In Egypt, A Jewish Love Story Just In Time For Ramadan

The new series "The Jewish Alley," set in the early 1950s, is being shown to Egyptian audiences during the Ramadan TV season. Its creator explains why it matters now.

Menna Shalaby and Iyad Nassar
Menna Shalaby and Iyad Nassar
Rowan El Shimi

CAIRO â€" Ramadan comes 11 days earlier each year. This has translated into scorching heat and longer fasting days in recent years. But while some things change about the Muslim holy month, others don't: There will always be a zombie-like consumption of Ramadan TV.

This year, one particular series has been making headlines, not just in Egypt but elsewhere: The Jewish Alley, written by Medhat El-Adl, directed by Mohamed Gamal El-Adl and starring Menna Shalaby and Iyad Nassar.

The series is set between 1948 and 1954, six very important years in Egypt's modern history, and definitive years for Egypt's nearly extinct Jewish community. The series goes through significant political events, such as the Nakba, the establishment of the Israeli state, the 1952 Egyptian revolution, the Lavon Affair and the end of the British occupation.

The writer of The Jewish Alley, Medhat El-Adl â€" Photo: HBD DR

Adl, sitting in the editing room of his bustling office in Mohandessin, explains that the events are shown as reflections of the characters living in the Jewish Alley, a neighborhood in Islamic Cairo that historically housed a melting pot of Jews, Muslims and Christians.

Adl and an editor are watching a clip from the series with Nassar. "Yes, cut here," Adl tells the editor enthusiastically. "This looks excellent."

"I'm showing the effects of these large political events on a small cosmopolitan street through a social television series," Adl explains, adding that the series has a love story between a Jewish woman (Shalaby) and a Muslim officer (Nassar) who both grew up in the alley.

The 61-year-old writer says the idea for a series about the Jewish Alley has been on his mind for years, but he felt this was the right time to finally do it because sectarianism and fear of the other, two themes the series deals with, are currently very present in Egypt.

This is not the first work that Adl, a veteran scriptwriter from one of the biggest families in Egyptian show business, has put into a political context.

Adl's last Ramadan series, Al-Daeya (The Preacher, 2013), which featured the same director (who is also his nephew), was a hit. It focused on the character of a famous religious preacher. Adl felt it was an appropriate topic for its time, as it was produced during the Muslim Brotherhood"s short tenure governing Egypt.

In 2011, a year of seemingly continual street protests, he wrote the script for Al-Shawarea Al-Khalfia (The Backstreets), based on Abdel Rahman al-Sharqawi's book on the protests against the British occupation in the 1930s.

The Jewish Alley has been aided by the work of several researchers, authors and scholars such as Abdel Wahab al-Messiry, Joel Beinin and Jacques Hassoun , as well as the journals of and interviews with Egyptian labor lawyer Youssef Darwish (1910-2006), who had a Jewish background and converted to Islam in 1947.

Jews and Zionists

Adl says he and the director paid close attention to accurately depicting the historical reality and focused on representing the era's settings and clothing.

Earlier in June, the Times of Israel published a story titled, “In new Egyptian Ramadan drama, Jews are the good guys.” But in our interview, Adl stresses several times that there is a big difference between being Jewish and being Zionist, and his position toward the latter hasn't changed.

Indeed, in many of his previous works, he chose to depict Israel as the "bad guy." In the 2002 production Mafia, Israel plans to assassinate the Egyptian pope to trigger sectarian strife. In the film Seaeedy Fel Gamaa al-Amerikia (A Southerner at American University of Cairo, 1998), the students burn the Israeli flag during a protest.

"My relationship with Israel as an occupying state has not changed," Adl says. "I'm still against Israeli racism, killing people in Gaza, against building settlements on Palestinian land. I am against all of this and will be against it all my life. This won't change. What has changed is how we look at the other, Jews, who do not take part in those issues. Do we stay against them? We are in a time where it's Sunnis versus Shias, Muslims versus Christians, etc. I am trying to look for seeds of this strife. This is why I built this story around the issue."

I ask if Adl stumbled upon any information he was not aware of before. "I found out there was a group of Egyptian Jews who collected money to donate to fighting against Zionism in 1948," he explains. "I discovered that many Jews were patriotic, and that you cannot stereotype that Jews are traitors. It's not true. Yes, some of them supported the Zionist movement, but others were against it."

Adl hopes the series will continue to promote discussion and capture the attention of audiences. He believes that although there is a saturation of TV series during Ramadan, audiences always find and follow the ones they see value in.

"We were raised on a certain image of Jews, and some people still don't know the difference between a Jew and a Zionist," he says. "The series will break down some stereotypes we have, so this will create controversy. But I believe this is the value of a work of art, to not go unnoticed. It should at least get people to look at what I'm saying, and decide if they're in agreement with me or not."

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Paying tribute to the victims of the attack in Kongsberg

Terje Bendiksby/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA
Carl-Johan Karlsson

The bow-and-arrow murder of five people in the small Norwegian city of Kongsberg this week was particularly chilling for the primitive choice of weapon. And police are now saying the attack Wednesday night is likely to be labeled an act of terrorism.

Still, even though the suspect is a Danish-born convert to Islam, police are still determining the motive. Espen Andersen Bråthen, a 37-year-old Danish national, is previously known to the police, both for reports of radicalization, as well as erratic behavior unrelated to religion.

Indeed, it remains unclear whether religious beliefs were behind the killings. In an interview with Swedish daily Dagens Nyheter, police attorney Ann Iren Svane Mathiassens said Bråthen has already confessed to the crimes, giving a detailed account of the events during a three-hour interrogation on Thursday, but motives are yet to be determined.

Investigated as terrorism 

Regardless, the murders are likely to be labeled an act of terror – mainly as the victims appear to have been randomly chosen, and were killed both in public places and inside their homes.

Mathiassens also said Bråthen will undergo a comprehensive forensic psychiatric examination, which is also a central aspect of the ongoing investigation, according to a police press conference on Friday afternoon. Bråthen will be held in custody for at least four weeks, two of which will be in isolation, and will according to a police spokesperson be moved to a psychiatric unit as soon as possible.

Witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

Police received reports last year concerning potential radicalization. In 2017, Bråthen published two videos on Youtube, one in English and one in Norwegian, announcing that he's now a Muslim and describing himself as a "messenger." The year prior, he made several visits to the city's only mosque, where he said he'd received a message from above that he wished to share with the world.

Previous criminal history 

In 2012, he was convicted of aggravated theft and drug offenses, and in May last year, a restraining order was issued after Bråthen entered his parents house with a revolver, threatening to kill his father.

The mosque's chairman Oussama Tlili remembers Bråthen's first visit well, as it's rare to meet Scandinavian converts. Still, he didn't believe there was any danger and saw no reason to notify the police. Tlili's impression was rather that the man was unwell mentally, and needed help.

According to a former neighbor, Bråthen often acted erratically. During the two years she lived in the house next to him — only 50 meters from the grocery store where the attacks began — the man several times barked at her like a dog, threw trash in the streets to then pick it up, and spouted racist comments to her friend. Several other witnesses have since described him as unstable and a loner.

The man used a bow and arrow to carry the attack

Haykon Mosvold Larsen/NTB Scanpix/ZUMA

Police criticized

Norway, with one of the world's lowest crime rates, is still shaken from the attack — and also questioning what allowed the killer to hunt down and kill even after police were on the scene.

The first reports came around 6 p.m. on Wednesday that a man armed with bow and arrow was shooting inside a grocery store. Only minutes after, the police spotted the suspect; he fired several times against the patrol and then disappeared while reinforcements arrived.

The attack has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms

In the more than 30 minutes that followed before the arrest, four women and one man were killed by arrows and two other weapons — though police have yet to disclose the other arms, daily Aftenposten reports. The sleepy city's 27,000 inhabitants are left wondering how the man managed to evade a full 22 police patrols, and why reports of his radicalization weren't taken more seriously.

With five people killed and three more injured, Wednesday's killing spree is the worst attack in Norway since far-right extremist Anders Breivik massacred 77 people on the island of Utøya a decade ago.

Unarmed cops

As questions mount over the police response to the attack, with reports suggesting all five people died after law enforcement made first contact with the suspect, local police have said it's willing to submit the information needed to the Bureau of Investigation to start a probe into their conduct. Police confirmed they had fired warning shots in connection to the arrest which, under Norwegian law, often already provides a basis for an assessment.

Wednesday's bloodbath has also fueled a long-existing debate over whether Norwegian police should carry firearms — the small country being one of only 19 globally where law enforcement officers are typically unarmed, though may have access to guns and rifles in certain circumstances.

Magnus Ranstorp, a terrorism expert and professor at the Swedish Defence University, noted that police in similar neighboring countries like Sweden and Denmark carry firearms. "I struggle to understand why Norwegian police are not armed all the time," Ranstorp told Norwegian daily VG. "The lesson from Utøya is that the police must react quickly and directly respond to a perpetrator during a life-threatening incident."

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