Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1252, (25 June - 1 July 2015)
Wednesday,15 August, 2018
Issue 1252, (25 June - 1 July 2015)

Ahram Weekly


Hani Mustafa keeps up with shifting images of Jews on Egyptian television

Al-Ahram Weekly

No Ramadan TV season is without its fair share of allusions to the Arab-Israeli conflict, and this is no doubt due as much as anything to the strong emotional impact of the issue for Egyptians and their commitment to the Palestinian cause being associated with patriotism. Over decades television drama has always played on this aspect of the collective psychology, going so far as to exploit it in some cases, as it dwelled on Palestinian dispossession and the tragedy of war.

This year Haret Al-Yahoud (The Jews Quarter) – written by Medhat Al-Adl, directed by Mohamed Al-Adl and featuring a number of Egyptian and Arab stars – seems to depart from the usual treatment. In its first few episodes the series deals in a humane way with a complex network of relations centring on downtown Cairo’s Jewish quarter during the 1948 War.

The focus is on the Nakba and the declaration of the Jewish state as a turning point not only for the structure of Egyptian society but also for the Middle East as a whole. The deeper purpose, however, is to present a microcosm of society in this small neighbourhood which is representative of the urban middle class and a rich melting pot of the three Abrahamic religions, something that becomes apparent in the first-episode scene depicting a “raid on Cairo”, which demonstrates the variegated social fabric of the neighbourhood.

The most important aspect of the drama is its depiction of relations between compatriots of different faiths during that period, showing how 1948 affected relations between Egypt’s Muslims and Christians on the one hand and its Jews on the other. This is embodied in the main two characters: Laila (Menna Shalabi) is the daughter of a Jewish cotton merchant (Ahmad Kamal), and her lover Ali (Iyad Nassar), who in the second episode turns out to be an army officer fighting in the Palestine War.

Such direct and simplistic melodrama takes turn for the predictable when it becomes clear that Laila’s brother Moussa (Ahmad Hatem), who has entertained Zionist ideas since the beginning, finally flees to Israel in the third episode to join the war. Laila is then torn between her lover and her brother fighting each other in the holy land.

Other characters are equally predictable in the context of events, though their roles are still unfolding: the futtuwwah (or strongman) Al-Assal, who charges shop owners protection money; his daughter Ibtihal (Riham Abdel-Ghafour), who is in love with Ali and constantly fighting with Laila; but most importantly there is the Muslim Brotherhood member Hassan, who demonstrates the fact that the Muslim Brotherhood’s alleged participation in the Palestine War never involved armed conflict, since the militia the organisation sent arrived at the frontier shortly before the ceasefire that ended the war and established Israel’s presence in the region.

The series thus reiterates historical facts, citing for example the “corrupt arms deal” scandal exposed by journalist and novelist Ihsan Abdel-Quddous, in which corrupt arms dealers close to King Farouk imported obsolete weaponry that contributed to the defeat of the Egyptian army (Al-Adl shows how the idea that the weapons killed those who wielded them is a common misconception resulting from the use of the word “corrupt”, which referred to the deal rather than the arms).


According to Jacques Hassoun in his book Histoire des Juifs du Nil, translated into Arabic by the late labour lawyer Youssef Darwish and published in 2007, Haret Al-Yahoud was populated mostly by Karaite Jews, none of whom is known to have engaged in any Zionist activity with the exception of a doctor named Moshe Marzouk who received the death sentence following the July Revolution for his role in the Lavon Affair (Operation Susannah) in 1954. Many Karaites – especially the communists among them – were Egyptian patriots who participated in the national independence movement and continued to champion the Palestinian cause after 1948.

In his 2012 documentary Jews of Egypt, Amir Ramses documents the role of the Jewry in the communist movement, citing Henri Curiel (who founded the communist Democratic Movement for National Liberation) as well as Youssef Darwish, Sadek Saad and the lawyer Shehata Haroun, the father of the current head of the Jewish community Magda Haroun.

Ramses said his motivation for making the film was to show the patriotic side of Egypt’s Jews and break with the received stereotypes, but in Egyptian cinema and television the image of Jews has gone through many stages ranging from realistic, humane portrayals of the Jewish Egyptian citizen to stereotyping and even demonisation.

Prior to the July Revolution, the Jewish filmmaker Togo Mizrahi was among the brightest stars of Egyptian cinema. Through the 1930s and 1940s he directed numerous landmarks: Salama (1944), starring Om Kakthoum; Laila Bint Al-Rif and Laila Bint Madaris (Laila the Country Girl and Laila the School Girl, 1941), starring Laila Murad, another member of the community; and a string of popular comedies focusing on a character named Shalom: Shalom Al-Riyadi (Shalom the Sportsman, 1939), Al-Izz Bahdalah (Wealth Is Trouble) and Shalom Al-Torgoman (Shalom the Interpreter, 1935), for example.

Like other films of the period – filmmaker Walieddin Sameh and screenwriter Badi Khairi’s 1946 Lebet Esset (or The Woman’s Game), for example, starring Naguib Al-Rihani and Tahiya Karioka – the Shalom films showed cross-confessional relations in a light-hearted and easy manner. Shalom’s friendship with the Muslim Ahmad is a case in point. In Lebet Esset the Jewish character Zaki, the owner of a megastore, leaves his establishment to his Muslim employee Hassan (Al-Rihani) when he decides to flee to South Africa following the approach of the Nazis in 1942.

Few of these films have been sufficiently seen or discussed, due in part to degrees of confusion between Judaism as a component of the patriotic fabric of the nation and Judaism as Zionism. Through the second half of the 20th century, indeed – to coincide with the 1956, 1967 and 1973 wars as well as the state monopolising film production in the 1960s – Jews were rarely depicted at all, and then as Shylock-like stereotypes of greed and deceit.

Kamal Al-Sheikh’s 1979 Al-Suoud ila Al-Hawiyah (Ascending to the Abyss) was perhaps the first film to depict the war between Egypt and Israel from the perspective of the secret intelligence race, showing the Jew as little more than the enemy, Many followed: Idam Mayyit (Dead Man’s Execution, 1985) and Bir Al-Khiyana (The Well of Treason, 1987), for example.

But this new genre of intelligence-war thriller was best orchestrated on the small screen, the obvious example being Yahya Al-Alami’s 1980 series Dumou fi Oyoun Waqiha (Tears in Insolent Eyes). Starting seven years later, the next series in this vein by Al-Alami, Raafat Al-Haggan, did show some complexity and depth in the Jewish characters in its first season (set before the July Revolution), but with one exception the main Jewish characters were still all stereotypical Zionists.

Let us hope that Haret Al-Yahoud will finally break with such negative stereotyping, which has reduced the artistic value of many works and flattened even the political issue at stake.

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