Analysis

Arab TV Makers Imagine Israel's Future: From Complete Destruction to Possible Détente

Three series for this year's Ramadan have revived the debate on the taboo of normalization – and on whether Israel will meet its demise in 2120

A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el
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A scene from the 2020 Egyptian TV series "The End."
A scene from the 2020 Egyptian TV series "The End." Credit: Synergy
A photo of Dr. Zvi Bar'el.
Zvi Bar'el

“What’s this I hear that you plan to do business with the Israelis?” Dohi, a government clerk in the complaints department played by famous Saudi actor Nasser Al Qasabi asks his friend, played by Rashid Al Shamrani. It’s a key moment in the television series “Exit 7,” now showing on Saudi Arabia’s MBC network.

“The enemy is the one who doesn’t appreciate your support and curses you day and night more than the Israelis,” Shamrani answers. “Who do you mean?” asks Dohi, who’s concerned because his young son has made an Israeli friend while playing computer games online.

Shamrani replies: “All the sacrifices we’ve made for the sake of Palestine – we went to wars for Palestine, we stopped the oil for Palestine, and when their administration was founded, we paid for their expenses and salaries at a time when we needed that money. And then they attack Saudi Arabia.”

'El-Nehaya' trailer.Credit: Synergy – Tamer Mursi

The dialogue, which is part of friendly small talk, doesn’t end there. Dohi explains to his friend that “the fingers of your hands aren’t all the same. Just as there are Palestinians who were expelled in 1948 and faced massacres, there are Palestinians who sold their land to Jews.”

As Dohi puts it, “Just as there were Palestinians in the second intifada who stood with nothing in front of the Israeli tanks, there were Palestinians who built the separation barrier. They’re people just like anyone else. There are good ones and bad ones …. But it’s Israel that plants the hatred between the Palestinians and the rest of the Arabs.”

“Do you think we should stand by them when they’re cursing us?” Shamrani asks. Predictably, this episode stirred an uproar not only in Saudi Arabia and the West Bank, but on social media, which of course transcends borders. There a debate raged on the question of normalization with Israel and relations between the Saudis and the Palestinians.

Though he calls himself a fierce opponent of normalization, Mubarak al-Khaldi, arts critic for the Saudi newspaper Asharq Al-Awsat, still believes that a discussion on the issue is natural because “it’s one of the most urgent and controversial problems, and art absolutely cannot detach itself from the reality in which we live.”

But Khaldi’s concern for art’s mission collides with his patriotic concern that “the artist will slip, consciously or unconsciously, into normalizing a discussion on normalization and thereby turn normalization into an ordinary subject that can be discussed in the same way as soccer.”

A scene from Egyptian TV series 'El-Nehaya' ('The End').
A scene from Egyptian TV series 'El-Nehaya' ('The End').Credit: Synergy

Kuwaiti anti-Semitism

This is not a new debate. Nearly every year, during the month of Ramadan, in nightly television series for entertainment after the day’s fast, Israel or the Jews feature prominently in at least one show that causes a ruckus across the Arab world. This season, at least three series touch on the sensitive topic of normalization either directly or indirectly.

One, the MBC-produced “Umm Haroun” (“Aaron’s Mother”) depicts the discrimination and harassment endured by Christians and Jews in Kuwait in the 1940s before Israel’s founding. Played by the famous actress Hayat Al-Fahad, the character Umm Haroun, a Jewish doctor and midwife, suffers anti-Semitic persecution. In this way, an unflattering chapter in Kuwait’s history is presented.

In a recent television appearance, Fahad expressed racist views as she called on the authorities to expel all foreign workers during the coronavirus crisis. “I would even throw them in the desert,” she exclaimed.

Iraqi actor Alla'a Shaker (L) and Saudi actor Abdulmohsin Al Nimir (R) during filming of MBC's "Umm Haroun" in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December 6, 2019.
Iraqi actor Alla'a Shaker (L) and Saudi actor Abdulmohsin Al Nimir (R) during filming of MBC's "Umm Haroun" in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December 6, 2019.Credit: AL FAHAD/Reuters

The depiction of the Jewish woman’s hardships “serves the Israeli interest, especially now when Netanyahu is again harassing the Palestinians and beginning to carry out his political project that includes annexation of the West Bank …. We see that this series intends to present an opposite historical picture of the events, and that those behind its financing and distribution are out to serve Israel,” Mohammed Salameh wrote on the London-based website Rai al-Youm.

Like “Exit 7,” “Umm Haroun” is a Saudi production, directed by Egyptian Mohamed El-Adl. So it’s obvious whom Salameh is referring to when he criticizes the show’s financier. Saudi Arabia isn’t only “guilty” of harming the Palestinians, it’s serving Israel and the United States. It also supports Donald Trump’s “deal of the century” and now it’s trying to distort Arab history and influence the Arab mindset.

As one reader tweeted, “The Arab citizen is generally an ignorant person run by his emotions. He’s easy to influence and his simple brain is controlled by the craftiest of human groups, the Jews. The branches of the Mossad, the greatest experts in psychology, are capable of bringing down geniuses, and all the more so the ignorant Arab.”

Besides showing off his knowledge of the Arab mind, this reader also warns against the positive depiction of Mizrahi Jews as good neighbors and peace-loving people, as in the show “Umm Haroun.” “Look at the Iraqi Knesset member Ayelet Shaked who called for Palestinian mothers and their children to be slaughtered and their homes demolished, and that’s on top of the crimes of the Yemenite and Moroccan Jews against us.” Shaked is Iraqi Jewish on her father’s side.

Hanan Ahmed Al-Qattan, who holds a doctorate in Islamic jurisprudence, demands “justice” of another kind: “Are there any shows being broadcast in Israel about the stories of the Palestinians in Israeli prisons, or about a house that Israel razed with the occupants inside, or about thousands of Palestinians whose bodies were torn to shreds by bombing from Israeli planes?” Somebody ought to inform Al-Qatan about the Israeli movie “Foxtrot,” which was criticized by right-wing Culture Minister Miri Regev.

The destruction of Israel

The third TV series that touches on normalization, “The End,” was also produced in Egypt. It’s set in 2120, where robots and cyborgs fly through Egypt’s skies in spaceships. In the first episode, Israel is invoked to symbolize the new Arab power.

A poster for Egyptian TV series 'El-Nehaya' ('The End'). 'the Arabs destroyed the bitter enemy, the Zionist state.'
A poster for Egyptian TV series 'El-Nehaya' ('The End'). 'The Arabs destroyed the bitter enemy, the Zionist state.'Credit: Synergy

In one scene, a teacher is giving a lesson on the war to liberate Jerusalem in which “the Arabs destroyed the bitter enemy, the Zionist state.” “The war ended quickly and caused the destruction of Zionist Israel less than 100 years since its founding. Most of the Jews of Israel fled the country and returned to their original homelands in Europe.”

Unable to let this pass, the Israeli Foreign Ministry said in a statement: “It is sad that 41 years after the signing of the peace agreement with Israel, a show like this depicts a future in which the Arab states destroyed Israel.”

The ministry also noted that a majority of Israeli Jews are not of European descent. The production house, Synergy, which has ties to Egyptian intelligence and is perhaps Egypt’s largest production company, didn’t apologize for the episode, though it did remove it from the show’s Facebook page.

Bahraini actor Soaad Ali (L) and Kuwaiti actor Hayat Al Fahad (R) during filming of MBC's "Umm Haroun" in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December 7, 2019.
Bahraini actor Soaad Ali (L) and Kuwaiti actor Hayat Al Fahad (R) during filming of MBC's "Umm Haroun" in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, December 7, 2019.Credit: AL FAHAD/Reuters

The more interesting part of the scene is actually when commandos, armed with futuristic weapons, burst into the subversive classroom. Their commander informs the teacher that he has violated the orders of the Jerusalem administration by teaching an unapproved course, so he has broken the law.

“It’s a law that was passed by criminals,” the teacher protests, but he and his students are arrested – and one student who tries to escape is shot and killed.

All told, a scene about the Arab victory and Israel’s destruction is “a response to Israel’s claims of rapprochement between it and Arab countries,” Marwa Mohammed wrote on the Egyptian website Veto. “Whenever Israel presents this claim, an Arab drama comes and presents the true reality.”

But also, the government, the authorities and the advanced Arab army with its technology are depicted as banning the teaching of the forbidden history of Israel’s destruction. Shouldn’t the Egyptian army, not the Israeli Foreign Ministry, be the one upset about being portrayed as the one thwarting the teaching of correct history?

But this is an army that owns a production company. Anyway, by 2120, a lot more water will have flowed down the Nile. More wars could alter the script.

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