Egyptian TV’s Mixed Message
A series airing during Ramadan traffics in anti-Semitic themes but may show an evolving attitude toward Israel
During the Muslim holy month of Ramadan, now winding down, the Arab world’s TV networks air a slew of dramas and comedies, typically serialized in nightly episodes and culminating at the end of the month. Many depict Israel and Jews using well-known anti-Semitic canards. A memorable example from the 2001 Ramadan season, Horseman Without a Horse, told the story of Israel’s establishment on the premise that the Protocols of the Elders of Zion were real—not an anti-Semitic forgery by the Russian secret police.
Among this year’s crop of miniseries, several are in keeping with this insidious tradition. The Anti-Defamation League provided four examples earlier this month in a news release that Commentary writer Jonathan S. Tobin used as the basis for this post. One of the programs has been airing on Hezbollah’s Al-Manar network; another on the Salafi Al-Rahma channel; and a third on Egypt’s comparatively secular Al-Nahar. The fourth—Firqat Naji Atallah (“Naji Atallah’s Team”), a comedy starring legendary Egyptian comic Adel Imam—aired on the pan-regional juggernaut MBC, with an audience that probably dwarfed the other three networks combined. As the ADL notes, “The show revolves around the character of Naji Atallah, a diplomat working in the Egyptian embassy in Tel Aviv who decides to take revenge on Israel by robbing an Israeli bank.” The show routinely mocks “Israelis and Jews for their ‘frugalness’ and includes expressions of support for terrorism against Israel.”
Between living in the Middle East and keeping a satellite dish at home in the United States, I have followed Ramadan programs over the past 10 years and, on a recent visit to Cairo, had the chance to casually view much of the MBC series. While the ADL’s criticism is accurate, it omits other elements, also prominent, that reflect a modest degree of evolution in some Arab screenwriters’ attitude toward Israel and Jews.
I don’t know the production team behind Firqat Naji Atallah personally, but I’ve spent time with other Arab teleplay writers who also work for MBC. They tend to regard themselves as “liberal.” They are at odds with Islamists on cultural grounds, much the way liberal American writers tend to dislike Christian conservatives. They dislike Israel—but in this season of upheaval and Islamist ascendance, they are also opposed to the bellicose direction in which their region seems to be headed. They see themselves as having the potential to play a role in challenging the more strident, entrenched ideologies of the Arab world—and where they find the chance to do so even faintly, they seize it. Their work, accordingly, contains deliberate ambiguities and multilayered messages easily missed in translation and out of context. The view that such messages may be found in Firqat Naji Atallah has been expressed by Egyptian drama critic Magdi al-Tayyib, who recently argued, quite contrary to the ADL’s statement, that the program contains an “indirect call for normalization of relations with Israel.”
Judging from the production values, Firqat Naji Atallah appears to have been one of the highest-budget productions of the season. As promotional ads pointed out, it also marks Adel Imam’s return to the “little screen” after years of starring only in films. The story opens with an imagined controversy inside Egypt: Young demonstrators have vandalized public property in Cairo, angry that their embassy in Israel plans to invite Jews to celebrate the anniversary of the Egyptian revolution. They are joined in spirit by the ambassador, named “Gamal Abdel Nasser,” who resigns his post in disgust. Protagonist Naji Atallah (Imam) is a lower-level diplomat who assumes the ambassadorship in a pinch and proceeds with the controversial plan to hold the event in Israel.
During a mock televised debate, Atallah defends his decision: We’re at peace with Israel, he notes. Jews are people too, and many of them respect their Egyptian neighbors. We have always been and always should be friendly toward others. Asked by the TV host whether Atallah would take this logic as far as to join Jews in celebrating their “ ‘Day of Independence,’ which we regard as a ‘catastrophe,’ ” Atallah says he would. That holiday commemorates youngsters who died fighting a war with us, he explains; we should acknowledge and remember the tragedies that befell both our peoples.
Of course, viewers of Firqat Naji Atallah are laughing at this speech—because as they already know from the teaser trailer, Atallah’s public face is a ruse to help him rob a nearby bank. Nonetheless, Atallah’s feigned passion for peace was an extraordinary TV spectacle. A viewer flipping channels could easily have gotten the wrong impression about the discussion’s meaning, much the way listeners to Orson Welles’ 1939 radio production of War of the Worlds were deceived into thinking Martians had invaded Earth.
Unambiguous, meanwhile, is the depiction of the Egyptian youth protesters, briefly jailed by the government. One of them is a laughingstock: Asked by the authorities to explain why he participated in the demonstration, he is at a loss. His response is loud, obnoxious, and comically incoherent, betraying that he joined the rally out of sheer excitement. A different demonstrator, handsome and articulate, lucidly explains his motivation: He feels it’s wrong to promote “normalization” with the Jewish state while there is an Israeli blockade around Gaza and vehemently opposes Egypt’s participation in the blockade. While no context is provided concerning present Israeli-Egyptian policies toward Gaza, the young man’s argument is rational, and a far cry from traditional calls to destroy Israel “from the river to the sea,” heard so often in Arabic media. Released from jail, the protester has a long conversation with his brother, a computer scientist, who tells him that violence is “not the way.” I hate the Zionists as much as you do, he says—but Egypt doesn’t need vandals; it needs doctors and lawyers. Invest your energy in building up your country, he urges.
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