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War and Peace

The New York Times has an interesting article about a new Egyptian movie that “promotes peace with Israel”.

Egyptian movie audiences are not accustomed to laughing about the Arab conflict with Israel, or to seeing Israeli diplomats portrayed as regular folks living next door.

 

But in Egypt’s box office hit, “The Embassy Is in the Building,” the director, Amro Arafa, uses comedy to try to get Egyptian audiences to consider a most serious point: that peace with Israel is in Egypt’s own interest.

 

“We have signed peace with this country,” a state security agent says during a pivotal scene in the movie. “This is our country’s policy, and it is for our interest. Do you want to be against the country’s interests?”

 

The security man, who spoke about the need for “peaceful coexistence with them,” was talking to a character played by Adel Imam, Egypt’s most famous comic actor, arguably one of the only actors in Egypt who could pull off such a movie and still keep the audience laughing.

 

“The Embassy Is in the Building,” which is still in theaters, was the second biggest hit at the box office this year among Egyptian-made movies, bringing in nearly $3 million. It is a wry look at Egyptian society with a main character who lives in Dubai and has a taste for beautiful married women. He gets fired after having an affair with his boss’s wife, and returns home to Egypt only to find that the Israeli ambassador, David Cohen, has moved into his building.

 

The movie pokes fun at leftists still clinging to pan-Arab nationalism and takes a swipe at a nationalist poet, Amal Donqol, who wrote a poem saying Egypt and Israel could never have normal relations. It spoofs Islamists as goofy men with beards and guns, and it lampoons the Arab satellite channel Al Jazeera.

 

But this is not just a movie aiming to make people laugh – according to critics, political observers and the director – but an effort, however ham-handed, to use the Egyptian cinema to make people at least entertain the notion that peace with Israel is good for Egypt, even while Israel may itself remain an object of hate.

Of course, you have to go deeper into the article to realize that the film does not so much promote peace as not condone war.

“We do not have a problem with the Israelis or the Jews; we have a problem with the Israeli government,” said Mr. Arafa, the film’s director, repeating a semantic distinction that was once popular among Egyptians but was dropped altogether after the second intifada heated up in 2000. “This is the first time that a movie deals directly with this problem, ‘Why we hate the Israeli government.’ “

 

For an outsider, it might be difficult to walk away from this movie with the impression it is any kind of olive branch. Throughout the film, there is strong anti-Israeli language. And it ends with the death of a cute, heroic Palestinian boy at the hands of Israelis and an angry protest outside the Israeli Embassy in Egypt. The protesters are shouting:

 

“Down with the Israeli occupation!

 

“Down with murderers of children!

 

“Down to enemies of peace!

 

“Down with the settlements!”

 

But consider how the movie is perceived by at least some people who have lived through the chaos and hatred that have consumed the region for so long.

 

“When I look at it after clearing the dust, I can see a few good things,” said Jacob Setti, press attaché of the Israeli Embassy in Cairo. “It is the first film I see that deals with the Israeli Embassy as an ordinary thing. It is in Cairo, functioning, working like any other place. Another point is that it deals with the Israeli ambassador as someone who is doing his work and speaking Arabic, as many of them do. The third issue is even the film admits that there is a good level of relationship between both governments, and I think that in the future we will see a development in this relationship.”

 

Tarek el Shenawy, a leading film critic in two popular Egyptian weekly newspapers, said the last protest scene reflected a new perspective, because the protesters neither called for the embassy to leave Cairo nor demanded the end of relations with Israel.

 

“The film carries a message from the government: Do not hate Israel, do not love Israel, just forget about it,” he said.

 

The two-hour film also stems from a broader change in a society that had long been frozen in economic, political and social terms, analysts said. About a year ago, Egyptians began to hold demonstrations in the street – not focused on Israel, but domestic issues. In the past the government did not allow any demonstrations critical of the president or his policies.

 

The domestic-oriented protest marches may not have sparked a widespread opposition movement, but they have signaled a shift in focus for the minority that does speak out – from foreign affairs to domestic affairs. The first multicandidate campaign for president, which ended earlier this month, was criticized for being brief – only 19 days – but the opposition candidates traveled the country talking about domestic issues, with the topic of Israel rarely coming up during the race.

 

“The more democratic space we have, the more focused we would be on our domestic problems,” said Wahid Abdel Meguid, a political analyst and deputy director of the Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. “Arab governments used the struggle with Israel as an excuse for political oppression, as an excuse for their failure to run the country.”

 

Whether Mr. Imam can make people laugh is not in doubt. But on the question of whether his comedy can help promote a more moderate view toward relations with Israel, the jury is still out.

 

“I loved the movie,” said Reem Abdel Nasser, 19, as she left the theater last week. “It deals with all the problems and issues we are concerned and confused about. And he presents a diplomatic solution for the Israeli-Arab problem which I agree with. We have to live with them. We do not have to be friends, but we do not have to be enemies. We should just live together.”

 

But that is not what her father came away with. “The movie is a reminder for people to wake up and understand Israel,” said her father, Gamal Abdel Nasser. “It is a very difficult problem to solve, and the only way to solve it is by force. Whichever was taken by force should be restored only by force.”

But I guess when compared with some other products of the Egyptian entertainment industry, this is a step in the right direction.

About the author

Picture of David Lange

David Lange

A law school graduate, David Lange transitioned from work in the oil and hi-tech industries into fulltime Israel advocacy. He is a respected commentator and Middle East analyst who has often been cited by the mainstream media
Picture of David Lange

David Lange

A law school graduate, David Lange transitioned from work in the oil and hi-tech industries into fulltime Israel advocacy. He is a respected commentator and Middle East analyst who has often been cited by the mainstream media
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