Q: How did you end up being chosen to be the American connection for Egypt?
A: I was coming in 1967 as the number two man in the embassy, just before war broke out 5th June 1967. I had my bags in the trunk of my car at 7 o'clock in the morning. I told my wife to drive it to the airport at noon, meet me, and in the meantime I was going to the foreign ministry and to have last meetings before take-off. War started. The suitcases remained in the car. I never went to the airport. But later on I came as the man in charge of Egyptian interests to Washington.
Q: The diplomatic relationship was broken off with the war?
A: Gamal Abdul Nasser got mad at you and we broke off relations. Your ambassador-designate, Dick Nolte, was in Cairo. The day that he was going to present his credentials was the day the war broke out. Instead of presenting his credentials we pulled him in two days later to tell him, bye-bye. No relations.
I then worked with Sadat as his deputy national security adviser and then press adviser. He put me in charge of the information during the October (1973) War. With the agreement to get closer understanding and better relations, I was dispatched to Washington.
Q: Why Ashraf Ghorbal and not a hundred or a thousand other Egyptian diplomats?
A: Are you with me or against me? I'm glad it was Ashraf Ghorbal. I'd got to be known in Egypt at that time as a man who knows America, who's developed a lot of connections, contacts. That could read the United States, its attitude well. I think over the 4 1/2 years I was here I did not give them bad advices. I conveyed the meaning of things and not necessarily the words of things. By consequence give the meaning. And if the message is a tough one, get people to understand it, but don't get their feathers ruffled.
Q: Didn't you attend Harvard University?
A: I graduated May, '45 from the Cairo University School of Political Science. The war was coming to an end. As I was the head of the class, excellent grades, I was successful in earning a scholarship to England. At that time we went to England or France. Neither Cambridge or Oxford would receive me before September '46. We were just beginning to open up on the U.S. and send people, students, there for postgraduate studies. I was lucky. I was accepted and we couldn't leave except in January. We left on the 12th of January from Port Said. You should see. We waited, 300 Egyptian students in Port Said with another 120 from the Arab world -- Lebanon, Syria, Palestine, Iraq.
We waited for that damn boat for about 18 to 20 days. Finally, it did arrive, leaning on one side. One of the water tanks was full and the other was empty and the pipe connecting them seemed not to have been working. My father looked at it and he said, "Son, you are on your way." He couldn't wait to see me off.
We had 21 days non-stop in the middle of winter on a Liberty ship, living four on bunks, one on top of the other. The front hold was occupied by GIs coming back from the war. The back one was occupied by Americans finishing their job in Saudi Arabia and the Gulf, working in oil. We had 26 GI wives who were joining their husbands -- but they were out of bounds.
Q: You've seen the United States over a long period of time since 1945. When you go back in a few weeks, what will be the most vivid memories of your service that you will take with you?
A: One of the happiest periods was when Sadat came for the first time, 1975. His speech before the joint session of Congress. People were discovering Egypt and Sadat and they wanted to know what the new Egypt is. Definitely before that the visit of President Nixon to Egypt and the way he was received. You heard several million of Cairoeans and later on in Alexandria calling, "Nixon! Nixon! Nixon! Nixon!" It was a welcome to the president of the United States -- a happy, new chapter of relations.
Q: In one of Kissinger's volumes he tells about his first meeting with Sadat in November 1973 just after the October War. Kissinger began his shuttle operation. He went first to Cairo then to Heliopolis at the palace where Sadat was staying and he said that he was very relieved to see you there standing at the bottom of the steps. He said, he meaning Ghorbal, "passionately believed that Egypt's destiny was on the side of the West." Your presence made him feel relaxed and hopeful. And then he added, "During the days of Nasser's flirtation with Moscow, Ghorbal sent me a poem subtly pleading for patience."
A: I couldn't get him to focus on the Middle East. In 1971 he went to Pakistan and then to China and at Christmastime I sent him a book on Egypt. And I composed a poem, which, in a way, is an invitation to go to Egypt. I'm not a poet; I tried to concoct a sort of a composition. I enjoyed it. Underneath it was a plea:
Come and visit my Nile,
And you don't have to stand in file.
For your stomach aches, I have a cure.
And for your headaches, rest assured.
How about it dear Henry?
Should we make the East a double entry?
Q: When you saw Kissinger finally come following the 1973 war, finally get engaged as you had been hoping and asking him to do for quite a period of time, what was your feeling?
A: Finally the day has come. I had told Sadat in 2d of January of 1972 that it was time for me to come back from Washington. Go back to Egypt. I said I don't think I have any more tricks to do. And it might be a good idea that you send someone up with fresher views. Maybe he can be more successful. I think we have done everything we could. Henry Kissinger is not tuned in on the Middle East. He thinks we are too weak to handle Israel and we might as well sign on the dotted line. And something must happen on the ground to get people in Washington to focus on the Middle East and to take us seriously. I don't say that this tipped his thinking. I think it fitted with his philosophy. And indeed, he welcomed my return and I worked with him.
Q: Did you work on the planning of the '73 war with President Sadat?
A: Well, we worked, yes. I was among the small group that was around him.
Q: How did it feel as a man who had spent his life as a professional diplomat planning a war in order to get a diplomatic act going?
A: Lots of times you people force -- or events force -- diplomats to come and say, "Listen to the generals. The needle is stuck and we're getting the same kind of repetitious music. We just need a push." We needed to redeem the honor. We needed to get people to listen to us.
Q: Did you sense a major change in the United States' attitude after the October War?
A: Yes. Henry Kissinger immediately focused, listened, acted.
Q: When you came here there was little if any contact between yourself and your Israeli opposite number. I remember once hearing you say that you passed Yitzhak Rabin, the ambassador of Israel at the time (1968- 1973), in the corridor of the State Department and neither one would say anything. For diplomatic reasons.
A: Itzhak Rabin and I played the diplomatic game as it should be played -- professionally. We saw each other in parties, in sometimes meetings at the State Department where ambassadors or envoys were called in for a briefing. We knew each other in terms of who he is, who I am. But we would not go in the process of socializing.
Q: Did you ever converse with him?
A: The occasion did not arise except one time. Barbara Walters had invited both Simcha Dinitz (the Israeli ambassador from 1973-1978) and myself to appear on a show. She'd brought us into the same place but each one of us stood at the further end of the room. We were both very civil and we'd look at each other but not try to force the situation to a shake of hands.
Then when Anwar Sadat went to Jerusalem, Barbara got him and Begin in an interview and the first question she said, "Now I have you both, is it all right for me to interview both your ambassadors together?" They both laughed and said yes. And she called me up and she said you heard what they said. And I said Barbara, why do I have to meet my Israeli colleague on a television screen? Why can't we meet socially, at a dinner? That was the dinner at the Madison at which Hadonitz and I for the first time did meet and did not only shake hands and chat but express hopes for the future.
Q: And then with his successors?
A: Eppi. (Ephraim Evron, Israeli ambassador from 1978 to 1982) Eppi and I became close friends and we were continuously appearing together. It was the hottest show in town that you get the Egyptian and the Israeli ambassador together on one platform or on one screen.
Once I was in New York staying in the same hotel that Eppi was, and we met each other in the lobby, asked each other where are you going? And we said well have you had breakfast? No. Why don't we have brunch at the Plaza? It was Sunday.
And we went and at the Plaza as we entered there was a long queue of people and Eppi said, "Shall we play our rank?" And I said "Why don't we." And he went to the maitre d' and he said, "I am the Israeli ambassador and I have the Egyptian ambassador with me. Can we have a table?" And he said, "Right away!" And we got to go ahead of everybody. They gave us a table and wanted to offer us a drink on the house. They were very attentive.
Later on it became deja vu. We would be appearing together in some other function, hardly a photographer comes to take our picture. I was already an old story. When Eppi was leaving and I had the farewell party for him and Al Haig was the Secretary of State, I said now we don't attract the attentions much as before and we have come to the conclusion that we ought to quarrel with each other in order to attract attention again.
Q: You're going back to Egypt after 11 years as ambassador. What are you going to do then?
A: I reach mandatory retirement age and can no longer work in the government unless drafted for a political post. That depends on Number One -- the president. But two things I'd like to do. One is to write a book about my long years wrestling with some of the problems that we've talked about today. And the other is to make use of my long experience in government and in the area, to travel in the Arab world that I haven't traveled in as much as before and to see things from a different perspective.
Q: Do you think Americans will be able, ever, to understand Arabs?
A: Yes. Many of them understand the Arabs much better than before. I think maybe the larger group of people concentrate on images that are given them than on the realities that the Arabs are. And I think this comes from the unhappy continuation of the state of affairs in the Middle East.
Q: How many Egyptians do we have coming into this country every year?
A: About 350,000 Egyptians have migrated to this country who are now Americans and they are highly intellectual. They are good ambassadors of Egypt. Egyptians in the thousands come for medical treatment. In the thousands come for exchange visits -- cultural and all vocations. Lots of businessmen come and lots of tourists.
Q: What do they want to see?
A: America. It's a dream of a good majority of those who live in the big cities and even in the countryside. They would like to see the land of plenty and progress.
Q: How many Americans go to look at the pyramids and the sphinx?
A: Not enough. We need more. They are the biggest in number.
Q: More Americans than Europeans?
A: More Americans than Europeans.
Q: It's always struck me that Egyptians have a kind of cultural confidence that I've only found in one other people, the Chinese. An Egyptian, no matter how simple the person, never, have I ever seen one who feels flustered.
A: What's flustered?
Q: Nervous about anything. They feel at ease with themselves in some deep way that the Chinese I think also feel. I've often wondered if this comes somehow from the unbroken long history of these two countries.
A: We have a sense of having seen it all. It has all passed by us. We've had our down days, but we've had also our up days. And we have seen conquerors come and go. We have remained. We have as you say a sense of philosophical peace with ourself. But we certainly have feeling of an urgent need to cope with our problems. We feel in need of a real renaissance because a population of 46 million growing at 1 million every 10 months. That's why you find us moving into the desert more and more.
Q: Have you been in every state in the United States?
A: Forty six of the 50 including both Alaska and Hawaii. I've been to Prudhoe Bay, Alaska. So when people tell me about Abu Simbel which I have not seen, I talk about Prudhoe Bay, Alaska, and try to get even.