The Egyptian Football Association’s postponement last week of the professional league’s resumption for the third time in less than two months has triggered a new round of fireworks in Cairo. This time, it was a group of players who marched on the Presidential Palace in Heliopolis to demand that the league be allowed to go ahead. The protesters were led by the Zamalek captain, and international football’s most-capped player, Ahmed Hassan. Events really reached a boil, though, when the demonstrators parked themselves in front of the nearby hotel where Al Ahly’s African Champions League semifinal opponents Sunshine Stars were staying, in an apparent attempt to keep the Nigerian side from reaching the stadium for their Sunday evening match and thus force Ahly’s disqualification from the tournament. Ahly’s diehard supporters, Ultras Ahlawy–whose threats to storm stadiums if the domestic league resumes before the resolution of the Port Said trial are widely viewed as behind the Football Association’s reluctance to restart the league–sprang into action, this time to ensure that the night’s match would proceed as scheduled. Following clashes between players and fans outside the hotel and reported police interventions of tear gas, Sunshine Stars were able to make their way to the stadium. The game, delayed by a half-hour, ended in a 1-0 win for Ahly, who will now play for the championship next month against Esperance Sportive of Tunisia.
Cross posted from the Forward.
CAIRO — Sitting in a Cairo coffee shop, with his boyish face and gaunt physique, Amir Ramses looks at first glance like someone half his age. But the prominent 33-year-old film director has already directed three major commercial films and several acclaimed documentaries. His new film, the independently produced “Jews of Egypt,” Ramses says, is his most important feature film to date
“There is all this offensive, racist stuff you hear about Jews in Cairo,” explains the Egyptian filmmaker as he sips a cup of coffee. “We managed during 40 years to combine or relate the concepts of Jewish, Zionist and Israeli into one word and create an enemy out of that word, although they’re not necessarily related.”
The documentary, about 90 minutes long, premiered the night before his coffee shop sit-down with the Forward, and it will not be mistaken for an olive branch to Israel. A self-described secularist in the mold of Egypt’s most famous director, his late mentor, Youssef Chahine, Ramses opposes Zionism for the same reason he opposes the concept of a Christian or a Muslim state. “I don’t believe that any country in the world should be based on religion,” he says. But he is equally adamant that hostility toward Israel or Zionism is a lousy excuse for anti-Semitism.
The goal of the film, Ramses says, is to disentangle Judaism from Zionism in a country whose enmity for its northern neighbor has long served as the lifeblood of widespread anti-Jewish prejudice. The film does so by recreating the years in which some 80,000 Jews lived in Egypt, mostly in Cairo and Alexandria, amid Muslims and Christians in a cosmopolitan potpourri that seems impossibly distant today. And it does not shrink from describing the brutality with which these natives of Egypt were expelled en masse, as recalled in their own words.
The October 6 unveiling of Ramses’s film at the week-long Panorama of the European Film in Cairo coincided with a hallowed date in Egyptian history. On that date in 1973, Egypt’s army crossed the Suez Canal in a surprise attack on Israeli forces that produced its most celebrated modern military triumph. Even as the film opened, Egypt’s new, democratically elected Islamist president, Mohamed Morsi, was commemorating the attack in a major address before tens of thousands inside Cairo Stadium. But the lobby of the Galaxy Theatre in Cairo’s Manial District, was also packed to the gills, albeit with a smaller crowd, well before the film’s 6:30 p.m. start time. In fact, so many flocked to the theater that organizers had to scramble to organize a second screening later in the evening.
There was a touch of the taboo in the event — a chance to engage a piece of Egyptian history long suppressed and ignored, and vaguely shameful, in contrast to the loud declarations of pride that characterized the larger gathering.
The film highlights a substantial Jewish community in Egypt during the first half of the 20th century for whom Zionism held remarkably little appeal. A heterogeneous mix, Egypt’s Jews had roots in the country that predated Islam. They included Mizrahim, descended from Jews who had lived there since ancient times; Sephardim, who emigrated in large numbers from Spain in 1492, and Ashkenazim, who came to Egypt fleeing persecution in Europe during the 19th century. There was also a community of Karaites — Jews whose forbears had rejected the authority of the Talmud and the rabbis in the early Middle Ages, and who hewed instead to a Judaism based on the Torah alone.
Egypt’s Jews considered themselves full-fledged members of Egyptian society. Those Ramses tracked down in Western Europe, where many ultimately migrated, recall an almost idyllic Egypt in which diverse faiths easily coexisted, particularly in centers like Cairo and Alexandria.
Comfortably ensconced in society, Egypt’s Jews eyed the Zionist project warily. Many were aware of the potential repercussions for them of burgeoning tensions in Palestine. With Israel’s founding, those fears were quickly realized as thousands were expelled and others intimidated into flight.
And yet, the vast majority did not head for Israel. “For us, Israel was the country for the oppressed Jews,” says one émigré in the film who now resides in Europe, “and the Egyptian Jews were not oppressed.” Instead, they headed en masse to places like France and Italy, from where many retained close ties to Egypt. In France, the exiled founder and leader of Egypt’s Communist party, Henri Curiel, even got his hands on a copy of the Israeli-Anglo-French plan to attack Egypt 20 days in advance of the 1956 strike and forwarded it on to President Gamal Abdel Nasser. Nasser dismissed the Egyptian Jew’s warning as implausible.
Except for the opening shots of the film, in which a few Egyptians on the street share their thoughts on Jews and Judaism (“They are damned,” says one; “[They are] enemies of Islam in everything,” inveighs another), Ramses steers clear of the contemporary. “Jews of Egypt” is an ode to a lost past. And yet, implicit in that nod to the past is a searing indictment of the present.
“I guess the comparison is really there without saying it,” Ramses reflected. “And also the contemporary part is the part we’re living, so I guess the film indirectly makes some comparison with the situation that you are already seeing around you and the one you are seeing in the movie.”
Today, Egypt’s Jewish population numbers no higher than a couple of hundred, and possibly as low as a couple of dozen. Meaningful discourse on Judaism and the history of Egypt’s Jews is hard to come by. Trying to nudge his way closer to the front of the line as he waited to enter the cinema, Nader, a 21-year-old university student in Cairo who asked that his last name not be used, said that he had devoted time to studying the subject on his own. This included reading “The Man in the White Sharkskin Suit,” a 2007 memoir by the Egyptian-American Jew Lucette Lagnado. The book vividly recounts her family’s expulsion from Egypt in 1963. This film, however, marked the first real public platform addressing Jewish issues that Nader could remember in his lifetime.
Ramses was heartened by the turnout. And while he reported some angry emails and ignorant comments on the YouTube trailer for his film, the response overall has been unexpectedly positive. In a question-and-answer session after the screening, audience members praised the film for tackling a subject that remains hard to talk about.
One spectator named Randa commended the film’s boldness as she emerged from the theater. “It’s good to look back and reconsider mistakes you might have made,” she said. She disagreed, however, that anti-Semitism is a major problem in Egypt. “Anti-Israeli, anti-Zionist, maybe. But not anti-Jewish,” she said.
Despite his satisfaction with the premiere, Ramses acknowledged that the audience — middle- and upper-class, well-educated and largely secular — was hardly representative of most Egyptians, with whom his film is likely to encounter more resistance or never be seen at all. But he insisted that he was committed to engaging whoever will listen. Ramses said he hopes to secure a television deal soon so that he can reach a wider audience.
He could use the money to recoup his costs. The film, which took four years to make, was a labor of love that he and his producer almost entirely self-financed to the tune of more than $100,000. “We didn’t want to have any person inclined to impose any prohibitions on us, considering the subject,” he said. “We were already expecting to have a certain point of view that we wanted represented in the movie.”
One film alone, Ramses acknowledged, cannot fundamentally change perceptions. But he is hopeful that his work can at least be a catalyst.
“We’re talking about a subject that has been neutralized for like the last 30 to 40 years. I expect the movie to provoke discussion,” he said. “Maybe the movie will provoke someone to write a book about it. Or maybe a feature film. It’s just like the first stone thrown at the subject. I’m not hoping to change how Egyptian society sees things, but at least I hope it [lights] the first spark.”
Cross posted from The National.
Eight months after a deadly stadium riot in Port Said brought domestic football in Egypt to a grinding halt, the spectre of renewed violence looms over the imminent resumption of the Egyptian Premier League.
Ultras Ahlawy, the hard-core supporters group of Cairo’s Al Ahly, has issued a series of conditions for accepting a new league season, slated to begin in military stadiums on October 17.
Those conditions include a resolution of the ongoing trial of those implicated in the Port Said deaths, the resignations of the minister of sport and board of the Egyptian Football Association (EFA) and a purge of certain media personalities.
Dozens of Ahlawy members were among the 74 killed last February, when armed thugs invaded the away stands after the final whistle of a match between Al Ahly and Port Said’s Al Masry.
The trial, which began in April, has plodded along with no sign of a verdict soon.
One senior member named Rani, 21, issued an ominous warning of what would take place should officials forge ahead with the season.
“Violence, which was the last option,” he said. Pressed for specifics, he added, “simply breaking into the stadium.” He added that no final decision had yet been taken by the group, but that he could not envision any other course of action, “because it will be the only available way to stop the league”.
Ultras Ahlawy have been joined in their opposition to beginning the season by at least four other Ultras groups—Red Devils, an Alexandria-based Ahly supporters group; Zamalek’s White Knights; Ismaily’s Yellow Dragons and Ittihad’s Green Magic.
The government of President Mohamed Morsi has initiated dialogue with the Ultras, who have a history of clashing with police, in an effort to head off any violence.
Mohamed Fouad Gadallah, a legal adviser to the president, hosted representatives from Ahlawy, White Knights and Yellow Dragons at his house a few weeks ago.
Ahmed El Kelaya, 21, a Yellow Dragons member who attended the meeting, described Gadallah as receptive to the Ultras’ concerns. The groups’ staunch opposition to resuming the league, however, remains a sticking point, though El Kelaya cautioned that Yellow Dragons and others would not necessarily be willing to resort to violence.
“We agree on the same principles and the same mentality,” he said, “but we don’t have to do everything they do because [Ultras Ahlawy] are the ones involved, not us. They are the ones whose people died, not us.”
Ultras Ahlawy have escalated their campaign against the new season in the last month, storming two separate Ahly training facilities, EFA headquarters, and the television studios of a major Egyptian broadcaster.
They also threatened to storm the Egyptian Super Cup match between Ahly and ENPPI in early September, which was held behind closed doors at a military stadium in Alexandria. They backed off amid rumours that the police had hired local Bedouin tribes to confront them outside the stadium, although the sports ministry did postpone the start of the league by a month.
Rani vowed that these actions would continue.
“As long as [the government and media] spread [lies] about us, there will be no mercy,” he said.
But EFA spokesman Azmy Megahed insists that the season will begin on time. In his office at an EFA headquarters bearing no sign of the recent attack, he dismissed the prospect that the Ultras would cause a crisis.
“As long as the law is enforced, there will be no problem. As long as there is a state that has laws, I think everything will turn out all right,” he argued, pointing out that the military stadiums where the matches will be played are “like barracks”.
He urged the Ultras to pursue their demands through peaceful channels. “The case is still in court,” he said. “And we have to wait until the court returns its verdict. But they’re rushing. They’re attempting to rush the courts. And that’s something we don’t need.”
Egyptian football figures are desperate for a return to normal activity. The long hiatus has had debilitating financial consequences for the clubs, players and the thousands of other Egyptians – from stadium workers to souvenir vendors – who rely on football for their livelihood.
Dozens of players demonstrated in front of the sports ministry on Monday to demand the resumption of the league.
In a press conference last Wednesday, national team head coach Bob Bradley also made the case for a prompt return to domestic competition. Forced to rely on repeated training camps in a bid to stay match-sharp, the Pharaohs have struggled, opening World Cup qualifying in June with two wins, but dropping a play-off tie to lowly Central African Republic to miss out on qualification for their second consecutive Africa Cup of Nations.
“The league is very important,” said Bradley. “We must be optimistic that the league will start and that the players will be back playing every week.”
Ultras Ahlawy held a peaceful protest of their own in front of the sports ministry on Tuesday. They also saw one of their major demands met the next day as former members of Hosni Mubarak’s National Democratic Party, Hani Abou-Reida and Ahmed Shobeir, withdrew their candidacies from the upcoming EFA presidential election. But with no verdict in the Port Said trial forthcoming and neither the Ultras nor the EFA willing to budge, confrontation looks increasingly likely.
And El Kelaya fears that whether or not the start of the season ushers in clashes between Ahly’s faithful and police, the government’s failure to address key Ultras priorities – namely, reforming the loathed ministry of interior, which many blame for the events in Port Said – augurs trouble down the road.
“The ministry of interior is the same – the same people, the same way as before,” he said. “They did not change … That’s why the revolution was made – because of the police officers, because of what they have done to us, to the Egyptian people. So nothing changed.”
He added this grim assessment.
“We believe that an incident like Port Said will happen again in our current atmosphere. That’s why we don’t want football to be back now.”