Egyptian TV’s Mixed Message
A series airing during Ramadan traffics in anti-Semitic themes but may show an evolving attitude toward Israel
To be sure, both the incoherent vandal and the computer scientist go on to play an instrumental role in Atallah’s bank heist. But in the same episode, there is also a discussion in a mosque in which a group of Salafis approach the prayer leader, a former terrorist, and ask him to help them make a bomb. He declines, asserting that he can no longer countenance a violent attack in which innocent women, children, and old men might die. Dramatic, string-heavy incidental music backs up his throaty delivery, signaling to the viewer that he is a non-ironic character who means what he is saying.
The ADL and Commentary are right to note that the program’s depiction of Israel is teeming with stock anti-Semitic caricatures: old men with hook noses, a procession of rabbis and soldiers who want only the worst for gentiles and particularly their Arab neighbors. But there are other characters, too. Witness the heated conversation between an Israeli diplomat and an Israeli security official about Naji Atallah’s public statements in favor of peace. The diplomat is one of Atallah’s biggest fans: Atallah is precisely the sort of Egyptian who should be embraced and encouraged, he says. The security officer counters that all Egyptians want to destroy Israel, pure and simple, and if they say otherwise in public, it’s a sign that they are secretly plotting something. The dramatic irony is titillating: You sympathize with the diplomat, but you realize he is naïve; you want to hate the security officer, but you know that his assessment of Atallah is correct.
A recurring conceit of the program is that Israelis know and love Egyptian culture. An effeminate old man whom Atallah pretends to befriend speaks colloquial Egyptian Arabic and rattles off love songs by seminal Egyptian composer and crooner Muhammad Abdel Wahhab. Several scenes occur in an Israeli bar where images of Cleopatra and the pyramids adorn the wall. When Atallah gives his welcome speech at the Egyptian embassy, he tells the crowd, “I can speak Hebrew just fine, but since you all know how to talk ‘Egyptian,’ I’ll address you in my native tongue.”
Say what you will, these details do not contribute to the cause of inciting people against Israel. On one level, they may simply reinforce Egyptians’ high opinion of themselves: Of course Israelis love us. Everybody loves us. We are the “Mother of the World,” as they say in Cairo. But these repeated depictions of Israeli esteem for Egypt have the additional effect of taking the edge off the ugliness that is also on display.
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The novelist and film critic was the most gifted also-ran of the 1960s Jewish-American literary renaissance