By Khaled Diab
Despite outlandish conspiracy theories, a Ramadan TV drama about Egypt's lost Jewish community is not a missive to Israel but an ode to pluralism.
Wednesday 8 July 2015
Love triangles, unrequited love and the torment of separation are staples of Egyptian soap operas. This is especially the case during Ramadan, when fasting and piety dominate during daylight hours and feasting and revelry kick off once the sun goes down.
But one Ramadan drama stands out for a love story with an unusual twist. Leila and Ali are the classic boy and girl next door who have been madly in love since childhood, with Ibtihal their jealous neighbour, representing the obtuse angle of this triangle. So far so ordinary.
However, Leila is an Egyptian Jew and Ali is an Egyptian officer deployed to the Palestine front during the 1948 war. To complicate matters further, her brother is one of the few Egyptian Jews who has gone to Palestine to help the Israeli effort.
The Leila-Ali affair makes up one of the central storylines of Haret el-Yahoud, which is set in Cairo's Jewish Quarter, the controversial historical drama that is currently airing in Egypt and across the Arab world.
I have watched the first few episodes of this slick production and have generally been impressed by the quality of the acting and the period mood it evokes of 1940s “belle epoque” Cairo.
Most of all, I am pleased that a largely forgotten and distorted period of Egypt's recent history, that of the demise of the country's once-vibrant, 80,000-strong Jewish community, has been made accessible to a broader public – and in a humane and sympathetic light.
Though many Egyptians have welcomed the series, it has also provoked inevitable anger and allegations of “whitewashing history” in some quarters, especially among those who seem convinced that Jews, Israelis and Zionists are the same thing.
One example of this is Ahmed Metwali, described as a professor of history at Cairo University, who claimed that Jews in Egypt isolated themselves socially and worked exclusively in trade and business.
Obviously, the good professor's grasp of his own country's history is shaky at best, or ideology has blinded him to reality. Though a small community, Egypt's Jews were prominent in every walk of life, including culture and politics – and many were ordinary, working class folk.
In fact, it might surprise the learned professor to learn that Jews played a central role in awakening Egypt's modern national consciousness. A good example of this was Yaqub Sannu. Though almost totally forgotten today, in the 19th century, Sannu established one of the country's first anti-imperialist and anti-royalist publications, The Man in the Blue Glasses. He was also possibly the creator of the quintessential Ibn el-Balad (Son of the Country) character who stood for native virtue and the anti-imperial and class struggle.
Jews in Egypt felt so apparently comfortable that they not only made films, but some made films about Jews. At a time when German Jewish filmmakers were fleeing Hitler, Togo Mizrahi, one of the founding fathers of Egyptian cinema, made numerous films which had Jewish protagonists and main characters – something that was rare if unheard of in 1930s Hollywood.
Even more unbelievably, Metwali claims that there were no love affairs between Muslims and Jews.
Has the history professor really not heard of perhaps the most famous on- and off-screen couple in Egyptian cinematic history, Leila Murad, who was once everyone's favourite silver screen beauty with the golden vocal chords, and the debonair Anwar Wagdi? Out of love, Murad converted from Judaism to Islam to marry Wagdi (three times), who ruined their relationship by insisting on owning her entire career.
The character of Leila is done up in such a way as to pay tribute to her legendary namesake, while Ali, with his Clark Gable moustache, bears more than a passing resemblance to Wagdi.
Some critics have gone even further and taste the ingredients of a conspiracy by the al-Sisi regime to appease Israel and engineer a rapprochement by “narrowing the psychological gap between the two peoples”, according to Hossam Aql of the al-Badeel al-Hadari party.
But again, this strikes me as a case of conflating Jews with Israel. While the series portrays Egyptian Jews in a sympathetic light, the only Israeli I have seen so far was a two-dimensional sadist army officer who tortures Ali.
For Muslim Brotherhood supporters, it is Haret al-Yahoud's less-than-flattering portrayal of their founding father, Hassan el-Banna, that seems to have provoked the greatest fury. “al-Sisi's TV serials are a misrepresentation in favour of the Jews,” Anas Hassan, a prominent activist and the founder of Rassd, a pro-Brotherhood grassroots news site, wrote on his Facebook page, eliciting more than 2,000 likes. “al-Sisi is a complete Zionising project.”
The flimsy evidence for this is that the Israeli media has praised al-Sisi repeatedly. But if that is an indicator of being a “Zionist stooge”, then the Brotherhood's very own Mohamed Morsi deserves that accolade just as much, given the acclaim he got in Israel and the love letter he sent to former Israeli president Shimon Peres.
In other posts, Hassan accused al-Sisi of being an “apostate” who was “raised by Jews”. Since al-Sisi's rise to power, many Muslim Brotherhood supporters and activists have subscribed to outlandish – and frankly anti-Semitic – conspiracy theories about the Egyptian leaders ancestry, alleging that he is a Jew.
The damning case against him? According to a popular YouTube video, al-Sisi was born and raised in el-Gamaliya, in an alleyway which lies on the edge of the Jewish quarter. “Only Jews resided in the Jewish quarter,” the narrator tells us untruthfully, as the area, despite its name, was always a mixed one.
Though not all Muslim Brothers entertain such feverish fantasies, this kind of hate-filled, intolerant, sectarian discourse does little to counteract the image of el-Banna and his men, who set off a deadly campaign of bombings against Jewish targets in 1948 just because they shared the same religion as the enemy, presented in Haret el-Yahoud as violent fanatics.
To my mind, there is no pro-Israel conspiracy behind Haret el-Yahoud, but perhaps an alliance of convenience and some co-option. Many artists in Egypt feel threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood and Islamist intolerance in general, and this has, sadly, made many staunch or hesitant supporters of the ruthless military regime.
The series' uncritical veneration of the army is a case in point. Even though al-Sisi hadn't yet been born at the time of the 1948 war, the makers' decision to set this drama in al-Sisi's old neighbourhood and to make the main star a handsome, principled and sensitive army officer to whom women are instinctively drawn is a powerful subliminal message to audiences. Of course, any resemblance to real or living presidents may be entirely coincidental and unintentional.
For audiences and programme makers alike, the main draw to Haret al-Yahoud, in these tumultuous times, is nostalgia. Many look back wistfully to an Egypt that was once perched on top of the Arab and developing world. It was the wealthiest and most advanced Arab country, and a place where modernity and progress seemed to be on an unstoppable onward march.
In a contemporary Egypt where intolerance towards Christians, not to mention anyone who is different, many Egyptians feel that their country seriously lost its way in the second half of the 20th century, when it was supposed to have been liberated.
Haret al-Yahoud is not a missive to Israel but an ode to pluralism. By coming to terms with the injustice it committed against its Jewish minority, Egypt may be able to save its soul.
Follow Khaled Diab on Twitter.
This article first appeared on Al Jazeera on 29 June 2015.