Saturday, 11 July 2015

Omar Sharif and The Jewish Quarter

 Omar Sharif and The Jewish Quarter
This isn't one of those “how I met Omar sharif” stories, although I did, in effect, meet him. It's about the Egypt that Omar Sharif represented, the cosmopolitan, open, tolerant society it always was until suddenly, it wasn't. It's the Egypt portrayed in The Jewish Quarter, an Egyptian television miniseries set in 1948. But that is not the only connection. Omar Sharif’s real name was Michel Chalhoub.
But to backtrack for a second: every year during Ramadan, when postprandial spectators are a captive audience in front of the television set, there is one breakout miniseries that reflects the zeitgeist of the the year. This year it is The Jewish Quarter, which has the audacity to Egyptian Jews fully integrated in 1948 Egyptian society, living side by side in close quarters with their Muslim and Christian neighbors in  a modest neighborhood  of cloth merchants, dairymen, pickle sellers and cafĂ© owners called The Jewish Quarter.
Ali, a Muslim military officer, and Leila, a Jewish saleswoman in the upscale Jewish department store Cicurel, are neighbors and childhood sweethearts. The religious difference might pose a problem- particularly for the girl’s mother, who would object even to a Jew of a different sect-but ultimately it should not be an insurmountable obstacle. Until, that is, the 1948 war with Israel begins, and the community is set asunder, dividing families and pitting neighbor against neighbor.
In spite of some inaccuracies and anachronisms,  the series clearly makes an effort to show Jews going about their business, their prayers at the synagogue, their kosher butcher, with mutual respect and understanding from their neighbors. All of the characters, Muslim, Coptic or Jewish, are shown as complex, capable of both tolerance and prejudice, patriotism or misplaced loyalties. The line is drawn rather sharply between Egyptian Jews and Israelis. The single all-out villain in the drama is a Muslim.
So what does this miniseries indicate for the political zeitgeist in Egypt? For one thing, it glorifies the military, no surprise. But it is also significant as a step in the rehabilitation of the Egyptian Jewish community in the eyes of younger generations of Egyptians brainwashed by Islamist rhetoric.
So what is the connection between The Jewish Quarter and Omar Sharif, aka Michel Demetri Chalhoub? He was born Christian but he converted to Islam when he married Egypt’s sweetheart movie star, Faten Hamama, who was Muslim. In those days, back in the fifties, it didn't matter. Would he have been likely to have lived in The Jewish Quarter? No, because it was a very modest neighborhood, and Omar Sharif, like middle class or wealthy people of any religion, lived in upscale Garden City or Zamalek or wherever they could afford; there was no such thing as a ghetto. The connection is the era evoked by Omar Sharif and The Jewish Quarter, a truly cosmopolitan, tolerant, modernizing Egypt that once was and might be again.
Oh, and where did I meet Omar Sharif? At a family wedding, where the bride’s father was a schoolmate at Victoria College, and then, twenty years later, at the Cairo Opera, where he was charming and tactful enough to pretend to recognize me. May he rest in peace, but not so the Egypt he knew and loved.

Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Daesh: Don't Call Them ISIS

John Kerry does it. London Mayor Boris Johnson thinks about it. Queen Rania of Jordan gives impassioned speeches explaining why we should all do it. As she argues, they are neither Islamic nor a state. Don't call them ISIS or ISIL or whatever self-styled aggrandizing title they choose to call themselves. Deny them that prestige, and deny them a recruiting tool. Just call them Daesh.
What is that? It's a sort of acronym in Arabic; "sort of" because acronyms are not used in Arabic, just abbreviations. For instance, Egypt's Supreme Council of the Armed Forces, known as SCAF in English, was commonly abbreviated in the Egyptian media as "The Supreme." In Arabic, therefore,  Daesh is intentionally a pejorative, delegitimizing label used by their enemies and victims in the Arab world- and it's worth remembering that the victims of Daesh's unspeakable brutality are overwhelmingly fellow Arabs and Muslims.
So what's in a name? Does it matter if we in the West and the Western media call them Daesh rather than Islamic State? Yes, it does.  Deny them that association with the religion they give a bad name to, and deny them a recruiting tool. So come on, Mayor Johnson, just do it.