Ramadan comes 11 days earlier each year. In recent years this has translated into scorching heat and longer fasting days. But while some things change about Ramadan, like its time, others don’t. There will always be a zombie-like consumption of Ramadan TV.
This year, one particular series has been making headlines, not just in Egypt but elsewhere: “The Jewish Alley,” written by Medhat El-Adl, directed by Mohamed Gamal El-Adl and starring Menna Shalaby and Iyad Nassar.
According to its writer, Adl, the series is set between 1948 and 1954, six very important years in Egypt’s modern history, and definitive years for Egypt’s now-dwindling Jewish community. The series goes through significant political events, such as the Nakba, the establishment of the Israeli state, the Egyptian 1952 revolution, the Lavon Affair and the end of the British occupation.
Adl, sitting in the editing room of his bustling office in Mohandiseen this week, stresses that these events are shown as reflections of the characters living in the Jewish Alley, a neighborhood in Islamic Cairo that historically housed a melting pot of Jews, Muslims and Christians.
In the editing room, Adl and an editor are watching a clip from the series with Nassar, and on-screen several people angrily discuss politics and chant revolutionary slogans. The scene is shot from different perspectives and has a soft color palette.
“Yes, cut here. This looks excellent,” Adl tells the editor enthusiastically.
“I’m showing the effects of these large political events on a small cosmopolitan street through a social television series,” Adl tells me, adding that the series has a love story between a Jewish woman (Shalaby) and a Muslim officer (Nassar) who both grew up in the alley.
The 61-year-old writer says the idea for a series about the Jewish Alley has been on his mind for years, but he felt this was the right time to finally do it because sectarianism and fear of the other, two themes the series deals with, are currently very present in Egypt.
This is not the first work that Adl, a veteran scriptwriter from one of the biggest families in Egyptian show business, has put in a political context.
Adl’s last Ramadan series, “Al-Daeya” (The Preacher, 2013), on which he worked with the same director (who is also his nephew), focused on the character of a famous religious preacher and gained a large share of viewership when it aired. Adl felt this was an appropriate topic for its time (produced during the Muslim Brotherhood’s short tenure governing Egypt). In 2011, a year of seemingly continual street protests, he wrote the script for “Al-Shawarea Al-Khalfia” (The Backstreets), based on Abdel Rahman al-Sharqawi’s book on the protests against the British occupation in 1930s.
“The Jewish Alley” has been aided by the work of several researchers, authors and scholars such as Abdel Wahab al-Messiry, Joel Beinin and Jacques Hassoun , as well as the journals of and interviews with Egyptian labor lawyer Youssef Darwish (1910-2006), who had a Jewish background and converted to Islam in 1947.
Adl says he paid close attention to accurately depicting the historical reality, and the director too focused on representing the era in question in terms of the set and clothing. They have staff dedicated to historical fact-checking.
Earlier in June, the Times of Israel published a story titled “In new Egyptian Ramadan drama, Jews are the good guys.” Since then, Adl has been receiving phone calls from a variety of local and international news outlets for his comment on this.
But in our interview, Adl stresses several times that there is a big difference between being Jewish and being Zionist, and his position toward the latter is no different than it previously was. In many of his previous works, he chose to depict the “bad guy” as Israel: In the 2002 production “Mafia,” Israel plans to assassinate the Egyptian pope to trigger sectarian strife. In the film “Seaeedy Fel Gamaa al-Amerikia” (A Southerner at AUC, 1998) the students burn the Israeli flag during a protest.
“My relationship with Israel as an occupying state has not changed,” Adl says. “I’m still against Israeli racism, killing people in Gaza, against building settlements on Palestinian land. I am against all of this and will be against it all my life. This won’t change. What has changed is how we look at the other, Jews, who do not take part in those issues. Do we stay against them? We are in a time where it’s Sunnis versus Shias, Muslims versus Christians, et cetera. I am trying to look for seeds of this strife. This is why I built this story around the issue.”
Intrigued by the in-depth research Adl apparently conducted prior to writing, I ask if he stumbled upon any information he was not aware of before.
“I found out there was a group of Egyptian Jews who collected money to donate to fighting against Zionism in 1948,” he explains. “I discovered that many Jews were patriotic, and that you cannot stereotype that Jews are traitors. It’s not true. Yes, some of them supported the Zionist movement, but others were against it.”
Adl hopes the series will continue to raise controversy and capture the attention of audiences. He believes that although there is a saturation of TV series in Ramadan, audiences always find and follow the ones they see value in. He also mentions that series nowadays reach more people than cinema, no matter how successful a film is. Thus, he hopes the show will raise interesting questions in society.
“We were raised on a certain image of Jews, and until now some people don’t know the difference between a Jew and a Zionist. The series will break down some stereotypes we have, so this will create controversy,” he says. “But I believe this is the value of a work of art, to not go unnoticed. It should at least get people to look at what I’m saying, and decide if they’re in agreement with me or not.”