CAIRO: “Would they call us traitors? Would the government spy on us upon our return? Would the local press try to manipulate our actions to tarnish our image?” These were the types of questions the popular band Wust El Balad and their manager Rami Heikal wrestled with when deciding whether to travel to Ramallah and perform.
The seven members of the famous Egyptian rock band visited the Palestinian city last week to open the 31st Palestine Festival for Music and Dance.
While people around the world wouldn’t necessarily equate travelling to Ramallah as an act of complicity with the Israeli government, many Egyptians have been brought up believing this very sentiment, Heikal explained to Daily News Egypt.
“The old regime didn’t want Egyptians to know much about Palestine. They wanted us to worry about football, movies, music and entertainment. Basically, they wanted to keep us away from the Palestinian problem, to scare us from going there,” he said, explaining that he really didn’t know who the Palestinians that lived in Ramallah actually were.
However, for Heikal, “seeing is believing,” and seeing is exactly what he decided to do after receiving a phone call from a mysterious number two months ago inviting the band to Ramallah.
“You can’t just say that you support the Palestinians. No. You have to go there and see everything for yourself, see what’s happening.”
Despite a strong desire to support the Palestinian cause, both Heikal and Wust El Balad were hesitant at first. The prospect of having their Egyptian passports stamped by Israeli border guards, performing in an event alongside Israelis or Israeli sponsors, or dealing with Arab Israelis who, they had originally believed, “sold out their country,” were some of their biggest concerns.
“We didn’t want to officially recognize the Israeli government. We all had our fears. It wasn’t easy at all to make such a decision,” Heikal expressed.
Through careful research and close consultation with trusted figures in Egypt’s intellectual, political and intelligence circles, Heikal realized that much of his previously held fears and stereotypes that “visiting Palestine” meant recognizing the Israeli government were unfounded.
Working with the event organizers, Heikal learned that they could avoid receiving Israeli stamps in their passports by applying for visitor permits from the Palestinian embassy in Cairo.
“We really didn’t even know that there was a Palestinian embassy here in Cairo,” he admitted.
Heikal also conducted extensive research to make sure that there would be no Israeli companies or participation in the festival at all.
However, even with the full assurances from the embassy and the event organizers that Israeli guards would not stamp their passports and that there would be no Israeli participation in the event, several members from Wust El Balad still feared making the trip.
“It took a lot of convincing,” Heikal explained, “if even one member of the group wasn’t comfortable with going, then [they] all wouldn’t go.”
And six hours before their flight to Amman was supposed to take off on the morning of July 3, two of the band’s seven members were still undecided, and another two didn’t want to go at all.
With the type of deep, political, philosophical conversation that could only take place in the dead of night, a few hours before their scheduled 6 am flight, the band finally came to the conclusion that there “weren’t any good reasons to not go,” and that they “should have the courage to go” and support the Palestinian cause by supporting the Palestinian people, Heikal explained.
With that, the group hopped on a plane last minute, where they began the long voyage across western Jordan, over the border and into the West Bank.
The entire experience, as Heikal went on to describe, was absolutely “life changing.”
Apart from performing their hits in front of thousands of screaming Palestinian fans, a surprising number of whom actually knew the lyrics well enough to sing along, and playing both the Palestinian and Egyptian national anthems, Heikal and Wust El Balad also had the opportunity to meet with families of Palestinians imprisoned in Israeli jails.
Meeting with these families, Heikal said, was so moving that he and the band jumped at the opportunity to participate in a sit-in the following day in front of the Egyptian embassy in Ramallah, in an effort to pressure the Egyptian government to request a prisoner swap for the alleged Israeli spy arrested last month in Cairo.
By then, word had spread like wildfire about Wust El Balad’s incredible performance and activities around Ramallah, and back at the hotel, their phone was ringing off the hook.
When Heikal finally picked it up, a man claiming to be from the presidential council said that Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas wanted to meet them.
“Yeah right, get a life,” Heikal told the “prank” caller, then hung up the phone.
When it rang again, the man repeated his request, saying that he wasn’t kidding, and that they have “exactly five minute to come down, there is no time to waste.”
Despite having never met an acting head of state, Heikal wasn’t convinced that it would be a good idea for him and the band to meet Abbas.
“We knew that Abbas was supporting Mubarak until the end,” he explained. “When I told the band about the phone call, they thought it was a catastrophe, and that they shouldn’t agree to the meeting. Even a lot of the organizers of the festival said that they wouldn’t accompany them to a meeting with Abbas, because it would be a disgrace to them.”
However, after discussing the issue with the families of the prisoners, Heikal knew something good could be achieved through the meeting. “We proposed that if we met with him, we would get a promise that he would talk to the Egyptian government and request a prisoner exchange between Palestinian prisoners and the Israeli spy locked up in Egypt.”
To further encourage the visiting Egyptians to meet with their president, the Palestinian families began chanting “Raise your head up high, you’re Egyptian!” And with that, they were sold on the idea.
Upon arriving to the presidential compound and being ushered into a special meeting room, the band and Heikal argued over who would sit next to President Abbas and who would try to extract a promise from him to do something about the prisoners in Israeli jails.
Ultimately, Heikal sat next to Abbas and brought up the issue, but the president rebuffed the request, explaining that as part of the peace treaty between Egypt and Israel, Egypt is not allowed to request prisoner exchanges involving Palestinians.
Not satisfied with this response, one of the band members jumped in and delivered an emotional request for Abbas to at least “go to Egypt and meet with the government and just ask for a prisoner exchange for the Israeli spy,” Heikal explained.
“Abbas laughed because the band member was talking with so much enthusiasm, but he did respond by saying, ‘Yes, I promise.’”
Despite spending only a few days in Palestine, Heikal and the band felt they accomplished a lot. They broke down previously held beliefs and directly offered their support on an issue they care deeply about.
More importantly, Heikal explained, they did this all as individual citizens, and not in an official capacity.
“I think it’s time, especially after our revolution, for us to see things by ourselves and do things on our own, rather than wait for the government to tell us what’s right and what’s wrong. Now is the time for change. This is the biggest conflict we’ve been living with for the past 60 years, so why shouldn’t I see it for myself?”
For Heikal and Wust El Balad, the overall message to Egyptians is simple: If you want to support Palestinians, then go to Palestine and meet them directly, understand their lives, and share their stories with others.
Going there does not mean you are complicit with the Israeli government. And you don’t need to get your passports stamped.
A signed photo of Rami Heikal with head of the Palestinian Authority Mahmoud Abbas in Ramallah.