Alexandria . . . New York

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Today's Washington Post has a front-page story about anti-Americanism in Arab pop culture, leading with a description of the latest film from Egypt's best-known moviemaker, Youssef Chahine. The new film, entitled Alexandria . . . New York, is "a cinematic divorce paper," according to the Post. Writes reporter Daniel Williams, "Chahine said he had long admired the United States and its biggest city, but now he has made a film brimming with resentment."

Oh yeah? Spare me Chahine's supposedly lost admiration. The last time I saw Chahine take up the subject of the U.S. he once "admired" so much, he portrayed the country as an old whore pandering to Jews. That's the conclusion of his 1978 "masterpiece," Alexandia . . . Why? The film tells the story of an Egyptian film student in the 1940s who wants to come to the U.S. to study. At the movie's end, he's on a ship approaching New York. What we see is the Statue of Liberty itself in the guise of that fat, painted whore, welcoming not the Egyptian student, but instead a group of European Hasidic Jews complete with long sidecurls. The overpainted Ms. Liberty laughs lasciviously, exposing her mouthful of bad teeth, while a Jewish chant is playing on the soundtrack.

It's galling to see the Post allow Chahine to strike his self-serving pose of regretful lost love. (There are a lot of passages like this: "'I don't know if this is a final divorce,' Chahine, 78, said as he smoked cigarettes against the wishes of attentive aides. 'I think about the friends I have had in America every day. It was in New York where I saw the greatest plays. I saw Sinatra at the Paramount.'" Good lord.) But then, a pained Chahine serves the purpose of these kind of accounts, specifically to show how the overthrow of Saddam Hussein has turned the whole Arab world, including such one-time "admirers," against the U.S.

To further his case, Williams cites ? at length—the popularity of singer Shaaban Abdel Rehim and his anti-American songs. We've been through his case before. Rehim is so admired among Arabs that, the last time I looked, he couldn't find an Arab actress to co-star with him in a movie. A long string of them had protected their own careers by publicly refusing to work with him. Indeed, if the region's celebrity press is to be believed, one woman Egyptian singer actually sued a pair of journalists who called her the "female Rehim." Many Arabs may well embrace the anti-American themes in Rahim's music, but much of his own celebrity springs from the outsized persona he projects: that of an aggressive, Sad Sack slob.

How difficult would it be to find some figures with integrity in Egyptian culture for such a story? They wouldn't have to be "pro-American"; that wouldn't be the point. I'd nominate Egyptians like playwright Ali Salem or producer Tariq El Aryan. And a call to Damascus will get you Yasser Al-Azmeh, who has made anti-American posturing among Arabs the subject of his stinging satire.

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  1. This posture is not limited to the ME by any means. Professional America-haters the world over usually have a handy list of favorite amercian novelists, Aerosmith albums, Harrison Ford movies, etc not only to counter any accusation of anti-american bigotry but especially to maintain an air of sophisticated ambivalence.
    Pull the other one.

  2. Mr. Freund, I really enjoy all your pieces that deal with ME pop culture. I find them very insightful and smart.

    In this case, your response to Chahine’s hypocrisy was particularly gratifying.

    Thanks

  3. For my money, Ali “Fear” Youssef Chahine is the only film personality worthy of our attention.

  4. Double ditto. Nothing new about Chahine’s anti-Americanism. I saw “l’Autre” (The Other) in Paris a few years ago. Caricatures of greedy Americans. Financed by the French Ministry of Foreign Affairs. During the “Clinton era.”

  5. apparently, it is not possible to criticize, caricature or lampoon that which you admire.

    *sigh* — i suppose all that sort of tolerance died on 9/11 here the same as anywhere.

    and saying as much makes me an “america hater”, doesn’t it?

  6. lol — sm, truth enough, my post was not specific. i meant less the modern demotic toleration of all things absurd than the ability of the intelligent to evaluate points of view other than their own.

  7. “*sigh* — i suppose all that sort of tolerance died on 9/11 here the same as anywhere”

    A deplorably demotic point of view ! What is “tolerance” but ressentiment, the revolt of vulgar Populares against the traditional. Ah, how the world decays by the advent of ahistorical principles …

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