Beyond Shylock: How Jews are portrayed in Egyptian cinema
Images of a seductive Jewish belly dancer move across the screen. After spending her evening entertaining rich tribal sheiks, Sarah returns home to her father, who complains she didn’t bring home enough money.
“Did the blood of your people escape from your veins?”
“I spent the money inciting men against Muhammad!”
The scene is from the 1960s Egyptian film “Immigration of the Prophet.” Although the story takes place in the time of the Prophet Muhammad, no references to such a scene can be found in traditional Islamic sources, said Sariel Birnbaum, a visiting Israeli scholar at San Diego State University. Birnbaum, who translated the film’s Arabic passages into English, spoke May 3 about the depiction of Jews in Egyptian cinema at the Alpert Jewish Community Center in Long Beach as a guest of the California State University Long Beach Speaker Series, hosted by the Alpert JCC.
The film’s story is purely fictional, Birnbuam said.
As early as 1926, Egyptian filmmakers have wanted to depict the Prophet Muhammad, but Sunni clerics wouldn’t allow it. Stories of his female companions, contemporaries and the first four caliphs were also off limits.
Egyptian filmmakers developed a formula that would allow them to depict the time of the prophet without offending Sunni clerics: They decided to show the rise of Islam from the perspective of enemies of the faith — the Jews.
“When they want to tell the story of the beginning of Islam, they go to the big European repertoire of anti-Semitism and take what they want,” Birnbaum said. In this case, it was the connection between Jews and money.
In another example taken from the 1953 film “Belal Moaazen El Rasoul,” the freed Muslim slave Belal borrows money from a Jew on the condition that if he cannot repay, he will become a slave again. This depiction of the Jew as usurer has obvious links to the Shylock character in William Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice.” The Jew in this film has a hook nose, a shrill voice and, of course, a bagful of money. Even his hat looks like Shylock’s.
Other Egyptian films showed Jews involved in espionage and intrigue.
“A Crime in the Quiet Neighborhood,” another Egyptian film from the 1960s, takes a slightly different approach: The film distorts historical accounts of the Stern Gang, the underground Jewish Zionist group that assassinated British resident minister Lord Moyne in 1944. At the time, Egyptians demonstrated in support of the Zionists’ actions because the country was still under the yoke of British colonialism, Birnbaum said.
The gang in the film kidnaps the daughter of an Egyptian police officer charged with investigating the assassination. The female architect of the kidnapping is another dancer; in addition to being a kidnapper and a murderer, she’s shown lacking sexual morality.
In the decades that followed, European anti-Semitic depictions became less common in Egyptian cinema, Birnbaum said.
The 1979 film “Alexandria … Why?” features a Jewish family fleeing the port city before the Nazis arrive. When the family arrives in Palestine, they encounter fighting. Although devoid of the sort of European anti-Semitism found in films from decades before, “Alexandria … Why?” propagates the idea espoused by the Palestine Liberation Organization during that time that the Jewish state is illegitimate, Birnbaum said.
Later films have shown Israelis as Egyptian adversaries.
For example, the 1993 film “The Day of Glory” depicts the sinking of the Israeli ship Eilat at the conclusion of the Six-Day War. The film points to the arrogance of Israeli naval officers, who casually smoke cigars and disobey orders. Although the portrayal is negative, it is nonetheless based on historical accounts, Birnbaum said, including the commander’s own memoirs.
Fast forward to 2005 and the narrative becomes more complex.
In “The Embassy in the Building,” protagonist Sherif finds himself in a predicament when he returns to Egypt from working abroad: The Israeli Embassy has moved into his building. Comedy ensues as Sherif encounters various individuals — an opinionated prostitute, a Marxist woman and Islamic terrorists — all of whom harbor some form of anti-Israeli sentiments and object to his living in the same building as the embassy.
When Sherif gets kidnapped by the terrorists, he professes his allegiance only to Allah (as opposed to Egyptian authorities). The terrorists strap a bomb belt around his waist and tell him he has a special destiny. Birnbaum provided a translation: “So, you will stay down here and I will go up?” The terrorist nods and points heavenward, indicating Sherif will enter paradise with other martyrs. Sherif is chagrined.
“The Islamists and those that really want to explode the embassy are the bad guys here,” Birnbaum said. “Of course, they were also the ideological enemies of the regime of that time.”
Sherif does not explode the bomb but later befriends the Israelis. Then a Palestinian boy he knows dies in the intifada, and he throws the Israelis out of his building.
Birnbaum concluded that anti-Semitism largely has disappeared from mainstream Egyptian cinema in the last couple of decades. The trope of the Jewish seductress is a popular one, however, and remains in the Egyptian consciousness to this day.