At a time when the only Arabs and Israelis who met were soldiers and spies, an intrepid Egyptian woman crossed enemy lines into Israel.
But history should find a page in its annals for, in my opinion, an even more courageous Egyptian. More than three years before Sadat's famous foray into the unknown, at a time when the only Arabs and Israelis who met were soldiers or spies, Sana Hasan, a PhD student in her mid-20s, went to Israel as the Arab world's first, albeit unofficial and ostracised, peace envoy and probably its most unusual.
Her six-week trip turned into a three-year sojourn, from 1974 to 1977, in which she seems to have met, well, just about everyone in Israel. Her memoirs of her odyssey, entitled Enemy in the Promised Land, provide fascinating insights into the dynamics and diversity of Israeli society – replacing the faceless “enemy” with a dizzying parade of characters and individuals.
Hasan's stay came at a time when Egypt and Israel were literally at war. Although the 1973 war was officially over, the two armies still nervously faced each other across the ceasefire lines. This meant that Hasan faced the very real possibility of being stripped of her nationality or being arrested as a spy in Israel. As it turns out, after five years of exile, she received red-carpet treatment on her return to Egypt after the Camp David peace accords.
Hasan was not naive and entertained no illusions about what her personal peace mission could achieve: “In the face of Phantom jets and the interests of superpowers, individual action was pathetic.”
One thing that immediately struck Hasan, as it did me more than three decades later, is how strangely familiar Israel seemed. She had expected Israel's official capital to be “a grand metropolis, the gleaming jewel of Israeli dominion and efficiency … Instead, Tel Aviv resembled a Middle Eastern bazaar.”
She discovered plenty in common between her own compatriots and Israelis. “Israelis seemed to have the same healthy, if somewhat exaggerated, scepticism of authority and… to believe that the law applied to everyone except themselves.”
Another area of common ground I uncovered was the absolute importance of family to Israelis and Arabs alike, although Israelis tend to value individuality more.
As for Israel's legendary efficiency, something Arabs both admire and fear, the intrepid Egyptian was soon disabused of any notions that it actually existed in most spheres of daily life. An Egyptian Jewish bank clerk told her that Israeli bureaucrats worked 8-0-4 hours per day: arrive at eight, do zero work, and leave at four.
One area where Egyptians and Israelis part company is in the realm of social niceties and refinements – something which, with her upper-class upbringing and rebellious nature, was both intriguing and grating.
Other differences are often more aspirational than actual. One such area is the status of women. In fact, Hasan, a hardcore feminist, was dismayed by the role of women on supposedly progressive kibbutzim. “It took me a while to realise that the glamorous image of women pioneers ploughing fields and carting manure… was largely mythical.”
Determined to live her principles, rebel against her aristocratic background and prove to the Israelis that she was not some soft-touch Egyptian woman, she insisted on doing all the heavy-duty jobs reserved for the men.
Hasan also discovered that the notion of sexual liberation was often skin-deep, even among progressive kibbutzim. “Their contempt for the institution of marriage and for the cult of virginity did not include an ideology of free love,” she observed.
In addition to the better aspects of Israeli society, Hasan got plenty of opportunity to explore all the warts. One was the discrimination endured by Oriental Jews. “We lived side by side with [Muslims] with no problems, and believe me the goyim were kinder to us than Israeli Jews are here,” complained one Georgian Jew.
On the next rung down from Mizrahi Jews stood the Palestinian citizens of Israel. Despite their declared equality under the law, the reality Hasan found was very different. She was shocked at the casual disdain and even racism expressed by Israeli Jews towards Palestinians, discrimination in education and the job market, and how emergency security measures and some questionable laws had been exploited to deprive them of their land.
Although I found the situation to have improved in the intervening years, the status of the Palestinian citizens of Israel is still fairly precarious. In fact, Hasan experienced the same unease I felt when I could move freely around the West Bank while my Palestinian hosts needed permits to go anywhere.
To be allowed to take part in society, some Palestinians tried to assimilate fully into Israeli culture. Wahib, one student from an upper middle class family, boasted that he spoke better Hebrew than Arabic. “I don't feel torn,” he insisted. “I'm a Palestinian first, then a Christian, then an Israeli.”
His father, who said he had raised his children to keep their heads down, said: “Politics can be very hard on us. We are strangers in our own land.”
On the Israeli side, many of the seeds of the current crisis could already be discerned by Hasan more than three decades ago. On visiting, which paved the way for the religious settler movement in the West Bank, she feared that the territories captured in 1967 would soon go the way of those taken in 1948, which would shatter prospects for peace.
The intransigence of the mainstream politicians also filled her with foreboding. Both Menachem Begin, on the right, and Golda Meir, on the left, expressed their opposition to giving up the West Bank, Jerusalem and Gaza.
What Hasan learnt during her time in Israel helped her humanise the society and develop an appreciation and even love for the people and the place. But it also filled her with despair. “I shed my optimistic faith in the infinite power of rational discourse to bring about concord between Jews and Arabs,” she admits.
I have not yet reached that point and hope that dialogue and empathy can move us along the slow path to peace.
This article first appeared in The Guardian on 6 July 2008.