Egypt's cultural elite shunned playwright Ali Salim for a decade for backing normal ties with Israel. Now he feels he is no longer a voice in the wilderness.
Salim visited Israel in January for the first time in five years, sensing that a recent trade deal between Egypt, Israel and the United States offered a rare opportunity to build a bridge between Egyptians and Israelis.
"The most decisive element is the presence of Egyptian businessmen and Israeli businessmen. Now history could be made by traders. They will defend their work and open up chances for both sides," Salim, 69, said.
Egypt and Israel made peace in 1979. A recent lull in Israeli-Palestinian violence has helped improve official links between the Jewish state and Egypt, which has conditioned full ties with Israel on moves towards Middle East peace.
More than 25 years of Israeli-Egyptian peace has done little to reduce mistrust of the Jewish state among Egyptians, who oppose its occupation and settlement of the Palestinian territories and what they see as its abuse of Arab rights.
Salim, on the other hand, says it is time to move on.
"I have to face facts. I'm not talking about historical rights because it will lead me nowhere. It will not solve any problem," He said. "I don't want to be defeated in peace as we were defeated in war," He said.
He says more Egyptians are starting to focus on how they can benefit from dealing with Israel rather than boycotting it.
Demonstrations by Egyptian textile workers in support of the partial free trade deal, called the Qualified Industrial Zones agreement, were a sign of a new attitude, he said.
A drive to Israel
"Ten years ago I didn't dare say I was representing someone. I only used to say I represent myself and some of my friends," Salim said. "Now I feel that I'm talking to someone who is listening to me."
Salim first visited Israel in 1994, inspired by what he saw as progress towards Middle East peace in the 1993 Oslo accords between Israel and the Palestinians. He wrote 'A Drive to Israel: An Egyptian Meets His Neighbours' about the trip.
Salim said the visit aimed to answer two questions: "Who are these people and what are they doing?" He concluded: "They want, like any other people, to live in peace."
His trips to Israel have drawn strong criticism from other writers. Egypt's Writers' Union in 2001 expelled Salim for supporting normalisation. Salim resigned from the union after a court overturned its decision.
"For 10 years I've been saying the same thing, despite all the attacks on me," He said. He most recently came under fire for his January visit.
"The problem ... Is that this stance in the name of peace does not serve peace," Samir Farid wrote in a column in the independent Al Masry Al Youm newspaper.
Fighting a ghost
One of Salim's best known plays is 'School of the Troublemakers,' a 1970s comedy about a class of rowdy students. It was acted by a cast including Adel Imam, now Egypt's best known comedian.
But none of Salim's plays have been performed in Egypt since 1995. "Producers are afraid of dealing with me lest they be attacked," He said.
He says the influence of pan-Arab thinking has hindered public debate on how Egyptians can come to terms with Israel.
"The media invented a ghost and they started to believe in it themselves. It's the ghost of normalisation. They are fighting a ghost," He said. "They belong to the past and it's hard to get them to belong to tomorrow," He said.
Likewise, he says, Islamic fundamentalism has clouded the debate, recalling a television talk show in which he found himself face-to-face with an Islamic fundamentalist.
"He started by saying; 'Do you deny that they are the killers of prophets?' I said: 'I'm here to discuss politics, not
"I can't argue with this. The perpetuation of this problem will energise fanatics. I want to discuss things on a political basis."