conflict hits nerve in Egypt
By Anthony Shadid
The Boston Globe
27 July 2002
CAIRO - Shaaban Abdel-Rahim, a laundryman turned pop sensation,
topped Egypt's charts with his manifesto, ''I hate Israel.'' His
success unleashed a flurry of imitators whose songs pour forth from
taxis and minibuses navigating Cairo's cacophonous streets.
Other Egyptian musicians, some of the Arab world's most famous,
have scrambled to outdo one another with songs celebrating the intifadah.
In theaters, the latest in a series of movies touching on the Palestinian
uprising drew packed crowds with its sympathetic portrayal of suicide
bombers. And in Cairo's poorest neighborhoods, Egyptians snap up
bags of potato chips emblazoned with images of a saluting Yasser
''Hero of the struggle,'' the packages declare.
Egyptian pop culture, long the trend-setter for the wider Arab
world, has increasingly turned to the nearly two-year-old Palestinian
uprising as a surefire draw. And the message in music, film, poetry,
and print is blunt: The United States and Israel stand hand in hand
against the Arab world.
The degree to which the intifadah has infused the culture of the
Arab world's largest country is as telling as any evidence of the
fervor and passion unleashed by a conflict that has riled an already
restless region. Passions surged again this week following an Israeli
missile strike in Gaza City that killed a Palestinian militant leader
and several women and children.
These feelings have unsettled the Egyptian government, which made
peace with Israel in 1979. And they pose a challenge to Washington's
efforts - relying in part on the export of American culture - to
improve the tarnished image of the United States, which is increasingly
portrayed as Israel's accomplice in the conflict with Palestinians.
If the cultural fare of Cairo's nightlife is a measure, the United
States has a long way to go.
''It's a phenomenon,'' says Raafat el-Meehy, a leading Egyptian
director and avid fan of American film.
''For me, it's a commercial device,'' he said. ''If I put a bellydancer
in a film, it's because people like to see bellydancers. If I burn
an American flag in a film, it's because people want to see a flag
The outpouring of support in Egypt for Palestinians is by no means
While Palestine - as both a place and an idea - was long the cornerstone
of Egyptian politics under Gamal Abdel-Nasser, who died in 1970,
the issue receded after his successor, Anwar Sadat, signed a treaty
with Israel. That agreement ushered in what was commonly known as
a ''cold peace,'' but ended an era in which Egypt and Israel fought
In the years afterward, anti-Palestinian sentiments were often
heard in the streets, from resentment over the wealth of some Palestinian
expatriates to anger at Arafat's support for Saddam Hussein during
the 1991 Gulf War.
But the Palestinian uprising that began in September 2000 has dramatically
changed the complexion of Egypt.
A longstanding campaign by intellectuals to shun travel to Israel
and exchanges of writers, poets, and artists has gained force, culminating
in a boycott of American and Israeli goods. The lists of banned
items are spread by the most modern of means - e-mail, the Internet,
In Cairo, families inspect plums, peaches, and grapes in hopes
of determining whether they were imported from Israel. Egyptians,
like other Arabs, have eschewed Coke, Pepsi, and Marlboros for the
local equivalents, and once-abundant Hollywood films are harder
With little subtlety, posters in apartment buildings declare, ''American
commodities are Israeli bullets.'' Another leaflet says, ''Buy McDonald's
and kill a Palestinian.''
The anger has also given rise to student activism that Cairo has
not witnessed in years. It peaked in March and April, when Israeli
forces surrounded Arafat's compound in Ramallah. Students trashed
a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant and broke windows at a McDonald's
near Cairo University.
In Alexandria, Egypt's second-largest city, a student was killed
when police broke up a protest with rubber bullets and buckshot.
''When people go out into the streets, they draw a connection between
what is happening in Palestine and what is happening in Egypt,''
said Gamal Eid, an Egyptian activist. ''People are thinking we're
on one side, and the government is on the other.''
As expressive is the outpouring of song and film, in what some
see as the flip side to the surge in activism.
Shaaban Abdel-Rahim became famous with the song ''I hate Israel.''
Its opening line is, ''I hate Israel. I say it when asked.'' He
later declares: ''We'll die! We'll die! There will be no silence!
O intifadah, either victory or martyrdom.''
Shaaban, known as a ''shaabi'' or populist singer, inspired a series
of knockoffs whose tapes sell for less than a dollar and are popular
among taxi and minibus drivers. The themes are similiar: solidarity
with Palestinians and the powerlessness of Arabs in the face of
injustice. The most recent addition is a monologue of jokes by Shawki
Suleiman, many of them about Prime Minister Ariel Sharon of Israel.
''They're like songs you'd come up with sitting with your friend
in a cafe,'' Ahmed Awni, a 27-year-old laborer and avid Shaaban
fan said as he sipped tea in downtown Cairo. ''Everybody wants to
respond and the songs are one way to do it. They speak in the language
More upscale singers have picked up on the theme. Amr Diab, among
the Arab world's most famous performers, recorded ''Al Quds,'' or
''Jerusalem.'' He was joined by Mohammed Fouad, who sang ''Mother
of the Martyr,'' and Hani Shaker, who recorded ''At the Gate of
Jerusalem.'' Mohammed Munir promised to donate 10 percent of his
sales of his newest song - ''Earth ... Peace'' - to Palestinian
The films are no less direct, some with subtle criticism of government
media for what some Egyptians consider their mild coverage of the
intifadah. One movie, ''Friends or Business,'' told the story of
a TV host sent to Israel who befriends a Palestinian. In time, the
TV host unexpectedly records the man carrying out a suicide bombing.
His bosses refuse to air the tape. In the ensuing struggle the host
wins him the support of other staff, who help him air it surreptitiously.
The last scene shows children dressed as suicide bombers - hinting
at more attacks to come.
Others, like the director el-Meehy, worry of the repercussions
on America's image.
''Once I dreamed of going to Hollywood and making my films. I adore
American cinema. I am against the boycott of American films, and
I am against the boycott of American books,'' he said outside his
studio in a Cairo suburb.
But, he added, ''there is a danger threatening the United States
right now. There is no struggle between us and the American people.
But there is a real conflict with the policy. People now don't differentiate
between America and Israel. If you ask people, they don't see any