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Last Updated: Wednesday, 17 March, 2004, 13:48 GMT
Mid-East pen friends part 2: Common ground
Omneya al-Naggar, an Egyptian school teacher in the northern city of Alexandria, has begun an e-mail correspondence with Orly Noy, an Israeli journalist of Iranian origin, living and working in Jerusalem.

In this, their second exchange for BBCArabic.com, the two women share their impressions of each other's culture and question whether they are a true picture of life. Read their views and send us your comments.

Hi Omneya,

I enjoyed reading your e-mail very much, in a way it was an ice-breaker for me. So often are we told that foreigners, and Arabs in particular, will always look at us with resentment and suspicion, that a simple e-mail exchange turns into a remarkable event!

I guess it's easier for the government, any government, to rule over insecure people, because it gives them the justification they need for their actions.

From left: Anwar Sadat, Jimmy Carter and Menachem Begin celebrate an Egypt-Israel peace deal in 1979
Orly says she is upset that the Egypt-Israel peace did not lead to better things
But still, I can't help wondering, how is it for you to be in touch with an Israeli? What's the first thing that comes to your mind when you think about Israel?

For me, Egypt is, first of all, the birthplace of a great culture. But on another level, it is also a promise that wasn't fulfilled.

After the peace treaty with Egypt, there was a great optimism and an expectation that it would open up the doors for us to the Arab world, which, unfortunately, didn't happen.

Don't get me wrong - I know that Israel, to say the least, missed out on many opportunities to achieve peace, but there is also a feeling that this treaty was imposed on Egypt and that it was a tactical move rather than a true desire for a reconciliation.

People in Israel always complain about the fact that although many Israelis travel as tourists to Egypt, there are almost no Egyptian tourists that come to Israel. I'm sure that things look a lot different from your point of view, and I would love to hear about it.

Believing in reconciliation

You ask if we can reconcile our worlds. I want to believe that we can, but I think that it would have to start on a cultural level rather than the political one.

We all share the same environment and the same sources of inspiration, and it can be a great common ground for us, if only people would stop this mad attempt to imitate the West.

Orly Noy
Orly wants to know more about daily life in Alexandria
But tell me a little bit more about yourself. What are your children's names? What is it like to be a teacher? I always thought that it's the most difficult job in the world! I mean, I can hardly get my own two little girls to do what I tell them, let alone a classroom full of teenagers!

I also would love to hear about Alexandria (I like the sound of it, there is something royal about it). All I know about Egypt is from our schoolbooks, and I'm very interested in what daily life is like there.

I'm looking forward to your next letter,
All the best,

Hello Orly,

It was good to read your e-mail this morning. You raised many questions that I myself had.

Actually, getting in touch with an Israeli is almost a taboo in Egypt. The mention of Israel evokes meanings of violence, confusion, and a big question mark for me.

Palestinian women walk past a victim of the 1982 massacre in the Sabra refugee camp in southern Lebanon
As a teenager, Omneya saw pictures of the Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon
In a way, I sympathise with the Jewish question of being prejudiced against for a long time in many countries, especially in Europe.

I visited the Jewish ghetto in Warsaw in 1989 as well as the Auschwitz camp. I also have seen a lot of films and documentaries on the Holocaust both in Vienna and Paris.

Do you know how I felt when I watched a documentary on the Vichy regime and how the Jewish French were portrayed in it? (I do not want to go into details here because it is very anti-Semitic).

It was in Paris one night in March 1993 and I thought: the Israelis had their enemies in Europe and they are fighting a battle in the Arab world.

Europe or the West still plays an important role in the Arab-Israeli conflict. Why is it that each time the word anti-Semitic is mentioned, people think only about the Jews?

Aren't the Arabs a Semitic people? Aren't the Arabs the victims of prejudice now everywhere in the West from the US to Europe? Isn't Islam a new axis for a growing hate?

I do not mean to go off on such a tangent. I just want to locate the origin of things which affect our lives now. In my family, I've heard so may good things about the Egyptian Jews. How friendly they are, what good neighbours they are, what good craftsmen they are, and so on.

But I grew up and I met almost none. I grew up to remember the consequences of the 1967 defeat and the 1973 war.

I have relatives who fought in one or both of these wars. In a state of war, people talk about the enemy, and the enemy was Israel occupying the Sinai peninsula and much more Arab land.

In my teenage years, I remember seeing constant pictures of the Israeli occupation of south Lebanon. I was only 14 then, but I kept a question in mind: "How can the Jewish immigrants expect a peaceful settlement in Palestine?"

Legitimacy questions

The first book of politics that I ever read was the memoir of Golda Meir. I was in high school and I was so surprised at the fact that she suffered tremendously from the persecution of the Jews in her native Kiev.

Nevertheless, she greatly encouraged Jewish settlement in the kibbutzes in occupied Palestine.

I think that in order to talk about peace, there should be a reopening of the whole issue of legitimacy. Forcing things does not help.

I guess it might help a Palestinian mother to hear that the Israelis do not have a legitimate right to her land, but they have a need to build a home away from Europe. What is your view on the issue of legitimacy?

Omneya al-Naggar
Omneya says teaching is a rewarding experience for her
There are a lot more things that I wanted to share with you. I realise that what I wrote just now is a reflection on only your first question to me.

I think that teaching is a natural thing. I enjoy teaching high school students. Their sense of wonderment about things they want to learn just keeps me full of life.

The best thing I heard from one of my students was: "Oh, I do not want this class to end". I felt great then. It is a rewarding experience, and I learn a lot from the students as well.

I have a terrible flu, and I need to rest a bit. I will write you more about life in Alexandria next time.


Further exchanges between Orly and Omneya will follow. Please send us your comments on their correspondence using the form at the bottom of the page.

You can also comment on this story at:

Your comments:

I believe Omneya is right to include in her e-mail such questions related to the history and legitimacy; because that nature of questions are necessary in order to go forward with discussions related to peace, normalisation, etc.
Ahmed Didi, Cairo/Egypt

The peace for the Middle East of the future will come from the young people of today
Lisa, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA
This conversation between these two women is such a positive event. Hopefully, more dialogue of this type will occur, and soon! Through communication, people can agree to disagree and learn compassion for each other's causes. Both of these ladies seem like intelligent and thoughtful people. I am fascinated to read what they have to say. The peace for the Middle East of the future will come from the young people of today.
Lisa, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA

This is a very interesting conversation. The question of legitimacy is important. I think the 2nd World War changed many things, including acceptance of the idea that strong nations can take over weak nations, or colonize less developed areas. Israel was formed at the end of European colonialism, and seemed to follow old rules into a new era. We sympathize with Israel for the events of the Holocaust and with the Palestinians for being without a country as a result.
John Chamberlin, Little Rock, Arkansas USA

I would like to commend Omneya for her courage. I understand that she can lose her job and be ostracized simply for contacting an Israel. Orly has no such fear, and can visit Alexandria if she likes. I think that the issue of legitimacy that she raises simply reflects her background as an Egyptian, outside the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, and once she is exposed to the real issues between these two sides, she will realize how irrelevant it is.
Gadi, New York, NY

I don't understand why an Egyptian was chosen, instead of a Palestinian, to participate in the dialogue. Contrary to many images relayed by the media, there are many educated women in Palestine as well, and I think the dialogue would more interesting and beneficial if it involved the two sides most directly related; particularly since some Palestinians feel that Egypt tried to manipulate circumstances in using the Gaza Strip to its advantage. Just like some Israelis are critical of the US involvement in the region.
Kristin, NC, USA

I really don't think discussion of politics is going to help here,
Omar, Chicago, USA
I really don't think discussion of politics is going to help here, its the politics that divides the two regions to being, I think if the two can exemplify cultural similarities rather than political differences (and this is obviously beaten into everyone's heads daily by the mass media), only then can one truly appreciate that people in the world aren't as different as we perceive.
Omar, Chicago, USA

I fear Oneya possesses a deluded view of middle east history and her belief in a global conspiracy against the Islamic people gives us little hope for peace in the Middle East. The fact that she will teaching hundreds of young Arab children gives me little hope for the future. The fact that she is obviously considered a moderate in her society, is even more scary.
Professor Green, Ithaca, USA

I think the BBC motto is "Nation shall speak peace unto nation." Of course, these two women may be somewhat unrepresentative of the majority; of course, real peace is not about talking of football or the weather; of course, people can say anything whereas governments must be circumspect--but if enough people spoke peace to enough other people, there would indeed to be change, and quickly, and governments would find themselves running to catch up. Communication is a vital first step. Perhaps the BBC can help to launch a means to create this type of interaction on a massive scale.
Shirley, Los Gatos, USA

In my Arabic language class, young Arab and Jewish students not only learn together, but share humour and friendship as well. Much like this e-mail correspondence, it is a reminder just how much human beings have in common with one another. I only wish the mainstream news media in the USA were promoting this kind of dialogue. It takes influence from the hands of fundamentalist ideologues and returns it to everyday people in Israel, Palestine, and the rest of the middle east who yearn for peace. Thank you, BBC.
Timothy, Baltimore, USA

It is often forgotten that the Israelis, as well as the Arabs in surrounding countries do in fact have a lot in common
Vanja, Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina
I think this is a wonderful start in conversation between the common people in both countries. The questions they raise are very good, and I am sure they will continue corresponding for quite some time. It is often forgotten that the Israelis, as well as the Arabs in surrounding countries do in fact have a lot in common and sometimes when you have two similarities (perhaps being a bit stubborn), it is harder to find a compromise. But still, look at the music, food, etc. A lot of similarities. I come from Bosnia-Herzegovina where Sefardi Jews have been residing for centuries, and there are no problems between our Muslims and Jews coexisting together. I do not think that the Israeli/Palestinian problem is unsolvable, but hopefully we will see people like Omneya & Orly eventually replacing current hawks in Israeli and Arab politics.
Vanja, Sarajevo, Bosnia-Herzegovina

I think that these two individuals are highly intelligent. Orly is trying to establish a communication link that builds on similar interests. Omneya is trying to get at the 'meat' of what their differences truly are. I believe this is more of a communication style issue than disagreement about substantive matters. I hope that they can build a dynamic email relationship that nurtures constructive ideas, thoughts, and opinions, as opposed to an argument of who is in the right and who is in the wrong. It is clear that they are both very expressive. It would be a shame if all they do is broadcast and neither of them listen. I would hope that the communication is open minded, and not the usual perfunctory disagreement.
David Herman, Illinois, USA

Well done! It is certainly a good start and provides a glimmer of hope in a region full of needless tragedy. I wish both e-mail participants the best of luck in continuing the constructive, and hopefully friendly, dialogue between Muslims and Jews. As both women now realise, there aren't that may differences other than superficial doctrine and physical location. If they ever get the chance to meet face-to-face, it would almost be like having a long-standing friendship and a chatty coffee get-together in a trendy bistro. Let women take charge of the peace process for a change. It would certainly prevent a lot of needless violence and might actually solve the issue once and for all.
Phil, Ottawa, Canada

This email exchange is a wonderful way of opening a window of understanding between two individuals from conflicting cultures. Europeans often see the unrest in the Middle East as an almost insolvable problem. They seem to forget that Europe has almost always been an area of armed conflict. Since World War II, however, Europeans have been able to resolve their differences in a more peaceful way, a fact that might give the Middle East hope as well. Peace is always based on people communicating and understanding each other, which makes this exchange a winner.
S. Sigurdar, Reykjavik, Iceland

Avoid getting into a discussion about history, legitimacy, who is right and who is not
Rashad , Nuernberg, Germany
It is heating up. I would like to advise Orly and Omneya to avoid getting into a discussion about history, legitimacy, who is right and who is not. Avoid trying to score points. Concentrate on discussing steps on how to achieve piece and what sort of a middle east they look to. Only then they will find common aspirations.
Rashad , Nuremberg, Germany (Lebanese)

I hope this dialogue continues, it is much more insightful than listening to the politicians or the generals. I hope you are both free to speak without fear of persecution from your own. Having been to Israel/Palestine in 1986 at the invitation of some of those from the village of Neve Shalom, it has left a lasting impression on me, not least my love of houmous and falafel. Coming from the city of Derry and having lived through what is commonly known here as the troubles, I have seen how easy and self destructive it is to get locked into hating the 'enemy' without giving any thought to their hurts and the equal legitimacy of their hopes. Meeting my own 'enemies' has turned many of them into good friends of mine. I too am looking forward to hearing more about the city of Alexandria and it's people as well.
Billy Reid, Kilkenny /Ireland

Omneya is right mentioning the question of legitimacy of the state of Israel, the hardest question for Israelis and Jews around the world. It is hard for us to deal with it because unconsciously we know that Jewish nationalism and establishment of Jewish state have caused national tragedy for Palestinians. However, just answers can be found to hard questions and the just answer in this case is a two┐state solution. Being a Russian Jew and Israeli, I disagree with many Israelis about Palestinian nationalism. I think the Jews actually have such a similar destiny to Palestinians in the sense of being in exile and being unable to come back to their homeland. We Jews, know that we were ready to sacrifice everything we had in order to establish our state, so this is the way Palestinians feel right now and we have to accept it.
Yulia, Tel-Aviv, Israel


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