Egyptian publicist Ahmed Muataz lambasted the decision not to allow films by Israeli Arabs to participate in the international film festival held earlier this month in the Egyptian capital and called the decision no less than a "death sentence for zIsraeli Arab artistic circles."

"In Egyptian eyes, the Arabs in Israel have become a target for suspicion, doubt, accusation and hatred," Muataz wrote in the weekly Al-Ahram al-Arabi, published in Cairo.

The decision to ban Israeli Arab movies was made by the festival's director, Sharif al-Shobashi, because the films are financed by the Israeli government. Shobashi's verdict was based on the decision by the Egyptian Artists Union, according to which there is to be no normalization of relations with Israel in any form of cultural activities.

"The decision puts the Israeli Arabs in the same boat with the Jews. It is a strange decision, considering the aspiration for Arab unity," wrote Muataz in response. "There are Israeli Arab towns that are a source of terror for Israel, such as Umm al-Fahm. Every time there is talk of peace arrangements, Israel proposes the transfer of that city to the Palestinian Authority," he added, offering proof that Arab Israelis are not exactly Israelis and should not be considered "suspicious elements," particularly when many Arab works "annoy Tel Aviv [the Israeli government]."

Lost identity

Why, for example, was "The Syrian Bride" not permitted to participate in the Cairo International Film Festival, Muataz wondered. "After all, it is a film about the suffering of an Israeli Arab young woman, and exposes the racism of the Zionists," he noted. Muataz did not mention that "The Syrian Bride" was directed by a Jew - Eran Riklis - and that the film's protagonist is not an Arab, but rather a young Druze woman from the Golan Heights.

The perception of the Arabs in Israel as "suspicious objects," specifically by their brothers in Arab countries, is nothing new. It also gains expression in opinion pieces in some Arab newspapers, in which Israeli Arabs are described mainly as collaborators with the Jews and as people who have lost their Arab identity. The question of the identity of Israeli Arabs made the headlines about eight months ago when seven Israeli delegates were refused permission to participate in the popular youth talent program "Star Academy," produced by a Lebanese television station.

The ban imposed by Shobashi on Arab artists from Israel in the Cairo festival was reported in the Arab media.

"Why do we continue to torture our brothers, the 1948 Arabs [the accepted Arab term for Israeli Arabs]?" wrote Mohammed Said, a Saudi citizen, on the Internet site of the Al-Arabiya satellite TV station, in response to this decision. "They are a group that held onto the land and did not flee, and they are the ones who have suffered most at the hands of the Zionists. Now they are a focus for suspicion as if they were not our own."

Shobashi's decision is astonishing in that he himself is a government official, director general of the Egyptian Culture Ministry, and is not obligated to adopt the decisions of the trade union of stage and film artists. It could also have been expected of an intellectual like Shobashi to blaze a different trail, at least regarding Israeli Arabs. Shobashi, who lived in Paris for 20 years, this year published a book that shook the world of Arab culture. The book, "Long live Arabic, May Sibawaihi be Defeated" (Sibawaihi was an eighth century grammarian considered the father of Arab grammar), calls for a closing of the gap between strict literary Arabic and spoken Arabic, between the language of the Koran and everyday Arabic.

Shobashi was lambasted by conservative intellectuals and clerics who claimed he was calling for the secularization of the state, for the bastardization of Arabic and the severing of the people's connection with the holy book. In response, Shobashi countered that his book seeks to protect Arabic culture from Americanization. The attacks on his book indicate the tough position of intellectuals in Egypt, who, in order to gain public acceptance of their works still have to earn "national" legitimization by banning Israeli works, even when these are by Arabs.

Managing the Cairo film festival was no easy task for Shobashi, and not only because of his decision regarding entries from Israel. The festival, which was held this year for the 28th time, had to compete with two other festivals, one in Marrakesh and the other in Dubai, which threaten the status and exclusivity of the Cairo festival. Shobashi failed in his bid to change the dates of the other festivals and watched sadly as famous Egyptian actors such as Nur al-Sharif and Yusra flew directly from Marrakesh to Dubai, without attending the Egyptian festival. Shobashi was also unable to convince Sean Connery to come from the Marrakesh festival to Cairo, even for a very high gratuity fee.

It seems, however, that Shobashi suffered the harshest criticism from Egyptian critics, who wondered about his decision to include just two Egyptian films in the festival, both of poor quality. "My Soul Mate," by director Khaled Youssef and "Looking for Freedom," directed by Inaas El Deghedy. "My Soul Mate" portrays the journey of a cancer patient who decides to leave his home to spare his family the grief. He meets a woman who has cancer, falls in love with her, and they begin a new life together.

"How long will we continue using these cinematic cliches?" asks film critic Ibrahim al-Aris. "Can we express sadness only by crying for 15 minutes of the film?" Aris also wondered how a film can be credible when the hero's wife is so dependent on him that right before he leaves home he takes her on a trip to the supermarket to teach her how to shop.

The lost honor of Egyptian film and the status of Egypt as the most important filmmaker in the Middle East are at the center of this criticism. As for the inclusion of the Israeli Arab artists in Egyptian culture - it is likely that this will change in the near future, if Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak's new attitude manages to penetrate professional societies of the intellectuals and the artists.