Monday, August 08, 2011

waguih ghali's bbc talk on visit to israel post-1967 war

One for Waguih Ghali completists – a battered copy of Good Talk: An Anthology from BBC Radio (Victor Gollancz, 1968). The volume includes the BBC Radio talk “An Egyptian in Israel” that the author of the novel Beer in the Snooker Club gave after his visit to Israel, post-June 1967 war. Ghali speaks of how his trip drastically changed his attitude towards Israel: “...whereas my pleas for understanding were previously directed towards the Arabs, I now feel that Israel is very much more to blame than the Arabs for the state of belligerency that exists in the Middle East.”

The volume is edited by the distinguished writer and editor Derwent May. At that time May was Literary Editor of The Listener – the celebrated highbrow BBC weekly that ran from 1929-91. Ghali is in excellent company: among the other contributors to the anthology are A J Ayer, Ted Hughes, Max Beloff, René Cutforth, Robert Gittings, Sir Bernard Lovell, Christopher Sykes and Magnus Pyke.

In his foreword, May writes that the talks and discussions in the volume had all been broadcast in the previous year or two on BBC Radio 4 (“previously the Home Service” – the change had only recently been made) or the Third Programme (which would in 1970 become BBC Radio 3).

May hoped that, for all their variety, “they each display a style and a kind of curiosity of mind that will please any reader who likes authentic reports on the state of the world in which we live.”

The book is divided into five sections: people, problems, places, imagination and fact. Ghali’s talk comes under “problems”; some of the other entries in this section are A J Ayer interviewed by Robert Kee and Olivier Todd on “What Are Philosophers For?”, Max Beloff on “The Americanisation of British Intellectual Life” and David Martin, a sociology reader at LSE, on “Trouble in the Universities”.

Waguih Ghali died in hospital in the first days of January 1969 ten days after taking a massive overdose of sleeping pills on Boxing Day, December 26. He had at the time been living in the flat of his editor, and briefly lover, Diana Athill.

In her memoir of Ghali, After a Funeral, Athill describes how a married friend whom adored and for whom he had developed a “pure love” helped Ghali “to the one practical achievement of his last years. She was able to give him the necessary introductions and wise advice on how to use them when he decided to visit Israel after the Six Day War.”

Athill records that both the Times and the Observer newspapers were ready to put up money for Ghali’s journey to Israel against articles which he would write when there, or after he came back. There was a “larky” last evening before his trip, at the end of which euphoria prevailed. “This, he was sure, was the beginning of great things.” Even though his advances from the newspapers would be swallowed up by the cost of the trip, if he sent back good stories other work would be bound to follow: “he would become established as an expert on the Middle East.”

Athill writes about how Ghali proved himself with the articles he wrote about his trip. She does not however mention a BBC talk.

The contributor’s note on Ghali in his six-page chapter of Good Talk reads: “Waguih Ghali is an Egyptian living in London. He is the author of an ironical novel about Egypt called Beer in the Snooker Club”.

Ghali begins his talk by saying that he managed to get a visa to Israel because of this novel “in which I made a plea for peace with Israel and tried to remind the Egyptians of the sufferings the Jews had experienced in Germany and in Eastern Europe. I depicted the corruptness of the Egyptian army officer class – our new elite. As a result I fell foul of the Egyptian government.”

Beer in the Snooker Club was “well received in Israel; it was translated into Hebrew and read by many people there. I mention all this to demonstrate my attitude towards Israel before the June war and before I visited that country myself.”

But “as a result of this visit, my attitude towards Israel changed drastically. I am still very much in favour of an understanding between the Arabs and Israel. But whereas my pleas for understanding were previously directed towards the Arabs, I now feel that Israel is very much more to blame than the Arabs for the state of belligerency that exists in the Middle East.

“This change of attitude on my part has not come about through reading books or delving into political and geographical sophistries, but through friendly and informal conversations with Israelis when I was in their country. The more I spoke to the ‘top” people, the policy makers, the less I felt that there is a chance for peace between us.”

Towards the end of his talks he says: “I was often asked by Israelis: ‘What should we do to have peace with the Arabs? ‘ My answer has been, and still is, to support the progressive movements in the Middle East. To tell the Arabs: ‘We are not the tools for imperialist designs on the Arab world.’ To acknowledge that the 1956 Suez war was the greatest mistakes they made – because it shook many Arabs like myself who were not anti-Israeli. The Israelis seem to remember the past only when it is to their advantage.”

Ghali pinned much hope on the Oriental Jews.

In his conclusion he says : “Although the Arabs seem to have begun to be more realistic about Israel, as they showed in Khartoum recently by listening to Bourguiba’s advice rather than Shukairy’s, I feel that real peace can come only if Israei really wills it. I can see this ‘will for peace’ coming about only when and if the government of Israel is composed of Israelis who feel an affinity with the Arabs, and not with the West. There are many such Israelis, but they are Oriental Jews or Separidim, and have no political power. After all, most of the political parties are financed by Zionist movements in the West and are therefore pro-Western. If there is, at the moment, a government in Israel which really wants peace, the first thing it should do, in my opinion, would be to evacuate its side of the Suez canal and to stop humiliating the Egyptians by their presence there. Furthermore, it must acknowledge former Palestinians as countrymen with equal rights."

Would the BBC allow the broadcasting of an opinion piece with such frank criticism of Israel today? One thinks not (see review of More Bad News from Israel by Professor Greg Philo and Mike Barry, an analysis of BBC and other media coverage of Israel-Palestine).

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