Anwar el-Sadat, Jimmy Carter, and Menachem Begin at the signing of the Camp David Peace Treaty in 1979.

When I list the countries I have visited, I don’t include Egypt. In a certain sense, though, I have been to what is now Egypt, and under unique circumstances. My visit, which was unplanned, occurred while I was on a tour of Israel with a group of American journalists. The trip was planned well in advance, so it was a coincidence that I was in Tel Aviv on March 26, 1979, the day the Camp David peace treaty was concluded between Israel and Egypt.


The itinerary for our trip included a stop at Yamit, a town the Israelis had built in the Sinai Peninsula, which had been seized from Egypt during the Six-Day War in 1967. One of the provisions of the treaty was that Israel would return the Sinai to Egypt, and Egypt would leave it demilitarized. Another result of that treaty – seemly lost in the clamor surrounding the popular uprising in Egypt – was U.S. political and military support for Egypt. On the day we were supposed to go to Yamit, our guides told us the trip was cancelled because the residents of the town – who objected to the treaty, and especially to the withdrawal of settlers from the Sinai – had blockaded the highway. We were surprised that we had to explain this, but we told the guides that if the settlers were blockading the highway, that was where we wanted to be.


So the bus took us as far as we could go, and we got out and talked to the angry settlers, who had piled furniture and tires and other obstructions across the highway. We talked to the settlers about their determination to stay in Yamit; when we returned to the bus, the driver told us he knew how to get to the town without using that highway. That turned out to be true, although the bus got stuck in the desert sand at one point, and we all had to get out and push. Yamit was virtually deserted, and it was an odd experience to walk through that town with virtually no human life in sight. We did encounter one elderly, gregarious man who identified himself as the “unofficial mayor” and explained the layout of the town and his own disappointment about Israel’s decision. Yamit was still in Israeli hands on that day. It was evacuated in April 1982, and some of the settlers had to be routed from their homes and carried away by the Israeli Defense Forces. The town, which was a beautiful little settlement of about 2,500 people, was demolished before the peninsula was ceded to Egypt.


The Camp David Treaty was brokered by President Jimmy Carter and signed by Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. Sadat and Begin both were excoriated in some quarters, and the treaty certainly was a factor in the murder of Sadat in 1981. Egypt was also suspended from the Arab League for a while.

 Whatever else one may think of the treaty, it has prevented hostilities between Israel and Egypt for more than 30 years, during most of which Hosni Mubarek has been president of Egypt. The future of that treaty – and the likelihood of renewed belligerence between the two countries – is one of the many things at stake in the uprising against Mubarek’s regime.

Anwar el-Sadat with Ronald Reagan in 1981

When the treaty was signed in Washington, D.C., the ritual was televised live on an oversized screen in a public square in Tel Aviv. There were lights and music and dancing, but the joy seemed largely orchestrated. When my colleagues and I wandered just a few blocks from that square, the city was quiet. A couple of us stopped in a bar operated by a Yemeni woman named Chanita Madmoni. We sat next to two old Israelis – one Greek, the other Rumanian. We told them they didn’t seem excited about the “shalom.” They’d rather have peace than war, they said, but they weren’t convinced it would last. Judging by their ages, I’d venture that it lasted longer than they did.




As there isn’t enough turmoil in the land of my ancestors — well, some of them, anyway — a popular Lebanese singer has stirred the stew by including a derogatory reference to Nubian people in the lyric of a children’s song. I won’t go into what the lyric says, but it’s described in a story in the English-language newspaper in Beirut, and that story is right HERE.

Reading that story in the Daily Star sent me on a search for the Nubians, with whom I was not familiar. I found out that the term describes more than two million black people who are concentrated in southern Egypt and northern Sudan. They are one of our links to antiquity, because they have preserved culture and tradition that dates from the beginning of civilization.


Photo of Nubian girl from Billy Gamb'ela's blog on

Stumbling across the reference to these people and the information available about them reminded me of an experience we once had while flying to California. On the plane with us were a group of people in rural dress who had coal-black skin and who spoke to each other in a language we were sure we had never heard. When we surmised that one white man was with that party, we asked him about them, and he told us they were aboriginal artists from Australia who were on a world tour with an exhibition of their work. That encounter made us so conscious of how diverse the world is and how little we know about the many kinds of people who compose what we call humanity.

So, too, now with the Nubians. The Daily Star quoted a fellow named Motez Isaaq, who represents the Committee for Nubian Issues: “We are one of the oldest civilizations on Earth. Instead, our image is constantly perpetuated as the uneducated doorman or waiter.” Isaaq gave Wahbe the benefit of the doubt by saying her lyric was offensive even though she may not have intended it to be. And he added, according to the Star’s paraphrase, “that stereotypes of minorities are so entrenched that referring to them in popular culture media is frequently done unconsciously.” How sad and how discouraging, particularly since Wahbe, whether consciously or not, addressed her bias to children.


A Nubian child from Billy Gamb'ela's blog on





Inquiring minds etc.

June 3, 2009



One of the curiosities of American history is that no one has ever figured out who was the mother of William Franklin. We know the father well enough – Benjamin Franklin, one of the geniuses of the American Revolution. But Ben wasn’t married to Billy’s mom, and though he took good care of the boy until they split over questions of loyalty or rebellion, the old man never let slip the mother’s name. No scholar has been able to unravel the mystery.

But that’s cheap cheese compared to what the Egyptians are monkeying around with — trying to determine who was the father of King Tutankhamun. That’s been the subject of speculation at least since the king’s tomb was uncovered in 1922, but now Egyptian scholars are using DNA samples from the mummy to narrow the parentage down — presumably to either Akhenaten or Amenhotep III. 




Meanwhile, there has been some controversy over a bust of the Egyptian Queen Nefertiti — a contemporary of King Tut’s — whose reputed good looks have been the source of fascination for centuries. Swiss art historian Henri Stierlin wrote in a book published this spring that the statue is a copy dating only from 1912. Worse yet, German scientists earlier this year speculated that the sculptor of the original bust may have smoothed out creases around the queen’s mouth and straightened out her bumpy nose. 

If these intimate secrets aren’t safe after 3300 years, what chance has Adam Lambert got?