Barack Obama in my hometown

Nearly half of the Jews in Israel are from Arab or Muslim countries.

By DANIEL DAGAN
June 2, 2009 22:36
4 minute read.
Barack Obama in my hometown

cairo view 248 88. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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When US President Barack Obama speaks in Cairo, the whole world will tune in to see how he addresses one of the most serious, long-standing problems facing mankind: the unresolved, unabated encounter between the largely Christian-shaped West and the largely Muslim-shaped Orient. I for one will also be watching for signs that he has taken notice of my own, personal story. And in the process I hope to discover whether Obama is really seeking the truth - or is simply after an accommodation based on a fictitious narrative that ignores my plight. By way of illustration, consider this happy encounter I had a few years ago with Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak when I covered a visit to Cairo by former German president Johannes Rau. I was in the reception line, among a row of political bigwigs and illustrious guests, at Mubarak's Cairo palace. A routine handshake, with a word of greeting in Arabic. Then I took Mubarak by surprise with the comment that I used to play on the property as a child. But he simply didn't believe me, so I dipped into my vest pocket and pulled out my birth certificate. He read it out loud - in Arabic, of course: "Born at 1 Ibrahim Street, Heliopolis, Cairo..." The president was almost left speechless. "Ibrahim? I know this street; it's just around the corner. So you grew up here?" "Yes, I did," I confirmed. And I told him that the headquarters of his regime used to be called the Heliopolis Palace Hotel and was considered the most beautiful residence in Africa. When I was a child living in the neighborhood, I played there often, as the manager of the hotel, the Belgian Baron Empain, was a friend of our family. Spontaneously, Mubarak invited me to stay in Egypt a little longer and to come back (which I did a number of times). To Rau standing next to him, he said with feeling: "Thank you for bringing an Egyptian brother with you." DURING THAT BRIEF meeting I was too polite to react on the spot. But the dramatic events now unfolding in my native town offer a good opportunity to put a straight question not just to Mubarak and other Arab and Muslim leaders, but also to Obama: When you address the problem of refugees forced to leave their homes as a consequence of the Arab-Israeli conflict - as surely you will - do you intend to consider all the refugees affected by this ongoing confrontation? Why have you failed until now to mention the 1 million Jews who fled Arab countries and sought a new home in Israel? Why have you ignored the fate of these large, ancient communities across the Arab and the Muslim world that have all but disappeared? Why don't you ever mention me? For much too long Israel has been portrayed as a project of Western immigrants who seized a foreign country in the Orient and drove out its population. Yet I am an Israeli, and I come from the Orient. So I know for sure that I don't fit this routine story - and I am certainly not alone. Nearly half the Jewish population in Israel are refugees from Arab or Muslim countries. Considering their plight is an indispensable part of any debate on promoting accommodation between Muslims and Jews, let alone between Arabs and Israelis. A truthful approach is also important in order to tackle other problems facing many Muslim nations - problems which are far more serious and pressing than the conflict with Israel: poverty, technological backwardness, the status of women, the widespread abuse of religious values to promote violence. I trust that Obama's advisers will add a few more items to the list. I CERTAINLY AGREE with Obama on the need to freeze the construction of settlements in the West Bank. But I am not entirely sure that the presence of a few hundred fanatics in the so-called outposts is the reason for the nuclear ambitions displayed by Iran. Nor am I really convinced that the IDF operation designed to stop the rocket attacks from Gaza really accounts for the constant violations of human rights in much of the Muslim world, for the continuous tragedy in Darfur, for the most recent uprooting of two million people from their homes in Pakistan and much more. So to get me inspired - which Obama definitely can do - he may choose to depart from the text prepared by his speechwriters. He may want to tell his audience some plain truths about the state of the Muslim world and about practical ways to seek progress. Tomorrow I will be watching for a unique experience: the glory of the pharaohs in ancient Egypt; the encounter with a hopefully courageous president who may embark on a painful, truthful analysis; and crowning it all, a place familiar to me from my childhood - the old, beloved home on the Nile that I was forced to leave behind. The writer is the Berlin correspondent of Israel Broadcasting Authority (Israeli Public Radio and TV).

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