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Family Feud

What an Egyptian thriller says about the country’s perception of Israel

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Selwa, played by Mona Zaki, in Welad El-Am. (Facebook)

A recently released Egyptian action film manages an unusual feat: It is vehemently anti-Zionist without being crudely anti-Semitic.

Welad El-Am (Cousins) is the latest of a long line of Egyptian films and soap operas to reimagine the country’s deeply unpopular relationship with the Jewish state. The Israel of Welad El-Am is, unsurprisingly, a despised enemy—racist, violent toward the Palestinians, and hostile to Egypt, the neighbor with whom it has technically made peace. Yet the Israel portrayed is a complicated society made up of flawed Palestinians and a diversity of Jewish characters. The film is also one of the first Egyptian movies to have been written partially in Hebrew.

Director Sherif Arafa and writer Amr Samir Atef, perhaps unwittingly, employ a number of anti-Zionist tropes derived from old anti-Semitic canards, but they do not argue that Israel’s problem is that it’s Jewish. Their Israel remains an enemy, but largely because it itself continues to think that it’s one.

The story revolves around Daniel, a Mossad agent of Egyptian-Jewish descent who had been undercover in Egypt for seven years. Recalled to Tel Aviv, he takes his Egyptian Muslim wife and their two children out for a boat ride near the Suez Canal, where a team of Israeli agents surrounds their skiff and seizes the family. Selwa, his wife, panics upon waking up in Tel Aviv, and though Daniel professes his love for her she refuses to stay in Israel. Egyptian intelligence quickly sends Mustapha, a Hebrew-speaking agent, after her. The ending is the expected one—Mustapha rescues the family and kills Daniel (in particularly gruesome fashion).

The film has been a mass market hit, winning six Egyptian “Oscars” and earning nearly $2.6 million in its first two weeks, the highest box-office take of any of the Egyptian films released during last winter’s Eid Al-Adha holiday season. The film stayed in Cairo theaters for more than six months and made its way to cinemas in other Arab cities, including Beirut.

Mansour Abd Al-Wahab, a Hebrew professor at Cairo’s Ain Shams University, served as a consultant on matters Jewish and Israeli, but he says he told the director that his working on the film was contingent upon its not misrepresenting Judaism or Israeli culture.

“I refused 100 percent to talk about the Jews in stereotypes and the Israelis in stereotypes,” he said. He ended up spending two months helping the film’s Egyptian stars memorize their Hebrew lines and pushing them to improve their accents by watching Israeli TV. He also advised the screenwriter on scenes that discuss Mizrahi immigration and kashrut and helped suggest how best to decorate a Tel Aviv apartment.

(He also, at the director’s urging, reluctantly made his own film debut, donning a shtreimel and tallit to play a rabbi at a Passover seder.)

According to a local newspaper’s account of a special showing of the film, the writer drew criticism from the audience because he named the film “Cousins” and created sympathetic Israeli characters. Although Egypt and Israel maintain diplomatic ties, Egyptian cultural and professional unions boycott the Jewish state. Did he, they asked the writer, support normalizing relations?

Of course not, the writer answered. And even though we’re cousins, we can still hate them.

Needless to say, the film does not come close to fulfilling the professor’s demand for a movie free of negative stereotypes. The few Israeli journalists who reviewed the film were not impressed. Mustapha, seeing a Tel Aviv street fall silent during the air siren on Holocaust Remembrance Day, asks a nearby Israeli for an explanation. Mustapha reacts incredulously. “Don’t they think how they’re doing the same thing to the Palestinians as was done to them?” As the movie’s closing action sequences pick up, the humanity of the Israeli characters falls away fast. Daniel is shown torturing Mustapha and shooting dead an unarmed female Palestinian prisoner.

And yet, the film’s beef with Israel and Israelis remains, at root, political, not racial. More significant than the film’s concern with Israel’s conduct in the Palestinian territories is its conviction that Israel remains hostile to Egyptian interests. “Egypt is our biggest enemy out of all the Arab states,” says Daniel to his debriefer in the Mossad. “We need more spying networks, until half the Egyptian people are spies and the other half is in trouble.”

The Palestinians themselves do not play faultless victims. A scene set in the West Bank shows Israel jets strafing a village in order to clear land for the security wall—but Palestinian workers build the wall, abandoning their nation for a quick buck. Mustapha, in Tel Aviv, realizes a Palestinian woman he met plans to blow herself up in a nightclub; he chases after her and prevents the attack. She should get revenge by succeeding in life, he tells her, not by killing herself.

Offscreen, Egypt’s leaders and strategists have proven incapable of overpowering Israel or reconciling fighting Palestinian factions. But in the cinema, viewers come away with a “positive spirit” of empowerment, as the director said during an appearance on a local talk show. The film not only vicariously avenges Egypt’s military defeats, it also suggests that Egypt could regain the mantel of regional political leadership many Egyptians think they ceded, ultimately without recompense, by signing the Camp David Accords. “You gave up on us!” shouts one of the Palestinian laborers Mustapha encounters. Mustapha’s reply comes in the film’s final line. “We will return, but not now,” he says as he begins his journey back to Egypt with Selwa and her children.

The director remarked that he began Welad El-Am in part because he wanted a project that would engender such a can-do spirit. “The cinema is the one thing that can do that now,” he said on the local talk show. By the end, the film’s aggression and bloody violence serve to exorcise not just Egyptians’ frustrations with Israeli policy but also their frustrations with their own.

Sarah Mishkin is a journalist based in Cairo.

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Bryan says:

To be honest, it doesn’t sound any worse than a lot of the anti-Soviet (i.e., anti-Russian) action movies I grew up on in the 80s. Once the Cold War ended, the animus went away.

G-D willing, when we have a peacful solution to the situation, we can look at movies like this as an odd cultural relic the way “Red Dawn” and such films look to us now.

The Egyptians receive billions of dollars in aid every year from the U.S. as a result of the Camp David accords. It’s amazing that they are bitching about it.

questioner says:

actually, the aid is one of the reasons why they are bitching. All the Arab levantine countries have a deep sense of humiliation based on their economic, military and cultural weakness. Accepting the aid probably makes them feel worse about themselves.

It’s an illness, really.

Through creativity and understanding we will create a world without barriers. The yet to be fulfilled promise of the Camp David Accords.

Bruce Craig Roter
Composer of “A Camp David Overture (Prayer for Peace”
Excerpt available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2au5SOYhO-8

Cultural insensitivity abounds, as questioner so aptly puts it. I suppose that speaking Hebrew with the appropriate accent counts as progress, but this is as small an increment as I can imagine. Interesting review of a movie I know will never make it to the USofA’s desert southwest.
a/b

EdwinS says:

Cousins? Heaven forfend that I might share any genes with those primitives…

ouch says:

Edwin … comments like that bring you right down to their level … and adds some verification to the actor’s line above: “Don’t they think how they’re doing the same thing … as was done to them?”

What next? Kill a few million German Christians to be like Hitler?

Rise above …

ouch says:

remember … Joseph was once Vizier of Egypt

What, this is some kind of advance because they didn’t depict Israelis drinking the blood of Egyptian children? This only goes to show that what most Egyptians feel for Israel, and Jews, after thirty years of peace (and billions of dollars in American aid) is nothing but blind hate. What a sad, sick world this is.

Carl says:

“What an Egyptian thriller says about the country’s perception of Israel”

That they eat babies and drink blood?

What do you expect of a nation that ethnically cleansed itself of Jews, including my sister in law’s father’s family which now lives in Israel.

Laury says:

And what do they think of the copts whome they murder every day?

Zach says:

“Of course not, the writer answered. And even though we’re cousins, we can still hate them.”

Wait, no seriously, Sarah–would you explain? Arafa’s argument is that “Israel remains an enemy, but largely because it itself continues to think that it’s one.” It’s seems to me, based on the film you describe, the problem is just as much the reverse.

Would you feel comfortable asking this question of Arafa or Al-Wahab? And what do you think they would say?

And plot lines aside, why couldn’t Daniel and Selwa stay together in Israel? I’d be really curious to hear how the director and consultant would answer. I’m asking this question in all honesty. So Sarah, help me out here.

Thanks!

Zach says:

“The director remarked that he began Welad El-Am in part because he wanted a project that would engender such a can-do spirit. “The cinema is the one thing that can do that now,” he said on the local talk show. By the end, the film’s aggression and bloody violence serve to exorcise not just Egyptians’ frustrations with Israeli policy but also their frustrations with their own”

Huh??
It seems to me that Israel’s decision not to be overpowered by Egypt would constitute a wise “policy”–with all due respect to the frustrations of Egyptians.

SanFranMan says:

“can-do spirit” + “hate” = ?

MaxS says:

The amount of hypocrisy in Egypt is astounding.
It’s amazing how no one brings up Egypt’s relations with their Palestinian “brothers”. From 1948-1967 Egypt occupied Gaza which was supposed to be part of the Palestinian state. During that time the strip was under military rule with a daily curfew, and travel to Egypt proper nearly impossible. Not much has changed today. Egypt is still blockading Gaza.
The treatment of Egyptian’s Jews is hardly mentioned either. The executions, the expropriations the expulsions, why aren’t these ever mentioned in the Egyptian media.

This film sounds like the typical anti-semitic nonsense, and liberal excuses for that anti-semtism, that has been coming out of the Egyptian media and press since the Camp David Accords and liberal American media repsectively. Because they had an advisor about Jewish culture who decided what is or is not anti-semitic does not mean that it wasn’t anti-semtic.(Remember Eichmann had a degree in Judaic studies and was fluent in hebrew too, because he made sure to save Torahs and menorahs does that mean the murder of 6 million is not anti-semtic) In fact the described scene deriding Holocaust Remembrance Day shows the anti-semitic canard that the Jews are now the modern day Nazis. Showing Israel as anything but a coplex democratic society that it is, is progpaganda and because the advisor wore a shtreimel does not mean it is not anti-semitic. The entire idea that they turn Israel into an illegal state is anti-semitic.

I think the important missing ingredient in this show–at least from Mishkin’s description–is self-criticism. I got the same sense when I read this piece http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=112940559 about a Palestinian satire show. I don’t mean that there’s no self-criticism at all, but it’s always basically of the same things: Arab society x (or its politicians) aren’t savvy enough or strong enough, or ethical enough in the face of Israel’s and the West’s scheming and crimes. There is _never_ self-criticism either of anti-Semitism, or of terrorism (it’s always at least understandable, if it’s not justified “freedom fighting.”) ..Between these two shows and, e.g., the Israeli show Arab Labor http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_Labor there’s a night and day difference, and there’s a kind of bigotry of low expectations in judging these shows by different standards.

Many landlords will wish to confirm your references. Cellphone forward to alert possible references, including your former landlord, that they may obtain a call. Collect some information to current to landlords/leasing brokers ? they’re going to probably ask for it, anyway. This could embrace a credit score check, a resume and pay stubs or tax returns.

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What an Egyptian thriller says about the country’s perception of Israel

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