TV series depicting Egypt’s Jews stirs controversy
Cairo - A new soap opera about the life of Egypt’s Jews at the time the state of Israel was created in 1948 is stirring up controversy across the country.
Haret el-Yahood (The Jewish Quarter), written by Medhat al-Adl, presents Egyptian Jews, who numbered about 80,000 at that time, in a positive light, portraying their daily life alongside their Muslim and Christian compatriots.
But the creation of Israel ends up shattering the peaceful coexistence, raising doubts about the true identity and belonging of Egypt’s Jews as well as their support of Israel. Differentiating Judaism from Zionism, the movement behind the creation of a Jewish homeland that was established by stripping the Palestinians of their land in 1948, was another important focus in the series.
As Arabs blame Jews for the tragedy of the Palestinian people and their continued sufferings as well as the decades-old Arab-Israeli conflict, the series comes as a reminder of the once-good relations with the Jews, showing how some questioned the creation of Israel.
The TV series, which also shows how religious extremism — both among Muslims and Jews — existed at that time, is about identity crises, changes of heart, hate, revenge and jealousy.
The serial revolves around a love story between Laila Haroun, a beautiful Jewish girl played by Egyptian actress Menna Shalaby, and Ali Ibrahim al-Husseini, the Muslim patriotic officer played by Jordanian actor Eyad Nassar.
The series takes the Jewish Quarter, a district near the centre of Cairo, as its setting. It is not, however, the love story that is proving controversial but rather the way Jews and Muslims are portrayed.
“The writer just wants to show us that Egypt’s Jews were good-mannered and patriotic citizens, disregarding the fact that a large number of them acted against Egyptian national security at the time,” said Mohamed Tharwat, an Egyptian writer who documented the life of Egypt’s Jews before and after the 1952 revolution in Egypt in one of his books.
“True, some of these Jews were very good citizens but the fact is that some others sought to harm Egypt’s national security for the sake of Israel, something that the writer tries to conceal in the serial.”
The TV show, which airs every day during the holy fasting month of Ramadan, begins with the sound of air raid sirens prompting residents of the quarter to seek shelter in the local synagogue. Once inside, Jewish, Muslim and Christian residents exchange pleasantries in an atmosphere of harmony.
At one point, however, they seem to be divided over two things: the love story between Laila and Ali and accusations by Muslim residents that Egypt’s Jews are no different from the Jews of Israel. It was during 1948 that David Ben Gurion, the head of the Jewish Agency, proclaimed the establishment of the state of Israel.
Whether Egyptian Jews belong more to Egypt rather than to Israel was a question that recurs during the programme. It was especially raised by Jewish characters. Laila’s brother, Moussa, is a strong advocate of immigration to the Jewish state while she is not portrayed as a Zionist. In contrast, Ali’s sister was seen telling him that the Jews of Israel and Egypt are about one and the same thing.
In another scene, Moussa confided to his mother that he sees Ali as an “enemy”, prompting the mother to ask surprisingly: “Ali, our neighbours’ son an enemy?” Moussa said, “If he meets me in the battlefield, won’t he kill me?”
Israel initially welcomed the show, judging by its early scenes of amity between Muslims and Jews. Later it criticised the programme, saying it incited Egyptians against Jews.
Some of the few dozen remaining Egyptian Jews, who live in Cairo and Alexandria, expressed disappointment at the show.
Albert Arieh, an 85-year-old Jewish communist activist who converted to Islam and married an Egyptian woman, said he is a living example that the serial has nothing to do with the reality then.
“It is nothing more than a show,” Arieh said. “Egyptian Jews, even those living in the Jewish Quarter, were not like that at all.”
He said a large number of them refused to emigrate to Israel, let alone campaign for it as Laila’s brother does in the serial.
Arieh’s father was like many of this country’s Jewish citizens who wanted to stay in Egypt even after the creation of Israel and the public started to turn against them, accusing them of belonging more in the fledgling state.
“Even most of those who left, did not head to Israel, but to Europe and America,” he said. “Only poor Egyptian Jews travelled to Israel, because they did not know another language nor have the financial means to travel to America or Europe.” The villain in Haret el- Yahood is the Muslim Brotherhood, presented as leading the campaign of hatred against the Jews.
In the TV show, the Brotherhood’s supreme guide is seen telling followers that it is better to act against the Jews of Egypt rather than go to Palestine and fight them there.
The group’s followers are also seen destroying Jewish property in the quarter. A local vegetable seller and his son — both Muslim Brotherhood members — kept on inciting against Haroun, Laila’s father, and other Jewish residents through the first half of the serial.
This was a good reason to anger sympathisers of the Muslim Brotherhood, which has been suffering a severe crackdown in Egypt since 2013, as well as other Islamists in the country.
Nevertheless, Adl seems not to care criticism voiced against the work, including Israel’s dissatisfaction
“The serial is only a tale, not a historical documentation of the lives of Egypt’s Jews,” he told private channel ONTV on June 24th.
Egyptians with no ideological agendas liked the show, Adl noted, advising his critics to wait until it ends to better judge it.