Egyptian war correspondent Yehia Ghanem continues his series of stories on the wars he has covered and the people he has met along the way. Here he compares the lives of two children, Egyptian Mohamed and Israeli Mordechai. Read the rest of the series, Caged, here.
Israel – September 1994
A year after I first encountered a 12-year-old Egyptian boy called Mohamed in the offices of the newspaper where I worked and listened as he appealed to me to take him to war-torn Bosnia so that he might “help free our brothers”, I met another child who was growing up in vastly different circumstances but whose bravery and sense of conviction so greatly resembled Mohamed’s.
I had been sent to Israel on assignment at a time when the mood was particularly tense. The then prime minister, Yitzhak Rabin, was contemplating holding a referendum on negotiations with Syria over the occupied Golan Heights. But not everyone was in favour.
One evening, after a long day at work, I was waiting on Hanasse Avenue in Haifa for some friends who were Palestinian citizens of Israel. We were going to attend a musical adaptation of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, in which a 20th-century Romeo would be an Arab and Juliet a Jew.
The sentiment of the show stood in stark contrast to the mood on the street, where protesters were demonstrating against negotiations with Syria.
Noticing that I was Egyptian, some members of Gush Emunim, a right-wing extremist group committed to the establishment of Jewish settlements in the West Bank, Gaza Strip and Golan Heights, began harassing me.
But no sooner had I brushed that aside than I felt a small hand tugging at the sleeve of my shirt. It belonged to an Israeli boy.
He was holding a sign that read “Peace Now”, the name of a moderate movement established during the 1978 Israeli-Egyptian peace talks. He urged me not to be upset by what he described as the “crazy” behaviour of the extremists.
His name was Mordechai, and he, too, was 12 years old.
He shared Mohamed’s striking facial features and so much more. As he spoke animatedly, memories of Mohamed kept returning to me – a child so full of promise who stood so little chance of seeing it fulfilled under a dictatorship that had stifled any possibility of a vibrant and politically engaged society.
“The Golan Heights, as well as all other territories occupied during the 1967 war, should be given back to Arab countries,” Mordechai told me. “The only thing which should be feared are the intentions of those Arab countries after their territories are returned; are they going to continue warring with us?” he asked.
He stood there bravely voicing his opinions just as Mohamed had his desire to help the besieged and massacred Bosnians. But while Mohamed had to be fearful of the security forces in the dictatorship in which he was born and raised, Mordechai, whose parents were demonstrating for peace on the same street, did not have to fear the extremists or the police who surrounded him.
He was free to voice his opinions and to act on his beliefs.
I felt as proud of Mordechai as I had been of Mohamed. But I felt great sorrow that, despite all their similarities, Mohamed would likely never feel us uninhibited as Mordechai.
I realised then that the greatest crime committed against us by our dictatorships has been to instill such fear of our own thoughts that even a child who was unafraid to give up their childhood, comforts and, perhaps, even their life to protect others, would have to fear talking to a journalist at the office of a state-owned newspaper.
Our rulers had brainwashed us into believing that submitting to such totalitarianism was the only way to confront the threats posed to us by the West and the Israelis, and that our only defence was to be found in military dictatorships.
For years, I thought of Mohamed and Mordechai, hoping that Mohamed could one day become as free as Mordechai and that, perhaps, they could find a just and lasting peace with one another.
Chronicle of a Caged Journalist is a series of excerpts from a forthcoming book.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial policy.