By Khaled Diab
29 Jun 2015
Love triangles, unrequited love and the
torment of separation are staples of Egyptian soap operas. This is especially
the case during Ramadan, when fasting and piety dominate during daylight hours
and feasting and revelry kick off once the sun goes down.
But one Ramadan drama stands out for a love
story with an unusual twist. Leila and Ali are the classic boy and girl next
door who have been madly in love since childhood, with Ibtihal their jealous
neighbour, representing the obtuse angle of this triangle. So far so ordinary.
However, Leila is an Egyptian Jew and
Muslim Ali is an Egyptian officer deployed to the Palestine front during the
1948 war. To complicate matters further, her brother is one of the few Egyptian
Jews who has gone to Palestine to help the Israeli effort.
The Leila-Ali affair makes up one of the
central storylines of Haret el-Yahoud, which is set in Cairo's Jewish Quarter
and is the controversial historical drama that is currently airing in Egypt and
across the Arab world.
Provocative or Not?
I have watched the first few episodes of
this slick production and have generally been impressed by the quality of the
acting and the period mood it evokes of 1940s "belle epoque" Cairo.
Most of all, I am pleased that a largely forgotten and distorted period of
Egypt's recent history, that of the demise of the country's once-vibrant,
80,000-strong Jewish community, has been made accessible to a broader public -
and in a humane and sympathetic light.
Egyptian soap opera 'The Jewish Quarter'
aims to dispel prejudice towards the country's long-vilified and nearly extinct
Jewish community [AFP]
Though many Egyptians have welcomed the
series, it has also provoked inevitable anger and allegations of
"whitewashing history" in some quarters, especially among those who
seem convinced that Jews, Israelis, and Zionists are the same thing.
One example of this is Ahmed Metwali,
described as a professor of history at Cairo University, who claimed that Jews
in Egypt isolated themselves socially and worked exclusively in trade and
Obviously, the good professor's grasp of
his own country's history is shaky at best, or ideology has blinded him to
reality. Though a small community, Egypt's Jews were prominent in every walk of
life, including culture and politics - and many were ordinary, working class
In fact, it might surprise the learned
professor to learn that Jews played a central role in awakening Egypt's modern
national consciousness. A good example of this was Yaqub Sannu. Though almost
totally forgotten today, in the 19th century, Sannu established one of the
country's first anti-imperialist and anti-royalist publications, The Man in the
Blue Glasses. He was also possibly the creator of the quintessential Ibn
el-Balad (Son of the Country) character who stood for native virtue and the
anti-imperial and class struggle.
Jews in Egypt felt so apparently
comfortable that they not only made films, but some made films about Jews. At a
time when German Jewish film-makers were fleeing Hitler, Togo Mizrahi, one of
the founding fathers of Egyptian cinema, made numerous films which had Jewish
protagonists and main characters - something that was rare if unheard of in
Even more unbelievably, Metwali claims that
there were no love affairs between Muslims and Jews.
Has the history professor really not heard
of perhaps the most famous on- and off-screen couple in Egyptian cinematic
history, Leila Murad, who was once everyone's favourite silver screen beauty
with the golden vocal chords, and the debonair Anwar Wagdi? Out of love, Murad
converted from Judaism to Islam to marry Wagdi (three times), who ruined their
relationship by insisting on owning her entire career.
The character of Leila is done up in such a
way as to pay tribute to her legendary namesake, while Ali, with his Clark
Gable moustache, bears more than a passing resemblance to Wagdi.
Some critics have gone even further and
taste the ingredients of a conspiracy by the Sisi regime to appease Israel and
engineer a rapprochement by "narrowing the psychological gap between the
two peoples", according to Hossam Aql of the al-Badeel al-Hadari party.
But again, this strikes me as a case of
conflating Jews with Israel. While the series portrays Egyptian Jews in a
sympathetic light, the only Israeli I have seen so far was a two-dimensional
sadistic army officer who tortures Ali.
For Muslim Brotherhood supporters, it is
Haret al-Yahoud's less-than-flattering portrayal of their founding father,
Hassan el-Banna, that seems to have provoked the greatest fury.
"Sisi's TV serials are a
misrepresentation in favour of the Jews," Anas Hassan, a prominent
activist and the founder of Rassd, a pro-Brotherhood grassroots news site,
wrote on his Facebook page, eliciting more than 2,000 likes. "Sisi is a
complete Zionising project."
The flimsy evidence for this is that the
Israeli media has praised Egypt's President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi repeatedly.
But if that is an indicator of being a "Zionist stooge", then the
Brotherhood's very own Mohamed Morsi deserves that accolade just as much, given
the acclaim he got in Israel and the love letter he sent to former Israeli
President Shimon Peres.
In other posts, Hassan accused Sisi of
being an "apostate" who was "raised by Jews". Since Sisi's
rise to power, many Muslim Brotherhood supporters and activists have subscribed
to outlandish - and frankly anti-Semitic - conspiracy theories about the
Egyptian leader's ancestry, alleging that he is a Jew.
The damning case against him? According to
a popular YouTube video, Sisi was born and raised in el-Gamaliya, in an
alleyway which lies on the edge of the Jewish quarter.
"Only Jews resided in the Jewish
quarter," the narrator tells us untruthfully, as the area, despite its
name, was always a mixed one.
Though not all Muslim Brothers entertain
such feverish fantasies, this kind of hate-filled, intolerant, sectarian
discourse does little to counteract the image of Banna and his men, who set off
a deadly campaign of bombings against Jewish targets in 1948 just because they
shared the same religion as the enemy, and are presented in Haret el-Yahoud as
To my mind, there is no pro-Israel
conspiracy behind Haret el-Yahoud, but perhaps an alliance of convenience and
some co-option. Many artists in Egypt feel threatened by the Muslim Brotherhood
and Islamist intolerance in general, and this has, sadly, made many staunch or
hesitant supporters of the ruthless military regime.
The series' uncritical veneration of the
army is a case in point. Even though Sisi hadn't yet been born at the time of
the 1948 war, the makers' decision to set this drama in Sisi's old
neighbourhood and to make the main star a handsome, principled and sensitive
army officer to whom women are instinctively drawn is a powerful subliminal
message to audiences. Of course, any resemblance to real or living presidents
may be entirely coincidental and unintentional.
For audiences and programme makers alike,
the main draw to Haret al-Yahoud, in these tumultuous times, is nostalgia. Many
look back wistfully to an Egypt that was once perched on top of the Arab and
developing world. It was the wealthiest and most advanced Arab country, and a
place where modernity and progress seemed to be on an unstoppable onward march.
In a contemporary Egypt where intolerance
towards Christians, not to mention anyone who is different, is on the rise,
many Egyptians feel their country seriously lost its way in the second half of
the 20th century, when it was supposed to have been liberated.
Haret al-Yahoud is not a missive to Israel
but an ode to pluralism. By coming to terms with the injustice it committed
against its Jewish minority, Egypt may be able to save its soul.
Khaled Diab is an award-winning Egyptian-Belgian journalist, writer and
blogger. He is the author of Intimate Enemies: Living with Israelis and
Palestinians in the Holy Land.