An Egypt Where Jews are Good, Islamists Bad, and Palestinians Don’t Exist

The most talked about Egyptian TV series this summer, a historical drama with Jews as the heroes: hard to imagine a fresher angle than that, right? But as Orient XXI’s Celine Lebrun writes here, Harat al-Yahoud, which explicitly exchanged as ‘bad guys’ Jews and Zionists for the Muslim Brothers, was transparent propaganda for the country’s new military rulers.

With sensationalist title, the subject of the TV series by Egyptian director Medhat el-Adl seemed a risky gamble for this summer’s Ramadan month season. In Harat al-Yahoud [The Jewish Quarter], El-Adl turned back the clock to a controversial and little-documented period of the country’s history: the departure of Egypt’s Jews following the creation of the state of Israel and the first Arab-Israeli War of 1948-49. By way of a love story between a Muslim army officer, Ali, and a young Jewish woman, Layla, the director attempts to reconcile Egyptians with this part of their heritage. In the end, however, this honorable purpose is fatally undermined by the numberless historical errors strewn throughout the show, and by political discourses that heavy-handedly reflect the propaganda line of the country’s current regime.

Though Cairo’s old Jewish quarter still exists, the director elected to reproduce it on a studio lot. As viewers, we find ourselves in a luminous neighborhood, a place of wide and well-kept streets, with a cinema and lined by old buildings with high-ceilinged apartments filled with luxurious furniture. Nothing at all, in other words, like the reality described by Albert Arie in an interview with Orient XXI. Now 85, Arie spent several weeks in the Jewish quarter at the end of 1947, working for a [Communist party-run] anti-cholera campaign during a period when the disease was striking Egypt. “What I saw there was one of the poorest neighborhoods in Cairo,” Arie says, “with rickety and crumbling buildings built along twisty and filthy alleyways.” He says that although Cairo in those days certainly had neighborhoods where middle-class Jews, Muslims and Chrisitians lived side-by-side: notably Abbasiya and Sakakini, the Jewish Quarter by contrast was inhabited only by Jews who lived in the depths of poverty. Poorly educated, indeed frequently illiterate, they generally got by on odd jobs.

Nothing to do then, with the religious pluralism, and the cosmopolitan people we find in the series: Pashas, army officers, a petit-bourgeois middle class made up of goldsmiths, fabric merchants, department store employees, and graduates of Mere de Dieu high school, speaking French and reciting Albert Camus.

Although we might enjoy following the love story between Ali and Layla, it is an episode that would probably not have been tolerated at a moment when Egypt was at war with the “Zionist Entity” next door, a country where martial law (declared in May 1948 but never mentioned in the series) was in force. A topic that irritates Arie, as a matter of fact: “It is ridiculous to imagine that an army officer would be sending letters to his Jewish girlfriend from the front, without them being intercepted, or that he would be cashiered.” He is equally surprised by the ignorance of the show toward the particularities of Judaism and its various doctrines, as in the scene depicting the improbable marriage between a Rabbinate Jewish girl and a Karaite man. The Karaite family, as it happens, is noble and wealthy, and heads a network which is financing the emigration of Egyptian Jews to Israel. In reality, the Karaites were among the poorest of Egypt’s Jews, and were probably the community’s most strongly nationalist about Egypt. The director likewise obliterates the fissures and walls which separated the different social classes of the era, as well as its religious divisions He thereby produces an Egypt as he imagines it once was, not the Egypt that actually was; a vision not so much nostalgic as romantic, an Egypt of an imagined golden age, an Andalusia where everyone lived happily together.

The director remains mired in the contradictions between Egyptian cinema and Egyptian reality, as when he dresses his young actresses in alluring outfits, short and low-necked and entirely appropriate to the haute couture that dressed Europe’s middle classes at the time.

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Egyptian actress Mona Shalabi in The Jewish Quarter TV series.

One could argue that this is after all fiction, and the director should be permitted to let his imagination run a bit, as he does in Episode 9, when the Egyptian army officer character escapes from an Israeli military prison and returns to Egypt by jumping on a train that runs from Israel to Egypt…when in reality no train has ever joined the two places. Asked about this in an interview with the Masry al-Youm newspaper, the director simply replied that “I wanted him to escape via train.”

The series nevertheless presents itself as historical fiction, and what might be seen as mere whims of the director become much more problematic when he wholesale rewrites the course of real events. The chronology of events as shown in the series takes frequent damage, as for example when Prime Minister Mahmud al-Nuqrashi is shown being assassinated (during Episode 10 though he was killed in December 1948) after the signing of the ceasefire between Egypt and Israel (which took place in January 1949, though here it takes place in Episode 6).

The first consequence of this lack of rigor on the part of the director was to discredit the series among its Egyptian audience and the Arab public at large, including and above all its “humanizing” portrayal of Jews, which had been a first in Egyptian cinema. Instead, this was seen as simply another machination to improve Israel’s image, in spite of the fact that the series had its share of ‘mean’ Jews, like the character of the avaricious goldsmith, more characteristic of classic Egyptian cinema.

The show’s romantic picture of a bygone Egypt, tolerant and respectful of all its communities, obscures the painful episodes which forced the Jews out of Egypt; for example the series of bomb attacks on the Jewish quarter that started in 1947, leaving dozens of victims and starting a wave of emigration.
The policies of persecution and forced exile implemented by the Egyptian government, and in particular the ministry of the interior are likewise concealed here, in favor of a portrait of a strong and united Egyptian nation standing against a British occupation.

The only example of forced exile that the series even mentions, and that without providing any context, is that of Henri Curiel, who only appears briefly in episodes 18 (for a minute and a half) and 19 (for 40 seconds). In the end, the departure of Egypt’s Jews is entirely depoliticized, with the political positions of the characters in the series –whether they choose to emigrate to Israel or develop an anti-Jewish discourse-reduced to individual and apolitical choices based on disappointed love or personal quarrels and resentments.

Given this context, the few historical events and political narratives which do suddenly erupt out of the background – clumsily and even grotesquely-are not well incorporated into the plot, and it is hard not to see them as the director parroting the present-day propaganda discourse of official Egypt.

This is the case, for example, with the way the show portrays the effect of the creation of the state of Israel on the Palestinian people. Their representations on the show-cartoonish and limited-will do little for their cause, in a present-day Egyptian context where anti-Palestinian sentiment is already running high among the media and the political class.

The first Palestinian to appear on the show – in episode 4- is a collaborator with the Israeli occupation forces. Although it turns out much later in the show that the character is actually a double agent spying on the Israeli enemy, his initial appearance sets a regrettable tone in which the representation of Palestinians never becomes any more positive as the series continues (in episodes 8,9, and 19), in which they make appearances as solely rural people who are passive observers of events, dressed in folkloric kitsch, surrounded by camels and inhabiting semi-desert scenery.
Viewers must wait until episode 18-when the show is halfway over-to see the Palestinian resistance in action – and depicting, as it happens, a Palestinian attack on a kibbutz. The scene lasts for 40 silent seconds, punctuated only by gunshots as we watch some Palestinians circling around what appears to be an antenna, like wild-west Indians dancing around a campfire. The episode concludes with a second attack against the leader of the kibbutz by a Palestinian boy who attempts to shoot him with a rifle.

As double agents, as aggressors, or as passive spectators, Palestinians here are always silent here, or simply absent altogether from a conflict that has somehow been made not their own. They have been made into extras even as the show transmits without any refutation many elements of the Zionist discourse on events: a kibbutz commanders who explains that the land here is actually Jewish land “for 2000 years now” and that all he wants to do is live here in peace. He dreams of a big house, of love, of peace and music…but first they have to defend themselves against Palestinians who are attacking them (in episodes 16 and 18). In contrast, anti-Semitic remarks on the show are always met with outraged and vehement responses.

The political debates about the colonization and occupation of Palestine we see here are simplified, not so say simplistic, and are clearly biased, in a present-day political context where relations with Israel have never been better. The Egyptian blockade of the Gaza strip was strengthened after the coup of July 3, 2013; an ambassador has been posted to Israel after an absence of almost three years; to say nothing of Egypt’s complicity in the Israeli attack on Gaza in the summer of 2014. It is not so much the show’s humanization of Jews as it is the unequal treatment of the Palestinians and the Muslim Brothers that reflects the new enhanced phase of normalization of the Israeli occupation that is being undertaken by Egypt’s new authorities.

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Ben Ezra synagogue in Cairo. Photo CC: Christopher Rose.

Regarding the Muslim Brothers, the tone of the show is set in the first episode, with an attack on the Brothers and their role in the war against the Zionist occupiers. The show denies the reality that brigades of Brothers went off to fight in Palestine; then it is their political role in the successful coup by the Free Officers in 1952 which is covered up. In truth the Brothers were one of the major organizing forces against the Zionists, and they had numerous organizational connections with the Free Officers, several of whose executive committee members had belonged to the Muslim Brothers at some point or another; some 70 Muslim Brothers were recruited into the Free Officers. But the director, El-Adl presents the Free Officers as if they were somehow detached entirely from the various ideological currents of contemporary Egypt. The Communists as well are savagely attacked, accused falsely of “assembling the Jews to send them off to Israel,” while the Egyptian communists in reality rejected Zionism.

This black-and-white depiction of the two sides is hammered home ever more frequently from Episode 10 on, in scenes of secret meetings leading up to the revolt. On one side, military officers, caring only for the good of the country, want to join the Free Officers, rejecting the idea of joining the Muslim Brothers – ‘murderers’ who ‘mix politics and religion in order to mislead the poor and innocent.’ On the other side are the Muslim Brothers, who essentially only discuss their own interests and the future of the Brotherhood following the assassination of their leader, Hassan al-Banna.

Hypocrites in their solidarity with the Palestinians, and in the end more concerned with sowing discord in the country (and the Jewish quarter) in propogating their line that the “Jews here are just like the Jews in Israel,” the picture the show paints of the Muslim Brothers is far from being as human as the picture of the Jews. Albert Arie, himself a Communist and a Jew, rubbed shoulders with many Muslim Brothers, particularly during his eleven years as a political prisoner, says in contrast that “Although the Muslim Brothers did indeed carry out some attacks against the Jews, but they had a lot of other things on their plates, particularly after their [1948] dissolution. Boiling down the whole post-1948 history of the Jews of Egypt to these attacks is reductionist and an insult to reality,” Arie says. “It was not fear of the Muslim brothers that caused the Jews to leave, but fear of repression by the country’s internal security apparatus and of rising popular resentment.”

In Episode 11, following the assassination of Prime Minister Nuqrashi, the attacks on the Brotherhood come out of the mouth of the organization’s founder Al-Banna himself. “What I have been building since 1928 is being destroyed by people who are immature, unstable, and understand nothing,” he says at one point. “What has happened to us before is one thing, but what is going to come down on us now is going to be much worse. Now there will be war against us,” he continues, a rather prophetic statement given the repression the Brothers are undergoing in our present times. The need to fight against the Brotherhood’s ideas keeps being reiterated; back in the cinematic neighborhood, even as everyone from the quarter’s thugs to the prostitutes turn into heroes of the resistance against the occupiers under the leadership of Ali, the officer expounds on the need to combat the group’s ideology, while the show portrays its followers as naïve youths (like Ali’s sister) or fanatics (like her boyfriend).

In the face of the Muslim Brothers (and the communists) the young officers, handsome and courageous, with their progressive and unifying discourses, are the only real patriots; the officer-lover Ali even giving up his personal happiness in the final scene, his love for his country more powerful even than his love of Layla.

The romantic vision of a strong Egyptian nation, all of its elements unified, and led forward by a glorious army, strongly echoes the slogan chanted by crowds supporting the July 3, 2013 coup: “The people, the Army, the Police: hand in hand.” And in the end, as the director tries to retrace the two years between the Egyptian coup of 1952, and the new banning of the Muslim Brothers in 1954, the historically anachronistic narrative about the Brothers (“ trying to steal back the revolution” , “part of a fifth column”) just flaunts El-Adl’s present-day anti-Brotherhood politics. The director is a man who does not flinch at comparing Gamal abdel Nasser with the modern day Abdel Fattah al-Sissi:

“We are seeing history repeat itself. The Muslim Brothers tried to steal the July (1952) Revolution but they failed because Nasser was a leader with a strategy. It happened again with the Jan.25 (2011, the Egypt Spring) Reolution, as events showed,” he told Jeune Afrique at one point recently. Perhaps the real truth of this question can be heard with this line from one of the young Muslim Brothers in one of the last episodes:”whatever happens, they’re always going to blame it on us or on the Communists.”

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Celine Lebrun Translated from French by International Boulevard