Monday,22 April, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1416, (1 - 7 November 2018)
Monday,22 April, 2019
Issue 1416, (1 - 7 November 2018)

Ahram Weekly

Angels and demons

Hani Mustafa assesses Israel’s take on the life of Ashraf Marwan


Filmmakers have been interested in politics since the beginning of cinema. This might be due to the gripping dramas that surround many historical events. Governments see political films as valuable tools for directing public opinion, making the genre especially prone to intelligence intervention, sponsorship and censorship. Between World War II and the Cold War, for example, Hollywood villains changed from German to Russian. The villains started becoming Middle Eastern following the fall of the Berlin Wall, but they became unequivocally Muslim after 9/11. It was in this context that modern Arab history became a topic for espionage thrillers like Israeli filmmaker Ariel Vromen’s The Angel, released on Netflix last month.

An American-Israeli production, it is based on a 2016 book, The Angel: the Egyptian Spy Who Saved Israel, written by Haifa University political science professor Uri Bar-Joseph. A life of Ashraf Marwan, president Gamal Abdel-Nasser’s son-in-law and later president Anwar Al-Sadat’s advisor whom the Israeli media some 10 years ago revealed to have spied for Israel, notably in the build-up to and during the 1973 War, though the Egyptian side of the story is that he was actually a double agent who tricked the Mossad and served Egypt; his funeral in 2007 was attended by Egyptian intelligence director and president Hosni Mubarak who said, “Marwan carried out patriotic acts which it is not yet time to reveal.” The book tells a story of how Mossad recruited Marwan early on, thereby obtaining information directly from the head of state and other top positions during wartime. Working with screenwriter David Arata, Vromen, who was incidentally born in 1973, in Israel, and directed American horror and action films, starts to present the main character right after the credits.

It is December 1969 and Marwan (played by the Moroccan-Dutch actor Marwan Kenzari) is having dinner with Nasser and other top officials when he begins to criticise Nasser’s consistent devotion to the Soviet Union, expressing an intuition of its fall and saying the Middle East would not change until Egypt approached the Americans. This is used to show a deterioration in Marwan’s relationship with his father-in-law as they differ over the approach to the occupation of Sinai. But there are two blatant errors in the scene. First, no one on earth thought the Soviet Union would collapse at the height of the Cold War. Secondly, Nasser — who is portrayed as stubborn and ignorant in order to facilitate sympathy with Marwan — was not averse to liaising with Americans after the 1967 War, he even signed Secretary of State William Rogers Rogers Plan to end the War of Attrition in May 1970.

Nasser is shown telling his daughter Mona (Maisa Abd Elhadi) he thinks her marriage to Marwan — who is shown as an intelligent and ambitious person very much in love with his wife but also addicted to gambling — was a mistake that should never have happened. It is when Marwan finds out from the then presidency affairs minister Sami Sharaf that Nasser wants to end his marriage to Mona as well as his PhD scholarship at University College London that he returns to gambling. During a lecture in which the professor describes how the notorious World War II double agent Juan Pujol Garcia (Garbo), a Spanish national who managed to mislead the Nazis about the Normandy landings in 1944, Marwan thinks of contacting the Mossad, which he does by phoning the Israeli Embassy from a public phone booth. But this is ludicrous, for one thing, because Marwan was a chemical engineer.

 When Nasser died, Sharaf travels to London to inform Mona and Marwan and bring them back to Cairo. How, having installed himself in the Mossad, does Marwan gain the trust of Nasser’s successor (Sadat is played by Israeli actor Sasson Gabai)? The filmmaker shows Marwan rummaging through Nasser’s files immediately on his return, and picking one out to give to Sadat, which is later shown to be crucial to Sadat’s 1971 “Corrective Revolution” against Nasser’s men, including the three who tried to overthrow Sadat, Sharaf, vice-president Ali Sabri and interior minister Shaarawi Gomaa.

The climax is when Marwan — now at peace with the Egyptian regime — receives a phone call from the Israeli Embassy in London during which the call in which he offered his services is played back to him to pressure him to cooperate. He is later introduced to an officer codenamed Alex (played by British actor Toby Kebbell), and their connection turns into the usual banal story about how Egyptians and Israelis are both humans who love their families.

The end of the film actually leans towards the Egyptian side of the story, showing Marwan reading The Boy Who Cried Wolf to his son in bed, a reference to Sadat making the Israelis think he would wage war twice, and a third time when Marwan met Mossad head Zvi Zamir (Israeli actor Ori Pfeffer) to tell him Egypt would move into Sinai at 6pm on 6 October, four hours after the actual time. At the end of the film, almost 20 years after the war, Alex gives Marwan a gift when they meet at a London park. When Marwan opens it, he finds a copy of The Boy Who Cried Wolf. But this tedious scene isn’t enough for the filmmaker to establish his idea that Marwan was a mastermind of Egyptian strategy. There is another scene in which Sadat practically spells out the plan to him.

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