I first visited an Islamic country in 1982.
I was 18 years old and had traveled with a Dutch friend from Eilat in Israel to the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh.
We were two almost penniless backpacking students.
We slept on the beaches and found hospitality with Egyptians, who spontaneously invited us to tea.
I clearly recall my very first impression of Egypt: I was overwhelmed by the kindness, friendliness and helpfulness of its people.
I also remember my second strong impression of Egypt: It struck me how frightened these friendly and kind people were.
While we were in Sharm el-Sheikh, President Mubarak happened to visit the place.
I remember the fear which suddenly engulfed the town when it was announced that Mubarak was coming on an unexpected visit; I can still see the cavalcade of black cars on the day of his visit and feel the almost physical awareness of fear, like a cold chill on that very hot day in Summer.
It was a weird experience; Mubarak is not considered the worst of the Islamic tyrants and yet, the fear of the ordinary Egyptians for their leader could be felt even by me. I wonder how Saudis feel when their King is in town, how Libyans feel when Gaddafi announces his coming, how Iraqis must have felt when Saddam Hussein was near. A few years later, I read in the Koran how the 7th century Arabs felt in the presence of Muhammad, who, as several verses describe, “cast terror into their hearts” (suras 8:12, 8:60, 33:26, 59:12).
From Sharm el-Sheikh, my friend and I went to Cairo. It was poor and incredibly dirty. My friend and I were amazed that such a poor and filthy place could be a neighbor of Israel, which was so clean. The explanation of the Arabs, with whom we discussed their poverty, was that they were not in any way to blame for this affliction: They said they were the victims of a global conspiracy of “imperialists” and “Zionists”, aimed at keeping Muslims poor and subservient. I found that explanation unconvincing. My instinct told me it had something to do with the different cultures of Israel and Egypt.
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