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EGYPT: Documentary ignites Egyptian sensitivities to Israel

September 3, 2008 |  8:30 am

Grandmother_and_nabil By telling her mother’s unorthodox story on film, Egyptian director Nadia Kamel has recently embarked on an exceptionally controversial endeavor that brought into question the taboos shaping the Arab perception of Israelis and dug deeper into the animosity between the Arab world and the Jewish state. 

Delving into sensitive political and emotional terrain, Kamel documented the story of Mary Rosenthal, an Italian of a Jewish decent who converted to Islam and married an Egyptian Muslim more than five decades ago. Like her husband, Rosenthal joined the ranks of the Egyptian communist opposition. This conviction forced her to sever ties with her Jewish relations who had settled in Israel, a state the Arab left condemned as a seat of imperialism. But the familial split never felt right, and 60 years later Rosenthal decided to end the estrangement and visited her Israeli cousins.

In “Salata Baladi” or “Home Salad,” Kamel follows the footsteps of her 77-year-old mother across Egypt, Italy and Israel over the course of six years. But, like so many things between Arabs and Jews, the film became more controversial than one woman’s journey to back to her roots. The Egyptian press was inflamed, and many critics dismissed the movie as a call to normalize relations with the Jewish state, an apologist narrative to downplay Israeli aggression. Kamel’s membership in the filmmaker’s union was suspended.

"What I did is not normalizing with the state of Israel; I visited my family and made a film about the Egyptian identity…. This does not mean I condone the Israeli policies,” said Kamel.

"My support to the Palestinian cause has not changed," contended Kamel. "I do not believe in boycotting human beings. As a rule, I don't boycott Israeli individuals, but I do boycott business with Israeli institutions.”

Family_in_israel_3 Egypt was the first Arab country to sign a peace treaty with Israel in 1979. Although the agreement called for normal political and economic relations, most Egyptians never reconciled making peace with the enemy of the Arab world.

Since it opened in August 2007, the documentary has been screened at local festivals and cultural and educational centers to limited spectators and also in several Arab, European and American cities

The movie won two prizes at India’s Mumbai Festival earlier this year and another prize at the San Francisco Arab Film festival last year. 

Besides Rosenthal, the 110-minute documentary revolves around Nabil, Kamel’s little nephew whose mixed origins serve as the best manifestation of the documentary’s title. Born to an Egyptian mother and a Palestinian father, Nabil remains torn between multiple identities. However, none of those identities ensured him a passport. Belonging to no internationally acknowledged state, Nabil cannot be treated as a normal citizen anywhere in the world. Even the laws of his mother’s home country do not allow him to inherit Egyptian nationality. Yet his identity crisis is exacerbated when he finds out from his grandmother that his bloodline includes Jews.

Through the ethnic mosaic that her mother and nephew demonstrate, Kamel said she sought to expose the Egyptian racism bred by the national anti-imperial climate of the 1950s.

“I am telling my family’s story because they suffered a lot of injustice. I am showing all forms of persecution whether against the Jews of my family, the Palestinians or the Italians,” added Kamel who has pursued a career as an assistant director to Egypt’s best known moviemakers for more than a decade.

Grands Kamel took her viewers on a journey to Italy, where she listened to the story of her uncle, who was driven out of Egypt along with a large European community after the military coup d’etat in 1952.

"Colonialism is based on discrimination, by definition, but in Egypt we ended up responding to it with another form of discrimination," Kamel argued. "Egyptian Jews or Egyptians with European origins started to be considered non-Egyptians, mainly by the national government in the beginning, but this triggered a process of sorting people according to religious and ethnic criteria.”

In the meantime, Kamel highlighted Gamal Abdel Nasser’s intimidation of Egyptian Jewry in the 1950s and 1960s.  While in Israel, Kamel recorded the memories of her mother’s cousins in Egypt.  Looking back on their old days in Cairo, Kamel’s relatives voiced mixed feelings. They bragged about their Egyptian roots and stressed their attachment to Egyptian art and music, but recounted how they were intimidated by the political regime.

Kamel’s take on the issue has deviated by and large from the stereotypical portrayal of Israelis in the Arab media. By depicting the warm welcome that her family received in Tel Aviv and the intimate interactions they had with their Israeli relatives, some of whom had fought against the Palestinians in 1948, Kamel’s documentary hit a sensitive nerve in a region where long wars with Israel still constitute an integral part of the people’s collective memory.

"In most Egyptian films so far, Israelis are portrayed as materialistic and essentially corrupt individuals,” said Kamel. "For me this is nonsense. When you stereotype others, you have stereotyped yourself."

Noha El-Hennawy in Cairo

Photos: Mary Rosenthal and her grandson Nabil placing flowers on the graves of their Italian ancestors in Italy, Rosenthal visiting her cousins in Tel Aviv, Rosenthal and her Egyptian husband in Cairo (Courtesy of Nadia Kamel)

P.S. The Los Angeles Times issues a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East, as well as the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. You can subscribe by logging in at the website here, clicking on the box for "L.A. Times updates," and then clicking on the "World: Mideast" box.

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