Laughing Together, Laughing Alone

The new Egyptian film 'Hassan and Marcus' is a remake of the 1954 movie 'Hassan, Marcus and Cohen,' which was based on a play. Back then, Jews still lived in Egypt and it was still possible to make fun of them, along with their other countrymen

Eyal Sagui Bizawe
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Eyal Sagui Bizawe

Israelis who like to watch Egyptian movies must pay a heavy price for their hobby: Local cinemas simply do not screen Egyptian films. "They" apparently do not want to show their films to "us," while "we" are not interested in seeing "them" anyway. You can see Egyptian movies on the ART Aflam satellite television channel or on Israeli cable channel 33, which allow the perpetuation of the pre-cable tradition of watching the "Friday afternoon Arab movie." Neither station, however, screens new Egyptian films. For Israelis who love Egyptian flicks, then, the price of a ticket is essentially that of a flight to Cairo, plus a few nights' accommodation.

But there are some cheaper alternatives. In video shops in Jaffa and Jerusalem, as well as in Nazareth and other Arab cities in Israel, you can purchase poor-quality, pirated DVDs of recent Egyptian films. In some cases, they were clandestinely filmed in a cinema; in the background, you can hear the chattering of the audience.

Last year, a new film hit the screens in Egypt - "Hassan and Marcus," starring two of the most celebrated actors in the Egyptian film industry, Adel Imam and Omar Sharif. The title clearly alludes to that of an older Egyptian film, from 1954, "Hassan, Marcus and Cohen," which was based on a successful play. Back then, most of the members of Egypt's Jewish community were still living in that country. Indeed, Egypt's larger cities - Cairo, Alexandria and Port Said - boasted sizable communities of Jews, Italians, Greeks, Armenians, Syrians, Turks, as well as many citizens of France and Great Britain, although the tensions between locals and foreigners, and between Muslims and Jews, was already palpable.

A Draconian clause

In those days, each of these communities was represented in Egyptian theater and cinema, via stereotypes that were, for the most part, comical. This was also true for the play "Hassan, Marcus and Cohen." Naguib Al-Rihani, the leading Egyptian comedian at the time, and his partner, dramatist-poet Badi' Khayri, wrote and produced the play at the Kish-Kish Bey Theater in the early 1940s. It was a hit and was subsequently turned into a movie.

Hassan (a Muslim), Marcus (a Coptic), and Cohen (a Jew) are partners in the ownership of a pharmacy. When Marcus discovers that their employee Abbas, who manages their storeroom, stands to inherit a large sum of money, the three decide to make him sign a 20-year work contract that contains a Draconian clause: Anyone who violates it must pay the three a huge amount of money. The partners' plan is that the moment Abbas signs the contract, they will treat him so badly that he will quit, thereby violating the terms. Abbas, however, has plans of his own and decides to make life miserable for his three employers, whom he ultimately entraps.

Some have argued that the portrayal of Cohen in the play had an underlying anti-Semitic tone. Cinema scholar Viola Shafik notes that, since World War II, the influence of European anti-Semitism has filtered down into Egyptian society and can be discerned in the country's films. Researcher Ruth Kimche published a document including a report by Eliahu Sasson, who headed the Jewish Agency's Arabic department in the 1930s and '40s, and who saw a performance of "Hassan, Marcus and Cohen" in Cairo. He was shocked by what he called the abominable way the Jew was depicted in the play, although he neglected to note how the other characters were presented.

Actually, the writings of Egyptian Jews contain a totally different approach to the play. For instance, author Raymond Stambouli writes that Cohen the Jew interacted humorously with the Coptic and the Muslim, and made all of Cairo roll with laughter. No one spoke about anti-Semitism back then, he comments.

The late essayist Jacqueline Kahanoff referred to the Kish-Kish Bey Theater as the only place where people of different backgrounds could meet and laugh at one another and at themselves; she also mentions the various characters on the stage, all of whom are stereotypes. However, her use of personal pronouns reveals an interesting perspective. For example, according to her, at the Kish-Kish Bey, "our [shared] sources," are expressed without any ornamentation or pretense, and that "unites all of us" in good-natured mockery. Apparently, Kahanoff's "all of us" refers to a another kind of "we" that is unfamiliar to "us": "We" understood the humor, while "they" - Shafik, Sasson and others with similar views - just did not "get the joke." After all, from the title of the play, it is obvious that it is referring to a joke about "the Muslim, the Christian and the Jew, who jointly manage a pharmacy."

Humor unites

Shafik, and to a certain extent Sasson as well, applied the experiences of European Jewry to Egypt's Jews. Furthermore, they ignored the humorous elements that are the basis of comic productions and even assumed a priori that various characteristics - such as miserliness - had the same emotional baggage in Egypt as in Europe. One needs only to take a look at the introduction by Abd Al-Hamid Ibrahim to his book "Nawader Al-Bukhala" ("Stingy Witticisms") on the subject, to understand that stinginess in European culture is perceived as a negative trait, while in Arab culture, it is first and foremost an entertaining quality; indeed those who have it are both laughed at by others, and laugh with them. Perhaps that is how one can explain the readiness of a Jewish actress, Nagwa Salem, to play the role of Simcha, Cohen's daughter, in both the play and 1954 film.

In the new movie, "Hassan and Marcus," Cohen is markedly absent. He is alluded to, and that allusion is one of the most beautiful moments in the film. Muslim comic Adel Imam plays the devout Copt, whose conciliatory ideas and opposition to separatist Coptic groups force him to pretend that he is a Muslim named Hassan and to flee together with his family. Omar Sharif, who is a Christian (he was born as Michel Shalhoub) plays a devout Muslim, who is afraid of a group of fanatics operating on behalf of Al-Qaida. As such, he is forced to pretend that he is a Christian named Marcus, and to flee with his family.

Fate and the screenwriter (Youssef Maati) decree that the two families find asylum in the same building. The moving moment mentioned above occurs when the two families are sitting together watching an old movie - "Ghazal Al-Banat" ("The Flirtation of Girls"), starring Naguib Al-Rihani and Layla Murad, the most famous Jewish actress in the history of Egyptian cinema. Both families are overcome with fits of laughter as they watch together, because a healthy sense of humor apparently unites Egyptians, Christians and Muslims. In the background is a song performed by Murad, and Hassan explains to Marcus that, in the past, one was never asked what religion one belonged to.

The new movie has several funny moments, but this version is no comedy. Apparently, the film is trying to salvage what in Egypt is called "al-wahda al-wataniya" (national unity). Despite their prejudices, the two families hold on to each other desperately and cooperate with one another.

On her last visit to her native Egypt, before General Muhammad Naguib seized control in 1952, Kahanoff related that the Kish-Kish Bey Theater had already vanished. Perhaps, she mused, that was a sign that "we" Egyptians could no longer laugh together.

Eyal Sagui Bizawe is researching the image of Jews in Egyptian cinema as part of a master's degree at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.



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