Thursday, March 13, 2008

Salata Baladi or Afrangi?

Joseph Massad, The Electronic Intifada, 13 March 2008

".....The situation would become more dangerous after the establishment of Israel in 1948. However, it was not until the uncovering of the Israeli espionage ring that committed terrorist acts in Egypt in 1954 (known as the Lavon Affair) and Israel's subsequent invasion of Egypt in 1956 that Israel would make the lives of Egyptian Jews unlivable and their continuation as a community virtually impossible.....

The importance of the Lavon Affair, or "Operation Susannah," as the Israeli military intelligence operation was nicknamed, cannot be overstressed, as Israel's recruitment of a few Egyptian Jews to firebomb locations in Cairo and Alexandria, including post offices, movie theaters, a library, and the Cairo railway station, would put in danger the entire community, which would unfortunately come to be implicated in the "Affair" and in working for the enemy. Any evaluation of the tragic history of Egyptian Jews in the 1950s that ignores this key transformative episode in their lives would compromise its own credibility or at the least expose its ignorance and credulity.

Somehow, however, Nadia Kamel, in her moving first documentary film, Salata Baladi (Country Salad), manages to neglect to mention the Lavon Affair while sensitively chronicling the personal hardship felt by a number of Egyptian Jews who were separated from other family members. Salata Baladi, however, is correct in avoiding the Lavon Affair, as the story it tells is not one of the splitting of a Jewish family as a result of the 1948 war, the Lavon Affair, or Israel's 1956 invasion, but rather of the separation of her mother Mary Rosenthal, a.k.a Naila Kamel, from her paternal cousins who left Egypt to Palestine in 1946 on account of the Zionist commitments of Peppo, the eldest cousin, who was a member of an Egyptian Zionist cell.....

As a friend of mine, an Egyptian woman academic who works on questions of cosmopolitanism in Egypt and who also saw the film in New York, remarked, there is very little nostalgia that the film or the director registers for a time when many Egyptians were communists, national liberationists, socialists, and everything in between (Hala Halim's forthcoming book addresses these exact issues). But this kind of diversity, it seems, the film and the director do not miss at all. Only the diversity of the non-Muslim and the foreign communities, including Greeks, Italians, Syrian Arab Christians, European Jews, and Arab Jews is missed by the contemporary cosmopolitans who live in Cairo and Alexandria. One wonders if the European funders of the film would have been interested in a film of nostalgia for Arab or Egyptian communism, of which both of Nadia's parents were part. But then the Ford Foundation, which contributed funds to the New York based ArteEast film festival (organized by Israeli scholar Livia Alexander) that screened Salata Baladi in New York might not have funded it either. When I saw the film in the middle of last November at Columbia University, where I teach, Nadia Kamel introduced it. She stood there and declared to her American audience (which included many Americans of Egyptian Jewish background and a number of officers from the Ford Foundation): "I come from a country full of taboos."

The audacity of that statement is not to be underestimated. In a post-9/11 New York City and a post-9/11 Columbia University where taboos on free speech and academic freedom are part of everyday life, for Nadia Kamel to complain to her audience and enjoin them to sympathize with her plight against the taboos of her country borders on the obscene. This is not to say that Egypt does not have taboos, it is to say that playing native informant to a Western audience, most of whom, like Nadia Kamel, only recognize Egypt's taboos but not America's, is not a courageous act. Exploiting the sad and touching story of Naila Kamel to push an ideological agenda that the United States and Israel have been pushing for years against the will of most Egyptians is hardly a progressive or democratic enterprise either. This is most pronounced in the director's attempt to attack the anti-normalization campaign with Israel, rather than Israel itself, as the party responsible for her mother's sadness and yearning for her cousin. Kamel's screening the film in East Jerusalem and Ramallah more recently, where it sparked much controversy, demonstrates that there are many kindred spirits to Nadia Kamel who live there and who look to benefit from normalization under occupation. What this documentary film is able to prove, however, is not that most Egyptians come from origins that are salata baladi, as that is hardly unknown to Egyptians, but that the ideological positions the film wants to push is nothing short of salata afrangi, made up exclusively of Western neoliberal ingredients."

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