Middle East

Talk Like an Egyptian

Is Arab popular culture uniformly anti-American?


In August The Washington Post ran a front-page story about the rising popularity of anti-American themes in Egyptian pop culture, offering as its lead example the latest work by Egypt's best-known filmmaker, Youssef Chahine. Entitled Alexandria…New York, the movie is "a cinematic divorce paper," according to the Post. "Chahine said he had long admired the United States and its biggest city," wrote reporter Daniel Williams, "but now he has made a film brimming with resentment."

Is that so? 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 concluding scene of his 1978 "masterpiece," Alexandia…Why? That film, which attempts a series of parallel plots, offers the story of a young Egyptian actor in the 1940s who wants to come to the U.S. At the movie's end, he's on a ship approaching New York. But when Chahine shows us a close-up of the Statue of Liberty (the shot involves an actress in costume), she turns out to be an overage, overweight, overpainted harlot, and she's welcoming not the Egyptian student but an arriving group of European Hasidic Jews, complete with long side curls.

The whorish Ms. Liberty laughs lasciviously, exposing her mouthful of bad teeth, while a Jewish chant is playing on the soundtrack. That's what Chahine thought of the U.S. some 25 years ago.

Yet in its effort to demonstrate that the overthrow of Saddam Hussein has turned the whole Arab world, including such one-time "admirers," against the U.S., the Post allowed Chahine to strike a self-serving pose of regretful lost love.

Here's a sample passage: "'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.'" Please.

Most of the rest of the Post's story was about singer Shaaban Abdel Rehim and his anti-American songs. Abdel Rehim, a former wedding singer who has cornered the subgenre of paranoid hate pop, is pretty useful to these hand-wringing "they-hate-us" press accounts. In March 2003, for example, Post reporter Anthony Shadid filed a story from Jordan that was also about inflamed Arab anti-Americanism, and his story was mostly about Abdel Rehim.

The singer is best known for his 2001 toe tapper "I Hate Israel!" (which was followed up by something called "I Will Quit Smoking!"). What do Arabs think of him? He's so admired in the region that, the last time I looked, he couldn't find an actress to co-star in a proposed movie. Last year a long string of actresses protected their own careers by publicly refusing to work with him. Indeed, if the Mideast's celebrity press is to be believed, one Egyptian woman singer actually sued a pair of journalists who called her the "female Rehim." Many Arabs may well embrace the anti-American themes in Rehim's music, but much of his own celebrity springs from the outsized persona he projects: that of an aggressive slob.

Yeah, there's anti-Americanism in Egyptian pop culture. Stop the presses! Yet last Ramadan, Aunt Noor, a serial drama that starred actress Nabila Obeid, drew a huge audience with a quite friendly view of the U.S. Why doesn't somebody at the Post call her? The noted playwright Ali Salem remains an important figure despite his anti-Arabist views. Why not call him? The popular Moroccan singer Samira Sayeed has called for an end to mindless anti-American lyrics. Where's her voice?

For that matter, a call to Damascus will get you the Syrian actor and writer Yasser Al-Azmeh, who has actually made anti-American posturing among Arabs the subject of his stinging satire. Al-Azmeh could no doubt have fun at the expense of a self-flagellating—and posturing—U.S. press, too.