This week, an Egyptian court convicted the country’s most renowned comic actor, Adel Imam, of offending Islam. A few of his movies, they argued—including The Terrorist, in which he plays a homicidal Islamist zealot who comes to see the error of his ways—were disrespectful of the religion. Imam was sentenced to three months in jail and 1,000 Egyptian Pounds, or $165, in fines. Imam’s defense—that by portraying a bungling terrorist, he was mocking not Islam but those who thwart the religion by equating it with murder and destruction—was in vain. Seeing the sentencing as a blow to free speech and a troubling omen of things to come in Egypt, Imam’s fellow artists issued strong condemnations, and the international press widely reported the case.
Seeing Imam’s face threw me back to my childhood. Growing up, I watched his movies religiously and spent hours trying to imitate his outlandish facial expressions. I would take great pleasure in mimicking him and shouting out surprised utterances in Arabic, which may seem a tad odd considering that I grew up in Israel.
As anyone who has ever spent any time in my native land knows, Friday afternoons in the Jewish state are a magical time. Stores and minds alike shut down. The din is sucked into a vortex of silence. The whole thing just calms down. The Sabbath’s holiness permeates the air. In other words, it was the perfect time slot for Israeli TV to broadcast the Arab Movie.
It comes on every Friday at 5:30 p.m. It doesn’t matter whether it’s a romantic comedy or a melodrama or a police procedural. The movies are interchangeable, their titles rarely remembered. Nor does it matter that most of these films were actually produced in Egypt. In a nation that still sees all 22 Arab states as a unified, menacing bloc, the neighbors’ national divides are irrelevant; if it speaks in Arabic, it’s an Arab movie.
And Israelis love it. Growing up in a suburb of Tel Aviv in the 1980s, I thought there was nothing cooler than those cinematic dispatches from Cairo. Zehu Ze, an intensely popular and dearly beloved comedy show—this, remember, is back when Israel had a single television channel—scored its biggest hit with a parody of the Arab Movie in which the protagonist is named Abu Hummus, and Pancher, a band that’s Israel’s take on Weird Al Yankovic, gained fame everlasting with “Arab Movie,” a hit single capturing the reverence most of us felt for that Friday afternoon ritual.
It didn’t matter to us, as we plopped ourselves down on the couch in anticipation—often, as was the custom, with a saucerful of nuts, to help us build up an appetite before the Shabbat dinner—that the Arab Movie had a politicized history. We didn’t know that our beloved tradition came about in the late 1960s, when Israeli television broadcasting began and the nascent industry’s captains resolved to include Arab-language broadcasting in order both serve the nation’s Arab-speaking population and to combat the vehement anti-Israel propaganda popular on Arab media at the time. We didn’t care that these movies were purchased for broadcasting because they were significantly cheaper than producing original content, and because 5:30 p.m. on a Friday was deemed as far from prime time as one could get. And we were only vaguely aware that for so many of our parents and grandparents—born in Egypt or Lebanon or Syria or Iraq—the movie was a precious opportunity to remember the language they had left behind, the music they used to love, a culture they had had to abandon. For us, the movies were just fun.
A typical Arab Movie would have a few key ingredients. First, the plots, no matter what they were, had to be outrageous. I remember one about a righteous man married to a cheating wife who wished to drive him mad so that she could have him hospitalized, seize his money, and run off with her lover. To accomplish that, she fills the entire house with skeletons. The husband opens a closet door, peeks under the bed, sits down for his morning coffee, and skeletons somehow fall over him, each one accompanied by the beats of an ominous organ. Then, there was the music: comedy or drama or horror film, each film would feature at least one lengthy belly-dancing scene, scored by Umm Kulthum, Farid al-Atrash, Abdel Halim Hafez, or Mohammed Abdel Wahab, the Rat Pack of contemporary Egyptian music. And finally, the actors: All Arab Movies featured the same five or six faces, which we came to know and love. The rough, handsome face of Farid Shawki—known as the Egyptian Anthony Quinn—inspired reverence and confidence. Hussein Fahmy, who looks like Michael Douglas’ twin brother, inspired the same tentative attraction the young Douglas had in his prime. Nagwa Fouad, the famous belly dancer, inspired feelings best left undescribed. But more than them all, we loved Adel Imam.
Imam is to Egypt what Jerry Lewis is to France—not just a comic genius but almost the pure crystallization of funny itself. Unlike Lewis, whose roles rarely skirted the serious, Imam was only too happy to lend his elastic face and impeccable timing to films exploring contentious social issues. In 1994, for example, he starred in The Terrorist, playing a hapless jihadi en route to commit an attack who is forced to hide out in the home of an ordinary Cairo family. Before you know it, he’s hugging a Christian buddy as the two watch soccer, crooning in the shower when he realizes the family’s attractive daughter is in love with him, and realizing the evil of his former ways. And despite being chummy with Hosni Mubarak—a fact for which he was criticized when the latter’s regime collapsed last year—he was never afraid to satirize the government.
We, of course, had no idea that the funny man was nuanced or brave. To us, he was the guy who could raise his eyebrows in a manner so arched and exaggerated you’d laugh before he said a word. If you wanted to score easy laughs on the playground at recess, all you’d have to do is wiggle your brows and say something that sounded remotely Arabic. We probably couldn’t articulate it at the time, but part of the pleasure of watching Imam was derived from the fact that he was just a funny and normal Arab man. Most of us had never met an Arab in real life. The Arabs we knew were either the crooked and bungling comical villains of our popular children’s books, or the murderous monsters we were told about in school, the ones who massacred the Jews in Hebron and shot down heroes like Yosef Trumpeldor. As Trumpeldor’s famous (and probably apocryphal) dying words hung above the blackboard of my elementary-school classroom, reminding us tots that it was good to die for one’s country, watching Adel Imam frolic on screen felt like a window into an alternate universe, a universe in which Arabs were more busy falling in love and pulling pranks and dancing than incessantly and heartlessly scheming to murder us Jews. When my own father told me, a grave look on his face, that all the Arabs want to do is push all of us Israelis into the sea, Adel Imam winked at me from the TV screen and promised me that it was all rot, that people were as normal in Cairo as they were in Herzliya, that there’s more to life than hate and ideology.
This is why I was particularly devastated when Imam was convicted by his own country’s zealots. And this is why I was relieved when, a day later, an Egyptian court overturned the conviction. Other prominent Egyptians, however, are still on shaky ground: Last week, for example, the Egyptian parliament forced the resignation of Ali Gomaa, a senior Muslim cleric, for his private, Jordanian-sponsored visit to the Al Aqsa mosque, a visit some Islamists considered as legitimizing Israel’s control over Islam’s holy site. Let’s hope the Arab Movie playing itself out in Cairo these days has a happy ending.
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