By Nael ElToukhy
June 8, 2017
To write a good story, an epic, a historical tale, you need armies, each fighting under its flag and serving its king. You need revenge and tidy endings. You need castles and walls and old stones. For romantic moments, you need beautiful landscapes. You don’t need awkward moments, silly situations or meaningless sentences. You don’t need reality.
The Arab-Israeli war of 1967 — and the Egyptian-Syrian defeat in it — was one of the most significant moments for the modern Middle East, an overwhelming experience, especially for the Egyptians who suffered not just military and political but also psychological consequences. The story of 1967 is one that Egyptians should explore and remember with nuance and sophistication — and reality. And yet that is not the story that we tell.
The most basic Egyptian narrative about 1967, the one I heard dozens of times when I was a child, is simple: In 1967, Israel occupied the Egyptian Sinai Peninsula, but in 1973 the Egyptian Army defeated Israel and reclaimed the Egyptian land. Revenge was accomplished.
As I got older, another element was added to the story: The Syrian Army and the Golan Heights. This version became a bit more complicated: In 1967, Israel occupied the Sinai Peninsula and the Golan Heights, but while the Egyptian Army restored its control of Sinai, Syria has not yet taken back the Golan Heights. Revenge has been delayed.
But in neither of these two versions of the story is the West Bank, which Israel also occupied in 1967, or the Palestinian refugees who fled their homes and scattered across the Arab world.
Likewise, in the Egyptian story, even the simplified one, nothing is mentioned about the Egyptian civilians who lived or died or resisted Israeli occupation in the cities around the Suez Canal; nothing is told about the Egyptian civilians who became refugees. When our history books or patriotic songs talk about “The Martyrs of ’67,” the listener is almost sure that they are military officers, or maybe conscripts. But there are no civilians in the story, no ordinary people.
Is this why the occupation of the West Bank has been neglected in the Egyptian version of the tale? After the wars, the Egyptians still had their state and their army. So did the Syrians. The Palestinians have had only ordinary people and their ordinary lives.
But the Palestinians do have two things: landscapes and stones. Landscapes are important in an epic narrative. The desert of Sinai served this function. We Egyptians demanded the end of Israeli occupation until “the last grain of dust in Taba” was released, finally, in 1989.
In the context of Palestinian land, many Egyptians often repeat that the Palestinians are traitors, because they sold their lands, referring to the sale of lands to the Jewish National Fund before Israel’s creation in 1948. But Egyptians never mention, for example, the olive trees of Palestinian peasants uprooted by Israeli forces. If they do, they refer to it as a symbolic scene of violating “Palestinian nature.”
In Egypt, the Palestinian homeland could be reduced to “the last grain of dust” or to “views of green trees,” but it is never depicted as a place where people engage in a daily struggle for livelihood. Mentioning this, according to the conventional national narratives in Arab countries, might make the epic of war and occupation seem banal.
People, mere people, are not important, according to conventional Arab narratives. They don’t award the prestige needed for an epic story, especially when they are helpless refugees, without the cunning and skills that they supposedly need to plot revenge and to smash their enemies like some biblical rebels.
What gives the Palestinian cause prestige, in the Arab story, are the stones: old cities, great and high walls and domes, especially when they are golden, symbols of Jerusalem, like the Aqsa Mosque.
With its shining and magnificent appearance, with its religious and historical associations, with the old stones surrounding it, Al-Aqsa could agitate fantasies of millions of Arabs about “Palestine.” They are a postcard image of the hopes for a Palestinian state. Their photographs can be found in the homes of thousands of Egyptians who don’t seem to fully remember that the Aqsa mosque lies in occupied East Jerusalem, a place from which thousands of Palestinians have been excluded from their land and turned into refugees. The most common slogan for the pro-Palestinian movement in Egypt — especially when led by Islamists — is not “Palestinians are captive” but “Al-Aqsa is captive.”
This is related somehow to political discourse in Egypt, where Islamic, secular and nationalist tropes have come together into a narrative. It’s a discourse that respects power and despises human rights, which are viewed as an excuse for “interfering in our affairs, as Arabs and Muslims.”
Individuals don’t matter in these narratives. When it comes to Israelis and Palestinians, the people and the regime in Egypt feel similarly: They are both doubted. The only difference is that while the average person in Egypt feels that both Palestinians and Israelis are problematic, controversial and somehow unsafe, the Egyptian regime has no problem dealing with the Israelis, either under the conditions laid out by a treaty at Camp David or in cooperating in a “war on terrorism” in Sinai.
In the end, it seems that what matters in conventional national narratives, rather than the boring facts, is the art of storytelling. What matters is to make sense of a complicated history, to end the story with a feeling of poetic justice.
Nael Eltoukhy is a novelist and translator.