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Mideast conflict hits nerve in Egypt

By Anthony Shadid
The Boston Globe
Irish Examiner
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 Arafat.

''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 burned.''

The outpouring of support in Egypt for Palestinians is by no means automatic.

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 four wars.

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, and cellphone.

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 to find.

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 people understand.''

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 charities.

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 difference.''