Bethlehem: A dozen Palestinian Muslim men gathered after midnight at an isolated farmhouse this week to indulge in a new delight. They were going to watch a soap opera about Jews.
“Hush, hush. It’s starting!” someone said. The group settled down, sipped fresh lemonade, nibbled sweets, sucked on water pipes and then cranked up the volume for the opening credits of Haret Al Yahud, or The Jewish Quarter.
The steamy Egyptian soap tells a Romeo and Juliet tale of a beautiful daughter of a well-to-do Jewish merchant and dashing Muslim army commander falling in and out and in love again in old Cairo during the earth-shaking 1948 Arab-Israeli war and its aftermath.
The show’s vibe is a mash of Casablanca with a little Fiddler on the Roof and Lawrence of Arabia.
“I never in my life imagined that I would be seeing this,” said Mahmoud Dadoh, a chicken farmer who had become a fan.
He was not amazed to see Jews in Arab media. Not at all.
Israelis and Jews, often presented as interchangeable, are a reliable staple on TV dramas produced in the Arab world, cast as greedy, villainous, hook-nosed stereotypes — or as evil occupiers of Palestine.
What stunned the chicken farmer and his pals was that The Jewish Quarter is aired on Palestinian Public Television, with the implied consent of the Palestinian Authority, and it shows Jews in a positive light — as ordinary, even extraordinary, human beings.
“This is very new for us,” Dadoh said, pointing to the big-screen television during a scene where the Jewish patriarch counsels patience. “Look at them. Look at their dignity!”
The other men nodded.
“It is amazing,” said Midhat Abu Nigmeh, a construction foreman. He added, in a contemplative mode: “It is as if we are one house.”
Meaning: On the show, the Jews speak perfect Arabic, drink endless cups of strong coffee and talk endlessly about business, family and politics — just like Muslims.
It takes place in a glossy, romanticised era when Muslims, Christians and Jews existed in harmony in Cairo, and before all the Jews were kicked out. There were as many as 100,000 Jews in Cairo in 1948. There are at most a few dozen today.
During Ramadan, which ends on Friday, one of the most-asked questions from Morocco to Lebanon is: “What’s your show?”
The biggest hits are made in Egypt and Syria, with Gulf Arab states edging into the lucrative prime-time market. The shows are bracketed by advertising selling cellphones, computers, cars and cleaning products that promise to make your kitchen sparkle.
Khalid Sukar, the programming director general for Palestinian public TV, bought The Jewish Quarter before production began, after seeing only the script, in March.
“I was taking a big gamble,” Sukar said. “But I knew it would be a hit.”
The Jewish Quarter is now dominating the Palestinian broadcast market, garnering a 40 per cent share during prime-time viewing.
Sukar said he ran into Palestinian president Mahmoud Abbas the other night.
“He told me it is the only show he watches,” the executive said, clearly relieved.
“Honestly? For many Palestinians, the Jew is a soldier or [coloniser],” Sukar said. “That’s it. That’s what our people see. For us, the stereotype is a Jew with a machine gun who occupies us.”
He said The Jewish Quarter offers another perspective, and one that gets closer to the truth of the complex relationship between two peoples.
“I now ask the Israelis to show the Palestinians in such a way. We are humans, too. Show us on your TV as humans,” Sukar said.
The show has unleashed torrents of rave and invective.
The Israeli embassy in Egypt first praised the programme for showing “Jews in their real human state, as a human being before anything, and we bless this”. Later, as the show’s Zionist characters were cast in a harsher light, the Israelis complained the show had “started to take a negative and inciting path against the State of Israel”.
Arab commentators have complained some of the Muslim characters are tawdry — dancing girls or money smugglers — while the Jews are the shining stars, the most patriotic. The Islamist Muslim Brotherhood members are depicted as cads.
In an interview, one of the show’s creators, Sharif Zalat, said: “We spent a fortune on producing the show,” on sets, costumes, actors and script, “but our goal wasn’t just to make money. We wanted to send a message.”
In the hills south of Bethlehem, the Palestinian men who watched the show were divided - not so much about the message that the Jews were ordinary human beings like themselves - but why they were presented as such now.
One praised the show this way: “Tell me, which one is the Jew and which one is the Muslim? They all look alike.”
Khadir Baradi, a horse farrier, wondered aloud whether the Israeli intelligence agency Mossad was involved in the show.
He and his friends also speculated that maybe the Egyptian government, supported by the Palestinian Authority, was trying to send the citizenry a message.
“Are they telling us to live with the Jews like they lived with us back in the old days? Relax? Don’t resist? Don’t complain? Forget your dreams and live like yesterday,” Baradi asked.
“I like the show,” Baradi said. “But it is a fairy tale.”