deputy editor-in-chief of the state-owned October magazine, has been visiting Israel since 1981, but is now facing the strongest wave of criticism by people he called “bats of darkness,” in reference to journalists who stir public opinion against him.
“The (journalist) union has become a safe haven for those who want to serve their personal agendas at the expense of their profession,” he told Al Arabiya. “The union should defend journalists’ freedom of movement and expression not the other way round.”
Serag accused journalists who criticized him of ignoring what “normalization” means. He referred to an interview he had in an Egyptian T.V. show together with first under-secretary of Egypt’s Journalist Union Abdel-Mohsen Salama, who opposed his frequent visits to Israel.
“He said that the union is working on setting a definition for normalization and the show hostess naturally asked him how come they accuse me of normalization when they still don’t know what it means.”
For Serag, the ban on normalization means refraining from work for Israeli newspapers, to which he has been abiding.
“Haaretz offered me a job after I translated the Israeli novel Jasmine and I rejected it.”
The latest commotion stirred around Serag was triggered by the visit of Secretary-General of the Peace Now movement Yaariv Oppenheimer who met with a group of Egyptian journalists at the house of the Israeli media attaché in Cairo.
The Israeli daily Haaretz got wind of this meeting and it was thus known to the public. However, Serag denied having intended to hide his presence at that meeting.
“I admitted in a T.V. interview that I have been visiting Israel since 1981 and I wrote several times in October magazine of my impressions on these visits, the interviews I made there…etc.”
Following Serag’s statements, Salama submitted a complaint to the journalists’ union accusing him of normalizing ties with Israel in violation of the ban imposed on journalists.
Serag was referred to a disciplinary committee and was banned from writing for three months.
Quest for understanding
Serag, an expert on Jewish affairs, said that his visits to Israel could not be described as attempts for normalization, but rather as individual quests for knowledge and “illumination” about the others.
“There are very few people in the Arab world who are experts on Israeli affairs and I am one of them. I believe we have a duty to introduce the Israeli society to Arabs. We are working on two series of books, one about how Israelis see us and the other familiarizes us with Israel.”
The first series, Serag explained, is made up of books written by Israelis about Egypt and the Arab world while the second is made up of translations of Hebrew literature.
“Literature is the best way of getting to know a society and unfortunately they are far ahead of us in this field. They translated all the work of Naguib Mahfouz and several other Arab writers into Hebrew.”
Serag criticized what he called the manipulative stance of the Ministry of Culture when it authorized the translation of Israeli work but through an intermediate language like English and French and not directly from Hebrew.
“Translation already makes the work lose a lot of its authenticity when it is translated from the native language, let alone when there is a third language in the middle.”
Serag also accused the ministry of double standards since it allows a considerable number of Israeli writers and intellectuals to visit the Cairo International Book Fair on annual basis and allowed Israeli conductor Daniel Barenboim to perform at the Cairo Opera House.
“Art has no country and Egyptians have the right to be aware of the Israeli culture through reading their literature, watching their cinema… etc.”
Egyptian and Arab movies, Serag added, are regularly aired on Israeli T.V. while important Israeli films like the Band’s Visit, Waltz with Bashir, and Ajami are never showed to the Egyptian public.
“On the other hand, every Friday an Egyptian movie is aired on Israeli state T.V. and Egyptian movies are sold in one of Israel’s most popular marketplaces.”
In addition to translating Eli Amir's novel Jasmine, Serag translated Moshe Dayan’s autobiography Story of My Life. He published parts of both in October magazine.
(Translated from Arabic by Sonia Farid and editted by Mustapha Ajbaili)