In the News

Sandler's Egyptian no-show

August 16, 2008

The Guardian: Censors have refused to allow the public release of comedy You Don't Mess With the Zohan.

The Guardian: Censors have refused to allow the public release of comedy You Don't Mess With the Zohan.

With seemingly endless footage on TV of Israeli violence against Palestinians, showing an Israeli film - or even an Israeli-themed-film - in an Arab country is one way to cause an immediate public uproar. Although it signed a peace treaty with Israel almost 30 years ago, Egypt is no exception. So it is no surprise that Egypt's censors have refused to allow the public release of Adam Sandler's comedy You Don't Mess With the Zohan, for "not conforming with the public order", even though had listed an August release date for the film in Egypt (the only Arab country that appeared on the website's list).

You Don't Mess With the Zohan attempts to put a comic spin on the Palestinian-Israeli conflict through the story of a Mossad agent who tires of war and pursues his dream as a hairdresser in New York. He ends up married to the Palestinian manager of the salon where he works, and the film ends with Palestinians and Israelis joining forces in the face of a common enemy in New York.

"The story sounds fine on the surface, but it is the scenario that would decide whether the film is Israeli-slanted," says the prominent Arab critic Rafiq el-Sabban. But he hasn't seen the film. One critic who has is New-York based Remi Kanazi, founder of the website Poets for Palestine, who says Sandler's new flick is a "shamelessly racist action movie". The censors' view can be summed up by Salah Issa, chief editor of the culture ministry's al-Qahira newspaper, who believes "any provocative film would just drive [Egyptians] crazy and may stir public unrest".

But for the columnist and playwright Ali Salem - who is known for his enthusiastic support of normalisation of relations with Israel - "public unrest is only the imagination of the culture ministry and some intellectuals". Salem asserts that "Egyptian people are not the least concerned with the issue of normalisation, neither are they against it."

Only a month ago, a private screening of an Israeli film in Cairo to an audience of 100 cultural and diplomatic figures, including 30 Egyptians, showed how tricky the problem of "normalising" Egypt's relations with Israel is. The Band's Visit was shown by the Israeli embassy in a hotel under tight security and away from the media's gaze. Even though its story concerns an Egyptian police band, the film was not allowed to be shown at the Cairo international film festival last year. However, private screenings do not need the approval of the censors, and the embassy kept a lid on the event for almost a week after the screening before news broke.

Condemnation from influential writers and critics was swift. One prominent writer, Fathiya El-Assal, was quick to call for a public protest. She also called for the punishment of Egyptians who attended the screening. Salem was one of the most high-profile Egyptian attendees, and he scoffs at the idea that watching a film could be considered a provocative act - especially when Egypt already has normal ties with Israel in so many other fields.

But "normalised" relations with Israel are still a thorny issue in Egypt, even after the signing of the Camp David peace agreement in 1979. Despite the treaty, the consensus position of labour unions, political parties, and most of civil society - including the ministry of culture, which controls the censors - is to refuse all such contact with Israel, and the screening of The Band's Visit was the first showing of an Israeli film in Egypt since Camp David.

Salem doesn't see the sense in banning Israeli movies, arguing that a cultural boycott from Egypt puts no pressure on Israel to change its policy towards the Palestinian people. Nevertheless, there seems little prospect of The Band's Visit screening paving the way for others. As Issa says: "We refuse to have normal ties with Israel until the Palestinian issue is resolved."

August 16, 2008


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