TV Series Sympathetic to Egyptian Jews Follows in Literature’s Path

There has been some hubbub about the Ramadan TV serial “Haret el-Yehood,” or “The Jewish Quarter” — see NPR, The New York Times, Forward, and many sources in Arabic — but novels have, indeed, blazed this trail:

downloadKamal al-Ruhayyim’s Diary of a Jewish Muslim and Days of the Diaspora; Bahaa Abdelmeguid’s St. Theresa; and Mutaz Fatiha’s The Last Jews of Alexandria are among a growing number of Arabic novels and memoirs that portray Egyptian Jews as ordinary, sympathetic people. The same is true of the popular TV series. But in both the novels and on TV, the sympathetic Jewish characters are generally unsympathetic to Israel.

The director of the “Jewish Quarter” series told the NYT that he was “perplexed by the praise [for the show] from the Israeli Embassy. ‘The series is not supporting the Israelis. It is against them,’ he said. ‘Israel is the first enemy of Egypt.'”

David Kirkpatrick’s NYT review states that the show has “astonished Egyptians with its sympathetic treatment of Egypt’s Jews and its depiction of their fierce anti-Zionism.” It may be astonishing for television, but not for the printed page.

This is not limited to Egypt, although each Arab-majority country has its own specific relationship to its Jewish population. In Morocco, Jews still make up part of the population. In Iraq, Jews made up a third of the population of Baghdad until the 1930s. As part of a 2014 workshop on “The Possibilities of Arab-Jewish Thought,” Najat Abdulhaq discussed the recent (re-)emergence of the “Arab Jew” in contemporary Arabic literature. This includes recent novels from Tunisia, Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Algeria, and elsewhere.

There are also novels written in other languages that portray Egyptian Jews at the middle of the twentieth century, such as Yitzhak Gormezano Goren’s acclaimed Alexandrian Summer, recently translated from the Hebrew by Yardenne Greenspan. Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club also portrays Jewish characters as they were forced out of Cairo. It would certainly be interesting to read these books against one another.