Salata Baladi or Afrangi?

12 March 2008

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Filmmaker Nadia Kamel

While Zionism’s atrocities against the Palestinian people have not stopped for the last century, Israel’s atrocities against other Arabs in the last sixty years have remained consistent, albeit intermittent. This not only includes Israel’s bombings and killings of Lebanese, Syrians, Jordanians, Tunisians, Egyptians, and Libyans, but also its terrorism against Arab Jews, specifically Iraqi Jews whose exodus to Israel it brought about in the early 1950s after a series of bombings in Baghdad, and the tragedy it caused to Egyptian Jews, to say nothing of Yemeni and Moroccan Jews whose lives Zionism successfully interrupted and transformed. While Zionism’s activities in Egypt among Egyptian Jews bore little fruit before or after World War II, Zionism’s insistence that it speaks and acts in the name of all Jews have put Jewish communities inside and outside Palestine in a precarious position.

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. This is not to say that Arab nationalism was not guilty of accepting Zionism’s and Israel’s false claims that they spoke for all Jews, including for Arab Jews, or that the Egyptian government at the time could not have done more to protect Egyptian Jews from popular anger and from the harassment of its own agencies, it is rather to emphasize that the sizable portion of the responsibility for the tragic departure of Egyptian Jews between 1954 and 1957 (which is when the vast majority of them left) should be laid down on the doorstep of Israel.

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. But the story that the film wants to tell is not only the touching tale of the aging Mary/Naila and her nostalgia for her childhood friend, her cousin Sarina, but rather the tale of an Egypt that used to be “cosmopolitan,” as an Israeli cousin would describe Egypt to Nadia later in the film and as an Egyptian cousin volunteers on cue: “Egypt is a mix of nationalities except for Upper Egyptians and Christian Copts. They are pure because they did not mix with others.”

Today, the film tells us, diversity is no longer possible in Egypt, evidenced by what the mosque Imam declares during an Eid sermon with which the film opens — namely that Muslims should “awaken to defend Islam against its enemies who seek to erase it from the face of the Earth.” Nadia’s concern is for her nephew, Naila’s grandson, Nabeel. Nadia’s voice paraphrases the Imam’s words with a sense of doom and with much worry, especially when she “saw Nabeel listening to the Imam as he reduced the world to Muslims and their enemies.” Nadia declares that “the Imam’s words… stuck to me. I walked away with a heavy heart. I remembered that when I was Nabeel’s age, my grandmother would tell me the stories of strangers who met and then loved each other and then became my grandparents and my parents. If these stories are not retold, they would die away.” It is the diversity of strangers in love and not of the uniformity of Muslims in hate, that Nadia Kamel argues, constitutes the better story of Egypt that the young Nabeel does not know and which she wants to tell him, and us with him.

Indeed, Nabeel seems to already know a big part of that story. He understands that his father is half Palestinian and half Egyptian and that his Palestinian grandfather, the politician Nabeel Shaath, lives in Gaza. The young Nabeel also knows that his mother is half Egyptian, a quarter Italian, and a quarter Jewish (the last part he learns in the course of the film). Yet ironically, while the young Nabeel is excited about his origins being salata baladi (in the sense of a country salad made up of many ingredients), he enumerates to his aunt Nadia all his national origins which she duly writes down on a piece of paper. Nabeel concludes, speaking in English, that he is “half Palestinian, quarter Italian, and quarter Lebanese” and wonders if he has any American in him, which he concludes that he must. Amazingly enough, while in reality the young Nabeel is half Egyptian, a quarter Palestinian, one eighth Italian, one sixteenth East European Jewish, one-sixteenth Turkish Jewish, he manages not to include his Egyptian half at all. One wonders if that is the lesson being imparted to him in the course of the film.

Moreover, Nadia’s unhappiness with the discourse of the Imam suddenly becomes her way of reducing Egypt’s contemporary reality to what he said. Yet the Egypt of today seems no less cosmopolitan than the one she grew up in. Aside from the fact that Nabeel has a half-Palestinian father (unless the presence of Palestinians in Egypt makes it less cosmopolitan than the presence of Jews), the Egypt of the present is also one that celebrates American and European cultural products and ideas at every level. To make the Imam’s discourse the major feature of contemporary Egypt to the exclusion of the discourse of the government and private enterprise, of foreign non-governmental organizations, of non-Islamist political and artistic forces, many of which are repeated on hundreds of satellite channels, and in foreign schools, which the young Nabeel attends and where he learned his English (which is slowly but surely taking over his Arabic as the dialogue in the film amply shows) is to be as reductive of Egypt as the Imam is said to be. Should Egypt be seen today as Nadia Kamel versus the Imam, or are there other players, political positions, and cultural projects that are vying for dominance in the country? The Imam is not the only one being reductive here; it is also Nadia who is reducing the Egypt of today to Islamists and their cosmopolitan opponents.

Salata Baladi, it turns out, stages the political agenda of the director Nadia Kamel under the guise of telling the story of her mother to her nephew. It is the liberal cosmopolitan impulse prevalent in the “multi-culti” discourse of liberal circles in the West that the Egyptian audience is being instructed in by the film. Here, one should keep in mind the important words of the postcolonial theorist Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak who had once declared “multiculturalism is the new racism.” The struggle of the film is in fact the struggle of Nadia to convince her mother and father to go to Israel. She instigates the entire situation, which is presented to us as the mother’s tragedy. But it is Nadia who goads and pushes her mother (and father), who speaks for and represents her mother’s motives and concerns throughout the film. Salata Baladi unwittingly documents the process through which Naila is slowly but surely led down the road of going to Israel by her daughter-director. Nadia asks her point blank: “Tell me Mom, don’t we have relatives in Israel?” “How did it happen that you spent fifty years without seeing them?” The mother answers: “To tell you the truth, I did not think much about this subject.” She adds: “The boycott of the state of Israel started by all Arabs, and I embraced Arab nationalism and the general Egyptian position. Of course I know that they are not responsible for Israel’s policies, the Jews, not all of them…, but there was the feeling that they were the ones who did this, that they left Egypt and went to that place specifically …” Indeed, Naila declares “these relatives, I did not think about going to see them this entire time, for more than fifty years [scene edited], then I felt like seeing them especially as I imagine that it was not right that I should have cut off our family relationship only because they were in Israel.”

But this interaction is a bit strange. For it turns out that it had been sixty years, not fifty, since Naila’s family left, as they had left in 1946 according to her Israeli cousins Sarina and Peppo. The fifty-year mark, which is repeated several times in the film and coupled with the issue of the boycott, refers to the 1956 period when Nasser was in power. It is a direct attack on Nasserism as an enemy of Egyptian Jews. But this was not borne out by the facts that the film presents. Peppo clearly states that the last time he had seen Naila before he and his family moved to Palestine, she had only been 12 years old. How could a 12 year old decide on political grounds not to see her family who chose to go to Palestine before 1948 and before the boycott? Are these real events being narrated or ideological justifications presented ex-post facto to scapegoat the boycott and Nasserism as responsible for the splitting up of Naila’s family? Indeed, Naila later declares that her position in support of the boycott was clear to her since she was 17 years old, several years after the departure of her cousins.

Once in Tel Aviv, Naila ventures a date for the family’s move to Palestine: “You left in 1950,” she says, but Sarina responds emphatically “no, since 1946. We were here before the war.” But if this is the case, what might have been the real reasons for Naila’s refusal to see her cousins? If it was not the boycott or Nasserism, what was it? Could it have been her cousins who had boycotted her? Salata Baladi is silent on this. But the director cannot claim to be on the one hand telling the sad story of a woman and her family and, on the other, conveniently insert certain facts and not others about matters of considerable political import for which the film does not want to be held accountable. The film may be presenting a personal story but it does so only to fortify and advance a political and an ideological position that is far from innocent.

At any rate, Nadia is undeterred by the discomfort of everyone around her with her project of talking her parents into going to Israel. She is a driven woman throughout the film, appearing to be on an ideological crusade of sorts. Once the subject is broached about the possibility of going to Israel to visit Sarina and her family, Naila begins to hesitate. Her hesitation however is unacceptable under the constant haranguing of her daughter-director who intimidatingly and forcefully asks her mother and father: “Are we not going to Israel, then?” Indeed, the father’s discomfort is registered throughout the film. He tells his daughter: “I am surprised that while I am being filmed you want to take me on a trip to Israel.” Nadia makes the case for going and declares on behalf of her mother that the latter is “ready” and adds rather disingenuously that she herself is also ready (!) and that when her father is psychologically ready she would take the passports to make the necessary arrangements for the trip. When Naila hesitates again, a tense moment follows and Nadia says threateningly: “Are you going to change your mind?” The terrified mother musters a response: “No. God willing I will not change my mind.” The camera is dangerously imposing during this discussion. It is in the face of the father and mother, confronting them, demanding that they give the right answers. They struggle to resist the demand of the camera and of Nadia with visible pain drawn on their faces. Even when Naila insists that her husband’s family, which has become her adopted family, be consulted on the matter, it is Nadia who takes on the task of persuading them.

Nadia also is the one who tries to convince her sister Dina, mother of the young Nabeel, to come along, but Dina refuses and insists on not joining them on their journey. Nadia next takes her parents to visit Randa Shaath, young Nabeel’s aunt, and a friend of Nadia’s, to talk her into going with them to Israel, oblivious to Randa’s inability to go there on account of being Palestinian, which she explains to them. In fact, earlier on in the film, when Naila begins to write up an itinerary of the journey on which she wants to take Nabeel, she includes Israel. There seemed to be no hint at that point that she knew that Nabeel, on account of being Palestinian, could not go to Israel. Yet once they get to Italy to visit Naila’s brother and other cousins who live there, we come to know that Naila was trying to apply for Italian citizenship so that she could pass it down to her daughter Dina who would then pass it on to Nabeel. How then could the initial journey to Israel have been planned with Nabeel in mind?

It is to the director’s credit that the film did not exclude the moments of hesitation when everyone refused and then some succumbed to the inevitability of the journey to Israel. Nadia Kamel filmed hundreds of hours from which the film footage was finally selected. This tells us that the process must have been even more fraught with problems than the segments we saw. But the director registers these moments in an ambivalent fashion. They are mostly represented not as hesitations to her political agenda but out of fear of the reigning political discourse of the boycott, of the intelligence services, of upsetting other family members, or of psychological blocks. Only in rare moments is the hesitation represented as one of principle, of convictions, and of a sober assessment of current reality.

When the young Nabeel asks why would his grandmother be the one to go to Israel, Nadia answers him that this is because his grandmother and Sarina are both sick and they are worried that they might die without seeing one another (something Naila never articulated in the film). When Nabeel explains that his grandmother is not sick, Nadia tells him: “She is not as sick as Sarina, which is why she is the one going.” This is as close as the film gets to explain why it was not Sarina who would come to visit Naila, something she could have done since 1979 with minimal soul-searching. This key question is never asked or answered properly in the film. Could it be that the increase in the voices of the anti-normalization campaign with Israel provoked this yearning on the part of Nadia (and definitely not Naila) and not some personal need to connect with the past?

The film does register a very painful parallel about the modern nation-state’s classification of people as foreigners. Naila’s father, the Egyptian-born Elie Rosenthal (his mother and father had immigrated from Turkey and Odessa, respectively, to Egypt) did not hold Egyptian citizenship but rather a travel document, just like Naila’s half-Palestinian grandson Nabeel, who was also born in Egypt and holds a travel document. Indeed, Naila’s parents, the Italian Christian Leandra and the Jewish Elie emigrated to Italy in 1965 and died there. Nabeel’s predicament of being stateless like his Jewish great-grandfather and like his own father and paternal grandfather demonstrates the injustice that all nation-states (and not only the Egyptian nation-state) perpetrate on individuals and families with impunity.

There is an instrumental use that the film makes of Palestinians, exploiting them to push the director’s pro-normalization position. Starting with the songs of Palestinian singer Kamilya Jubran, which punctuate the film throughout, to actual Palestinians who are trudged onto the screen to push the ideological line to which Salata Baladi is committed, the director is undeterred. The film insists on showing how Naila’s sad family situation and need to remedy it comes up against an intransigent, irrational demand by popular forces in Egypt to boycott Israel and to refuse to normalize relations with it, which is contrasted with the rational position of the Egyptian government which did normalize. A Palestinian woman friend, Majida al-Saqqa, who is program advisor for the Ford Foundation-funded “The Culture and Free Thought Association” in Khan Younis, is brought to visit Naila, accompanied by an American woman, Sharry Lapp. Naila tells Majida that Egyptian nationalists and writers are calling for a boycott of all things that fall under Israeli jurisdiction on account of the actions of the Israeli government. “But you Palestinians are under Israeli jurisdiction …” Majida interrupts in order to push the most original line in the film. She declares on Naila’s cue and without any equivocation that: “So [these Egyptian writers and nationalists] boycotted us too … the Egyptians started a big campaign, saying that governments might agree, but it is impossible for people to normalize. [They speak of the] Palestinian cause, the rights of the Palestinian people, and I don’t know what, while we, as Palestinians, since that day, since those days, were placed in an incredible isolation. For example, my mother has not seen my aunts. She lived for thirty years without seeing her sister, and then her sister died in another country. … if you [Naila] have a small room of maneuver to try, and that this would work, then you must try, so that you would feel good. I did not see my cousins and my aunts and uncles until things started a bit to [improve] … [They are] in the Gulf, in Syria, in Lebanon, in Abu Dhabi, in Kuwait, this is why I am telling you in no uncertain terms that as a Palestinian, I cannot see that this boycott has done anything good for the Palestinian cause …”

In contrast to most Palestinians who understand that their separation from their families is based on the state of war and occupation imposed on them by Israel, which prevents the Palestinians it expelled from returning to their homeland to reunite with their families, Majida, pushing Nadia Kamel’s pro-normalization line, wants to insist that the civilian efforts in Egypt to boycott Israel are responsible for the splitting of these families, and not Israeli expulsions and laws. Thus, the situation of Palestinian families and that of Naila’s family are presented in the film as similar in that in both cases, Arab civilian boycotts, and not Israel, are responsible for their misery and human hardship. Israel somehow is subtracted from the equation, except for the fleeting moments when its apartheid wall and military checkpoints are filmed en passant when Sharry and Nadia’s family are driving from Tel Aviv to Ramallah to visit Sharry. Indeed, Ramallah under occupation looks like a fun place to be, featuring fast Internet connections and lovely restaurants serving delicious food and the obligatory Arak on the rocks! Palestine more generally seems to be as cosmopolitan as Cairo before the departure of Jews. Sharry Lapp, who is also a co-producer of Salata Baladi, is an American woman who was born in Jerusalem (her father was an American archeologist who worked in Palestine) and until recently was a program officer at the Ford Foundation, and now lives in Palestine. Her presence there might be an indication to Nadia Kamel of cosmopolitanism. But what about the Jewish settlers in the Occupied Territories? Should Palestinians insist that they continue to colonize them in the name of cosmopolitanism?

Naila had an honorable activist history that is summarized rather too quickly in the film. When her grandson asks her at the beginning of the film about why she had been jailed, his voice is muted and the camera is distant (and no English subtitles appear to translate his question). Naila is not allowed to narrate that history. Nadia instead will speak briefly about her mother’s activism later in the film: “I think I know what is bothering her. It is true that there is a fear that accumulated over the years, but there is something more difficult than this fear. Mom went to jail three times and spent seven years in jail because she was a communist. I think then that this way she fears that she might be abandoning the Palestinians … She is looking through the articles she wrote [in defense of the Palestinians] over a period of 35 years for an answer to her dilemma.”

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.

Joseph Massad is associate professor of modern Arab politics and intellectual history at Columbia University in New York.

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