Sunday, March 14th, 2010
The Jerusalem Report
March 29, 2010
When I read that Egypt’s Journalist Union had punished two senior Egyptian editors – one a member of the country’s ruling party and the other an expert on Jewish affairs for violating its ban on contacts with Israel, I wondered if Omar Sharif ever thinks of me.
My nemesis wasn’t the once-heartthrob Egyptian actor but a State Security officer in Cairo whose nom de guerre was Omar Sharif and who, for six months in 1999, tormented me for moving to Jerusalem as a correspondent for Reuters. There is no law that bans Egyptians from visiting Israel but everyone knows that once you do, State Security will invite you over for “a cup of tea” – i.e., an interrogation.
I got Omar Sharif’s note inviting me for tea during a quick visit to Cairo the year I lived in Israel. “Miss Mona, an officer left this for you,” the doorman’s wife Umm Mokhtar said. An ebullient woman not easily intimidated, she was unusually subdued as she handed me the note, which I shoved absentmindedly into a jacket pocket. I was on my way to the airport, late as usual.
I did not think of him again until my next trip to Cairo a few months later, when my brother’s very anxious father-in-law took me aside. Once he mentioned the name Omar Sharif, I knew the surreal had kicked down the door into my life.
When I didn’t call Omar, he had gone to my apartment building and dragged Umm Mokhtar’s husband to the nearest police station for questioning as to my whereabouts. After the poor man convinced Omar that all he knew was that I was abroad somewhere, Omar went back to my apartment building where he spoke to the man from whom my parents had bought the apartment and who acted as de facto landlord.
He told Omar that all he knew about me was that I was a journalist and he offered the telephone number of my brother’s father-in-law who was looking after any matters regarding the apartment because my entire family lived abroad.
I told our relative I’d go in and see Omar. By the time we had our cup of tea, I’d resigned from Reuters and was back living in Cairo. Tall and bulky, Omar Sharif wore a shiny purple suit. He had a mustache and every sentence ended in an exclamation, usually not in my favor.
“Mona Eltahawy! Finally! You’re a real character,” Omar shouted. “Who on earth goes to Israel? I have to meet your father. If my daughter ever told me she wanted to go to Israel I’d break her neck!”
Stepping into his office, I walked into a thick wall of cologne; one of those Calvin Klein unisex scents fashionable about 10 years earlier. I didn’t know whether to feel flattered or worried.
“You see this file,” he said. “This is all you. Look – orders to have you followed, orders to tap your telephone. You’re a lot of trouble, you know.”
What had I been saying on the phone lately?
He left for a few moments to go and say his noon prayers. I sat alone in the room watching an Arabic language news channel that had the volume muted. I didn’t know if I was in trouble or not.
“So do you pray?” he asked when he came back.
“No way! You don’t look like the praying kind.”
“Who said religion had a look?” I ventured. Wrong, wrong, wrong. I was falling right into every trap he set for me.
“Well of course there’s a look to being religious,” he said. “Our religion is very specific about what’s wrong and what’s right. Take the traveling you like so much. A woman shouldn’t travel alone.”
I let that bait go. I was learning.
“Are you married? How old are you?” He continued.
“I’m 31. I joke I’m married to my job.”
“You can never get married. Who’s going to want to marry you with the life you lead, every day in a different city? You’ll end up with a man like my brother, a womanizer, who’ll cheat on you,” he said.
And so on and so forth till he got up, shook my hand and told me to call him if I ever needed help.
I tried to forget Omar.
A few months later as I visited my brother’s in-laws with my parents and sister – in town for a while – the telephone rang. It was Omar Sharif. He knew my father was in town. They spoke for a few moments. The next day, my father and mother said they wanted to talk to me.
“What did he mean when he said you were living a life that was not suitable for Egypt?” my father asked. After kicking down the door, the surreal was dancing on the rooftop of my life.
A distant relative, who had recently retired from State Security, was called. Omar Sharif’s paternalism had set the men in motion to save Mona.
“Mona, the guy’s already married,” the relative said after investigating. “I thought he wanted to marry you or something.”
“I know – he showed me his wife’s picture,” I replied.
He gave me the number of Omar’s supervising officer so that I could call him if Omar ever bothered me again.
About a year later, I pressed play on the flashing telephone answering machine.
“Peace be upon you Miss Mona. I’m just calling to see how you are. Give me a call when you hear this message. This is, of course, your ‘brother,’ Omar Sharif.”