Obama in my hometown / Childhood in Cairo: Look at this magnificent Heliopolis Palace Hotel! / אובמה בעיר שלי קהיר

Heliopolis Palace Hotel, Kairo; in diesem prächtigen Gebäude hat Daniel Dagan als Kind häufig gepielt. Heute ist das der Amtssitz des ägyptischen Präsidenten

דניאל דגן - Dieser Meinungsbeitrag erschien kurz bevor US-Präsident Barack Obama seine vielbeachtete Rede an die muslimische Welt in Kairo gehalten hat.

Barack Obama in my Hometown
By Daniel Dagan

When President Barack Obama speaks tomorrow 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, mostly unfortunate encounter between the largely Christian shaped West and the largely Muslim shaped Orient.

I for one will also be watching for signs that the American president has taken notice of my own, personal story. And in the process I hope to discover whether Mr. Obama is really seeking the truth or is simply after an accomodation 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 am in the reception line, among a row of political bigwigs and illustrious guests, at the Cairo palace of President Mubarak. A routine handshake, with a word of greeting in Arabic.

Then I take Mr. Mubarak by surprise with the comment that I always used to play on this very property as a child.

But the President simply doesn’t believe me. I dip into my vest pocket and pull out my birth certificate. He reads it out loud – in Arabic, of course: „Born at 1 Ibrahim Street, Heliopolis, Cairo …” The President is almost left speechless. “Ibrahim? I know this street; it’s just around the corner. So you grew up here?” “Yes, I did,” I confirm. And I tell the President that the center 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 neighbourhood I played there very often, because the manager of the hotel, the Belgian Baron Empain, was a friend of our family.

Spontaneously, Mr. Mubarak invites me to stay in Egypt a little longer and to come back (which I did a number of times ever since). To the President of Germany standing next to him, he says, with feeling, “Thank you for bringing an Egyptian brother with you”.

At this brief meeting I was just too polite to react on the spot. But the dramatic events unfolding momentarily in my birth town offer a good opportunity to put a straight question not just to Mr. Mubarak and to other Arab and Muslim leaders, but also to Mr. Obama:

When you address the problem of refugees who were forced to leave their homes as a tragic 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 one million or so Jewish refugees who fled Arab contries 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 didn‘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 myself come from the Orient. So I know for sure that I don‘t fit into 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 the issue of promoting accomodation 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 – which are by 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 Mr. Obama’s advisors will add a few more items to the list.

One may agree or disagree with president Obama on the need to freeze the construction of Israeli settlements on 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 Iran. Nor am I convinced that the Israeli military 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 Mr. Obama definitely can do! – the US President may choose to depart from the prepared text written by his speech writers. He may want to tell his audience some plain truths about the state of the Muslim world and about practical ways to seek progress and move forward.

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.


A few days later the New York Times carried an op-ed piece with a similar message to President Obama. Author was André Aciman, a Jew from Egypt

The Exodus Obama Forgot to Mention - New York Times


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Der Frühling kommt! Bald auch das Pessach-Fest! / Passover, Exodus of the Children of Israel from Egypt: Yes, I was present… sure, personally! / שמחה רבה שמחה רבה אביב הגיע פסח בא

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