Did Jewish filmmakers save Egyptian cinema?
Historians may differ as to when modern Egyptian cinema emerged, but it was not far behind the late 19th century inception of cinema in the rest of the world. During cinema’s fledgling years in Egypt – before the foundation of the Zionist state – Jews produced, directed, and appeared in a number of Egyptian films, many helping to establish cinema in the country.
From its early days, Egyptian cinema reflected the diversity that existed in the country, of which Jews were a part. Some were originally Egyptian, while others came from abroad and settled, many taking on Egyptian names.
One of the foundational figures in Egyptian film production was Togo Mizrahi, who set up an eponymous production company in the 1920s. He was a director, actor, and screenwriter who used Jewish actors and themes in many films, such as “Five Thousand and One” (1932) and “Shalom al-Turjman” (1935).
His films reflected to what extent Jews were integrated into Egyptian society at the time. An Arab viewer today would be shocked to see a movie like Mizrahi’s 1937 film, “Al-Izz Bahdala,” or “Glory is a Mess,” in which the main characters, Ester and Shalom, speak perfect Egyptian.
There were a number of Jewish actors who appeared in Egyptian films, some using their Jewish names and others their adopted Egyptian names like Rachel Levy as Rakia Ibrahim. By far, the most well-known was Leila Mourad.
After the Palestinian nakba and the establishment of Israel, Egyptian Jews began to gradually leave, particularly after the 1956 war, in which Britain, France, and Israel attacked Egypt.
During this period, Egyptian Jewish stars were accused of spying or contributing financially to support Israel. Such accusations even reached Leila Mourad – even though she had converted to Islam in 1946 – leading to a regional boycott of her films.
Between independence in 1952 and the 1967 War, it was unlikely that a Jew would even be mentioned in Egyptian cinema, despite the fact that enmity toward Israel had not reached the level it did after the 1967 War.
The partial success of the Egyptian military in the 1973 October War led to the production of a different kind of film that sought to reflect the country’s comeback, such as Ali Bardakhan’s “al-Karnak” (1976).
This also marked the debut of many espionage films, some based on true stories and others verging on propaganda. They characterized Egyptian authorities as competent and clever despite the wily ways of the Mossad.
In the 1990s, a new theme emerged in which Israeli Jews attempted to corrupt or lure Egyptian men through sex and money, in films like “Love in Taba” (1992) and “Woman from Israel” (1999).
The popular comedy, “The Embassy in the Building” (2005), perhaps best reflected the popular mood in Egypt toward the Camp David Accords. The main character of the film returns to his country after a long absence abroad only to find that the Israeli ambassador is living in his building.
The Israeli diplomat does all he can to establish a relationship with the main character, who in turn is keen on avoiding his new neighbor all costs. The film captured how Egyptian society rejected normalization with Israel years after the accords were signed.
The last Egyptian film that involved a Jewish or Israeli character was “Cousins” (2009), directed by Sharif Arafa, rendering them in a stereotypical manner as evil and conniving, where loyalty to Israel is prized above all.
This does not erase the fact that there have been films during the post-nakba period in which Jewish characters are portrayed positively, such as in Yousef Chahine’s 1979 film “Alexandria Why,” and more recently, “Heliopolis” (2009) by Ahmad Abdallah.
By and large, Egyptian cinema succeeded in differentiating between Jews and Zionism and avoided falling into the trap of blind hatred for Jews, even after the establishment of Israel on stolen Arab lands.
It will be interesting to see what kinds of films will emerge after the region’s current upheaval.
By Saleh Thabah