Egyptian soap operas, produced annually to entertain millions of Muslims breaking their fast during the holy month of Ramadan, have often been platforms for antisemitic and anti-Israeli vitriol.
The 2012 series “Naji Atallah’s Team,” starring veteran actor Adel Imam, depicted an Egyptian group’s attempt to rob a bank in deeply racist Israel. The 2002 historic show “Knight Without a Horse,” located in 1932 Egypt and based on the antisemitic canard “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” almost caused Israel to withdraw its ambassador from Cairo and sparked condemnation also from the US State Department.
But a new drama about the Jews of Egypt scheduled to air this Ramadan, come June 18, promises to be significantly different.
The plot of “Haret al-Yahood,” or The Jewish Quarter, unfolds in Cairo between two landmark events in 20th century Egyptian history: the 1952 Revolution — which replaced the ruling monarchy with the militaristic Free Officers Movement led by Muhammad Naguib and Gamal Abdel Nasser — and the 1956 Suez Crisis, known in Israel as the Kadesh Operation and in Egypt as the Tripartite Aggression.
It depicts a love story between Ali, an Egyptian army officer played by Iyad Nassar, and Laila, a young Jewish woman, played by Mona Shalabi. As one might expect, the romance is marred by the rising wave of Egyptian nationalism and the social tensions brought about by the creation of Israel.
“We have lived our entire lives in the heart of Cairo and never experienced any racism,” says an older female character in the series’ trailer, as a Jewish family sits around its candlelit table. “I’m a brother to the Muslim, my religion tells me so,” says one man, wearing an Ottoman fez. Meanwhile, on the other side of the ideological divide, a young Zionist Egyptian bursts out in anger when his father refers to nascent Israel as “Palestine.”
Historical dramas are rarely just about the past, obviously. Madhat al-Adl, the series’ writer, said he wished to depict a cosmopolitan Egypt in which “all religions and languages coexist.”
‘We never said ‘this is a Christian, or a Muslim or a Jew’; they were all Egyptians. Therefore, we must not call Jews anything but Egyptians’
“When such coexistence happened, Egypt was great,” Adl told Egyptian daily al-Masry al-Youm in February.
“The series doesn’t deal only with Jews, but with an Egyptian neighborhood known as Jewish Quarter, where Muslims, Christians and Jews lived together. We never said ‘this is a Christian, or a Muslim or a Jew’; they were all Egyptians. Therefore, we must not call Jews anything but Egyptians.”
Reflecting Egyptian thinking currently in vogue, the great villain in Jewish Quarter — aside from Zionism — is the Islamist movement the Muslim Brotherhood. Its Egyptian founder, Hassan al-Banna, who was assassinated in 1949, is depicted quoting a Quranic verse calling on Muslims to strike at the infidels “wherever they are found.”
“We see history repeating itself,” Adl told al-Masry al-Youm. They [the Muslim Brotherhood] tried to take over the July 23 revolution [the 1952 Free Officers coup] but failed, because Gamal Abdel Nasser was a leader with a strategy. It happened again in the January 25 revolution [the start of the Egyptian Arab Spring] as the events prove.”
The lesson implicit in “Jewish Quarter” did not escape film critic Ola al-Shafi’i of the Egyptian daily al-Youm as-Sabi’. Praising the film’s high technical qualities in a May 31 article, she added that the series is “much needed in our current time.”
“Jewish Quarter” recalls a time when Egyptian cinema celebrated the country’s inclusive, heterogeneous social makeup. The 1949 film “Fatma, Marika and Rachel” (Arabic) tells of an Egyptian playboy who pretends to be Jewish in order to find favor with a young Jewish woman. The 1954 comedy “Hassan, Morqos and Cohen” (Arabic) is premised on a business partnership between a Muslim, Christian and Jew.
But the romanticized image of Egypt portrayed in the new soap opera does not excite all prospective viewers. One Egyptian Facebook commenter described it as “a disaster waiting to happen.”
“The silver lining may be the humanization of some Egyptian Jewish characters, at least those who won’t be branded as traitors and presented with those angry googly eyes.”